American politicians are not noted for their historical self-consciousness. But the Republican delegates now gathering in Philadelphia would do well to devote some thought to their party’s history. The first Republican nominating convention, in 1856, also took place in the City of Brotherly Love. But that party was a far different institution from its counterpart today.
A coalition of Democrats, Whigs and abolitionists who had united to oppose the expansion of slavery, the Republican Party was defeated in 1856 but four years later elected Abraham Lincoln to the White House. “Free labor” was the new party’s rallying cry, by which Republicans meant labor unshackled by slavery or aristocratic privilege and able to achieve economic independence through owning a small farm or artisan shop. The opportunities enjoyed by ordinary workers, Republicans insisted, distinguished the “free society” of the North from the slave South.
There were blind spots in the party’s outlook, most notably concerning Catholic immigrants. In the 1850s and for many years thereafter, part of the Republican base lay among nativists hostile to immigration. But into the twentieth century, most advocates of social change, including blacks, feminists and Progressive-era reformers, moved in the party’s orbit.
The early Republican Party was a strictly Northern institution. It established a Southern presence only in the wake of Union victory in the Civil War. That war and the Reconstruction era that followed witnessed the party’s greatest accomplishments: emancipation of the slaves, passage of the first national civil rights legislation, adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment–which became the main constitutional safeguard of individual rights–and granting black men the right to vote in an effort to create a functioning interracial democracy in the South. The war that destroyed slavery elevated equality before the law for all Americans, secured by a newly empowered national government, to a central place in Republican ideology.
Over time, as Republican leaders increasingly came under the sway of Northern railroad men and industrialists, the Republican Party would abandon its commitment to the rights of African-Americans, acquiescing in the overthrow of Reconstruction and the imposition of segregation. When the South disfranchised its black voters around the turn of the century, Republicans once again found themselves a Northern party, while the South remained solidly Democratic for more than half a century. As Republicans became more and more associated with the interests of Northern business, free labor metamorphosed into “freedom of contract”–the belief that what defined a worker’s liberty was the ability to sell one’s labor in the economic marketplace without interference or regulation by government.
Today’s Republicans are far different from their forebears. The party of free labor is deeply hostile to unions and devoted to corporate interests. The party that secured the Union and viewed the federal government, in the words of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, as “the custodian of freedom,” has adopted the Old South’s belief in state sovereignty. The party on which generations of feminists pinned their hopes now harbors the most virulent opponents of a woman’s right to control her own person. The party that in its 1856 platform condemned as international brigandage the Ostend Manifesto, which called for the United States to “wrest” Cuba from Spain, now appears to view Cuba as by rights a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States.
Most striking, the party of emancipation and Reconstruction has become deeply hostile to civil rights enforcement, affirmative action–indeed, any measures that seek to redress the enduring consequences of slavery and segregation. Republicans, George W. Bush acknowledged in his recent speech before the NAACP, have “not always carried the mantle of Lincoln.” This was quite an understatement. Ever since Barry Goldwater carried five states of the Deep South, proving that Republicans could rebuild their Southern wing by appealing to white resentment over civil rights gains, Republicans have adhered to a Southern strategy that has turned most of the levers of power within the party over to the white South and the conservative extended South, which stretches into the Southwest and Southern California.
In 1996 Republicans even advocated the repeal of one of the party’s crowning achievements, the section of the Fourteenth Amendment that bestows citizenship on all persons born in the United States. Their platform called for denying citizenship to the children of persons who entered the United States illegally or “are not long-term residents.” At this writing it is not clear whether this example of uncompassionate conservatism will be retained in this year’s platform. Here Republicans were true to their history or at least to its nativist element. Unfortunately, today’s Republicans have abandoned the best parts of their heritage while retaining the worst.