I was fortunate to spend some time last week at the Lincoln Cottage, the summer home of President Lincoln during the Civil War. This “Home for Brave Ideas” sits on the grounds of the Washington D.C.’s Armed Forces Retirement Home (formerly known as the Old Soldiers Home), one of two federal retirement homes for those who put in twenty or more years of service to the US military as well as for veterans unable to work due to injuries incurred in the line of duty. I was fortunate to enjoy lunch in the Lincoln family’s dining room with Civil Rights activist Dorie Ladner and scholars and representatives from Georgetown University, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Cato Institute, who had gathered to think together about how Lincoln’s legacy is playing out at this moment, particularly in regards to an uptick in hateful political behavior.
Our discussion quickly turned to the comments that North Carolina Republican state representative Larry Pittman had made about Lincoln just the day before: that he was “the same sort [of] tyrant as Hitler.”
Why, nearly 150 years after his death, is some stupid Southern state legislator echoing the words of Lincoln’s assassin? This might seem like a silly thing. After all, the elections of 1860 and 1864 are quite far behind us, and there has been no new revelation that suggests that Lincoln’s victories in them are invalid. Pittman’s comments, just two days before the anniversary of Lincoln’s murder (and two days before the anniversary of the death of Pittman’s own son by suicide by gun), though, are part of a much longer (let’s just date it to 1828) history that continues to harm vulnerable people under the claim of “sic semper tyrannis.”
Pittman’s language is the language of the Redemption—the effort to undo Reconstruction and fortify white supremacy—and speaks to his voters (He won with 60% of the vote in 2014 and 58% of it in 2016.), who continue to read Reconstruction as tyranny. Sure, they grift the federal government, but they hate federal interference in what they see as the rightful hierarchy of people. This is why they hated the Voting Rights Act and opposed racial integration, no matter what the harm it did to whites; the spirit of their work is spiteful. They can dress these arguments up in claims of liberty, but it’s the Klan, not the Founding Fathers, that’s their real model.
Above, Pittman’s official NC Legislature photo. Never one afraid to be stereotyped, he wears, in addition to his lapel pin from the State house, a pin that is small crown of thorns with fetal feet in the center of the crown (representing Christian opposition to abortion), a pin representing the tablets on which the 10 Commandments were inscribed (representing the political effort to mandate the presence of religion in public spaces), and a pin joining the US and Israeli flags, likely a gift from a Christian Zionist organization. His tie is festooned with images of the first flight, which occurred at Kitty Hawk, NC.
Pittman’s comments were about his support of a state law that would ban same-sex marriage in the state, despite a Supreme Court decision that recognized the legality of marriages between same-sex couples nationwide. He’s also fought hard against both state and federal gun control laws, including those that would prevent guns from being carried in bars, and, in 2013, attempted, with the support of other NC lawmakers, to establish a state religion, again in defiance of the federal government (and the actual Constitution). All of these efforts are justified by Pittman’s reverence for state sovereignty (of course—this was the issue back in 1828 and 1864, too).
We could dismiss Pittman, a minister in a conservative Presbyterian church (Are you really surprised?), as a delusional loser, one of the Confederacy’s many Hiroo Onodas—except that he’s a winner, repeatedly, in local elections (if not in the promotion of legislation). Maybe North Carolinians will one day get tired of voting for a man who wastes so much of their time on bills that are DOA, or maybe they really do like his echoes of John Wilkes Booth’s murderous words against a president. Given the neo-Confederate League of the South’s recent call for whites to arm themselves in a “Southern Defense Force” (content alert: this link takes you to a white supremacy website). I wouldn’t be surprised if such comments garnered him more votes.