History Book Club
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Political Parties in America
Headline during HUAC “Red Scare” investigation, 1952
Wednesday, October 26, 2016: Political Parties in America. Whigs, Know-Nothings, Federalists, Copperheads; Communists, Socialists, Republicans, Democrats, more.
Summers, Mark Wahlgren A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia and the Making of Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Reading about Reconstruction, as it appeared in the Fall of 1866, 150 years ago, tells a story of a terrible monster, the President of the United States, rumored to be ready for a coup d’état…. Declaring the returning congressmen from the South unconstitutional, or sending in the army to exclude the Republicans from Congress, or the Democrats.
It was a time of unsettling fear. How would the country get itself together again? Or would it?
In the South, rumors were flying about hordes of freed slaves massing to rape and kill white people. And an organization, soon to be known as the Ku Klux Klan, was forming to “protect white values”, and to terrorize blacks, and anyone who appeared to help blacks.
Author Mark Wahlgren Summers writes of the ever-recurring use of fear in American politics. The “crack-brained” Anti-Mason movement in the 1820s, the Know-Nothings’ fear of plotting popes, and the Birchers’ seeing Reds behind every bush and tree.
One might add to those examples the threat of millions of undocumented Mexicans, many of them “murderers and rapists” … and the hordes of Fanatical Islamic Terrorists, hidden among Syrian refugees, destined for our towns and cities.
Summers’ book is about Reconstruction after the Civil War, and the “role of unreasonable, sometimes unreasoning, fear in political discourse.” Political parties often went far beyond the ideas and policies that give them their credentials,” he writes. “Big turnouts at elections, and the way voters identify themselves with one side or the other, may be based on the nightmare in the closet, the terrible unknown that could happen when the lights go down.”
Today we see the fear of Trump with his hand on the nuclear button, or his efforts to encourage racism, chaos in immigrant communities, and to undo the progress toward equality of women and minorities. Or, the fear of Hillary Clinton appointing activist Supreme Court justices to “tear up” the Constitution, particularly the Second Amendment.
The more we read about the years following the Civil War the more we marvel about how much things have changed, and how much they keep on being the same.
Reconstruction was the driving mission of the Republican Party after the Civil War, and it was the thing that white southerners feared, that stirred talk of another civil war, and that set the Republicans back so that they relaxed their drive for the civil rights for newly freed slaves. They talked themselves into thinking Reconstruction succeeded, but it would take another century before blacks could begin to win those rights.
Here we are today, a century and a half later. Segregation has been outlawed, blacks have equal access to schools, jobs… A black man is just completing his eighth year as our President, and still, millions of Americans resent blacks, do not consider them equal, and actively, albeit covertly, act to keep them as second-class citizens. The Republican Party, famous for its leadership role as the Party of Lincoln, now pays scant attention to encouraging blacks to join, and indeed has nominated a man to run for president who has aligned himself with quiet friends like the former head of the KKK, and has preached to a base that includes many not afraid to yell out racist slurs about President Obama and his family.
A Dangerous Stir
Before George Washington’s second term had ended a party system was coming into effect, with Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.
By the 1840s, after Andrew Jackson had given new definition to the Democratic Party, America recognized the permanency of the party system. The election of Jackson gave rise to the Whig Party, whose members didn’t like to think of themselves as a party. They favored the supremacy of Congress, and favored a program of modernization, banking and economic protectionism to stimulate manufacturing. They appealed to entrepreneurs and planters, but had little appeal for farmers and unskilled workers. Whigs attracted many active Protestants, who were morally opposed to Jackson’s Indian removal policies.
Democrats in those days stood for “the sovereignty of the people” and majority rule as a general principle of governing. It attracted farmers, urban workers and new immigrants. When more and more Catholics began to arrive in America, they migrated toward the Democrats. Democrats were the dominant party in the south as tension grew before the Civil War. The Copperheads became a vocal faction among northern Democrats. They opposed the war, urged an immediate peace with the Confederates, allowing slavery to continue. After the fall of Atlanta in 1864, the Copperhead movement collapsed.
The Whig Party fell apart because of the expansion of slavery to the territories. Most Whig Party leaders eventually quit politics (as Abraham Lincoln did temporarily) or changed parties. The northern voter-base mostly gravitated to the new Republican Party. In the South, most joined the Know Nothing Party.
In its two decades of existence, the Whig Party had two of its candidates, Harrison and Taylor, elected President. Both died in office. John Tyler succeeded to the Presidency after Harrison's death in 1841, but was expelled from the party. Millard Fillmore, who became President after Taylor's death in 1850, was the last Whig president.
Anti-Catholicism had been around in America even in colonial times, but when huge numbers of German and Irish Catholics began to arrive in the 1840s, the American Republican Party emerged, then became the Native American Party, and finally the American Party in 1855. Its unofficial name was the “Know Nothing” party, because members were told to resist inquiries into the party’s organization by saying “I know nothing.”
The Know Nothings became very strong in Massachusetts, and spread nation-wide. Abraham Lincoln strongly opposed the Know Nothing movement but did not denounce it publicly, because he needed the votes of its membership to form a successful anti-slavery coalition in Illinois. Just like today, with politicians who oppose Trump, but need his supporters.
In a letter to a friend, Lincoln wrote: “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 of 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 equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
The Know Nothings opposed other, non-Catholic groups as well, like the Chinese in California. In Chicago the Know Nothing mayor refused to hire immigrants for city jobs. They also opposed slavery and alcoholic beverages.
The anti-slavery Know Nothings in the north blended into the Republican party at the time Lincoln was elected in 1860. In the south, they joined the Constitutional Party.
The Republican Party grew anew in the late 1850s from the remnants of the Whig Party, and for the next several decades elected most presidents, but not senators and congressmen.
Pres. Andrew Johnson (1865-68)
“A Dangerous Stir” is a marvelous tale of Reconstruction, of Andrew Johnson, a president of amazingly disastrous proportions, including bigot, blowhard, drunkard, narcissist. It is the tale of politicians enlarging upon every suspicion, newspapers enlarging still more, to stir each part of the nation to a swizzling frenzy. Plots of roving bands of freed blacks, intent upon murder of any whites in sight usually turned out to be drunk whites killing other drunk whites. The Ku Klux Klan stirred up more hatred and distrust, and strung up many innocent blacks.
Cartoon, “Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction: How it Works, Harper’s, 1866
The radical Republicans finally took President Johnson, an old Jacksonian Democrat, to court in impeachment, but it failed. A very popular Republican, Ulysses S. Grant, was elected President, and Johnson returned to Washington as a Congressman.
Author Summers ends his story with a Coda. “By 1875 it was plain to any thinking person, that is anyone who was not a newspaper editor, that the Union would not be undone, that however much they prided themselves on their southernness, that white southerners would never go out of the Union, would never seek a new war.” One irony of Reconstruction was that fears that were never more than fond fancies were roused so well that when they had been laid to rest and other terrors rose the will to believe was gone.
By learning about this important period in our nation’s history, it was fascinating to see how much history repeats itself. If you are not paying attention, you believe it is happening now for the first time.
HISTORY BOOK CLUB TOPICS FOR 2016-2017
Wednesday, November 30, 2016: Colonization in America. Jamestown, Plymouth, Gloucester, St. Augustine, Junipero Serra, Roger Williams, Quebec, Nieuw Amsterdam, more.
December: No Meeting
Wednesday, January 18 (vice 25), 2017: History of Cape Ann. Read about the history of Gloucester, or Rockport, or about how Gloucester became famous as a fishing port, or how Rockport gained fame with granite quarrying. Read about Cape Ann as an art colony. Read about the Revolutionary War and privateers off Cape Ann, or the Royal Navy attacking in the War of 1812. Read about how the Sicilian, Portuguese, and Scandinavian immigrants joined the original English settlers here.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017: Pick your favorite Chinese dynasty. Whether it’s Xia dynasty, Shang, Chou (Zhou), Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, or any of the others, you’ll learn Chinese history. [Suggested by Walt Frederick].
Wednesday, March 29, 2017: What made America powerful? Was it our geography, size, natural resources, protection of two oceans, our choice of immigrants, our leaders? [Suggested by Janos Posfai]
Wednesday, April 26, 2017: History of Class in America We’ve often bragged that Americans started out resisting the class structure, but our Founding Fathers included men like Thomas Jefferson, owners of much land and slaves. At the same time, indentured servants arrived in young America, to fill the bottom rungs of society. [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]
Wednesday, May 31, 2017: Famines in the World [Suggested by Linda Burkell and Walt Frederick]
Wednesday, June 28, 2017 History of English/British Colonialism. It started in the latter part of the 15th Century with plantations in Ireland. Read how the United Kingdom grew to become the greatest Empire in the history of the world. If you wish, home in on British slave trade, and how the U.K. colonized the New World, bringing slaves to grow sugar and cotton. Then Napoleonic Wars and Britain’s seizure of French Colonies. America and Canada. Colonization of Asia in Hong Kong, Malaya, Australia, New Zealand, India, Burma. Africa, and more for you to discover. [Suggested by Richard Heuser]
Wednesday, July 26, 2017: Treasure Hunts in History. This is your opportunity to find a treasure and discover the hunt for it, whether it is the quest for gold in California, diamonds in Africa, the hunt for the pharaohs buried in the pyramids, the hunt to discover a cure for polio or yellow fever, the terracotta army buried with Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, the search for the source of the Nile, the discovery of Neanderthal man… This topic is for you to imagine! [Suggested by Walt Frederick].