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Why Lincoln Would Probably Vote for Trump in 2024, According to a Historian

5 minute read

Just in time for President’s Weekend and the February 12 birthday of the 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, a new book traces how the Civil War leader talked about democracy throughout his career.

Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment by Princeton historian Allen Guelzo, out Feb. 6, was written between 2021 and 2023, during a historic period of tumult over the state of U.S. democracy. As he finished the book, the nation was still reeling from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol designed to block the certification of the Electoral College votes declaring Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 election. Two years later, polls suggest that most Republicans still believe that Biden’s 2020 win was not legitimate.

Guelzo looked at how Lincoln guided the country “through the first great crisis of American democracy”—and tried to unpack the lessons we can still learn from the former president. “No surprise that people would cast at least one look back over their shoulders and wonder—is there something Lincoln can tell us? That's why I wrote the book.” 

Below, Guelzo discusses Lincoln’s successes, failures, and what he might think of former President Donald Trump, the 2024 frontrunner for the GOP nomination.

What were some of Lincoln's most underrated accomplishments

Lincoln put into place a dramatically new economic agenda. Here's a man who sponsors legislation for the transcontinental railroad. What Lincoln does with a national banking act is create a national paper currency, which is the same value in every place in the country. The Homestead Act sells off chunks of this government-owned property at extraordinarily inexpensive rates. That's going to allow people to move into the western territories, establish farmsteads and homesteads.

What were Lincoln's flaws?

He really did not know much about the military, and here he was having to act as commander-in-chief in the middle of the Civil War, the biggest military crisis in American history. What military knowledge he had came from borrowing books from the Library of Congress. But what those books taught him was how to win the Napoleonic Wars [~1800-1815], not how to win the Civil War in the 1860s. He had to work his way through antique ideas about how wars are fought and how battles are won.

[Union] General Grant understood you win the war by seizing control of the enemy's logistics. It really wasn't until he let Grant do what Grant wanted to do that, finally, the tide turned militarily in favor of the Union. And the result, of course, is the Union victory in the Civil War.

What mistakes did Lincoln make? 

There was a lot of overreaction on civil liberties issues. For instance, he put people in jail under suspicion of treason or treasonous talk. He actually issued an order closing down two New York newspapers, which had printed a bogus story concerning conscription. The [papers] didn't know it was bogus, but it was leaked to them. They made the mistake of assuming it was legit. They printed it. And it came at absolutely the worst political moment for Lincoln and his immediate response was to order the publishers and the editors to be restrained, shall we say. That didn't last very long—a few days. Nevertheless, people will point fingers for that and say, “Why should we admire this man?” 

What would Lincoln have thought of January 6?

Lincoln was not a populist. He believed in democracy but he was not a demagogue. And he specifically condemned what he called lawless acts of passion. In one of his earliest speeches, the Lyceum address from 1838, he's specifically condemning lynch mobs. The reason he was giving that speech was because the year before had seen such an eruption of mob actions in major American cities, many racially motivated. 

Trump recently won the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. What would Lincoln think of Trump as the front runner for the GOP presidential nomination?

Lincoln was a party politician. When he becomes a Republican, he backs Republican candidates notwithstanding. I guess you could say he's a party animal. I think he would end up endorsing whomever the party ends up selecting as its nominee.

Do you have a favorite portrayal of Lincoln in pop culture?  

For many years, my favorite Lincoln film was the 1940 film Abe Lincoln in Illinois in which Raymond Massey plays Lincoln. I found Massey's portrayal of Lincoln evocative, especially the way he plays a man who has sustained some deep personal losses early in life and learns how to rise above them. It ends on this triumphant note of Lincoln leaving Springfield to begin his presidency. 

Abe Lincoln in Illinois remained my favorite Lincoln film up until 2012, when Spielberg’s Lincoln came out. I show it to classes. When you hear Daniel Day-Lewis speak, you are hearing something remarkably close to Lincoln himself. People have this idea that Lincoln must have spoken in some theatrical, dramatic baritone. He actually had a very high pitched voice. If you listened to Lincoln talk, you would think he was some kind of redneck, and we have some sense of that because one New York diarist who visited Lincoln actually took down a sort of phonetic rendering of Lincoln speaking. Day-Lewis caught a good deal of that.

Do you have a favorite Lincoln quote?

Lincoln wrote this on a scrap of paper in 1858: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.” It captures for him the centrality of what democracy is. You're not going to be a master. And you're not going to be a slave. You're going to master yourself, and you're not going to be the slave of anybody else. 

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com