Who owns Lincoln today? Democrats or Republicans?
On the third floor of the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership, you will find an exhibit called “Lincoln and the Presidency.” This consists of two statues–Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower–as well as a series of panels on seven presidents and their connections to the memory of Lincoln.
The entire third floor highlights the prevalence of Lincoln in American culture including Lincoln Logs, comic books and cartoons. As the United States begins to prepare for the 2016 presidential election, this particular exhibit on Lincoln and the Presidency raises two interesting questions:
How have presidents or presidential hopefuls invoked Lincoln in contemporary political debate? In the 21st century, which party could or should claim ownership of Honest Abe?
The Center’s exhibition demonstrates how a number of sitting presidents have engaged with Lincoln’s leadership and thinking. Some have contemplated how Lincoln would handle a particularly difficult situation. During hard times, Theodore Roosevelt looked to a portrait of the 16th president he kept behind his desk. Others, like Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, made trips to the Lincoln Memorial. Roosevelt visited to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, while Nixon went after the invasion of Cambodia and Kent State shooting to talk with protestors.
Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, both Republican and Democratic candidates have evoked Lincoln’s memory and words in their political positioning. Republicans like William McKinley, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and John McCain, accepted their party’s nomination for the presidency highlighting their allegiance to the “The Party of Lincoln.”
In 1929, Franklin Roosevelt penned a letter saying, “I think it is time for us Democrats to claim Lincoln as one of our own.” The then-governor of New York opened the possibility that Democrats, and not just Republicans, could claim ownership of Lincoln.
More recently, Barack Obama has sought to connect with the spirit of his predecessor from Illinois. Not only did Obama announce his candidacy on Lincoln’s birthday, but he also cited Lincoln in his 2008 victory speech, took his first oath of office on the same Bible Lincoln used, and modeled his early cabinet after Honest Abe’s bipartisan, wartime cabinet.
Not everyone, however, has quoted Lincoln accurately. People inside and outside of the political realm have misquoted the 16th president so frequently that Don E. Fehrenbacher compiled a guide to assess the validity of Lincoln statements. Historians like David Blight and James McPherson have argued that the memory of Lincoln is extremely malleable—able to fill nearly any role we can think of for the 16th president.
As the United States gears up for the 2016 presidential election, this exhibit on “Lincoln and the Presidency” encourages us to think about the legacy of Lincoln and his role in political debate.
David W. Blight, “The Theft of Lincoln in Scholarship, Politics and Public Memory,” in Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and History World, edited by Eric Foner. New York: Norton, 2008.
On nominee acceptance speeches, consult these links:
Chuck Welsko is a former Digital Projects Intern, and History PhD student at West Virginia University where he studies 19th-Century America, with a particular focus on the cultural, political and social dimensions of the Civil War.