I’ve argued before that today’s GOP in calling itself “The Party of Lincoln” creates a historical conflict between reality and the fantasy that they have any sort of political, dogmatic, or policy link to Lincoln’s Republican Party. In taking my research further I have come to the conclusion that by the end of the Civil War, even Abraham Lincoln did not have the right to call himself a member of “The Party of Lincoln.” The Ante-Bellum Republican Party bore little resemblance to the Reconstruction Era Republican Party. They were, in fact, two different entities. This diversion from the original has continued, and in the past few decades, accelerated in an devolution away from the values of Lincoln and the founding fathers to such an extent that man like Donald Trump – a nativist, a fascist, a bigot, a misogynist, a xenophobe, a person who clearly suffers from a variety of psychological defects – can be considered a viable candidate for President.
In 1860, the embryonic Republican Party won its first great national victory. Abraham Lincoln, on a platform opposing slavery and the further extension of slavery in the growing Republic, won the White House. With the outbreak of war, Republican and Democratic ideals were set aside, and Lincoln expanded the war powers of the executive to an amazing extent. Lincoln, faced with the daunting task of uniting the Union’s disparate political parties to ensure a victory of the Union over the Confederacy. To achieve this end, the president effectively abandoned what was at the time, a distinct party character. Evidence of this includes the announcement at the 1864 convention of the formation of a Union Party wherein the temporary chairman, Robert Jefferson Breckinridge announced;
“I see before me not only primitive Republicans and primitive Abolitionists, but I see also primitive Democrats and primitive Whigs . . . primitive Americans. . . . As a Union party I will follow you to the ends of the earth and to the gates of death…”
Additionally, the chairman stated:
“The extraordinary condition of the country since the outbreak of rebellion…has compelled the formation of …the Union Party.”
This new party, formed of War Republicans, War Democrats, Whigs, and Constitutional Union Party members, signaled the demise of the Republican Party. In fact, Radical Republicans, arguing that Abraham Lincoln, the Union Party’s 1864 nominee for President, was incompetent, formed a new party. The Radical Democratic Party was founded by a faction of anti-Lincoln Republicans and nominated John C. Fremont, a veteran of the Civil War, for president.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. considers the Union Party to be part of the Republican Party lineage, but the only way that can be so is if one ignores entirely the differences in the party platforms of the early Republican Party and the Union Party. While the early Republican Party’s platform was primarily one of anti-slavery, the Union Party’s primary platform involved the “laying aside of political differences” to preserve the union. This included making peace with certain parties that were not anti-secession.
Nevertheless, the Union Party won the White House, held 39 of the 72 seats in the Senate (with 18 being vacant Confederate seats), and 137 of 198 seats in the House of Representatives.
Like today’s Republican Party, by 1866, the Union Party was in the hands of the radicals at the expense of conservatives who desired a more conciliatory approach towards reconciliation with the southern states. Like today’s Republican Party, which is divided into factions (five main factions with seven sub-factions between them in fact), the Union Party also was sectionalist, a feature the conservative members of the party attempted to resolve at the 1866 convention, much to the discomfort of the radical wing. In spite of this, and in perhaps because of a minimizing of the radical’s ideas concerning negro-suffrage (not a popular concept at the time, but one which would give the radicals great leverage over the political process), the radical faction won an overwhelming victory in the North (The South was excluded from government still). Attempts to move the party towards a more conservative and less radical footing failed and by 1868 the Union Party, controlled by the radicals had gelled into the grandfather, or maybe great grandfather of the current incarnation of the Republican Party. In 1868 the National Union Republican Convention nominated Ulysses S. Grant for the presidency.
It was during this period that the use of the term Unionist or Radical Unionist was replaced with the term Republican. In the national convention that year, a measure passed changing the name of the Union Party officially to The National Union Republican Party. By 1872, the term “union” was officially removed.
So, you see, not only is today’s GOP not the “Party of Lincoln,” in the end even Lincoln was not part of the “Party of Lincoln.” The “Party of Lincoln” effectively ceased to exist in 1864, splitting between Unionists, whose platform, based solely on propagating the war with the Confederacy, was completely different from the original Republican Party. Calling today’s GOP the Republican Party is a matter of marketing, not politics.
The modern GOP goes even further afield, in a completely different orbit from the “Party of Lincoln”, or even the National Union Republican Party, something I’ll address in Part III of this essay.