The United States emerged from the Civil War a vastly different county. No longer could Democrats hinder economic progress so as to protect the slave system. Once most Democrats in Congress had gone with the Confederacy, Republicans met little opposition in enacting their pro-growth economic agenda: a national banking system and a national currency, free land for farmers in the Plains states, land-grant colleges, the transcontinental railroad, and other structural reforms that soon made the United States the wealthiest country in the world.
But what about the South? Was the Republican Party able to carry out its agenda there – to free the slaves and guarantee their constitutional rights? You already know: yes to freeing their slaves but no to guaranteeing their constitutional rights. Why was that? What stopped the Republican Party was the murder of the Great Emancipator in 1865.
The man who took over the presidency for the next four years was a racist Democrat. Andrew Johnson did all in his power to prevent African-Americans from experiencing Abraham Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom.” The Democrat state governments set up by that first President Johnson quickly reduced African-Americans to near-slavery with “black codes” shockingly similar to their previous “slave codes.”
Knowing that 64 of 80 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives had voted against passage of the 13th Amendment, congressional Republicans feared that once the southern states were back in the Union, a new Democrat majority along with a Democrat such as Johnson in the White House might undo all they had accomplished for African-Americans. What if they rescinded the Emancipation Proclamation, as many Democrats were demanding, or repealed the Republicans’ 1866 Civil Rights Act? To keep the precepts of that law safe from any future Democrat Congress, the GOP drafted and enacted the 14th Amendment. Let’s remember that Republicans voted unanimously in favor of the 14th Amendment, and Democrats voted unanimously against it.
Republicans today should bear in mind that the reason the Republican constitutional rights agenda was not carried out in the postwar South was that until they managed to override a Andrew Johnson veto to pass the Reconstruction Act of 1867, President Johnson and the former Confederate leadership were almost completely in charge of the South.
That’s right, two years elapsed after the war ended before our Republican Party’s Reconstruction even began. To illustrate, how would Japan look today if General Douglas MacArthur had not instituted land reform, restructured the economy and extended voting rights to women? No way that every vestige of Imperial Japan could have been rooted out if he had been forced to wait until 1947 to began his reforms.
Fortunately, this tragedy did not occur in the 1940s. In reality, the U.S. military swept aside the conquered regime and “reconstructed” it as a modern, free market democracy. Unfortunately, this tragedy did occur in the southern United States in the 1860s. The subject people were never fully liberated and Lincoln’s “unfinished work” never completed. Just as sadly, the Republican Party was forced off its original course. Now you may appreciate that most of our nation’s social problems are due to the lamentably inadequate resolution of the central conflict in our history.
Similarly, we are burdened by ignorance of our past with the mistaken impression that now and in the future we have but a limited set of policy options to deal with these problems. The Grand Old Party is an athlete who has lost his balance – we are in good shape, with plenty of drive, but not until we regain our footing will the nation fully realize Lincoln’s vision for a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
This article is adapted from Back to Basics for the Republican Party, Michael Zak’s acclaimed history of the GOP, cited by Clarence Thomas in a Supreme Court decision. Mr. Zak is a popular speaker to Republican organizations around the nation, showing office-holders and candidates and activists how they would benefit tremendously from appreciating the heritage of our Grand Old Party. His Grand Old Partisan blog celebrates more than fifteen decades of Republican heroes and heroics. See www.RepublicanBasics.com for more information.