The Party of Lincoln

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For several decades, the progressive wing of the Republican Party has misrepresented the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln. In the 1960s, such politicians were accurately dubbed “Rockefeller Republicans,” named for liberal New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Since conservatives triumphed in the GOP during the Reagan Era, liberals shied away from association with their progressive icon. Instead, they adopted the habit of claiming Lincoln as their forerunner, no matter how preposterous the assertion.

As they borrowed more stale liberal ideas from Democrats, the heirs to Rockefeller Republicanism more routinely asserted they are following the legacy of the Republican Party founded in the mid-19th century. It’s as if that heroic Civil War generation who defended life and liberty were little more than precursors to whatever trendy passion today’s progressive Republicans jumped aboard in alliance with their left-wing Democrat social-issue soulmates.

In 1770, John Adams used a phrase that has made its way into popular culture. “Facts,” said the future President of the United States, “are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Adams’s statement points to the problem underlying the assertions of liberal Republicans. The genuine “party of Lincoln” stood upon some principles that socially liberal country-club Republicans reject. 

During the years immediately preceding the Civil War, the critical social issue — keep in mind that this occurred more than a century before such matters were called “social issues” — centered upon the question of polygamy. Up to that point, polygamy probably sounded to most American ears like a cultural curiosity lingering in far-off lands or a study of Biblical passages about ancient times. Even in today’s world, it’s a bit jarring to understand how important it became to Americans during the third quarter of the 19th century.

The issue bubbled up most prominently in areas where members of the Church of Latter Day Saints (better known as the Mormons) settled. The specific social and political question involved whether a man had a right to marry multiple wives, as long as all participants consented to the arrangement. 

The “social conservatives” of the day saw polygamy as a “barbarous” practice which was a grave sin that had been eradicated in Christendom. Social conservatives of the day supported laws to restrict polygamy and punish polygamists, whom they saw as undermining the entire social and family fabric of America.

The “social liberals” of the era took by today’s standards a more tolerant position. Government should not impose restrictions upon men and women who chose polygamy. In today’s world, they might even try to smear anti-polygamists as bigots, haters, and intolerant.

Now to be clear, this does not correspond to the rhetoric of that time, but it is a reasonable representation of how our contemporary rhetoric might have played out back then. 

For today’s progressives to justify seizing the mantle of “the Party of Lincoln,” one might fully expect that Abraham Lincoln and the founding generation of Republicans advocated the most liberal position of tolerating the voluntary practice of polygamy.

But, as was noted:  “Facts are stubborn things.”

Apparently, Lincoln, himself, never prioritized the issue of polygamy. Of course, he had a few other things on his mind such as emancipating millions of persons held in slavery, preserving the Union, and fighting a bloody Civil War. Lincoln’s workload is a healthy reminder that even the greatest leaders are incapable of solving every problem at one time.

A supremely gifted politician, Lincoln saw polygamy as an issue that could flummox his chief rival, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois. Douglas had settled upon the concept of “popular sovereignty” as the formula through which majorities in newly-settled territories would decide democratically whether to become free or slave states. Lincoln saw through that political dodge and consistently opposed the idea that majorities should decide the future of slavery in the territories, even though the concept had the surface appeal of pure democracy in action.

Knowing he could never win over pro-slavery advocates, Lincoln saw a small opening with the popular aversion toward polygamy. Perhaps those voters who saw slavery as a settled matter that must be tolerated might look differently at polygamy, a paradoxically hoary-yet-novel idea confronting America. Lincoln raised the prospect that just as popular sovereignty threatened to extend slavery into the territories, so it could install polygamy into those same regions. Many Americans had come to tolerate slavery as an undesirable fact of the antebellum South, but they now feared its extension into the newly populated territories; Lincoln astutely understood that such voters would be repulsed by the very thought of polygamy, as a shocking and sinful practice that Biblically-literate Americans must oppose.

“Go West, young man,” a phrase often misattributed to Republican Party founder and wealthy newspaperman Horace Greeley, summed up the dreams of millions of Americans at mid-century. Lincoln and other Republicans understood that when going West, Americans neither wanted to compete with slave labor nor to live in a polygamous culture in the western territories.

Lincoln’s steely logic trapped Douglas. The powerful Democrat was backed into a corner, muddling through questions about polygamy, slavery, and popular sovereignty, losing voters on all sides.

Still, “the party of Lincoln” was not merely using polygamy as a single social issue with which to trap political opponents from the Democrat Party. No, Republicans of the day actually believed something about it. So much so, they put it into concrete terms in the first-ever Republican Party Platform.

“Resolved:  That the Constitution confers upon Congress sovereign powers over the Territories of the United States for their government; and that in the exercise of this power, it is both the right and the imperative duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism — Polygamy, and Slavery.”

“Relics of barbarism.” That’s strong language. It certainly doesn’t pull any punches. Progressive Republicans of our age might condemn it as “hate speech.” Yet, those are among the primary words of “the party of Lincoln.”

Nor did the founding generation of Republicans simply drop their anti-polygamy cause after election day. Six years after that platform was adopted, America was in the midst of a Civil War that was bloodier and lengthier than had been expected. 

With the conflict yet undecided on the battlefield, Congress passed, and on July 8, 1862, President Lincoln signed into law, the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. For the first time in the history of the United States, the federal government affirmed its authority to outlaw polygamy in the territories. The law was sponsored by Republican Congressman Justin Smith Morrill, who had founded the GOP in his home state of Vermont in 1855. Senate Republicans favored the bill by a 29-0 vote. 

The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act was introduced as “an act to punish and prevent the practice of polygamy in the territories of the United States.” It stipulated that such persons convicted of bigamy shall “be punished by a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding five years.”

That’s what the founders of “the party of Lincoln” believed, and how they acted upon their beliefs. “Facts are stubborn things,” indeed. 

Later, more stringent federal anti-polygamy laws included the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882, which declared the practice in the territories a felony, and additionally prohibited “unlawful cohabitation.” Introduced by Senator George Edmunds, another longtime Vermont Republican, the bill was supported by “the party of Lincoln” with a vote of 124-0 in the U.S. House and signed into law on March 22, 1882, by Republican President Chester Arthur. In 1890, the United States Supreme Court upheld similar federal anti-polygamy laws governing federal territories.

Clearly, the legacy of “the party of Lincoln” is far richer and more complex than the progressive Republicans of the 21st century are willing to admit. We can say with assurance that the founding generation of Republicans vigorously opposed the type of “anything-goes extreme individualism” that characterizes today’s liberal wing of the GOP.

Inspired by their belief in republican governance and tutored in mores of the Bible, “the party of Lincoln” concluded that no person had the right to own another person. That was the great and overriding moral issue of the day. Still, their moral gaze cast a broader view. That led them to conclude that no man had a right to marry simultaneously more than one woman. 

By holding such principles and advancing laws to support them, the founding generation of Republicans were convinced they were upholding the lofty ideas of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that first inspired them to political action.

These facts demonstrably burst the fabricated liberal “party of Lincoln” bubble. For the sake of truth in advertising, it’s time to resuscitate the prior aboveboard label:  “Rockefeller Republicans.”


Joseph Tortelli is a freelance writer. Read other columns by Mr. Tortelli here.