In a commentary about present-day Democrats and the secessionists whom Lincoln battled, Jeremy Carl offers the following observation:
Today’s Republicans, like Lincoln, find themselves in a regime-level conflict with the Democrats. The Democrats are firing again and again on our Constitutional order, our history, and our traditions—our metaphorical Fort Sumter, if you will—but unlike our forebear Lincoln, our elected leadership seems either to be aiding the insurgent Left or, at best, feebly invoking constitutional provisions and principles, as if our opponents have shown that their behavior can be in any way constrained by these things. We need to channel the spirit of Lincoln rather than Buchanan to win this struggle.
Although I am in agreement with Carl’s political views on current issues, I am skeptical about his historical parallel.
Unlike Governor Francis Pickens of South Carolina in 1861, today’s Left is not trying to secede from territory controlled by the federal government but rather working to impose a one-party dictatorship and to suppress opposition, a.k.a. “right-wing extremists.” The president who stood in Pickens’ way and waged a long bloody war against Southern secessionists was a passionate American nationalist, so much so that he was willing to approve the Corwin Amendment to the Constitution, which would have protected slavery in Southern states. (Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery but after his election was more concerned with keeping the Union together than abolishing human servitude.)
Southerners, whether they owned slaves or not, were moving toward secession by then, and Lincoln’s offer didn’t hold them back. Despite their initial reservations in some cases, former Southern Whigs such as Judah Benjamin, Alexander Stephens, John Tyler, and Thomas L. Clingman backed secession. They did so after hoping they could patch together an alliance with conservative Northern Republicans. It would therefore be inaccurate to view the secession in 1861 as an entirely Democratic thing.
As an historian, I won’t hold back from disputing something in my field even with someone whose political views I probably share. The Democrats of 1861 bear no discernible resemblance to our current Democrats who are trampling on our liberties, demonizing the white race, and trying to obliterate gender differences. Our Democrats may be more dangerous than the territorial secessionists of 1861; they are inflicting social harm on the entire country that may be extremely hard to repair.
I have no idea what a modern Lincoln could do to stop a Left that incorporates the media, corporate capitalists, the deep state, and our secret service. Should he invade the FBI building or perhaps Silicon Valley? Is Mark Zuckerberg or John Brennan the contemporary counterpart of Francis Pickens or President Buchanan?
Despite these objections to what seems a farfetched comparison, albeit one that I hear belabored by Fox News commentators, there seems to be a continuity in the way our parties have operated since the late 19th century. The Republican Party has generally presented itself as the national party, and outside of the South until the 1960s, it embraced most of the country’s white Protestant majority. Republicans opposed Southern secession, supported high tariffs to protect domestic manufacturing, and from its founding, was the party of national consolidation. The Republican Party configured a new American national identity after the sectional strife of the 1850s and 1860s.
What there was of a black electorate voted for “the party of Lincoln” until 1936, when blacks switched en masse to FDR and thereafter seemed happy voting for even segregationist Democrats, like John Sparkman of Alabama, who was Adlai Stevens’ running mate in 1952. German Jews became strongly Republican already in the 19th century, but the less socially secure Eastern European Jews remained in the Democratic Party. The same was generally true of Catholic voters. The Irish Catholic vote remained overwhelmingly Democratic down to the political career of Joe Biden, at least partly because the Republicans made them think of Anglo-Protestant nativism.
Since the Civil War, the Democrats have been the other party, first of the alienated, defeated South and then of ethnic minorities who advanced special interests that the Republicans were seen as unwilling to accommodate. This is not a value judgment but an assessment of how our two parties have generally functioned.
Growing up in Connecticut in the 1950s, I recall that the Democrats were generally the more conservative party on social issues, representing devout Catholic voters who were typically union members. The Republicans were the country club party, led by figures like Prescott Bush and other backers of Planned Parenthood. But the Democrats as a party of aggrieved minorities went on to espouse radical causes in the 1960s, while their old image of representing the not-quite insiders remained.
It is also true that Democrats (particularly in times of war) sometimes appeal to the ideal of a unified American nation. But that sentiment and the accompanying rhetoric, which Donald Trump happily embraced, is far more characteristically Republican. That claim, and not a war against a modern-day version of Southern secessionists, is what links the Republican Party to its past.