Saturday, August 26, 2017

Weekend long read: Party of Lincoln

Image via C.K. Coleman.

I've  been paying a ridiculous amount of attention lately to rightwing academic fraud Dinesh D'Souza and his new booklike object, The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left, an extended argument that the party of Nancy Pelosi, Tom Perez, and Keith Ellison is objectively pro-slavery, since it was founded 190 years ago by slaveholders, and therefore Nazi, because Hitler's Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei was directly inspired by those leftists John C. Calhoun, James Buchanan, Jefferson Davis, and the Ku Klux Klan and Senator Theodore Bilbo, and Al Smith and Franklin Delano Roosevelt too, who were all essentially the same person, as you can tell by the presence of the word "sozialistisch" in Hitler's party name. And the progressive birth control advocate Margaret Sanger is in there because tying the tubes of intellectually disabled women without asking them for permission, which she thought was a good idea, seems wrong to us, and gassing Jews seems wrong to most of us as well, so that proves gassing Jews is a progressive program*, though only in a Democratic, Woodrow Wilson sense of "progressive", not a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt** sense.

I know it's so stupid it's not worth thinking about in serious times like these, but the thing is D'Souza's thesis is a reductio of a kind of thinking that can be found all over the place, for example in a piece in yesterday's Washington Post by somebody who seems like the opposite of D'Souza in almost every respect, the calm and dignified, indisputably honorable and honest, eminently moderate, compromise-loving, Episcopal priest and former Republican Senator from Missouri John Danforth, an unwavering Trump opponent (in theory at least; I can't find him publicly mentioning Trump's name between December 2015, when he found Trump revolting, and now, when he still does), who writes:
The fundamental reason Trump isn’t a Republican is far bigger than words or policies. He stands in opposition to the founding principle of our party — that of a united country.
We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, and our founding principle is our commitment to holding the nation together. This brought us into being just before the Civil War. The first resolution of the platform at the party’s first national convention states in part that “the union of the States must and shall be preserved.” The issue then was whether we were one nation called the United States or an assortment of sovereign states, each free to go its own way.
Danforth is as wrong as D'Souza there, in two respects. Like D'Souza insisting that whatever the Democratic Party may have been in 1826 must be identical to what it is now, Danforth takes the No True Republican position that nobody deserves to be called a Republican today who would not have qualified as one in 1856, which I think makes no sense (under Calvin and Knox, Reformed Christians weren't allowed any instrumental music in church services and could sing nothing but psalms; should we say today's Presbyterians with their modern hymns and organ music aren't Presbyterians?). And like D'Souza making absurd misstatements about what those old Democrats were, that they were in some sense a "leftist" party, Danforth gets his Eternal Republican Identity wrong. Commitment to holding the country together was not their founding principle at all.

The founding principle of the Republican Party, the thing that distinguished them from their Whig predecessors, was their insistence that slavery should be illegal in Kansas and any other future states, as the platform stated before its first resolution, in its explanation of why they were holding a convention:

in pursuance of a call addressed to the people of the United States, without regard to past political differences or divisions, who are opposed to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise; to the policy of the present [Franklin Pierce] Administration; to the extension of Slavery into Free Territory; in favor of the admission of Kansas as a Free State; of restoring the action of the Federal Government to the principles of Washington and Jefferson; and for the purpose of presenting candidates for the offices of  president and vice president 
—an issue over which the Whigs had broken up, unable to reach a compromise position (the last Whig president, Millard Fillmore of Buffalo, was a relentless supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act).

The first plank indeed mentions the "union of the states", but only as one of a list of things that had to be preserved, in accordance with the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: "the Federal Constitution, the rights of the States, and the union of the States, must and shall be preserved." The operative thing there was certainly neither states' rights nor national unity, but the opening appeal to the Declaration, the only controversial item, as the second plank immediately makes clear:
we hold it to be a self-evident truth, that all men are endowed with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that the primary object and ulterior design of our Federal Government were to secure these rights to all persons under its exclusive jurisdiction; that, as our Republican fathers, when they had abolished Slavery in all our National Territory [meaning non-states, in the 1789 Ordinance of the Territory of the United States Northwest of the River Ohio], ordained that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, it becomes our duty to maintain this provision of the Constitution against all attempts to violate it for the purpose of establishing Slavery in the Territories of the United States by positive legislation, prohibiting its existence or extension therein. 
In a radical move, the first Republicans interpreted the Declaration's guarantees as having a constitutional legal force, from which they derived the proposition that slavery was illegal already, everywhere in US territory except those states where it wasn't (on 10th Amendment grounds—in those days state governments could ignore many kinds of federal provisions; some even had established state churches, and Lincoln himself always held that a federal move abolishing Southern slavery would be unconstitutional, until he went ahead and did it anyway). This was an extremely strong statement that Republican government would make slavery always illegal, north and west from the Texas border to Canada and the Pacific, on constitutional principle (as opposed to the horse-trading approach that had been generally applied to the question from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 through the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854) and it was the opposite of unifying: it was the challenge that would make the Southern states decide to jump when Lincoln was duly elected president four years later.

It was only then, in 1861, that defending the Union became a separate agenda item for Lincoln and his new government. And you'll note the Republicans didn't approach that in a very unifying way either, with proposals to the seceding states of more new compromises on the issue of slavery in the territories. They responded to the firing at Fort Sumter with military force.

One other thing I want to point out is that the Republicans were a "leftist" party, taking up the traditional Whig agenda of big-government development and infrastructure spending, as the platform points out, with planks favoring immediate commencement of work on the Trans-Continental Railroad and the improvement of rivers and harbors for commercial use. To that they added, in the 1860 platform, support for high tariffs (appropriate in those days of development though they aren't in our mature economy) to favor higher wages, a homestead act offering free land to settlers (as an outlet to keep the labor supply tight in the urbanized northeast), and unrestricted immigration and equal treatment for immigrants:
12. That, while providing revenue for the support of the general government by duties upon imports, sound policy requires such an adjustment of these imports as to encourage the development of the industrial interests of the whole country; and we commend that policy of national exchanges, which secures to the workingmen liberal wages, to agriculture remunerative prices, to mechanics and manufacturers an adequate reward for their skill, labor, and enterprise, and to the nation commercial prosperity and independence.
13. That we protest against any sale or alienation to others of the public lands held by actual settlers, and against any view of the free-homestead policy which regards the settlers as paupers or suppliants for public bounty; and we demand the passage by Congress of the complete and satisfactory homestead measure which has already passed the House.
14. That the Republican party is opposed to any change in our naturalization laws or any state legislation by which the rights of citizens hitherto accorded to immigrants from foreign lands shall be abridged or impaired; and in favor of giving a full and efficient protection to the rights of all classes of citizens, whether native or naturalized, both at home and abroad.
All of which the Lincoln administration accomplished in the middle of a devastating civil war, along with buying Alaska, inventing income tax, and passing the Morrill Act to provide higher education for working class men.

Karl Marx, a passionate abolitionist himself, saw early on that slavery was the subject of the war, and by 1864 was writing mash notes to President Lincoln after the Emancipation Proclamation:

We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.
From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epopee, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?

The Republicans of 1860 were the party of progress on all fronts, and in favor of development, education, immigration, free soil and free labor, lavish government spending, and democracy; and the Democrats were the party of frightened, rural, isolationist, stingy, oligarchist reactionaries. That's how you can tell that they really have switched places, over the decades, and that whatever Dinesh D'Souza may say about it in his slimy way, or Reverend Danforth in his mellow tones, they're both wrong in the same way. High-class Republicans like the latter can't disown Trump by appealing to Lincoln, because they permanently ditched Lincoln decades ago.  If there's a Party of Lincoln in the 21st century it has nothing to do with Trump, or Danforth either; it's free tertiary school, universally available medical care, Black Lives Matter, DACA, and Fight for Fifteen.

Although if anybody who literally favors gassing Jews voted in the last presidential election, they certainly voted for Dinesh D'Souza's candidate, because they've said so.

** The Big Lie mentions TR only twice, once to recall that he invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House in 1901, and once to remind readers that he and Ronald Reagan both visited Andrew Jackson's Hermitage estate, though not at the same time, evidently to prove that Trump's visit to the Hermitage was not a non-Republican gesture; no note of Roosevelt's deep commitment to the concept of American history as a story of the triumph of the white race,  his obsessive fear of Anglo-Saxon "race suicide", or his enthusiastic support for eugenics:
President Theodore Roosevelt could not have been more blunt: "I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding; and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilised and feeble-minded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them". Theodore Roosevelt created an Heredity Commission to investigate America's genetic heritage and to encourage "the increase of families of good blood and (discourage) the vicious elements in the cross-bred American civilisation".
From Thomas G. Dyer, Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race, 1980, linked above.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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