Wait, Who Founded the Republican Party?

As Ed Morrissey suggests, it’s a dangerous thing when President Obama goes off teleprompter.

We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union. Founder of the Republican Party.

Not exactly, Mr. President.  As Ed points out, Abe wasn’t even the first presidential nominee in Republican party history – that honor went to John Fremont, who lost the 1856 presidential election to Buchanan.  Moreover, not only was Lincoln not a founder of the party, he was one of the last individuals to desert the rotting corpse of the Whig party.  When just about most Whigs, north and south, had abandoned the party in droves, Lincoln tenaciously clung to the Whig designation until he eventually bowed to political realities.  Lincoln joined the Republicans in large part due to his distaste of the nativism of other emerging major party: the Know Nothings.  Lincoln abhorred their anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic platform and so decided that the Republicans were the most palatable of the “anti-Nebraska” (those opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska act and the extension of slavery) parties emerging in the United States.

Lincoln’s letter to Joshua Speed, dated August 24, 1855, explains his reluctance to leave the Whigs and to adopt the Republican moniker.  It’s a very important letter in that it also demonstrates Lincoln’s revulsion towards slavery.  It’s an impassioned critique of the Douglas Democrats and of those that claimed to not care about the course of slavery.  For purposes of Lincoln’s political designation, here is the key passage:

You inquire where I now stand. That is a disputed point — I think I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was in Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

This was written well into 1855, so even at this point Lincoln still considered himself a Whig.  It would a while longer before he fully adopted the Republican label.  Whatever can be said of Lincoln, founder of the Republican party is not one of them.

That’s not to say, of course, that Lincoln is not representative of the original GOP.  It’s often been suggested that Lincoln would not fit into today’s GOP, but that is an erroneous assumption.  But that is a discussion for another time.

Published in: on September 9, 2011 at 9:56 am  Comments (2)  

The Democrats’ Sea Change

A while back I discussed Michael Holt’s history of the Whig Party.  In reading up on the Whigs one naturally also learns a great deal about their opponents, the Democrats.  As I mentioned in that blog post, the Whigs were, comparatively, the party of big government.  That is a bit of an exaggeration, but they did advocate for a stronger centralized government, promoted federal support for internal improvements, backed a national bank, and favored a high protective tariff.  In contrast, the Democrats were almost purely libertarian.  They advocated minimalist government intervention in the economy, opposed federal funding for internal improvements, generally opposed the National Bank (though not all did), and were the party of “states’ rights.”

This description of the Democrats sounds a lot different than the way one describe the current incarnation of the party.  While some would say that Republicans and Democrats have, in a sense, switched places, I would tend to disagree.  This is a point I’ve made before, but Federalists-Whigs-Republicans have carried on in the Hamiltonian tradition.  While Hamilton desired an energetic government, he wanted the government to be energetic in the few defined areas over which it had constitutional jurisdiction.  He was not an advocate for the sort of leviathan state that has sprung up in modern times.  So in a sense the Republicans have not changed that drastically from its earliest incarnation.  All that has happened is that the Democrats have moved from one extreme to the other.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the intellectual forefather of the Democratic party is Thomas Jefferson.  It was called something different in his day – in fact the name of the party that he belonged to was the Republican party.*  The party morphed over time, especially as the Federalist party died and old Federalists started joining the Republican party.  The election of 1824 saw the party split into at least two factions, the one led by President John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, the other led by Andrew Jackson.  The National Republicans – those led by Adams – would be vanquished by Jackson in 1828, and soon the party led by Jackson would come to be known – then and forever – as the Democrats.  (Yes, I am guilty of over-simplification, but this a blog post.)

If one looks at the general outlook of the Democratic party in the age of Jackson, it hues pretty closely to the Jeffersonian philosophy.  Certainly Jefferson was no fan of centralized government.  He was suspicious of the National Bank.  Like Jackson, he played the part of the “man of the people.”  Philosophically the so-called National Republicans were really a new incarnation of the Federalists, and the Whigs in turn were the heirs of this tradition.

So the Democrats were the more libertarian of the two parties, though perhaps even more decidedly so than modern libertarians.  Even the most passionate of libertarians of today would concede that there is some role for government in national economic affairs.  To put it more crudely, one can almost describe the Democrats of the pre-Civil War period as libertarians on steroids.

As well know, things are much different today.  This being a blog dedicated to history, I might save some of the discussion regarding the ramifications of this change for another venue.  But what intrigues me is the question of how and why the party changed so dramatically.  Donald discussed in the comments section of my Whig post how southern Whigs did end up in the Democratic party in southern states, but I don’t think it was the influence of this group that so radically altered the philosophic outlook of the Democratic party.  Did the Civil War so alter the political landscape that the old libertarian of the Democratic party was no longer tenable?  Was it Progressive and Populist infiltration?  If so, why were the Democrats the ones that moved so far in one direction?

I will suggest an explanation: the change that occurred within the Democratic party was simply the logical outgrowth of the Jeffersonian philosophy.

How can the libertarian philosophy of Jefferson have led to the big government Democrats of today?  In part it comes down to the core part of the Jeffersonian creed.  At heart he was a populist, and the 19th century populism of Jefferson was one that opposed the government.  20th century populism, on the other hand, embraced government intervention in the economy.  So the party didn’t really change fundamentally, it’s just that the populism that lay at the heart of the Democratic party led it down different policy paths at various times.

Again, I will expand on this a bit in another venue.  For now, I’ll just present this as some food for thought.

*NOTE: Please do not call it the Democratic-Republican party.  The term democratic-republican was rarely ever used to describe the party of Jefferson and Madison.  Historians use it today, I think, to distinguish it from the modern Republican party as well as to signify the link between the Democrats and the Jeffersonians.  Sorry, but this is a bit of a pet peeve of mind.

Published in: on December 13, 2010 at 10:55 pm  Comments Off on The Democrats’ Sea Change  

The Death of the Whigs

Being something of a sadist I recently re-red Michael Holt’s The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. It’s quite the tome to sift through once, and to do it again is a sure sign of some kind of mental disturbance. It is a remarkable work, though perhaps a bit over-extensive.  If you want to know what a low-level Whig state legislator from Rhode Island thought about the death of the Whig party, this is your book.

So why did the Whig party pass?  My interpretation – and I don’t think I’m that far off from Holt – is that it simply stopped being an ideological vehicle of opposition to the Democrats.  In other words, by the time of its death it no longer stood for anything.  It’s not that individual members of the party stopped caring deeply about the major issues of the day, but its leadership, particularly in the persons of Millard Fillmore and Daniel Webster, tried so hard to steer a middle ground in the sectional war brewing between north and south that the Whigs became almost indistinguishable from the Democrats.

There are many other things that contributed to the party’s demise, though all are wrapped up into this inability for the party to provide an attractive and distinct counterweight to the Democrats.  As Holt describes, economic boom times in the late 1840s and early 50s made some of the Whig economic arguments somewhat obsolete.  I plan on discussing this in some greater detail in a subsequent post.  Comparatively speaking the Whigs were the more “big government” of the two parties.  In reality they were the inheritors of the Hamiltonian Federalist program: they supported the national bank, they supported a protectionist tariff, and they advocated federal governmental involvement in internal improvements (canals, roads, trains, etc.).  But the boom times ate into some of these ideas and causes the Whigs to re-focus.  By the early 50s there wasn’t much daylight between the two parties, at least substantively.  Whigs didn’t necessarily abandon their platform, but they muted their advocacy of traditional Whig ideas.

The party also did not offer a unified platform on some of the other major issues of the day, namely nativism, anti-Catholicism, and prohibition.  Certainly the birth of the Know-Nothing party ate into the Whigs, but in a sense Whig dis-unity and silence on these issues encouraged voters to turn to a third party.  None Know-Nothing Whigs opposed to slavery had yet another alternative: the Republican party.  So while some might argue that these other parties killed the Whigs, the reticence of national Whigs to forcefully articulate some kind of platform enabled these other parties to rise to prominence.

Ultimately, Whig leaders tried to make the party all things to all people.  In a sense this was inevitable due to the very nature of the sectional conflict that was brewing.  Pro-slavery southern Whigs naturally clashed with anti-slavery northern Whigs.  But I’d contend that it was the politically tone-deaf turn towards moderation taken by Millard Fillmore and then Secretary of State Daniel Webster that led the Whigs down the path to ultimate ruin.

If voters are not given a clear choice they’ll either stay home or just vote for the real thing.  The more Whigs tried to eliminate real differences between them and the Democrats, the more it discouraged Whig voters.  Given a choice between Democrats and Democrat-lite, it’s no surprise that voters between 1850-1853 chose actual Democrats.

Amazingly modern pundits and other figures have learned nothing from this and continue to advocate the same path for our modern parties – I’m looking at you David Frum, David Brooks, Colin Powell, etc.  Calls to moderate might have some intellectual appeal, but political parties must offer brand differentiation in order to thrive and survive.  The Whigs ceased to offer up a meaningful alternative, and voters proceeded to abandon them.  And so the Whig party passed into oblivion

Published in: on December 3, 2010 at 3:34 pm  Comments (4)  
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Fun with Presidential History

Donald’s post on Missouri the bellweather reminded me of a post I had done in the aftermath of the 2008 election.  With the Court’s indulgence, I thought I’d repost it here.  Essentially it runs down how each state has voted since the birth of the Republican party in 1854, and which states have most often voted for the ultimate presidential victory, and which have been the most consistent in party loyalty, one way or the other.

—————– (more…)

Published in: on October 18, 2010 at 8:17 am  Comments Off on Fun with Presidential History  
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Historical pet peeves: Democratic-Republicans

No, the political party itself isn’t a pet peeve – sure it had the Prince of Darkness (Jefferson), but it also included the Sage of Montpelier (Madison) – but the term itself bugs me.  There was no such political party called the Democratic-Republicans.  The party of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe et al. were simply called Republicans.  Now, in some contemporary literature they would occasionally be referenced as Democratic-Republicans, but this was not very common.  After all, in his first inaugural, Jefferson did not say “We are all federalists, we are all democratic-republicans.”

So why do high school textbooks and other reference works allude to the Democratic-Republicans?  I suppose it’s for two reasons.  First of all, it helps distinguish the early 19th century political party from the political party that would emerge in the 1850s and which still exists today.  Second, it denotes the continuation between Jefferson’s party and the Democratic party that would be born with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828.

One could quibble that the Democratic party of Jackson was not quite the same thing as the Republican party out of which it emerged.  Once the Federalist party was vanquished from memory, the Republicans were the only game in town.  The election of 1824 threw everything back into disarray, but technically John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson were members of the same party.  Jackson couldn’t technically claim any greater degree of continuation with the Republican party than Adams.  So, I don’t think it’s completely illegitimate to say that the Democratic party of Andrew Jackson was a completely new political party.

Now this is a bit of an over-simplification, and one could also argue that Adams and his supporters weren’t really committed Republicans, and that Jackson and his men were carrying on the true Republican tradition.  That is a fair argument.

At any rate, I call for the immediate cessation of the use of the party Democratic-Republicans.  The penalty for non-compliance is, ummm, general annoyance on my part, a roll of the eyes, and perhaps a completely silly and futile comment or blog post.

Published in: on June 18, 2010 at 3:02 pm  Comments Off on Historical pet peeves: Democratic-Republicans  
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