archives portraits 7

Hunt Slonem's portrait of President Abraham Lincoln, from a 2019 exhibit at the Louisiana State Archives.

Donald Trump has repeatedly and favorably compared himself with Abraham Lincoln. Historians and other scholars find Trump’s comparison ignorant and ludicrous, except to say that both men came late to the Republican Party and both have checkered records when it comes to the civil liberties of political opponents.

Lincoln severely restricted free speech and the press during the Civil War, silencing opposition press and imprisoning critics. Lincoln insisted his policies were legal and justified in the face of armed insurrection in the South and seditious opposition in the North.

Scholars debate whether the war justified Lincoln’s policies, some arguing that the ends do not justify the means, while others contend that Lincoln’s measures preserved the Union and, in the end, expanded liberal democracy.

Trump is no Lincoln, in both word and deed. Trump’s assertions at the recent debate are the antithesis of Lincoln’s views on elections and the transferring power in a democratic republic.

Lincoln, unlike Trump, faced a real insurrection. Lincoln, unlike Trump, saw democracy as the means of ending our domestic crises.

Two of Lincoln’s writings illustrate these points. The first is Lincoln’s blind memorandum written prior to the presidential election of 1864, pledging himself and his cabinet to honoring the outcome of the election and assuring a peaceful transition of power, even if it meant the end of the Union. The second is his reflection on the necessity of elections in maintaining free government.

Aug. 23, 1864: "This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be reelected. Then it will my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward."

Nov. 10, 1864: "We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone national elections, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us. ... But the election, along with its incidental and undesirable strife has done good too. It has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war. ... It shows also how sound, and how strong we still are. ... While I am deeply sensible to the high compliment of a reelection ... it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man may be disappointed or pained by the result. May I ask those who have not differed with me, to join with me, in the same spirit towards those who have."

Lincoln’s and Trump’s words and actions speak for themselves. Let us hope that Lincoln’s words and example speak to our better angels.


retired teacher, historian

New Orleans

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