The Party of Lincoln

When I was in middle school, I was struck by the story of Jackie Robinson. He was the first black major league baseball player when he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 (a very controversial move at the time). Years later, they moved to Los Angeles. They left seasons behind and came to year-round sun. They could no longer take the train to games; LA is a city of cars. Though the teams share a name, the Dodgers of today share little else with the team that broke the major league color barrier in 1947.

Here in the present day, I was watching the Cruz // O’Rourke debate the other night. Senator Cruz mentioned that he was a Republican in part because the Civil Rights Act (of 1964) was passed with the overwhelming support of Republicans. Furthermore, it was southern Democrats who were enforcing Jim Crow in the first place. He was proud to instead be a member of the party of Lincoln.

Listen to the quote here:

It struck me as odd that President Lincoln, a man most famous for literally abolishing slavery, would have been a part of a party that today prides itself in being "tough on crime" and incarcerating people of color at the highest rate in the world. Time for a fact check. To start, I looked up the voting records from 1964.

Percentage "Yes" Votes on the final version of the Civil Rights bill

House of Representatives63%80%

Senator Cruz is technically correct; a higher percentage of people with (R) next to their name voted for the bill than did those with (D). Here is the "party of Lincoln" coming through for civil rights yet again. This begs the question - how did we get from the Republicans of the 60s to those we're stuck with today? To answer, we have to go back to when the Republican party was founded.

When Lincoln was elected the first Republican president in 1860, the party was neither grand nor old. In 1854, the Kansas–Nebraska Act was drafted. If passed, it would create the aforementioned territories. More importantly, it would allow local voters (exclusively white men) to decide whether slavery should be legal in the newly created territories. A group of northerners concerned about the potential spread of slavery decided to band together and form a political party. True to their name, they favored a strong federal government that could force each state to abolish slavery. They also valued high taxes, powerful business, and lenient immigration policies.

Flash forward 100 years to the 1960s. The Republican Party was still going strong, as was, on the surface, their support for civil rights. Let’s re-examine the voting data, but split by both party affiliation and whether the state was a former member of the confederacy or not:

Percentage "Yes" Votes on the final version of the Civil Rights bill

(D) & Union(R) & Union(D) & Confederacy(R) & Confederacy
House of Representatives95%85%9%0%

Northerners, regardless of party affiliation, supported civil rights; southerners were the opposite.

This stark regional split represents the tipping point in a conflict that had been bubbling in American politics for decades. While the Republican Party had originally been comprised entirely of northerners, over time, business-friendly southerners had joined as well. Though they agreed on economic policy, you can see that they were still widely split on social issues. This vote proved to be the beginning of the end of the party as Lincoln knew it.

Southern Democrats (lead by Strom Thurmond), were frustrated by the idea that all people should be treated equal. They defected to a Republican Party that shared their social views; an inverse transition happened in the north. Over the course of the next 40 years, the political landscape of the US would shift into the parties we have today.

So here we are. More Republicans did vote for the civil rights act of 1964, but much like the Dodgers, that team had little in common with the one we we know today. Cruz’s assertion that he’s a member of the “party of Lincoln” is at best misinformed and at worst, intentionally disingenuous rhetoric. He's playing for a team that shares a name with Lincoln's, but that's where the similarities end.

I'm very glad the Civil Rights act got passed, but there's very little in the modern Republican party to thank for it.


While accurate, this post is a vast over-simplification of great swaths of American history. If you're interested in reading more, here are most of the links I used as sources: