On April 14, 1865, while the country was still licking its wounds after a bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln succumbed to his wounds and passed away the next day, April 15. Today, 151 years later, the legacy of Honest Abe continues to cast its long shadow over every facet of our contemporary government and society. His name is constantly thrown around among politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, and he’s constantly remembered as one of the most influential presidents in U.S. history.
Just as they do with figures like Ronald Reagan, Republicans often boast about being the members of “Lincoln’s party.” Only a couple days ago, GOP candidate and businessman Donald Trump stated that he would be “more presidential” than any other U.S. president, excluding Lincoln. However, the notion that “Lincoln’s party” is the equivalent of the Republican Party today would be a bold statement. Just how valid is this claim?
Well, there’s no better way to answer this question than reflecting on what we’ve learned in history class. The Republican Party had its roots in the 1850s as an anti-slavery party, consisting of a number of members from the failed Whig Party. Slavery was easily one of the most contentious issues of the antebellum era, and numerous pro-slavery southern states had threatened to secede if a Republican was elected.
Lincoln became the first Republican president following the election of 1860. From day one, it was perfectly clear that his party’s agenda vastly differed from that of the Border Ruffians and pro-slavery activists of the South. In 1860, William Seward, the Republican governor of New York, praised immigrants and their “devotion to liberty,” welcoming them with open arms. Lincoln, too, distanced himself from the fierce nativist stance of the Know-Nothing Party and openly condemned any legislation that would put the rights of immigrants and African Americans at risk, citing words from the Declaration of Independence — “that all men are created equal.”
Today we are in the midst of another election, and most of what we’ve heard about immigration reform on the Republican side has been, for the most part, inflammatory. Numerous GOP presidential candidates have proposed ideas such as building an impenetrable wall along the U.S.-Mexico southern border, scheduling mass deportations, and strengthening Immigration and Customs Enforcement—terrifying prospects that radically contrast from the more inclusive agenda of the Republican Party of Lincoln’s era.
It’s easy to argue that times have changed, and that we’re in the middle of a War on Terror, but that’s no excuse to be dehumanizing. The fact that Lincoln, an anti-nativist who called for the fair treatment of immigrants, is constantly raised on a pedestal by GOP candidates who wish to see fewer immigrants in the country is beyond hypocritical.
President Lincoln fought to grant equality to newly freed slaves during one of the most chaotic eras of our nation’s history. Despite the onset of war, Lincoln led the Republicans as a party intended to protect the rights of all of its citizens. By proposing to deport millions of immigrants and police predominantly Muslim neighborhoods, today’s Republican candidates are doing just the opposite, espousing what appears to be a more jingoist approach.
On this day in which many Americans honor the late president’s legacy, the Republican candidates who honor him as a man of good moral values should probably take a look at their own political agendas and ask themselves, as human beings rather than politicians, whether or not they can live up to the creed of the Declaration of Independence.
Israel Aragon is a freshman majoring in neuroscience.
Feature photo courtesy Pixabay user RachelBostwick.