How many times does Goodhair (But No Brains) have to open his mouth and prove his bottomless stupidity? The Abstinence Poster Boy was on the hustings in New Hampshire earlier this month and he opened his yap about Abraham Lincoln and states rights. What a fool. The Dumbos in the Live Free or Die state sat through Goodhair's blather without a murmur. Goodhair isn't fit to mention Lincoln in any context. If this is (fair & balanced) contempt for willful stupidity, so be it.
Rick Perry’s Wrong About Lincoln
By Josh Zeitz
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Wrriting almost 60 years ago, David Donald—who would later emerge as America’s preeminent biographer of Abraham Lincoln—observed that Americans, and especially Republican politicians, exhibit a compulsive desire to “get right” with the nation’s 16th president. Tracing this tendency back to the late 19th century, he noted, “Every four years Republican hopefuls sought—and presumably secured Lincoln’s endorsement.”
So it continued last evening, when former Texas Governor Rick Perry—a likely candidate for his party’s presidential nomination—addressed the Stafford County GOP Lincoln-Reagan Day Dinner in Dover, New Hampshire.
There was just one problem: He got Lincoln backwards.
In footage released by American Bridge, the progressive super PAC that seems always to know in advance when a Republican candidate is about to trip over himself, Perry told the party faithful that “Abraham Lincoln read the Constitution, and he also read the Bill of Rights, and he got down to the Tenth Amendment, and he liked it. That Tenth Amendment that talks about these states, these laboratories of democracy.... The Tenth Amendment that the federal government is limited, its powers are limited by the Constitution.”
For armchair historians whose first instinct is to protest that Abraham Lincoln never called the states “laboratories of democracy,” it’s only fair to note that, moments later, Perry properly credited that metaphor to former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. But the rest of Perry’s homage betrays a regrettable ignorance of Lincoln’s political outlook.
Before he reluctantly became a Republican, Abraham Lincoln was a lifelong Whig—a party founded in opposition to Andrew Jackson and in support of a strong and active central state. “You inquire where I now stand,” he told his friend, Joshua Speed, as late as 1855, when the party he called his own had all but ceased to exist. “That is a disputed point—I think I am a Whig; but others say there are no Whigs.” A passionate supporter of Henry Clay’s “American System,” Lincoln believed that states should ultimately be subordinate to a strong federal government, and that Washington had a big role to play in matters as far and wide as internal improvements, currency, banking and taxation.
As a young man, Lincoln almost certainly read and admired Daniel Webster’s famous reply to Sen. Robert Hayne of South Carolina—technically part of a Senate debate about the national tariff, but more broadly speaking, a pivotal moment in the disagreement over state sovereignty. Asserting the primacy of the federal government, Webster famously declared that it was “made for the people, made by the people and answerable to the people.” If that sounds familiar, it should. Grade school students no longer commit to memory Webster’s Reply to Hayne, as they commonly did in the 19th century. But many still have to memorize the Gettysburg Address, including Lincoln’s prayer that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
As president, Lincoln vastly expanded the federal government’s role. In part, he did so out of necessity. When he imprisoned Maryland state legislators on the eve of a potential secession vote and suspended the writ of habeas corpus throughout parts of the Midwest, he did so in the firm belief that such measures were necessary in preserving the Union. When he signed the most sweeping tax bill in American history, sanctioned the creation of national paper currency and issued unprecedented amounts of federal debt, he did so of strict necessity. When Democratic majorities in the Indiana legislature refused to fund their state government, Lincoln diverted federal money to Republican Governor Oliver Morton, thus keeping the state afloat and ensuring its ability to continue raising troops. When he signed and enforced two Confiscation Acts and the Emancipation Proclamation, which together expropriated trillions of dollars (in present-day money) of land and slave “property” (even as Lincoln insisted that the southern states remained in the Union), he did so as a war measure.
But in many ways unrelated to wartime exigencies, Lincoln furthered his Whig dream of a stronger federal government. Lincoln signed into law landmark bills opening federal land to homesteaders and funding the construction of a cross-continental railroad and federal land-grant universities. Historians disagree whether the Civil War era catalyzed the emergence of the modern state, but few disagree that Lincoln broadly (if perhaps temporarily) expanded the purview of Washington, DC.
As David Donald observed, it’s folly in many ways to try “getting right with Lincoln.” He lived and governed in a different age. To project our own politics on the 19th century is necessarily an artificial exercise. It’s anyone’s guess—and a fool’s errand to speculate —what Lincoln would have thought about immigration reform or the Affordable Care Act.
But if it’s impossible to get right with Lincoln, it’s clearly possible to get wrong with him. Maybe Rick Perry spent too much time reading from those widely disputed history and government standards that the Texas Board of Education, in its infinite wisdom, foisted on textbook publishers. Whatever the cause, he’s confusing Abraham Lincoln—erstwhile Whig and promoter of a strong central government—for a strict Tenth Amendment devotee. That, he certainly was not. Ω
[Joshua M. Zeitz is an historian and writer who has written three books on U.S. political and social history and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Dissent, and American Heritage. He has held lecturerships at Harvard, Cambridge and Princeton Universities and is the author of most recently of Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image (2014). Zeitz received a BA from Swarthmore College and both an AM and a PhD from Brown University.]
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