In February of this year, shortly after Mr. Trump took office as President of the United
States, David Leroy, the former Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor of Idaho,
posed the question: “What WOULD Mr. Lincoln say to Mr. Trump?” Mr. Leroy did well to ask us to pause to consider parallels between Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump.
• It is true that both of these men took office at a time of deep national division.
• It is true that when both men took office people from several points on the
political spectrum expressed serious doubts about their abilities to serve as
• It is true that both men came to their national leadership positions during a
decade when the two major political parties were divided and dividing.
• It is true that both men took office at a time when Congress was unable and
unwilling resolve major national issues.
• And it is true that both men came to national leadership at a time of intense
xenophobia, nativism, and racism.
Indeed, to paraphrase Mr. Lincoln, we now stand in the midst of a struggle “testing
whether [this] nation, or any nation… so conceived [in liberty] and dedicated [to the
proposition that all humans are created equal] can long endure.”
And well might we ask: “What would Mr. Lincoln say to Mr. Trump?” But that is a
question we cannot answer. No one can say with certainty what Mr. Lincoln WOULD
say. Just as no one can say what Andrew Jackson would have done in 1861.
On the other hand, we can analyze Lincoln’s deeds and words and draw conclusions
regarding what his character, his political vision, and his words DO say to President
Trump. And, more importantly, within an analysis of what Lincoln’s words and deeds
DO say to us we can come to understand how and why the foundations of this
democratic-republic are being tested today.
Consider first Lincoln’s character as a political leader.
In 1862, the year before Frederick Douglass, the runaway slave and abolitionist leader,
met President Lincoln personally, Mr. Douglass succinctly summarized Lincoln’s
CHARACTER when he said, “If he [Abraham Lincoln] has taught us to confide in nothing else, he has taught us to confide in his word.”
Douglass wrote this statement in response to Lincoln’s issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, four months before the actual Emancipation Proclamation. Douglass knew that many of his fellow abolitionists believed Lincoln was making an empty political promise that in “one hundred days” or at some politically convenient point in the future he would withdraw the promise.
But Douglass defended Lincoln: “Abraham Lincoln may be slow…but he is not the man to reconsider, retract, and contradict [his] words and purposes.”
Of course, it is true that many a poor leader in history has refused to back down. In fact,
it is one of the characteristics that Mr. Trump celebrates about himself in his self-created
world of reality despite the fact that we now know that China is not a currency
manipulator, that ISIS can’t be defeated in 30 days, and that NAFTA is not the worst
political deal in the history of humanity, etc..
But there is something deeply significant in Douglass’ point about Lincoln’s character.
Douglass was paying tribute not just to Lincoln’s commitment to his word but also to
Lincoln’s deliberate decision-making process. William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner,
said of Lincoln that he would express no opinion on a subject until he knew it “inside and outside, upside and downside.”
For Lincoln there were no 3:00 am tweets involving thoughtless statements in the full
double meaning of the word THOUGTLESS as in “rude” AND as in “without
Mr. Trump cannot know things “inside and outside” because, as he said, he has little time to read AND in his words: he makes decisions ‘with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had…”
Interestingly, as a young man, Lincoln also did not have time to read…
INSTEAD, he MADE time to read. When he plowed the fields for his father or his
neighbors and his horse needed a rest, Lincoln read. He read Shakespeare; he read the
Bible. He read aloud to himself as a way of remembering what he had read and as a
means of catching poetic cadence. And he continued to be a reader when he was in the
White House including reading aloud to his aides.
Lincoln’s approach to books illustrates another element of his character that is worth
noting. Once, when he damaged a borrowed book, he paid his DEBT in full by working
two days picking corn for the owner of the book. Lincoln did comment privately that he
thought the price extracted was a little high, but he paid exactly what he was charged. He
did not stiff the owner of the book, and Lincoln did not challenge the owner to sue to
Lincoln’s character is also revealed in his compiling a set of advisors who were his
political rivals and had, in many cases, publicly dismissed him as a bumpkin. Doris
Kearns Goodwin develops this element of Lincoln’s character fully in her book Team of
When we think of Lincoln’s actions regarding opponents that speak most loudly to us
today, consider well the time Lincoln, a country lawyer, traveled from Illinois to
Cincinnati to participate in a national legal patent case. The other attorneys were all
high-powered city lawyers who quickly dismissed Lincoln as a nothing. One of them
called Lincoln to his face “a damned long-armed ape [who] does not know any thing and
can do [us] no good.” Lincoln withdrew from the case; and, as he put it, he went home
Lincoln withdrew from the case; and, as he put it, he went home “to study law” in order to match these college educated attorneys. As to the man, Edwin Stanton, who had called him an ape… President Lincoln appointed him Secretary of War. In relation to another of his appointments, Lincoln commented: “I should despise myself if I allowed personal difference to affect my judgement of fitness for office.” As Machiavelli advised: wise leaders do not surround themselves with flatterers and manipulators. Lincoln’s humility, his willingness to admit errors and accept advice, his magnanimous manner with those who insulted him, and his wisdom in cutting through one political knot after another won over men, like Stanton, who had deeply doubted his qualifications to be president.
Many of us in this room today deeply doubt Mr. Trump’s qualifications to be president
AND, OF EQUAL IMPORTANCE, to be a role-model for our children. We might well be
glad to be won over to him as a leader if there was any evidence at all of a humble
attitude, of a willingness to admit errors, of a generosity toward critics, and of a wise
nature, but….. We wait, with little hope, for this character change in Mr. Trump.
An additional and highly indicative point about Lincoln’s character involves his
relationship with women. Like Donald Trump, Abraham Lincoln liked women. Lincoln
was attracted to women to the point, as William Herndon, the law partner, said, that
“[he] could scarcely keep his hands off them.” Herndon’s words sound MUCH too
familiar to us; in the context of recent videos of Mr. Trump bragging about his abuse of
women, it is quite troubling to hear this description of Lincoln’s relations with women.
But Herndon’s follow-up comment has everything to say to us. Herndon pointed out that
“[Lincoln’s] honor and a strong will… enabled him to put out the fires of his terrible
passion.” Or, as another of Lincoln’s friends put: “[Lincoln’s] conscience kept him from
Mr. Lincoln’s character DOES, indeed, have much to say to Mr. Trump.
As does Abraham Lincoln’s political vision for this democratic-republic…
First, Lincoln saw the words regarding human equality, human rights, and the purposes
of government as stated in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence as
transcendent truths. He knew these words did not reflect the earthly reality of the 1770s
He knew these words did not reflect the earthly reality of the 1770sor of his own times. Instead, Jefferson’s words represented ultimate truths, i.e., guiding lights for the U.S. Lincoln’s believed that his political decisions, indeed, ALL POLITICAL DECISIONS, should advance us toward the fulfillment of these truths. Lincoln did not, and COULD NOT, have promised to “Make America Great AGAIN.” Lincoln’s expressed his view quite simply at Gettysburg: “It is for us, the living…to be here dedicated to the unfinished work.” We, as Lincoln pointed out, “have to disenthrall ourselves” from our past.
When President Trump spoke on January 20th of making the people rulers AGAIN,” he
spoke in hidden racist and sexist terms. Did “AGAIN” refer to a past when white men
were THE voters? Did “AGAIN” refer to a past when white men and women voted in the
South while deliberately denying blacks the right to vote as well as denying them equal
protection of the law? There is no past that we should copy and paste into our present.
As Lincoln understood, there is only an ideal to which to dedicate ourselves.
Lincoln’s actions as well as his words speak to us in another very powerful way. During
the 1850s, the years of his rise to national political power, he identified and directly
addressed THE fundamental issue of his day: SLAVERY. He publicly asserted on several
occasions that he did not know how to eliminate slavery, but over time he discovered the
means by which to do so: take deliberate, step-by-step advancements in response to
changing circumstances. Lincoln never wavered from the main point that “If slavery isn’t
wrong, then nothing is wrong.”
Lincoln’s political views give us a standard for judging our political leaders today. To
what degree are these leaders directly addressing, without distractions, the fundamental
issue of our day: the growing disparity of wealth and privilege in this country? To
paraphrase Lincoln: If these disparities aren’t wrong in a democracy, nothing is
When Mr. Trump stirs fears and creates distractions with calls for Walls, Travel Bans,
Mass Deportations, and HUGE, BEAUTIFUL tax cuts in order strengthen the economy
and somehow magically balance the budget, he is playing to the mob mentality, the very
thing that will prevent us from advancing toward the transcendent truths of democracy.
Consider the full implication of Lincoln’s commitment to the fundamental issue facing
the United States in his lifetime. In the mid-1850s when his Whig Party was coming
In the mid-1850s when his Whig Party was coming unglued over slavery, Lincoln had the opportunity to play the “mob card.” Men in all parts of the country were building the American “Know Nothing” Party founded on anti-immigrant, particularly anti-Irish, prejudice. Hate and fear were “unifying” issues that sold well in all sections of the country and many former Whigs joined in with the Know Nothings. Lincoln found himself caught between two of his core political values: 1) the
Lincoln found himself caught between two of his core political values: 1) the
desire for national unity and a national political party, and 2) the desire to advance liberty and equality. He knew the newly-founded Republican Party was dedicated to restricting the spread of slavery and that the Republicans offered policies for the interests of the North and the West but not the South.
But he also understood fully that the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the Know Nothing Party
represented “degeneracy” from 1776. In Lincoln’s words: “When the Know Nothings get
control, [our creed] will read ‘all men are created equal except negroes, and foreigners,
and Catholics.” [emphasis Lincoln’s]. Lincoln chose the path leading himself and his
nation toward equality: he joined the Republicans.
Mr. Trump has failed to make this choice.
Lincoln’s words denouncing prejudice were not merely for form; they were the substance
of his actions. During the Civil War when General Grant issued an order requiring all
Jews to leave to the war zone, Lincoln required Grant to rescind the order. Individuals
who committed contract fraud should be brought to trial, but discriminatory actions
based on a pre-judgement of a group of people was NOT acceptable.
And note also that Lincoln’s Republicans did not play on xenophobia for political gain
under his presidency; their 1862 Homestead Act offered the 160 acres of free land to
immigrants as well as to U.S. citizens.
Where are these Republican leaders today?
Yet we have to admit that both Mr. Trump and Mr. Lincoln used political rhetoric at its
most dangerous level, i.e., to create a “beastie” for the masses to fear. Mr. Trump did it
powerfully and effectively with his racist statements against Latinos. And Lincoln played
And Lincoln played a similar game during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. He pandered to his southern Illinois audience with the words: “I am not, nor have I ever been in favor of bringing about the social and political equality of the white and black races…”
Lincoln’s words WERE and ARE hard words.
In the context of his previous statements against slavery, they might be less hateful words than Mr. Trump’s comments directed specifically at Mexicans. But neither man’s rhetoric in these instances was aimed at the higher moral level of human nature.
The key for us is to “take note and long remember” what Lincoln said and did as president as he personally and publicly shifted his views and rhetoric. In this way he led the nation not by force, not by bombast, but by crafted words that were just a step or two ahead of public opinion. In this way, Lincoln guided the people of his time as well as the people of future generations with language aimed at the HIGHEST moral levels of human nature.
CONSIDER THIS POINT WITH THE CHRONOLOGY OF HIS PRESIDENTIAL
WORDS TO THE NATION:
In 1861 in his first inaugural address, President Lincoln laid out the constitutional legal
case against states seceding from the Union. His case was well made. It left the door open for reconciliation, yet held the rebels responsible if war came. As of
As of 1861 the Union’s cause in the war was for unity and the upholding of the Constitution.
But then on January 1, 1863, Lincoln converted the war from a legal issue to a moral issue as well as a legal issue. His carefully chosen words in the Emancipation Proclamation made it a war AGAINST slavery without making it a war to END slavery.
As the historian Garry Wills has said, it was Lincoln’s devious political genius that made him great. Do n0t take that combination of words lightly. The phrase is not about devious politics; Mr. Trump and his team have thoroughly taught us the lessons and the powers of devious politics in the last year and a half. The words “devious political genius” implies an element missing from Mr. Trump’s politics thus far: brilliance of mind and the wisdom that comes of the interaction between that brilliance and command of law, history, and human nature.
The Emancipation Proclamation was only one step in Lincoln’s gradual re-processing of
the meaning of the war AND the meaning of the republic. In late 1863 Lincoln made a
second shift in the meaning of the war with a speech that was years in the writing. At the
dedication of a cemetery for UNION soldiers only, with the simple phrase “four score and seven years ago,” Lincoln carefully moved the war from merely a legal issue and a moral issue to the issue of the founding bonds of the United States as they were set in 1776, four score and seven years earlier. Up to this point the Confederacy had been able to use the
Up to this point the Confederacy had been able to use the Declaration of Independence as a defense of its revolutionary right to establish a government that would protect its safety and happiness. But Lincoln, without directly saying so, destroyed this argument in the Gettysburg Address. Only revolutionary movements founded on liberty and equality had legitimacy. The UNION soldiers who died in the cause of a United States not only sacrificed for the Constitution and for the freedom of slaves from bondage but also to advance the full meaning of the 1776 REVOLUTION.
Admittedly, the Gettysburg Address was not a unifying speech. Even though there were
no vindictive statements against the rebels in the address, the words did not offer
reconciliation with the rebellion. After the speech, the rebels were now legally in the
wrong, morally in the wrong, and thoroughly in violation of the meaning of 1776.
It was not until near the end of the war that Lincoln expressed words of reconciliation by
identifying the unifying purpose of the war in his Second Inaugural Address of 1865. The
war was God’s judgement on a nation—both North and South—that had broken
THE covenant with its founding bonds. Both sides had created slavery and enabled its growth.
As Lincoln said, the war was in God’s hands “until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s… toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword…” His words here carefully undid his words in 1861 which blamed the rebels for the war and his words in 1863 that implied the rebels were acting against the constitutional bonds of the nation, against the moral bonds of
humanity, and against the fundamental bonds of the nation.
The Second Inaugural converted the war into a purging of the nation’s sins. Healing could begin because both sides had responsibility for the original sin of slavery and both sides had paid the price.
Behind these addresses to the nation was a command of HISTORY, of language, of the
bible, of human nature, of political insight. AND he wrote these words himself. No
speech writers handed him drafts from which to work or read.
It is too late for Mr. Trump to achieve Lincoln’s level of rhetoric and knowledge. One
cannot get to Lincoln’s level of education and thought with some type of four-year crash
course, and President Trump’s recent confused statement on Jackson and the Civil War
simply verifies this point.
Mr. Trump’s massacre of language in his tweets and his excessive use of superlatives and
first person pronouns will never ADVANCE the nation toward its founding truths.
As much as any political leader of this nation, Lincoln, who did not become rich before or during his presidency, did exactly what the conclusion to the Declaration of
Independence asks of those who support it: the commitment of one’s sacred honor, of
one’s personal fortune, and of one’s life itself to the principles of the Declaration of
But WAIT, maybe when Mr. Leroy began this political conversation about Mr. Lincoln
and Mr. Trump, he asked the wrong question. The real question which holds the key to
the advancement of the principles of the Declaration in 2017 is “What DOES Mr. Lincoln, the FIRST Republican Party president of these United States, say to today’s Republican leadership in this state and in this nation?”
No member of Congress, no member of the state legislature is legally required to take an oath to a political party, or to a political platform, or to a particular person. There is only one required oath to uphold and that is to the Constitution.
That Constitution cannot be read or interpreted outside of the context that Lincoln gave it: its being written as one step toward achieving the fundamental principle of equality and liberty for all. The Constitution is not THE vision of the nation nor a fixed end to achieving that vision. Rather, as Lincoln saw it, it is through the Constitution and our amendments to it that we advance toward THE IDEALS. And that advancement comes about through the political wisdom of leaders such as Lincoln.
That type of leadership in concert with civil disobedience movements founded on the Declaration’s principles of equal human rights has, in Lincoln’s words, “thus far so nobly advanced [this nation]… [and] it is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining BEFORE us.”
For the next four years, our Congressmen and women have a choice. They possess the
power, if they choose to use it, to implement the elements of checks and balances that
will restrain our president’s shallow ethical code of conduct, his fake history, his
denunciation of a free press and the discoveries of scientific research, and his misuse of power. And these four points are the fundamental ways in which the viability
of our democratic-republic is being tested today.
So, with a touch of hope, we march, we write, we organize for 2018. To paraphrase Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg: A “great task” remains before “us the living.”