Republicans who want their party (or at least the foundational ideas of American conservatism) to survive the current crisis should do as disillusioned Whigs did in 1854.
Republicans understandably enjoy claiming Abraham Lincoln as one of their own. After all, he is arguably the greatest American President (Trump’s interesting claims of that distinction aside). But few Americans know that Lincoln had only been a Republican for seven years when he assumed the Presidency in 1861. Before that, he was a Whig.
Don’t remember the Whigs from high school history class? If so, it’s unsurprising. They went the way of American political parties that support unsustainable agendas. Formed in 1833 to support a nationalist program that was certainly not all bad, the party ran amuck with Congress’ passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.
Since the Whig platform at the time supported the act’s unfettered license for the spread of slavery into American territories, it ran afoul of a host of traditional Whig supporters who, though not necessarily abolitionists, did not wish to see an institution of race-based slavery persist into the indefinite future.
In the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act’s passage, Lincoln, then a former U.S. Congressman and attorney in private practice, decided it was high time he returned to politics, writing, “We proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better, and happier together.”
But since it didn’t look like that was going to happen so long as a slaveholding elite continued to wield so much power in Congress, Lincoln decided he needed to do his part to advance what he would later call “the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Of course, whether you were paying attention in high school American history class or not, you know how this story goes: the nation ends up at war seven years later over whether or not the United States would continue to be a slaveholding country, even as its close cousins in Europe had long since abolished the institution. 600,000 Americans die. And more than 150 years later, Lincoln’s “proposition” is still a proposition as the events of the last year (and January 6, in particular) have clearly demonstrated.
There is a lesson here for today’s Republicans, whose “Grand Old Party” was formed in 1854, as a result of the disillusionment of much of the Whig party’s base — prosperous businessmen, Protestant reformers, entrepreneurs, and an emerging middle class — who did not want to be party either to a racist future or an indeterminate stranglehold on federal governance by a minority population of slaveholders.
1854 looks suspiciously like 2021. A not insignificant number of Republicans in our current Congress remain in the thrall of Donald Trump’s dangerous agenda, whereby a wealthy, powerful, white, and mostly male elite hold political sway over a not insignificant portion of a not-so-elite public it has convinced at least holds supremacy over blacks, women, and recent immigrants.
It is time that the GOP’s conscientious moderates distance themselves from Trump’s dangerous agenda and sever all political and financial alliances with him and his still existing cronies. While political pundits claim the vast majority of Republican politicians will not do this out of fear of losing their populist base, no one is talking about the solid, practical conservatives who have carried the party through 167 years and counting of history. That is the base about which the GOP should be worried because they are fleeing, one by one, into the arms of the Democrats out of a sense of basic human decency and love of country.
Either form a new party firmly grounded in the foundational ideals of American conservatism where basic ethics and adherence to the law remain supreme, or summarily ostracize and eliminate the fringe elements of the GOP who care more about personal power than true public service.
Shortly after assuming the Presidency in 1861, Lincoln emphasized (and almost prophesied) to an audience in Philadelphia his dedication to the promise “that in due time the weight should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance…. If this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle — I was about to say I would rather be assassinated….”
Honor the martyrdom of the GOP’s greatest leader, and create a historic moment in 2021, where love of country and the ideals by which it was founded outweigh the temporary laurels of usurped power. Convict the insurrectionists and their leader, separate yourselves from those who would turn America into a racist dictatorship, and ensure that government by all the people “does not perish from the earth.”