President Trump has once again drawn the sneers and condescension of the Leftist establishment media with his claim that “I am the most popular person in the history of the Republican Party—92 percent. Beating Lincoln. I beat our Honest Abe.” Lincoln, sniffed Newsweek, “died a decade before the telephone, which is used for polling, was even invented, and about 80 years before job approval polls for presidents started.” CNN intoned magisterially, “That’s a hard claim to back up.”
But lost in the media contempt was the salient fact that Lincoln, as revered as he has been since his death, was a wildly unpopular President in his day, even within his own party. As Trump continues to receive relentlessly negative media coverage despite a booming economy and outstanding success against ISIS and with North Korea, this is good to keep in mind.
Just before Lincoln took office, the Salem Advocate from his home state of Illinois editorialized that “he is no more capable of becoming a statesman, nay, even a moderate one, than the braying ass can become a noble lion.” Lincoln’s “weak, wishy-washy, namby-pamby efforts, imbecile in matter, disgusting in manner, have made us the laughing stock of the whole world.” The Salem Advocate argued, just as Trump’s critics do today, that the President embarrassed Americans before the world: “the European powers will despise us because we have no better material out of which to make a President.”
The Salem Advocate wasn’t alone; the most respected pundits in the nation agreed that Lincoln was an embarrassment as President. Edward Everett, a renowned orator, former Senator and Secretary of State, and 1860 Vice Presidential candidate for the Constitutional Union Party, wrote that Lincoln was “evidently a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis.” Congressman Charles Francis Adams, the son of one President and grandson of another, sneered that Lincoln’s “speeches have fallen like a wet blanket here. They put to flight all notions of greatness.”
Critics decided what they saw as Lincoln’s despotic tendencies, often denouncing the very things for which Lincoln is revered as great today. When he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the Chicago Times decried it as “a monstrous usurpation, a criminal wrong, and an act of national suicide.” The Crisis of Columbus Ohio sounded the alarm as hysterically as John Brennan crying treason after Trump’s press conference with Vladimir Putin: “We have no doubt that this Proclamation seals the fate of this Union as it was and the Constitution as it is.…The time is brief when we shall have a DICTATOR PROCLAIMED, for the Proclamation can never be carried out except under the iron rule of the worst kind of despotism.”
On the day the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, January 1, 1863, former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin R. Curtis said that Lincoln was “shattered, dazed and utterly foolish. It would not surprise me if he were to destroy himself.”
The Gettysburg Address didn’t go over any better. Edward Everett spoke for two hours just before Lincoln, and was showered with accolades. One man who was in the crowd, Benjamin French, recounted: “Mr. Everett was listened to with breathless silence by all that immense crowd, and he had his audience in tears many times during his masterly effort.” One of the reporters present, John Russell Young, praised Everett’s “antique courtly ways, fine keen eyes, the voice of singular charm.”
The Harrisburg Patriot & Union, by contrast, in its account of the commemoration at Gettysburg wrote: “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”
Everett himself, an experienced speaker who knew good oratory when he heard it, thought otherwise, writing to Lincoln: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” In response, Lincoln was grateful but self-deprecating: “I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.”
Lincoln did not even command much respect within his own party. The poet and lawyer Richard Henry Dana wrote to Charles Francis Adams in 1863 that “the most striking thing” about “the politics of Washington” was “the absence of personal loyalty to the President. It does not exist. He has no admirers, no enthusiastic supporters, none to bet on his head. If a Republican convention were to be held to-morrow, he would not get the vote of a State.”
In 1864, Lincoln was indeed renominated, but in a way that left Attorney General Edward Bates disgusted: “The Baltimore Convention,” he wrote, “has surprised and mortified me greatly. It did indeed nominate Mr. Lincoln, but…as if the object were to defeat their own nomination. They were all (nearly) instructed to vote for Mr. Lincoln, but many of them hated to do it.”
This is not to say that Trump is a new Lincoln, or that he will be as heralded after his administration as a distant memory the way Lincoln has been. But the lesson is clear: contemporary opinion doesn’t always line up with historical assessment. A notably unpopular President in his day, Abraham Lincoln, has become one of the iconic heroes of the Republic. It could happen again, and likewise the reverse could happen: the near-universal accolades and hosannas that today greet Barack Obama may one day, in the harsh light of history, appear to have been naïve, wrongheaded, and foolish in the extreme – at best.