Progressivism, Equality, and the Battle for Lincoln’s Legacy in Presidential Rhetoric
by Jason R. Jividen
Northern Illinois, 243 pp., $38
When Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign in 2007, he did so just two days shy of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, standing in front of the old Illinois State Capitol where Lincoln had delivered the “House Divided” speech that helped propel him to the White House. Two years later, Obama rode to Washington following Lincoln’s same train route, ate an inaugural luncheon menu reminiscent of Lincoln’s favorite foods, was sworn in on the same Bible Lincoln used, and chose “A New Birth of Freedom” as his inaugural theme. In short, the new president did everything but grow a beard to signal to the American public that a new Emancipator had arrived. (Though what Obama wishes to emancipate us from remains hazy. Solvency, perhaps?)
As Jason Jividen shows here, progressives have been trying for a century to reinterpret the 16th president’s words and deeds in order to claim him as their predecessor. This progressive sleight-of-hand has been so effective that even some on the right have fallen for it, denouncing Lincoln as the first big-government liberal. Such grousing, mercifully, is limited largely to neo-Confederates at the margins of American politics; for the rest of us, Senator Everett Dirksen’s words remain as true, and challenging, as they were 50 years ago: The first task of an American politician is “to get right with . . . Lincoln.”
Jividen makes his case simply by contrasting Lincoln’s words with those of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama. Far from anticipating progressives’ “faith in the perfectibility of human nature through social planning,” Lincoln’s idea of equality was drawn from the American Founders: All men are created equal in their natural and inalienable rights and not, as he put it, “in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.” His belief in giving all men an equal opportunity to use their unequal talents is captured by his admonition: “Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.” No class warfare here.
Although TR and Wilson were early promoters of wealth redistribution and a living Constitution, it was Franklin Roosevelt who would set the successful pattern for later progressives. A master politician, FDR didn’t frame his arguments (as Wilson had) in what Jividen terms “a self-conscious and deliberate break with the principles Lincoln sought to restore.” Instead, he clothed his New Deal in the Founders’ language of rights and liberty: His rhetoric was a “serious effort,” according to David Donald, to “raid the Republican closet and steal the stovepipe hat.” Liberals have made tremendous headway ever since by following the same script, as if a limitless welfare state were part of the “unfinished work” Lincoln had spoken of at Gettysburg.
A century after Lincoln’s death, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed at Howard University that “equal opportunity is . . . not enough.” Instead of an equality of rights—“equality as a fact”—government would seek “equality as a result.” On another occasion, LBJ admitted that Lincoln’s “importance to us is not in the facts of his life, but in what he has come to mean.” The bottom line, writes Jividen, is that “progressive and modern liberal presidents have misinterpreted, misrepresented, and distorted Lincoln’s equality in their rhetorical attempts to claim Lincoln’s legacy.”
Perhaps Jividen’s next book should explore how, and how well, conservatives have borne this legacy into the 21st century. For now, it is worth pointing out that, although some conservatives lament that the right has sacrificed serious intellectual efforts for crass populism, there has been at the same time a remarkable renaissance of conservative scholarship. Recent books by Ronald J. Pestritto, Bradley C. S. Watson, Jonah Goldberg, and William Voegeli have added depth and subtlety to our understanding of modern liberalism’s roots in the progressive movement, occupying a shelf to which Claiming Lincoln is a welcome addition.
John B. Kienker is managing editor of the Claremont Review of Books.