In footage released by American Bridge last week, Texas Governor Rick Perry, addressing the Strafford County, New Hampshire GOP’s Lincoln Day Dinner, said with a straight face that Abraham Lincoln was, in fact, a hard-line “states’ rights” advocate:
Abraham Lincoln read the Constitution, and he also read the Bill of Rights, and he got down to the Tenth Amendment, and he liked it. That Tenth Amendment that talks about these states, these laboratories of democracy… The Tenth Amendment that the federal government is limited, its powers are limited by the Constitution.
Here’s the video:
As noted by historian Josh Zeitz, writing in POLITICO, this is absurd.
Setting aside Lincoln’s vast expansions of federal power related to the Civil War, which was itself launched over the South’s concern that Lincoln and his big, bad federal government would mess with Southern states’ abilities to hold slaves, Honest Abe expanded federal authorities unrelated to the war effort:
Lincoln signed into law landmark bills opening federal land to homesteaders and funding the construction of a cross-continental railroad and federal land-grant universities. Historians disagree whether the Civil War era catalyzed the emergence of the modern state, but few disagree that Lincoln broadly (if perhaps temporarily) expanded the purview of Washington, D.C.
So we can file Governor Perry’s Lincoln appropriation under Just Because You Have New Glasses Doesn’t Mean You’re Smart.
But going beyond that, it doesn’t take a political historian to tell you that it’s absurd for members of either party to idolize leaders who shared the same affiliation before the Great Depression. That’s when the party realignment — the realignment that’s only now coming to completion — began. Democrats and Republicans from before that time period bear almost no ideological resemblance to their modern-day counterparts. So, as Zeitz point out, it doesn’t make any sense to speculate as to where Abraham Lincoln would come down on modern-day issues like immigration or health insurance reform, but it makes even less sense to claim that he would have a home in today’s Republican Party.
And yet, dinners in honor of our partisan forefathers are a time-honored tradition on both sides of the aisle. Republicans have their Lincoln Dinners, and local Democratic chapters across the country bring in some of their biggest fundraising hauls at their respective Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinners.
Both parties have good presidents who bore their affiliation, and those parties have a vested interest in cashing in on those presidents’ good names, despite those presidents bearing little ideological resemblance to the modern-day versions of their parties.
So politicians like Perry, who speak at these dinners every year, may feel pressure to tie themselves to the events’ namesakes, but that only produces ham-handed history revisions like the one we saw from Perry last week. After all, whatever Perry says about Lincoln and the Tenth Amendment, we know exactly how our 16th president felt about Southern politicians justifying their place on the wrong side of history by attempting to litigate their state’s right to discriminate.
Hopefully, Rick Perry pushes up his glasses and puts his nose in a book before spouting off about American history again, but I won’t hold my breath.