by Richard Hurley
I am an historian by inclination and by trade, and I have spent a lot of time looking into America’s painful record in matters of race and slavery. That is why a newly popular taunt by unthinking GOP partisans bothers me more than it probably bothers most people. I refer to the claim – usually breathlessly pronounced – that the Democratic Party is the home of slavery and the KKK. “Gotcha!” cries Uncle John at the Thanksgiving table. “The Democrats are the real racists!”
At the most superficial possible level, what Uncle John is saying is true. The Democratic Party, and in particular, its Southern branch, provided the most ardent defenders of slavery as well as the cruel terrorists who restored white rule in the South after the Civil War. What Uncle John doesn’t quite grasp is that the Southern Democratic Party was the most conservative force in America in its day, and that the Republican Party that opposed it was by far the most progressive. In fact, the Southern Democrats of Virginia actually renamed themselves the “Conservative Party” after the war to distinguish themselves from those vile Northern Democrats who had thrown in with the “tyrant” Lincoln to steal their God-given personal property (otherwise known as enslaved human beings). The fact is that the party labels “Democrat” and “Republican” have swapped ideological places over time. They now signify the polar opposites of the ideologies they represented in 1860.
I will trace the course of this odd shift in the remainder of this article, but first a word of caution. Comparing political stances and parties of one era with the parties and philosophies of another is delicate work – largely because the intervening years have shifted the political landscape so much as to render comparisons meaningless. Case in point: both the Democrats and the Republicans of the Civil War era were vigorously white supremacist and ardently opposed to women’s suffrage. Does anyone today really want to don the mantle of those parties?
If you want to know how the Republicans and Democrats changed places, read on. Just remember that both parties inhabited a vastly different social and political reality 150 years ago.
So… how conservative were the Democrats of 1860? The answer is very. Slavery was the largest capital investment in the United States at the time, and the wealth it created for the South was astonishing. “King Cotton” paid the bills in the states where it was grown, and planters owned the newspapers and pulpits that were the opinion-shaping mass media of the day. Slavery was the established order in the South, protected by the very words of the US Constitution. The “The Constitution as it was!” became the Southern political rallying cry. Southern Democrats proudly proclaimed themselves conservatives, since their goal was to maintain the social and economic status quo against the assaults of upstart “Radical Republicans,” whose anti-slavery attitude threatened the source of the planters’ power and wealth.
The Republican Party, by contrast, represented the growing strength of anti-slavery sentiment in the North. This Northern party arose from the ashes of the Whig Party, which died of sectional conflict in the early 1850s. The Whigs had been proponents of an active federal government, who sought to take the revenue generated by the national tariff on imports and apply it to the needs of the people. Whigs (and their Republican successors) favored federal support for transportation and education. Southern Democrats, by contrast, resented the tariff, since it raised prices on imported manufactured goods that Southern planters needed. Southerners were not inclined to protect native US industry, which was based largely in the North. Capital in the South was typically invested in slave “stock” and land, which gave the best return on investment. Southern planters didn’t particularly care about education for the masses or for transportation networks. The steamboats required to move cotton down the Mississippi River to New Orleans were already in place.
Socially, the first Republicans came from a wide range of classes, prompting sneering comments in Southern newspapers that the party represented “greasy mudsills and mechanics.” The Southern Democratic party, by contrast, was led by landed aristocrats, who saw themselves as such and had no interest in changing the social hierarchy that left them at the top of the heap.
The 1861 secession of the Southern states and the withdrawal of their representatives from Washington left the newly-minted Republicans in charge of the federal government, and they wasted no time implementing a progressive agenda. In 1862, the Morrill Act establishing land grant colleges was passed by the first Republican congress, as was the act funding the transcontinental railroad – legislation of enormous importance to the young state of California.
Unfortunately, the new party’s sudden success led it swiftly into temptation. The burgeoning power of Northern industry was soon felt in Washington, and the long and often corrupt relationship between the GOP and high capitalism followed. The Crédit Mobilier scandal during the Grant administration remains the classic example of naked bribery buying policy in Washington – a phenomenon that has hardly diminished in our own era of Citizens United and the Club for Growth. Efforts by reformers like Teddy Roosevelt sometimes reversed the captive nature of GOP politics, but the brutal struggle for the party’s soul has never stopped. Future historians will regard the era of Mitch McConnell as an historic low – a worthy rival of the Harding era, with its Teapot Dome scandal that rocked the nation.
In racial matters, however, the GOP maintained the high ground, to the limited extent there was high ground. The reality was that the Republican Party largely abandoned the freed slaves to white Southern terrorism in the 1870s. Nevertheless, the Republican Party remained the best vehicle for black aspirations up to and including the Eisenhower years. It was an Eisenhower-appointed Chief Justice who issued the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that desegregated public schools. Ike also appointed the first black man to a cabinet-level post and sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, where they ensured that black children wouldn’t be torn to pieces by a white mob.
Eisenhower’s tenure in office turned out to be the last gasp of the “Party of Lincoln.” The rise of Barry Goldwater’s arch-conservatism opened up new opportunities for segregationists in the GOP. While not a racist himself, Goldwater’s embrace of “States’ Rights” offered cover for racist resistance to the Civil Rights movement. In 1968, Richard Nixon’s breathtakingly cynical “Southern Strategy” extended a warm welcome to the Southern “Dixiecrats,” who had grown increasingly restive under the Democratic tent. Thus, in the span of a turbulent decade, the Solid Democratic South transformed into the Solid Republican South, while blacks fled the Republican Party en masse to join the Democrats.
So that is how the arch-conservative Democratic Party of 1860 evolved into the progressive Democratic Party of 2018. And that is why Uncle John’s delight in pinning racism, slavery, and white terrorism on the Democrats is so perfectly misplaced. As of the Nixon administration, the forces of unreconstructed racism have been openly (if quietly) welcomed into the GOP. And while overt racism is no longer acceptable in national political discourse, covert racism is alive and well and frantically busy gerrymandering districts and restricting voting rights in 2018.
Richard Hurley is a local novelist (Queen of the Northern Mines) and history writer (California and the Civil War) who is a registered independent. He frequently answers questions on 19th-century American history in the online forum Quora. He is Steve Hurley’s brother.