14 March 2009


Yesterday's Whigs, Yesterday's Democrats; Today's Democrats, Today's Republicans

From, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, by Michael Burlingame, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, pp. 71–72, discussing Lincoln's first run for elective office as candidate for the Illinois legislature in 1832.
He rejected the Jacksonian creed, which The Democratic Review summarized in 1938: "As little government as possible; that little emanating from, and controlled by, the people; and uniform in its application to all." Democrats in general believed that the only assertive action that the federal government should undertake was aggressive foreign expansionism. Whigs, on the other hand, favored positive government. A leading Whig spokesman, Horace Greely of the New York Tribune, explained in 1845, " 'THE COMMONWEALTH' is the term best expressing the Whig idea of a State or Nation, and our philosophy regards a Government with hope and confidence, as an agency of the community through which vast and beneficent ends may be accomplished," unlike the Democrats, who regard government "with distrust and aversion, as an agency mainly of corruption, oppression, and robbery." The "great fundamental principle" of Whiggery, Greely declared, was that "government is not merely a machine for making war and punishing felons, but is bound to do all that is fairly within its power to promote the welfare of the people—that its legitimate scope is not merely negative, repressive, defensive, but is also affirmative, creative, constructive, beneficent."

Lincoln shared the Whig vision. He argued that the "legitimate object of government, is 'to do for the people whatever needs to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves.' There are many such things—some of them exist independently of the injustice in the world. Making and maintaining roads, bridges, and the like; providing for the helpless young and afflicted; common schools; and disposing of deceased men's property are all instances."
The Democracy of 1832 described here sounds not too much unlike today's Republicans. "[U]niform in its application to all" persists with GOP/libertarian nonsense like flat tax ideas. "[E]manating and controlled by the people," is the kind of slogan that the GOP—and one great distinction with the Jacksonian Democracy is the now long-standing GOP intimacy with great wealth—and its reactionary conservative allies use to block progressive policies truer both to the Constitution and to the Declaration of Independence. And the most recent history of the GOP is nothing but one of a cohort that seeks to control government ostensibly because government is not to be trusted, when, in fact, they just want to get their greedy little hands on the levers of power.

The Obama presidency so far, and much of the New Democratic movement, has goals consistent with Greely's and Lincoln's statements of 1832 Whiggery. The concepts of The Commonwealth and communitarianism, that we are all in this together (even the wealthy GOP and their reactionary supporters/victims), and of government to promote material and social well being are rightfully enjoying leadership from the top and through much of the Democratic party, as well as support from large numbers of people throughout the USA, even in these tough economic times.

FWIW, Lincoln lost that first election, but went on to be elected to the Illinois legislature as a Whig in a heavily Democratic county largely on the strength of his personal integrity and trust in his individual judgment, not unlike the confidence some subset of Republicans rightly, in my opinion, place in President Obama, even as they disagree with him on some fundamental issues.

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