Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Grand Obsolete Party

On Tuesday, New York's 23rd Congressional District—my Republican father's old stomping grounds in his days as an administrative law judge for the New York Department of Labor—elected a Democratic congressman for the first time since the 1850s. According to a political history of the district—the northernmost congressional district in New York—part of the district (Franklin County) was, until Tuesday's election, more recently represented by a Whig (George Simmons, elected in 1852) than by a Democrat (the last Democrat was elected in 1850).

The Republican Party has strong historical roots in far upstate New York, going back to the founding of the party in the 1850s, when the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln and abolitionism. The most famous abolitionist of all, John Brown, lived on a farm in Essex County, which is part of the 23rd district, and Underground Railroad lines ran throughout the district, which borders on Canada.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Republican Party was the party of progressive social change, the party of civil rights and environmentalism, the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. In the antebellum era, it was the old Democratic Party that was invested in preserving the institution of slavery. Republicans abolished slavery, broke up monopolies, and pioneered the cause of environmental conservation. The new GOP website lays claim to African-American heroes like Frederick Douglass and John Mercer Langston, who were members of the party of Lincoln and abolitionism. Sadly, in this new century, the GOP has become the party of racism and opposition to climate change legislation and comprehensive health care reform.

The change in the party is probably most dramatically illustrated by the defection to the GOP of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond in 1964, at the height of the civil rights era. Originally a Southern Democrat, Thurmond left the party that had associated itself with civil rights and equal opportunity. But the shift in progressivism from the GOP to the Democratic Party began much earlier, even before the Democrat FDR introduced the New Deal. In 1912, the GOP was split between progressives, who supported former President Teddy Roosevelt, and conservatives, who supported the incumbent President, William Howard Taft.

In language that will seem familiar from the most recent Presidential election, Taft said of both his fellow Republican (Roosevelt) and his Democratic opponent (Woodrow Wilson): "The equal opportunity which those seek who proclaim the coming of so-called social justice involves a forced division of property, and that means socialism." (One of Taft's opponents in the crowded race was an actual Socialist, Eugene V. Debs.) Taft and the Republican Party declared themselves in 1912 the party of the status quo, of small government and big business.

For a fascinating account of the pivotal race of 1912, I recommend James Chace's 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs—The Election That Changed the Country (Simon & Schuster 2004).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the history refresher, and I think you're very accurate as I remember from my undergraduate days as a US history major. The party shift is fluid and dynamic, and I recently offered a post on my own blog called "Not my Father's Republican Party." In fact, I think the modern GOP is reverting to the nativistic "Know Nothing" party of a century and a half ago.

A book club at Monkey See bookstore recently read "River of Doubt" about Teddy Roosevelt's exploration of an Amazon River, but the first chapters begin with his failed effort as a third party candidate in that 1912 election. Good read.

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