I have a good friend who always poses the same question to political candidates at every forum he attends, no matter the office, be it governor or city council. The question may be the same but it’s a great one to ask.
Rising from his seat and taking the microphone, Carl Ford asks each candidate: “Are you a Jefferson Republican or a Lincoln Republican?” And, I will tell you, I’ve seen several candidates hesitate over it because it’s a lot deeper than it seems on the surface. But it does get right to the heart of a candidate’s political principles.
It can be a bit confusing but, to put it simply, there have been two Republican parties in our long political history – a Republican Party headed by Thomas Jefferson and one led by Abraham Lincoln.
The party led by Jefferson, which emerged in 1792, is also called the Democratic-Republicans, a term historians tend to use in order to cut down on confusion. This party eventually became the modern Democratic Party of today, which is why, at least until recently, Democrats held annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners.
The modern Republican Party was born in 1854 in Wisconsin and it was this party that Lincoln, who was once a Whig, joined and eventually led. In fact, it’s still called the “Party of Lincoln.”
But even though both parties used the same name, they were miles apart in ideology and political principles, which is why Carl poses the question.
So what are the differences? First the Jeffersonians.
In my book, The Last Jeffersonian, I defined Jefferson Republican principles by specific policies: limited government, federalism, economy and accountability, sound money, low taxes and tariffs, no national debt, strict construction of the Constitution, protection of civil liberties, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.
Jefferson’s party was formed for the express purpose of opposing the big government agenda of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Party that was subverting the Constitution and imposing more government on the country with an array of new internal taxes, profligate spending, a national bank, assumption of state debt, a loose interpretation of the Constitution with like-minded judges to carry out the plan, the suppression of civil liberties with the Alien and Sedition Acts, and a foreign policy that seemed destined for war had it not been for Washington’s mighty hand.
In the election of 1800 voters across the country threw out the Federalists, after 12 years of uninterrupted rule, in favor of Jeffersonians in what was billed the “Revolution of 1800.” Jefferson won the White House and Republicans took control of both house of Congress.
In his inaugural address, on March 4, 1801, President Jefferson, in a complete reversal of Hamiltonianism, called for “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”
As President, Jefferson did something extraordinary: He actually carried out his party’s platform. He cut taxes, slashed spending, and repealed laws, like the Sedition Act. Government actually shrank under his leadership, and it remained very limited.
Jeffersonian conservatism governed the nation, for the most part, for the next six decades through it’s organ, the old Democratic Party of Jefferson and Jackson. Only the Lincoln Revolution of 1860, which brought back the policies of Hamilton, broke the hold and ended Jefferson’s dream of a great “empire of liberty.”
Lincoln’s Republicans were the opposite of Jefferson’s. Lincoln considered himself an “old Henry Clay tariff Whig,” strictly following the economic program of Hamilton and Clay, which consisted of high protective tariffs, direct taxes, federally-funded internal improvements, direct subsidies to big business, and a national banking system with fiat money. The party also supported a loose construction of the Constitution, activist judges, and, beginning in 1898, an interventionist foreign policy.
As President, Lincoln opposed secession (unlike Jefferson), trampled the Constitution, waged war without congressional consent, seized Northern telegraph offices, closed down hostile newspapers, appropriated money without authorization, used troops to intimidate Democrats during elections, illegally suspended habeas corpus, arrested and imprisoned 14,000 citizens without trial, seized control of the Maryland state legislature by arresting key members, banished a congressman to the Confederacy, waged war on civilians, and even contemplated arresting the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for opposing his actions.
In short, the Founder’s Republic – self-determination and constitutional government – ended under Lincoln and the “Yankee Leviathan” State was born.
As James McPherson has written, “the old decentralized federal republic became a new national polity that taxed the people directly, created an internal revenue bureau to collect these taxes, expanded the jurisdiction of federal courts, established a national currency and a national banking structure. The United States went to war in 1861 to preserve the Union; it emerged from war in 1865 having created a nation. Before 1861 the two words ‘United States’ were generally used as a plural noun: ‘The United States are a republic.’ After 1865 the United States became a singular noun. The loose union of states became a nation.”
The contrast between the two Republican organizations could not be starker. But even though the two parties of today have changed quite a bit, the question is still an important one. So when Carl Ford asks the question, it means everything. May we have a Carl Ford at every candidate forum and ask each one: Are you a Jefferson Republican or a Lincoln Republican? Their answer will tell you everything.
So which one are you?