Appropriation of Historical Figures for Ideological Purposes

I’m about to drop a few truth bombs on my readers:

1. JFK was NOT a conservative.

2. MLK was NOT a conservative.

3. Abraham Lincoln was NOT a socialist or leftist, although he would probably disapprove of the alt-right given his feelings about the Know-Nothing Party.

John F. Kennedy

Numerous contemporary commentators have claimed that JFK was conservative compared to today’s Democrats, primarily based on his support for tax cuts, his anti-communism, and his sense of patriotism that pre-dated modern cynicism about America. However, these points do not consider the full scope of issues of the time, nor does it even address what his series of policy proposals called the New Frontier consisted of. Kennedy supported the following policies that conservatives of the time opposed:

. A strong increase in the minimum wage.

. Funding more public works projects.

. Increasing foreign aid.

. Reducing tariffs (I already wrote a post about how this was not regarded as conservative in the early 1960s).

. The Area Redevelopment Act (federal grants and loans for areas in chronic economic distress).

. Development of publicly-owned power, an idea which never has had Republican support.

. Federal aid to education.

. Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Some would argue that he was pro-life, but so was Ted Kennedy and other members of the family in the early 1970s. Since they changed their views to a pro-choice position, who is to say that had Kennedy not been assassinated he wouldn’t have done the same? Kennedy was also strongly disliked by conservative groups in that time, and that is putting it mildly. If you want proof of him being a leftist, simply consult Americans for Democratic Action voting records that are readily available on their website. Kennedy scores no lower than a 67% and on multiple occasions scores a perfect 100%. Kennedy’s views, frozen and crystallized in the early 1960s, of course look more conservative than contemporary Democratic leaders.

Martin Luther King Jr.

The perception of Martin Luther King Jr. as a “conservative” is a mixture of hindsight and either ignorance or forgetting some of the other things he said and stood for. This is especially the case with the line in his “I Have a Dream” speech, he states that he dreams of a world in which people are judged for their character and not the color of their skin. Conservatives have used this statement to great effect in arguing against affirmative action, which at minimum opposes the literal interpretation of the quote. However, was King actually against the idea of affirmative action? The evidence strongly indicates he was for it, and what’s more, he was for reparations for slavery (Haley, 1965). The latter is an idea that I have never known a conservative to support. Even more devastating for the case that King was a conservative: in his personal writings he was supportive of nationalizing industries in the United States. Bear in mind that he wasn’t actually a “communist” as his foes alleged: he opposed communism for its antagonism to religion and its disbelief in God. Yet, by his personal writings on the nationalization of industries, he was a socialist.

Another point ignored is his opposition to the Vietnam War. He didn’t mince words on the subject either, even at times comparing American actions to those of the Nazis (Garrow, 2017). These speeches were widely condemned in his time, and we often forget this side of King. Conservatives would be on much better ground looking towards Frederick Douglass or Booker T. Washington as ideological kin, but then again, these men did not live during the civil rights era and were also not martyrs!

Abraham Lincoln

Everyone wants Abraham Lincoln to be on their side now because his narrative turned out to be the correct one in many ways. In a sense, he is a sort of American Jesus, because of him our national original sin of slavery was abolished and he was martyred for it. Even atheists have nothing bad to say about Jesus, just the religions based around the man. The only people who have anything bad to say about Lincoln now are neo-Confederate revisionists. It is a popular narrative among liberal Democrats and a number of historians (who happen to be liberal) that Lincoln would be a Democrat today. This ignores more than a few facts surrounding his life:

  1. He was a corporate lawyer who represented railroads. While this is not necessarily indicative of being right-wing as the famous attorney Clarence Darrow was also such a lawyer for a while, and he sided with numerous radical causes in his lifetime, it is an indicator.
  2. Before he was a Republican, he was a Whig. The Whig Party was a conservative and pro-business party that backed internal improvements not for the purposes of giving the workers on these projects jobs, but to ease the ability of business to conduct their affairs in the United States. The GOP’s pro-private sector stances derive from the Whig Party, which derived from Hamilton. This makes the notion that Lincoln would have been left-wing or socialistic on economics highly unlikely.
  3. Lincoln thought of himself as a conservative, because he believed that the expansion of slavery was not the intent of the founders, and that the Southern slaveowners were corrupting the original intent by trying to expand it.
  4. The era known as the Gilded Age came about due to policies that were started under the Lincoln Administration.
  5. Lincoln signed a bill granting the Union Pacific Railway a huge strip of land in the West, with a loan of $16,000 to $48,000 per mile of track. He supported other measures encouraging land speculation as well.
  6. One of his protégés, who had come to support Lincoln after attending the Lincoln-Douglas debates, was none other than Joseph G. Cannon. No serious historian would ever label this man as a man of the left: as Speaker of the House, “Uncle Joe” Cannon was instrumental to blocking progressive legislation, and the progressive legislation that did pass had massive political support and was sufficiently toned down to be acceptable to him. He served in Congress until 1923 and he thoroughly supported the Harding Administration’s conservative and pro-business agenda.
  7. Although the imposition of the income tax is oft cited as a progressive credential, it was done for war financing; the GOP Congress and President Grant were happy to let the income tax expire in 1872. Lincoln and the Republicans were not interested in wealth redistribution on a national scale, merely the use of the income tax as a tool to fund the Civil War. They overall much preferred the use of the protective tariff for the purposes of revenue collection.
  8. His immediate Republican successors to the presidency were Grant, Hayes, and Garfield. All three men were staunchly supportive of the gold standard and had no interest in bringing back the wartime income tax or greenbacks.

Finally, Lincoln’s opposition to the alt-right? Lincoln detested the American Party (“Know-Nothings”) for their anti-Catholicism, conspiracy theories, and nativism.

Overall, people want to appropriate three martyred leaders as moral authorities for our present-day debates, and I have presented where I think each of the three belong:

. Kennedy – New Deal liberal.

. King – Socialist.

. Lincoln – Economic Conservative, although social issues applied to modern day would be difficult to tell.


Folsom, B.W. (1 November 1999). President Grant Reconsidered. Foundation for Economic Education.

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Garrow, D.J. (4 April 2017). When Martin Luther King Came Out Against Vietnam. The New York Times.

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Haley, A. (January 1965). Martin Luther King Jr.: Part 2 of a Candid Conversation With the Civil Rights Leader. Playboy Magazine.

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Hormats, R.D. (August 2003). Abraham Lincoln and the Globalist Economy. Harvard Business Review.

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Hutchinson, E.O. (15 January 1996). Perspectives on Martin Luther King: Was the Dream Message About Color or Character?: Affirmative action is the latest issue to claim his words. But he spoke for his time, when ambiguity was key to selling the cause. Los Angeles Times.

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King, M.L. “To Coretta Scott”. The Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project.

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