A lesson from Lincoln by George Wolfe

A lesson from Lincoln
by George Wolfe

George Wolfe

George Wolfe

The Republican Party often refers to itself as the “party of Lincoln.” Today’s Tea Party conservatives within the “party of Lincoln” however, have become little more than obstructionists. Their recent battle cry, insisting they want “principles, not compromise,” is counter productive to the Republicans achieving success. They should revisit history to learn from our 16th president.

Abraham Lincoln was a man of principle, but he was also highly pragmatic. In his letter to Albert E. Hodges, Lincoln wrote, “If slavery isn’t wrong, nothing’s wrong.” Clearly, ending slavery was an objective Lincoln hoped to achieve. Yet, as an elected politician, Lincoln realized he had to deal with the political realities of the time to be successful as President.

Take, for example, his assertion that the war was justified “to preserve the union.” Publicly and politically, the preservation of the union, not the issue of slavery, became Lincoln’s foremost reason for advancing his policies. This is clearly evident in his letter responding to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, dated August 22, 1862. In it Lincoln emphatically states, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”

Had he publically justified the war to bring an end to slavery, he would have risked losing the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware where there were many slaveholders and where the populous was divided as to which side to support (West Virginia didn’t become a Border States until 1863 when it broke ties with Virginia). Had Lincoln lost the Border States to secession, he would have had little chance of succeeding.

Lincoln similarly acknowledged political realities when he issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.  It was a proclamation, not an act of congress, and he issued it only after the Union achieved a major victory in the Battle of Antietam.

While it boldly gave hope to all who opposed slavery or who were enslaved, it only claimed to free slaves in the states hostile to the union. In so stating, Lincoln was asserting power over the Confederate States, a power that he really did not have, since those states did not consider themselves under his jurisdiction. And the Border States were exempt from his proclamation since they never seceded.

The pragmatic Lincoln shrewdly set aside his principles to operate within the political realities of his day, believing that in the end, his political and military success would provide him the opportunity to impose his principled position.  Had he publicly led with the moral agenda to end slavery, he could very well have lost his battles, both politically and militarily.

Lawmakers in today’s Republican Party, the “party of Lincoln,” should cease being obstructionists. They should rather take a lesson in politics and governing from the president whose name they like to invoke.


George Wolfe is Professor Emeritus at Ball State University and former Director and Coordinator of Outreach Programs for the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He also chairs the Muncie Interfaith Fellowship, is a trained mediator, and is the author of The Spiritual Power of Nonviolence: Interfaith Understanding for a Future Without War.




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