The Democrats' dilemma – Lincoln or Seward? Skip to content

The Democrats' dilemma – Lincoln or Seward?

6 min read

A reformist party has a good shot at wresting the White House from the president of a reactionary party.

The reformist party has moderate and progressive wings. Both groups share the same goal, but they disagree on how best to achieve it.

Though a minority in the party, the progressives support one of their own—an outspoken northeastern senator—for the presidential nomination. Moderates sympathize with the progressives. But they argue that swing voters, especially in crucial Midwestern states, will reject him as too extreme.

(Everybody in the party agrees that whoever is nominated doesn’t have a prayer in the South. The party is anathema in Dixie.)

Sound familiar? Recognize the two parties, and the two groups in the reformist party? Well, come along and watch history rhyme.

The rest of the story …

It was 1860. Democrat James Buchanan of Pennsylvania was president. He was a virtual puppet of the slave state South, then the Democratic stronghold. Republicans denounced him as a “Doughface,” a slam for a northerner who supported slavery or was indifferent to the South’s peculiar institution.

The reformist party was the GOP, which was founded in the North in 1854 on anti-slavery principles. The Democrats were the reactionary party of slavery.

Abolitionists, most of them from the northeast, considered slavery immoral and undemocratic. They wanted slavery ended immediately with no compensation to slaveholders.

Moderate Republicans, Midwesterners in the main, shared the abolitionists’ objections to slavery. But they said the party would have better luck at the polls by advocating a gradual end to slavery, such as by limiting its spread into the western territories. Both supporters and opponents of slavery agreed it had to expand or die.

The abolitionists were for New York Sen. William H. Seward at the Republican national convention. “Success rather than Seward,” declared the moderates, who won the nomination for one of their own, a Kentucky-born former Illinois congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

Some abolitionists denounced Lincoln as an equivocator on slavery. Others rallied to him, believing he was the only hope to win in November. 

But within two years of his election over three other candidates, including pro-slavery Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, Lincoln put slavery on the road to extinction. On September 22, 1862, he announced the Emancipation Proclamation. Taking effect on Jan. 1, 1863, it freed slaves in territory then held by the Confederates.

Lincoln also joined the abolitionists in championing the 13th Amendment. Ratified after he was assassinated in 1865, it ended the last vestiges of slavery.

Oh, yeah, commander-in-chief Lincoln led the Union to victory in the Civil War, to boot.

Lincoln went down in history as one of our three greatest presidents (Washington and FDR are the other two.) and Kentucky’s greatest native son.

What about today, then?

So, as I’d rhetorically ask my history students when making a point in class, “What’s the significance of all this today?”

To be sure, history really doesn’t repeat itself. Even so, the past has much to teach us about the present—and future.

Today, the Democrats are the reformist party. The Republicans are the reactionary party. The party of “Lincoln and Liberty” is long gone. Led by Donald Trump, the Yankee George Wallace, the GOP looks more like a party Jeff Davis or John Breckinridge might join. 

In this election cycle, there is no single, overarching issue like the future of slavery was in 1860. Fearing Lincoln and the Republicans would end slavery, 11 Southern states exited the union, set up their own avowedly pro-slavery and white supremacist government and engaged in armed rebellion against the lawfully-constituted federal government.

But health care looms large in 2019 and therein, it seems, lies the rub for the Democrats.

“Health-care coverage consistently ranks as the top issue for Democrats and helped drive the party’s electoral gains in 2018,” Bloomberg’s  and  wrote last month after the Motor City Democratic presidential candidate debates. “But polls show that voters harbor deep concerns about the possible disruption from a policy as far-reaching as [Sen. Bernie] Sanders has proposed.”

Sanders, a Vermont independent again running as a Democrat, favors Medicare for All. 

Pager and Green cited a pair of polls they said “highlighted the Democrats’ dilemma.” A July PBS NewsHour/Marist poll of American adults “found that while 70% of respondents favor a Medicare for All option, only 41% support doing away with private health insurance,” they wrote. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll revealed “overall favorability for a Medicare for All system dropped to 51% in July from 56% in April. It also found that more Democrats, 55%, prefer to expand coverage by bolstering the Affordable Care Act than the 39% who believe in replacing Obamacare with a Medicare for All system.”

Many, if not most, moderate Democrats believe in the idea of universal health care, but worry about the details. Reflecting their view, Vice President Joe Biden, a moderate and the frontrunner in the polls, wants to expand the Affordable Care Act.

Going on 160 years ago, moderate Republicans feared that swing voters, even those against slavery, would see abolitionism as “too much, too fast.” Today, Democratic moderates are concerned that swing voters, even those who want health care reform, might view Medicare for All as “too much, too fast.” 

Based on the polls so far, progressives Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts are Biden’s stiffest competition. Warren, too, supports Medicare for all. “But even Warren has shied away from acknowledging that a Medicare for All system would raise taxes on the middle class, which Sanders admits,” Pager and Green also wrote. “Asked twice by debate moderators in Detroit if the plan she’s endorsed would raise middle class taxes, Warren dodged by replying that ‘total costs will go down’ to obtain health coverage.”

(Trump and the Republicans think America’s mostly private, for-profit health care insurance system is just dandy.)

Politically, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to liken Sanders and Warren to Seward and Biden to Lincoln.    

No matter – it behooves historians to stick to our job as chroniclers and interpreters of the past. Republican success with Lincoln doesn’t necessarily suggest the Democrats will win with Biden or lose with Sanders, Warren, or another candidate.   

A new Quinnipiac poll has every top Democrat contender beating Trump – Biden by the widest margin, with Sanders and Warren close behind.

There were no polls in 1860. But the election looked promising for the Republicans.

The Democrats had split into northern and southern factions over slavery’s expansion, and each group ran its own candidate. Breckinridge said slavery couldn’t be kept out of the territories. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, the Northern Democrat, proposed letting territorial citizens vote slavery in or out. A fourth candidate, Constitutional Unionist John Bell of Tennessee, just called for the preservation of the Union.   

So with the electorate splintered, the election was the GOP’s to lose. Polls indicate that next year’s election looks like the Democrats’ to lose.  

The Republicans managed to unify behind Lincoln. Will the Democrats unite behind somebody?   

Will the Democrats go with their Seward—Sanders or Warren—and risk stampeding enough moderate voters in pivotal states to hand neo-Doughface Donald Trump (from New York, next door to Pennsylvania) a second term? 

Or will they swipe a page from the old GOP playbook, get down to practical politics, and nominate Biden? (He, Sanders, and Warren all get high lifetime marks on NAACP and AFL-CIO legislative rating scales.)

This senior citizen Democrat loves Medicare. I favor Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. But I’m on nobody’s bandwagon right now. 

Philosophically, I’m closer to Sanders and Warren than to anybody else in the field. But my top priority is beating Trump and that will be my number one consideration when I vote in the Kentucky primary next May. 

I “felt the Bern” and voted for Sanders in the 2016 primary. Before I did, I signed an online pledge—posted by Daily Kos if memory serves—promising, “I’m voting Blue, no matter who.”

When Sanders didn’t get the party nod, I was “ready for Hillary” and joined the 32.7 percent of Kentuckians (19.9 percent in my home county) who voted for her.

No matter who gets my vote in next May’s primary, come November, 2020, I’m again voting Blue, no matter who. I’m ready to re-sign the pledge, too.


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All results from Tuesday’s primary

All results from Tuesday’s primary

Here’s a list of all the results from Kentucky’s 2024 primary election that were reported on the Board of Elections site. These include federal, state legislative, and some judges and county attorneys.

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