The 2016 election was filled with rancor on both sides of the aisle. On the Democratic side, there were the Bernie Bros taking on the Clinton faction. On the Republican side, there was virtually everyone against Trump to some degree. The particulars with respect to each party are, of course, obvious, but one thing is certain: intra-party rancor is nothing new to American politics.
In the 1860 election, abolitionists were torn over support for the eventual Republican nominee-Abraham Lincoln. To be sure, Lincoln did nothing to soothe the concerns of these people. Lincoln had given a series of speeches where he intimated that his goal would apparently be to prevent the spread of slavery into the “National territories” and existing free states. In other words, slavery would remain in the South. If Republican abolitionists had Twitter in 1860, a #NeverLincoln hashtag would have popped up.
Go to any website or publication that generates a list of the greatest American Presidents of all time and Lincoln invariably ends up number one or two. But, in his time Lincoln was not a popular choice to be President, even among his own party or in his own state for that matter. Edward Everett, a former Senator and Secretary of State under Millard Fillmore, said that Lincoln was “evidently a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis.” Charles Francis Adams, the grandson of John Adams, is quoted as saying that Lincoln’s “speeches have fallen like a wet blanket here. They put to flight all notions of greatness.” The established elites disliked him.
After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was called a despot with delusions of grandeur and that the Republic was on the way to dictatorship. The Crisis of Columbus, Ohio was so over-the-top critical it made John Brennan’s charges of “treason” against Trump look like child’s play.
What is considered one of the greatest speeches in American history- the Gettysburg Address- was panned in its time. Not only did Lincoln make an address at the commemoration of the Gettysburg cemetery, but so did the aforementioned Edward Everett. His speech received accolades. Lincoln’s can best be described as this from the Harrisburg Patriot and Union: “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.” Sounds like CNN’s coverage of a Trump rally.
Lincoln’s home state newspapers were not that much kinder. The Salem Advocate described Lincoln thus: “he is no more capable of becoming a statesman, nay, even a moderate one, than the braying ass can become a noble lion.” And lest anyone thinks that Trump is an embarrassment to America, they said that Lincoln’s “weak, wishy-washy, namby-pamby efforts, imbecile in matter, disgusting in manner, have made us the laughing stock of the whole world.” While we are constantly scolded about Trump alienating Europe with his “Make America Great Again,” that same newspaper said this about Lincoln: “the European powers will despise us because we have no better material out of which to make a President.” Does this sounds eerily similar to some rhetoric we hear today?
There were no Presidential job approval polls in 1860-1863, but we can safely say that if there were, Lincoln would fare much worse than Trump. The New York Herald estimated that perhaps only 1 million of the 4.7 million who voted for Lincoln in 1860 were still with him. That would give him an approval rating of about 25%. By the time Lincoln was sworn in, the Republican Party suffered losses in city elections in Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Cleveland and St. Louis, and statewide elections in Connecticut.
In the 1862 midterm elections, the Republican majority in the House dropped from 70% to 55%. The number of Democrats almost doubled going from 44 in 1861 to 75 in 1863. Illinois, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey had all abandoned Lincoln. Alexander McClure, a staunch Republican defender of Lincoln lamented these losses when he wrote: “I could not conceive it possible for Lincoln to successfully administer the government and prosecute the war with the six most important loyal States declaring against him at the polls.” To wit, Lincoln suffered an actual “blue wave.”
In 1864, this is what the Radical Republicans had to say about Lincoln, according to the Norwich Aurora in describing a speech by Casper Butz, a Chicago politician:
So far as he (Mr. Butz) was personally concerned, he did not want any such man for President of the United States. [Cheers.] He thought Abraham Lincoln was the weakest and worst man that ever filled the Presidential chair. [Great cheering.] He had no merits that were worthy of emulation, and had no more sense than a child. [Loud laughter and applause.] He considered him a perfect imbecile. [Renewed applause.]
Although the National Review did not use such language in their NeverTrump issue during the campaign, the sentiments are basically the same and we hear the same today.
Lincoln’s arrival on the political scene has its analogies to Trump’s arrival on the scene. In both instances, they were met with widespread personal and vicious attacks. Is there much difference between Kathy Griffith’s display of Trump’s decapitated head and these sentiments from the New York Tribune: “Mr. Lincoln may live a hundred years without having so good a chance to die?”
To the elitists which resided in the East, Lincoln was a weakling inadequate in the task of governing. To the hostile South, he was a despot with visions of dictatorship dancing in his head. To the majority on either side of the Mason-Dixon line, he was not a statesman, but a political rube.
Although there are similarities between Lincoln and Trump vis-a-vis public perception and press treatment, none of this to say that Donald Trump is the next Abraham Lincoln, or that he will one day even break into the top ten Presidents in history. Lincoln had a civil war crisis brewing on the horizon. Trump faces no such crisis (although the media insists we are heading for some constitutional crisis of some kind).
However, it does illustrate that contemporary opinions and perceptions do not always align with historical assessment. Lincoln- a wildly unpopular presidential choice in 1860- has become an iconic President in historical hindsight. History, not contemporaneous perception, will secure Trump’s place on future lists of Presidents.