How today’s Democratic ‘Squad’ is a direct ideological descendant of the original 1850s Republicans
How today’s Democratic ‘Squad’ is a direct ideological descendant of the original 1850s Republicans
Nothing is ever really “new.” Today’s ‘Squad’ of young Democrats is the direct ideological descendant of the original 1850s Congressional Republicans. That is one of the important lessons of Joanne Freeman’s “The Fields of Blood,” about the increasing threats of, and actual incidents of, violence in the US Congress between the 1830s and the Civil War.
Just as today, there were differing economic and social divides in America. Economically there was a struggle for power between the merchant class and farmers. Socially the increasingly contentious issue was that of slavery. At least beginning with Andrew Jackson’s 1828 Presidential election victory, the Democratic Party was the voice of farmers. The ex-Federalists and the nascent Whig party became that of commerce.
But there were northern and southern branches of each party, defined in how they stood on slavery. The story of the 1830s through 1850s is how that moral issue moved to the forefront, splitting both parties, and ultimately giving rise to the Republicans. This is very much the same paradigm as the “great sort” that took place between the Democratic Party and the GOP between 1980 and 2016 (if not 2008).
Not only is that, but reminiscent of polls over the past 10 years, in the 1830s and 1840s northerners, especially northern Whigs, wanted to settle disputes civilly, while especially southern Democrats were willing to threaten, and even use, physical force to get their way.
Most importantly, dueling was accepted in the south as a way to defend one’s “honor,” while in the north it was looked upon as unseemly. Southerners used this to their advantage, knowing that northerners would back down in the face of a challenge to a duel. This first came to a head when, in 1838, Maine Representative Jonathan Gilley accepted the challenge of Kentucky Representative Williams Graves. Neither really wanted to duel, and both were poorly served by their seconds, who at crucial moments failed to resolve the situation, but the bottom line is that Graves shot and killed Gilley. Sectional debate on the floor of Congress had finally gone all the way to causing a death.
And just as in our present era, one side was especially willing to break norms in order to get their way on their biggest issues. One analog to Mitch McConnell now was James K. Polk, who promised in 1844 that he would lower tariffs that hurt farmers, acquire California and the Oregon territory, and allow Texas into the Union. Of course, a big reason for the acquisition of southwestern lands was to allow the expansion of slavery to new states, which is why both the venerable John Quincy Adams and a young Abraham Lincoln opposed the Mexican War. A second norm-breaker was Stephen Douglas, who blew up the Missouri Compromise even before the Dred Scot case, advocating that territories themselves should choose whether they would allow slavery or not, which ultimately succeeded in the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Finally the north had had enough, and elected Representatives and Senators who vowed not to be cowed. Here is Freeman’s discussion of the arrival of the first Republicans elected to Congress in 1855:
As inchoate as this new party was, the arrival of an explicitly Northern opposition had an enormous impact on Congress. Not only did the number of fights spike precipitously after 1855, but their dynamics fundamentally changed. Republicans promoted themselves as a new kind of Northerner who was willing to fight back, and they were true to their word. They fought to wrest control of Congress and the Union from the Slave Power.
As an example, Freeman cites the contest for Speaker in 1859. Southerners threatened violence if a Northerner won the post. Pennsylvania Republican Thaddeus Stevens
said that he didn’t blame Southerners for their threats, ‘for they have tried it fifty times, and fifty times they have found weak and recreant tremblers in the North who have been affected by it.’ When Stevens’ quip brought [Georgian] Martin Crawford to his feet uttering threats, Stevens added, ‘That is right. That is the way that they frightened us before.’ At this, Crawford headed toward Stevens …. Within seconds, Republicans and Southern Democrats were rushing down the aisles, several of them reaching for guns.
In addition to the famous caning by Sen. Preston Brooks of Sen. Charles Sumner, there were more than a dozen fights in the Thirty-Sixth Congress. In one incident, Southern Democrat Roger Pryor challenged Republican John Potter to a duel. He was surprised when Potter not only accepted but chose Bowie knives as weapons. Pryor backed down, citing the “vulgarity” of the weapon, and northerners rejoiced.
A political faction entrenched in power for a generation or more being challenged by new generation of implacable opposition sounds exactly like the reaction of the GOP to the ‘Squad’ today.
Just as then, I believe that the new unwavering and determined opposition will ultimately carry the day, although it may be done “one funeral at a time.” But also just as then, I wonder how big a Constitutional rupture may occur along the way.
More on Adams from Charles Pierce
” As I pointed out in a post concerning the debate in the House of Representatives over whether to condemn the president*’s horrid racism as expressed in a series of tweets against four members of Congress who happen to be women of color, our Congress always has been unable to talk sensibly about race. Sometimes, it’s so terrifying a topic that congresscritters choose en masse simply not to talk about it at all. In the mid-1800’s, discussion of slavery in the House was forbidden by House rules. This was the infamous “gag rule” that JQA fought until almost literally the last moments of his life. He actually collapsed on the floor of the House chamber and died on a nearby sofa. And Kevin McCarthy thinks he has it tough.
The day he died, JQA was inveighing against President James Polk and his Mexican War, which Adams saw (correctly) as a attempt by the “slaveocracy” to extend the political power the Constitution had granted it into the new territories in the western part of the continent. (Adams had become convinced that the slave power could not be broken without bloodshed. He was, of course, right.) His last act in public service was to vote against a resolution to strike gold medals to be awarded to the generals who fought against Mexico. He cast his vote, collapsed at his desk, was hustled off to the Speaker’s office, and died there two days later.
This was a guy who was the golden child of one of the most stiff-necked old bastards of the founding generation and, in this area, at least, JQA had bred clear and true. His last act was to refuse to honor generals who’d won a successful war that he considered immoral and unconstitutional, and damned be the consequences. This was what carried him along battling the gag rule for as long as he did.
In fact, you’d have to have been a stubborn as a mule to react to a painful loss of the presidency to serve in the House of Representatives. He lost a vicious rematch with Andrew Jackson in 1828. A partisan editor of a Jackson newspaper accused Adams of having acted as a pimp for the Tsar while serving as minister to Russia while an Adams newspaper proclaimed that Jackson’s mother had been a camp follower with the British army who had conceived Old Hickory with a mulatto man. Jackson won, easily. Adams was crushed by a new kind of politics that a later generation might loosely call “populist.” Nevertheless, as William Cooper points out in his biography of JQA, he still burned with the desire to do some great public service. In 1830, he was elected to the House with 72 percent of the vote in his congressional district. Thus began his long and remarkable opposition to slavery in the United States.
(Part of his victory was his embrace of the oddball Anti-Masonic party, which had recently become a force in Massachusetts with the collapse of the previous two-party system. Ultimately, the Anti-Masons would morph into what eventually would become the Republican Party; William Seward was an early convert to the cause.)
He is still the only person to be elected to Congress after serving as president. In accepting his nomination to the House, JQA was fulfilling the vision of his father’s generation, and of the Constitution it had produced. Three equal branches of government, checking each other, ambition countering ambition, as Mr. Madison put it. JQA had believed that Jackson’s brand of politics not only was crude and ungentlemanly, but that it leaned a little bit towards monarchy, if not some new kind of executive dictatorship. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Washington, the slave power was active as well, this time in an argument over tariffs, and arguing that states had the right to nullify federal laws and, if necessary, destroy the Union in order to do so. The doctrine had been developed and promulgated by Jackson’s obstreperous vice-president, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.
Having continued to write and speak against nullification while in political limbo, now that he was in Congress, and he could see clearly where nullification would take the country, Adams dug in against the forces of disunion and the slavery they were so hellbent to protect. He would speak in the Congress, and he would not be gagged, and he would be right.
Anyway, I thought of all that as I watched the Republicans, the heirs to the party of Lincoln and Seward, fight to keep out of the official record Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s charge that the president*’s tweets and his rhetoric had been racist. Practically all of them lined up against Pelosi and voted in favor of “taking down” her words. The effort failed, and the president*’s words would remain racist, in the official Congressional Record, anyway. There always has been a strong native instinct in our politicians as regards racism to hate the game and not the player. There is a lot of talk about remarks being “racially tinged,” or about “racially inflammatory” rhetoric. But, up until recently, most white politicians, especially, would couch their remarks in some silly flummery about not being able to look into someone’s heart as a way to keep from calling racists racists.
(In truth, as Cooper points out in his biography, even JQA at the height of his anti-slavery efforts, couldn’t bring himself completely onto the abolitionist side as he could not make himself believe that every slave-owner was a “man-stealer.” In this, after his death, history would prove him to be sadly wrong.)
That instinct is inadequate to the present circumstances. The current president* of the United States is a racist or that word suddenly has no meaning. He is a racist who is the son of a racist. He is a racist who is determined to run a racist campaign for re-election and to continue to put in place racist policies because that is what racist people who gain political power do. Because they’re racist. For the first time, a number of politicians are finding the courage to say this obvious fact out loud. And while it is true that the real damage is done to the general political commonwealth by policies that are racist, the conclusion is finally being drawn that racist policies are put in place by racists for racist reasons. This president* has accomplished that for his country, at the very least.
There was a dangerous edge to our politics already before El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago came along. I saw it in the 2012 campaign at the fringes of the Republican primaries, and more vividly in the 2014 midterms. Something very foul and deadly has been allowed to grow and has developed a frightening momentum. Sooner or later, it has to burst the boundaries in our system that already have been fundamentally weakened by a renegade president* and a largely supine Congress. Since 2016, of course, there has been a lot of talk about kompromat, that somehow, some mysterious blackmailing effort is going on that is warping our politics in this way,. But the real blackmail is the emotional blackmail of fear that doing something big about some great peril will overturn the entire system. The real blackmail is what happens when we demonstrate to the anti-democratic impulses that exist within a free society that we have no trust in our institutions to keep them at bay, when our emotions hold our reasons for ransom, and when we see plainly what our duty is, and then fail to do it, when we somehow talk ourselves out of looking history square in the eye and deal with it plainly, as Jefferson put it, so as to command its assent.
At the end, John Quincy Adams knew it would come to civil war no matter how well he spoke or how deft his arguments. He felt the great momentum that was driving the country over the cliff. He decided to ride it as politely as a good New England WASP could ride it, win or lose and, by doing so, probably hastened by a bit the coming of the war. In 1843, he gave a speech to the black population of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He spoke plain to them.
“We know the redemption must come. The time and the manner of its coming we know not: It may come in peace, or it may come in blood; but whether in peace or in blood, let it come.”
And when Congressman James Dellet quoted the speech in the House, querulously wondering if Adams meant the blood “of thousands of white men,” Adams replied,
“Though it cost the blood of millions of white men, let it come. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”
We are not there. We never will be again, please god. But we are at one of those points at which history must be responded to in plain and simple terms, and obvious remedies applied. We have looked away from history for far too long.”
In my today’s local paper in Harrisonburg, VA there was a letter from someone who noted that Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Democrat and complained that this had not been publicezed in the recent foofaraw about his day in TN. This letter writer said this showed that “the Democrat Party” should be abolished.
As it is, one of my favorite obscure facts is that the only piece pf paper signed by Karl Marx owned by the US government is a letter of congratulations to Abraham Lincoln on the event of his reelection as US president from the First International, whose Chair at that time was indeed none other than Karl Marx.
What a bunch of bull shit! The GOP has always a conservative bent! Lincoln said so himself in his Union Cooper Speech and letters. Did the GOP not have a stake in the red scares too? Fool
Welcome to Angry Bear. First time commenters immediately go to moderation to weed out spam, spammers, and advertising. To your point and I believe most will agree with me, Repubs during the Civil War were more liberal than today and the Dems were more conservative during that time period. As time went by, they reversed positions.
Rich, but conservative is a dialectical term. You need to accept that. GOP served the industrialists
I always like reading about history and still have second doubts about majoring in economics rather than history almost 50 years ago. I know Trump is a racist to his core as are a goodly number of his supporters and just about all Republicans are at least complicit in that racism but the driving force behind Trump and the GOP see racism as just a tool to keep the masses divided. The rich get richer while everyone else treads water and is delighted or outraged with the president’s latest tweet. So it was 50 years ago when the military industrial complex kept sending mostly poor young men to die in Southeast Asia while it reaped enormous profits and the GOP told the dirty rotten hippies to love America or leave it. Nixon was the first to employ the “southern strategy” with an assist from George Wallace, and his original v.p. gained fame for referring to the press as the “nattering nabobs of negativity “. Somehow we survived those years but we seem as a nation to produce more Nixons and Trumps and McConnells and Gingerichs and Jacksons and Calhouns and Polks, than Lincoln’s and FDRs and Johnsons and Obamas.
They were factions during the civil war. I wouldn’t say the conservatives in the GOP then were more liberal….They were always harder line than today. See any Joe McCarthys in the Party? (spare me that Trump is). The Party was a lot more business friendly and fiscally tight than now. Way more! The GOP always has Conservatives in it and for the most part, controlled it. It’s mentioned in GOP platforms in 1884 and 1904. McKinley preached conservatism often, so did Ben Harrison. Even Teddy Roosevelt did in letters and speeches. The radical element in the GOP was gone by the 1870s
Bert: No it wasn’t. You need to accept that. It didn’t mean industrialist at all at that point in time
Not only was the daisy chain ending, but the planters, who served their banking masters in Europe well, were essentially House Slaves themselves. No real freedom other than the ‘deed’ of land granted by the bankers. Which is the story of capitalism. The Aristocracy’s move from political autocrats to businessman and the bankers who financed and truly owned the final products since the black death.
The problem with using the word “conservative” shows a ignorance of history and how politics is used as dialectical control. They are nothing more than debt rentier freaks who want papa to give allowance. Papa is of course the bankers. Another way of putting it. The house cat who is lavished in “luxery” as the house cat snarls and yells behind the protection of their “home” as the feral cat who comes up for a peek. This is modern “white people”. Pampered by bankers. Given oodles of debt to build concrete slabs called “suburbs” with debt ridden corporate jobs(or if their lucky, own start up businesses) which care little for planet or self improvement, instead seeking self-gratification. All you whine about then, is that non-white’s should be living the good life as well!!!! This board reeks of the bourgeois and its mentality. Sadly you, like people who call themselves “conservatives” still don’t get it. Thus the dialect goes on, controlling and destroying the world slowly.
Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men, and Fremont !
The only problem is that he’s dead, but he’s still much better than anyone they have nominated in my lifetime.
No. You have to accept what I’m saying. And your class shit is showing ignorance. Conservative is not a “dialectic” term. Sheesh
Sounds like conspiracy crap your spewing
i don’t think preston brooks was a senator.
He was a Senator. “Moving quickly, Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner’s head.” The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner
Sumner was a Senator. Brooks was not.
Brooks was a representative. I just made him a Senator. Someone from the House needs to cane Senator McConnell
In my heart I know you’re right.
Thanks Dale Goldwater