Speakers at the RNC often referenced history. But how much of it was correct?

WASHINGTON – Abraham Lincoln. James Madison. The Declaration of Independence. Socialism. Impeachment.

Speakers at the Republican National Convention last week used United States history to make the case President Donald Trump should be reelected to a second term. 

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However, many of the historical references and examples used were inaccurate, misleading, omitted important facts and clarifications, or were unverifiable. 

Here are some of those historical claims mentioned at the RNC: 

Madison Cawthorn wrong on James Madison

Madison Cawthorn, the young conservative who pulled off an upset in the race for Mark Meadows’ North Carolina House seat in June, incorrectly said Wednesday night that James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence.

“If you don’t think young people can change the world, then you just don’t know American history,” he stated.

“George Washington was 21 when he received his first military commission. Abe Lincoln: 22 when he first ran for office. My personal favorite: James Madison was just 25 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.” 

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It is true that Madison turned 25 in 1776, the same year the Declaration of Independence was signed. However, he did not sign it.

The list of signatories is available on the website for the National Archives.

Cawthorn addressed the flub via Twitter after his speech, saying he “ad-libbed the line and meant to say James Madison was 25 when the Declaration was signed.”

Madison was a young adult when he made significant contributions to the foundation of the United States.

He participated in the framing of the Virginia Constitution in 1776, and according to the National Constitution Center, in 1789, introduced a proposed Bill of Rights to the Constitution. 

More:Madison Cawthorn ‘stands’ for the flag, up from his wheelchair at RNC

Before becoming the fourth president of the United States in 1809, he also served as a member of Congress and secretary of state.

If elected, Cawthorn would be the youngest member of Congress.

Incorrect Lincoln quotes used

Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, quoted a supposed saying from Abraham Lincoln that had been fact-checked several times prior as untrue.

Fact checking night 3 of the RNC: Speakers offer compelling but sometimes misleading stories

During her speech Wednesday night, she said, claiming to quote the 16th president: “‘America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.'”

“While those words were spoken over 150 years ago, never have they been more relevant,” Lara Trump continued.

Some believe the quote derived from an actual quote of Lincoln’s from a January 1838 speech to a group in Springfield, Illinois:

 “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

The quote used by Lara Trump can be traced to a viral Facebook meme. Other variations of the quote have also been widely spread, fact-checked, and even shared by President Trump when he was a private citizen. 

Fact check: Abraham Lincoln quote is fabricated but Lincoln did once warn against internal threats

That was not the only potentially misleading Lincoln quote cited during the RNC.

On Tuesday, while describing growing up just minutes from Lincoln’s birthplace, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron stated, “Lincoln said that ‘any nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.’” 

“Sadly, there are some who don’t believe in this wisdom or in the better angels of our shared American history, as they tear down the statues of people like Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass and even Mr. Lincoln himself,” Cameron continued. 

However, there are some disputes by historians about whether that quote can be attributed directly to Lincoln.

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Christian McWhirter, who is the Lincoln Historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, told USA TODAY regarding that quote, “The earliest occurrence I’ve located is actually from a speech given about Lincoln in 1911 by Hugh Gordon Miller.”

Trump claims to have done more for Black community than any president since Lincoln

The president during his RNC acceptance speech claimed, “I have done more for the African American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln. Our first Republican president.”

This is not a new claim by Trump, who in the past, has compared his successes to, and even omitted, Lincoln’s, whose Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed enslaved people. 

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Trump’s claim is ultimately an opinion, but critics and historians have decried it, pointing to presidents like Lyndon B. Johnson, who shepherded the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. 

Others note President Harry Truman, who moved to desegregate the military, and Grant, who sent troops during Reconstruction to South Carolina against the Ku Klux Klan to protect the constitutional rights of freed Black Americans. 

More:Biden campaign claims ‘Keep America Great’ domain, slams Trump’s ‘promises’

Trump has touted the signing of the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill that made reforms to sentences in federal prisons, as well as increasing the funding for historically black colleges and universities, and low unemployment numbers as some of his achievements for the Black community. 

President Donald Trump speaks from the South Lawn of the White House on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, in Washington.

Mischaracterizations of the political parties 

Speakers at the RNC often referenced the Republican party as being progressive-thinking throughout history, touting leaders like Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became an activist.

However, they didn’t acknowledge the politics and demographics of the political parties flipped decades ago, according to historians.

Black people who could vote tended to support the Republican Party from the 1860s to about the mid-1930s. Republicans pledged to protect voting rights and African Americans viewed the party as the only vessel for their goals: Douglass said after the Civil War, “The Republican Party is the ship; all else is the sea.”

More:Frederick Douglass escaped slavery and became a famed abolitionist; his first wife made that possible

Neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties of today are like their 19th century forebearers. By the late 1960s, the national Democratic Party had abandoned its former support for legal segregation and enjoyed strong support from Black voters, while Republicans had embraced a white backlash to voting and civil rights to build their party in the South. 

Fact check: Yes, historians do teach that first Black members of Congress were Republicans

“The parties have indeed flipped on racial issues, corresponding to the movement of southern whites from the Democratic to the Republican party,” American statistician and Columbia University professor Andrew Gelman wrote. 

Historian Bruce J. Schulman, the William E. Huntington professor at Boston University, said that in the 19th century, Democrats “were anchored by the Solid Democratic South: just as nearly every African American was Republican in those days, nearly every white southerner was a Democrat, loyal to the ‘Party of the Fathers.'”

He continued that “the Republican Party was the party of activist, Big Government and the party most committed to the rights of black Americans.” 

Then, the devastation of the Great Depression, combined with the promises of programs of the New Deal, led Black voters into the Democratic Party. The vast majority of Black voters supported Franklin D. Roosevelt for president in 1936. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 led to an even greater shift toward Democrats, who sponsored both measures.

“[T]he two parties exchanged positions on civil rights (as well as on big government) during” this period, Marjorie Hershey, a professor of political science at Indiana University, explained to USA TODAY. “The result is that ever since the mid-1960s, the national Democratic Party has officially been pro-civil rights and in favor of a strong national government, and the Republicans have officially opposed national government action on civil rights and moved toward a more rural, more states’ rights, and much more conservative constituency.”

Misleading references to socialism

Republicans consistently said Democratic nominee Joe Biden and the Democratic party were socialists during the RNC. 

Fact check: Biden tax plan would raise rates for those who make more than $400K, corporations

Trump called Biden the “Trojan horse for socialism,” and sought to tether Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a self-described “democratic socialist”, by referencing the unity platform released by the former vice president and the progressive Vermont senator. The platform unveiled multiple progressive ideas and policy proposals. 

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Peter Dreier, the Dr. E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics and the founding chair of the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College, told USA TODAY that “Neither Joe Biden nor the Democratic Party is socialist, not by a long shot.”

He said Biden “is a mainstream liberal. He believes in the central role of corporations and markets in creating jobs and generating wealth. But, like most Democrats and liberals – and, in fact, most Americans – he believes that corporations have to exercise some level of social responsibility.”

“Since liberals don’t believe that most big corporations will do that on their own,” they believe “that government’s role is to protect consumers, employees, and environment from corporate irresponsibility. In other words, Biden supports ‘responsible capitalism,’ not socialism,” Dreier continued.

While some Democrats have moved to the left, Biden won his party’s nomination by staking out a more centrist platform on health care, taxes and other issues.

More:Joe Biden bets big on ‘character, compassion, decency’ at DNC convention. Is that enough to activate the base?

More:President Trump accepts Republican nomination, attacks Biden on foreign policy, trade and economy

Nik­ki Haley, former Ambassador to the United Nations, said during her convention speech that Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Har­ris‘ vision “for America is socialism. And we know that socialism has failed everywhere.”

Republicans have specifically tried to tie some Democratic proposals, “Medicare for All”, the Green New Deal, and defunding the police to Biden, even though he doesn’t support them.

Dreier said lawmakers like Sanders “believe in the old idea of government ownership of the ‘means of production.’ Their version of democratic socialism is akin to what most people around the world call ‘social democracy,’ which seeks to make capitalism more humane.” He continued those lawmakers believe the U.S. should learn from Nordic countries like Denmark.

Additionally, Burgess Owens, a Utah congressional candidate, said during his RNC speech, “Mobs torch our cities while popular members of Congress promote the same socialism my father fought against in World War II.” 

Fact check: Viral quote about helping poor often misattributed to Abraham Lincoln

As CNN fact-checked, “The United States was allied with the communists of the Soviet Union” and “While dictator Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party called itself ‘National Socialist,’ it was not actually a party of the left; it was a far-right – fascist – entity whose totalitarian and genocidal politics do not at all resemble those of the left-wing Democrats of 2020.”

Contributing: Brian Lyman, Nicholas Wu, Jeanine Santucci, USA TODAY staff

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