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Elephant in the Room

What a strange day for Republicans. This is their guy, their origin story, and yet they can’t in good party conscience quote much of anything Abraham Lincoln said without violating the Fox News code of honor.

Three strands of Lincoln rhetoric would run afoul of Fox and Friends: his subject matter (the oppression of black Americans and a strong federal government), his skill at massaging words into compassion triggers for doing the right thing, and his refusal to demonize the opposition.

It is difficult to square Lincoln’s prosaic transfiguration of words on a page with a Republican president who gets an oral versus written daily intelligence briefing—or with the prune face of Mitch McConnell, where hopeful words die like sparrows smacking into the windows of the old Javits Center.

But the Lincoln that seems truly anathema to the Republican party of 2018 is the Lincoln who went to New York City in 1860 to address 1,500 people in the Great Hall of Cooper Union. In that February 27 speech, the future sixteenth president showed the eager faces of a nascent party that you needed to fight the extension of slavery—and thus the subversion of the U.S. Constitution—with reason, not rhetoric.

Lincoln’s speech rebutted the claims of Democrats and slave states that the Constitution’s thirty-nine signers considered slavery in the territories a right. His words unrolled like a legal brief, but one for the public, not lawyers—simple, clear, logical, reasoned, and focused. Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon vouched that Lincoln had spent more time and thought on this speech than any before, calling it “devoid of all rhetorical imagry.”

Lincoln Chair at Cooper Union Museum

The chair used by Lincoln during his Cooper Union speech, as seen in 1949. Like the Republican Party, it was reupholstered.

Any speechwriter will tell you this is the hardest kind of address to pull off. You must carry the audience with you at every layer of your argument—no jokes; no ingratiating Mark Twain asides; no fiery sermonizing of an abolitionist with a Bible. At seven thousand words, this was one of Lincoln’s longest speeches; it went on for two hours.

The context of Lincoln’s speech is as significant as its content. The address was originally to be made at a Brooklyn church, but Republican politicos wanted a venue where persuasive words could launch a presidential candidate—a moderate alternative to the radical abrasiveness of Upstate’s William Henry Seward.

With the Young Men’s Central Republican Union of New York as his sponsor, Lincoln knew the stakes: Make Republican electable or take your rumpled suit back to Illinois. He was relatively unknown outside of his debates with Senator Stephen Douglas two years earlier. Though he failed to unseat the Democrat, he helped define partisan policy differences over the extension of slavery to the territories.

Lincoln’s perfectly argued speech blew away the capacity crowd. Before their eyes, he constructed a bridge of cool logic between the mercurial passions of the new party and the intent of the nation’s founders. In Lincoln, these 1,500 Americans hungry for justice found their voice.

Because of its intent and structure, this is one of Lincoln’s least quoted speeches aside from “right makes might” in the last line. But I would like to quote a few lines that seem highly applicable to the dearth of reason, logic, justice, compassion, and shame in today’s Republican Party.

The birtherism of Donald J. Trump: Lincoln cites the mendacity of southern claims that Harper’s Ferry was a slave rebellion, calling it inexcusable to persist “in the assertion after you have tried and failed to make the proof. You need to be told that persisting in a charge which one does not know to be true, is simply malicious slander.”

Trump’s fondness for charging the opposition with his own transgressions: Addressing southern leaders who threatened to “destroy the Union” under a Republican presidency and then place “the great crime of having destroyed it” on the Republicans, Lincoln said, “That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!’ ”

Trump’s outright lies about the 2016 popular vote, the size of his inauguration crowds, and public sentiment: Of southern attempts to destroy “the Republican organization,” Lincoln said, “There is a judgment and a feeling against slavery in this nation, which cast at least a million and a half of votes. You cannot destroy that judgment and feeling—that sentiment—by breaking up the political organization which rallies around it.”

The divisive rhetoric of Trump and Fox News: Lincoln charges slave states with making “an unconditional condemnation of ‘Black Republicanism’ . . . the first thing to be attended to. Indeed, such condemnation of us seems to be an indispensable prerequisite—license, so to speak—among you to be admitted or permitted to speak at all.”

Alt-right propaganda and fake news: Lincoln says that while a man is free to believe that the Constitution’s signers considered slavery a right, “he has no right to mislead others, who have less access to history, and less leisure to study it, into the false belief that ‘our fathers who framed the Government under which we live’ were of the same opinion—thus substituting falsehood and deception for truthful evidence and fair argument.”

The Freedom Caucus and the debt ceiling; Republicans who blocked Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination: Addressing the southern states, Lincoln said, “Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.” §

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