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The Elbert Files: Changing sides


Republicans and Democrats have their symbols mixed up.

For most of my life, Democrats revered our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, while Republicans cast Abraham Lincoln as their preferred role model.

Today, it makes more sense for Jackson to be associated with Republicans and Lincoln with Democrats. As we’ve seen in recent years, history can change. And as far as Jackson and Lincoln are concerned, it has.  

Until recently, Iowa Democrats called their annual fall fundraising event the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in honor of Jackson and Thomas Jefferson. In 2018 they dropped that title in belated acknowledgement of the fact that the slaveholding of both men does not square with 21st-century values.

Why Democrats put Jefferson and Jackson together is beyond me. During Jefferson’s lifetime he never had one good word to say about Jackson. Nor was the populist Jackson comfortable with the refined European culture associated with Jefferson.

In any case, Iowa Democrats have now rebranded their fall gala as the ubiquitous, if impersonal, Liberty and Justice Dinner.

Republican President Donald Trump was an admirer of Jackson, which makes sense because Jackson, like Trump, was at heart a real estate developer who enacted policies that negatively affected minorities.Trump’s mistreatment of minorities who wanted to rent apartments in New York is well documented, as is his suppression of minorities seeking to cross our southern border.

Jackson, for his part, forcibly removed more than 40,000 Native Americans living on ancestral homelands in Georgia, Mississippi, Florida and Tennessee, with 4,000 of them dying on the Trail of Tears journey to Oklahoma in 1838.

Both Trump and Jackson were obstructionists who distrusted federal power and disliked bankers. Jackson vetoed the Second Bank of the United States, sending the country into a financial panic that lasted years; Trump’s tariffs had similar adverse impacts.

One of history’s ironies is that Jackson, who scorned paper money, appears on our $20 bill, a denomination that is more widely circulated today than the $5 bill on which Lincoln appears.

In any case, it’s pretty clear that Jackson would be more comfortable in today’s Republican party, which Trump has recast in his own and Jackson’s image.

Now let’s look at Lincoln.

Lincoln’s political roots are firmly planted in the Whig Party, which succeeded the Federalist Party created by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, and which eventually gave way to the Republican Party in the mid-1800s.

One thing Federalists, Whigs and Republicans had in common was a belief in the need for internal improvements, what we today call infrastructure, paid for by government.

A new biography by David S. Reynolds connects Lincoln with the “riotous tumult of American life in the decades before the Civil War” and paints a broader picture of Old Abe than most of us remember from high school history.

While Lincoln embraced many Republican values, Reynolds wrote: “With all his faith in free enterprise and self-help, he wrote that the government must do not only what people ‘can not do, at all’ but also what they ‘can not, so well do, for themselves – in their separate, and individual capacities.’”

Unlike Jackson, Lincoln was “fanatically radical, but at all costs he avoided flagrant pronouncements, insults, and one-upmanship. Instead, he used constitutional means of achieving his progressive goals,” Reynolds wrote.

With the possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt, no president was more effective at transforming American society through legislative and executive actions.

In addition to ending slavery and reuniting the country, Lincoln’s achievements include the Morrill Act of 1862, which established land-grant colleges; the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which produced a transcontinental railroad in 1869; the Homestead Act, which opened federal lands for inexpensive settlement; the nation’s first whistleblower law; the National Banking Act of 1864, which centralized and regulated finance; and the Revenue Act of 1861, which introduced the first income tax.

All of which makes him a pretty good role model for 21st-century Democrats.

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