By Jason Newell (UPDATED 2/2016):
Social media has become an excellent medium for people to express their political views – the feeling of anonymity, however, has compelled historical revisionists to unabashedly disseminate fabricated political material. There are countless myths making the rounds, but one in particular annoys me: the belief that the contemporary Republican Party, from an ideological standpoint, mirrors the Party of Lincoln. While this is a true from a technical standpoint, i.e., the GOP party label is the same, the ideological makeup of the Party has changed drastically. The contemporary Republican Party has become a bastion of staunchly conservative ideals, but this wasn’t the case during Lincoln’s presidency as Republican Radicals (the progressive faction) had an enormous influence on the Party’s desire to abolish slavery. Without progressive thought the Party of Lincoln, which included Radical Republicans (known as progressives before joining) and Abolitionists, the institution of slavery may have existed much longer.
The inspiration behind the Republican Party’s formation was largely based in an anti-slavery philosophy, exemplified by the first Republican nominee, John C. Fremont, slogan “Free soil, free silver, free men.” This rhetoric was adopted by the Republican nominee for President Abraham Lincoln:
“I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any Abolitionist.”
–July 10, 1858 Speech at Chicago
“Now I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil…”
–October 7, 1858 Debate at Galesburg, Illinois
“He [Stephen Douglas] is blowing out the moral lights around us, when he contends that whoever wants slaves has a right to hold them; that he is penetrating, so far as lies in his power, the human soul, and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty, when he is in every possible way preparing the public mind, by his vast influence, for making the institution of slavery perpetual and national.”
–October 7, 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Galesburg, Illinois
One thing was clear: regardless of the motivation behind Lincoln’s presidential run, whether it be keeping the Union intact or channeling Northern resentment based on the South’s economic paradigm, Lincoln abhorred the institution of slavery on a personal level. To claim otherwise is false. On the other hand, the Democrat faction representing the Southern States epitomized conservatism as the faction seceded to preserve an immoral system. And this is precisely the area of history that Stupidparty disciples like to narrow in on – but it’s a misleading tactic due to Southern Democrats encompassing an entirely different political philosophy when compared to contemporary Democrats. They can’t seem to grasp the concept of ideological realignment. Remember, party politics aren’t static; progressivism was ultimately responsible for the abolition of slavery, not conservatism. (Some examples of progressive legislation implemented by the Republican Party during the Civil War were the development of America’s infrastructure [railroads], the creation of a national bank system, and a temporary income tax.)
About fifty years later, the Party experienced an ideological schism that saw the progressive faction leave the party. Prior to the ideological split, Teddy Roosevelt, one of the most idolized presidents of all time, confronted the industrialists and financiers with trust busting and he also strengthened regulations.
Roosevelt was unquestionably a big government progressive. Leading up to the Presidential Election of 1912, tariffs became the hot button issue – it was the issue that contributed to a rift forming between President Taft and former President Roosevelt; and of course, Taft’s shift to more conservative ideals contributed to it as well. The 1912 Republican Convention was chaotic: feeling slighted by the delegates favoring Taft, Roosevelt—in his bid for a third term—walked out with the progressive delegates and formed the Bull Moose Party.
The move was significant in party realignment because the progressive faction that left was a powerful and influential faction within the Republican Party since the Civil War. Nonetheless, the Bull Moose Party dissolved after four years, leaving many progressives without a party affiliation, even though some reluctantly remained in the Republican Party, which became dominated by conservatives. Eventually, most progressives joined the predominately Democratic New Deal coalition—at the same time, the majority of Democratic conservatives joined the Republican Party—and the remaining Republican Party progressives left in the 1940s. The realignment was crucial to understanding the contemporary makeup of the Republican and Democratic Parties.
Incidentally, I suspect that some readers are wondering about the evolution of the Southern Democratic Party – the faction that conservatives typically highlight in their attempt to label the contemporary Democratic Party as still being racist. Let me explain: while the Southern Democratic coalition was responsible for Jim Crow, their motivation stemmed from conservative ideals. In addition, many Southern Democrats in the 1960s felt betrayed by the Party’s acceptance of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and switched to the Republican Party. In the 1970s, the remaining Southern Democrats, angered with Carter’s presidency, ended up supporting Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. As of now, the Southern Republican Party is made up of ex-conservative Democrats.
Rather than accepting Stupidparty arguments relating to the contemporary Republican Party—from an ideological perspective—being responsible for the abolition of slavery, it’s better to analyze historical facts in order to paint an accurate picture. The historical revisionists are crafty, but they’re not the sharpest tools in the shed. It’s crucial to note: the progressive faction that was responsible for the abolition of slavery no longer exists in the Republican Party, therefore, taking credit, as a political entity, for the dismantling of slavery is an outright sham – in reality, the contemporary Republican Party caters to the demands of bigots and racists. The previous notion is bolstered by Trump’s ascendancy, which is largely being fueled by xenophobia and arbitrary hate. The Party that once fought for progressive values has disappointingly devolved into a paranoid propaganda machine, intent on restricting the vote; deporting 11 million people; and denying the existence of institutional and systemic racism. To my astonishment, there are even those who defend the Southern institution of slavery under the transparent guise of state’s rights.
Now, the Democratic Party’s history is not immune to criticism, the Southern Democratic faction in particular, but ideological schisms transformed the Party’s ideological underpinnings to that of progressive ideals, analogous to what the Republican Party once was. So please, if you come across an individual trying to pin the abolition of slavery to conservative ideals, remember to invoke the role that progressive thought had on toppling conservative tyranny. Hopefully, once presented with these facts, they’ll dispose of this false notion and understand that the contemporary Republican Party has become the antithesis of the Party’s founding philosophy.