Sunday, November 18, 2012
Radical Republicanism: Then and now
by Clifford F. Thies "Lincoln," the just released movie, is a surprising and fresh look at the struggle for our "new birth of freedom." I will not comment much on the movie itself. Instead, I will look at the movie's revisionist interpretation of the Radical Republicans of that time. During the 1860s, the Radical Republicans sought not only to end slavery, but to reconstruct the country on the basis of actual equality. The leader of the Radical Republicans, in the House of Representative, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, strongly believed in what some people would today call "social justice," although for him, social justice meant equality before the law and equal opportunity, not necessarily equality of results. From the onset of hostilities, Stevens advocated persecution of total war against the states in rebellion. Abraham Lincoln, having come over to the Republican Party from the Whigs, held a more conciliatory view. Lincoln sought, even at the cost of a continuation of slavery, to avoid a civil war. The Republican platform did not, after all, call for an end of slavery in the states it was established, but for the banning of slavery in the territories and for the admission, only, of Free states to the Union. Yes, a house divided against itself cannot stand. But, it would be better to find a peaceful way to end slavery than to engage in a civil war. Stevens was not naive about equality. He did not think equality would immediately occur upon the end of slavery. As the Civil War developed into a total war, he envisioned a long period of military occupation of the South, during which time all the children of the place would be enabled through public schools run by the federal government to enter adulthood capable of being successful as free men and women. We know that just as Lincoln's desire to avoid a bloody Civil War was thwarted, so too was the Radical Republican desire for the reconstruction of the South following the Civil War. Instead of maintaining the peace during a period of reconstruction, the Union Army was withdrawn from the South in a deal that settled the contentious election of 1876. The hastily assembled National Guards of the Southern states, of black and tan composure, could not stand up to the grizzled veterans of the Lost Cause. Routed in battle in South Carolina and Mississippi, it became obvious to all that the future of the South would be marked, for some time, by the rule of Jim Crow. The history of the Radical Republicans would, for more than a hundred years, become lost in the perverted view of the American experience by a strange combination of Southerners and Progressives, the two coming together in the person of Woodrow Wilson. In this history, the Radical Republicans were portrayed as villains and the KKK as heroes. Even as late of John F. Kennedy's Profiles of Courage, in his defense of a the non-removal from office of Andrew Johnson, the Southern Democrat view prevailed. Given the many issues involved, it would be difficult to draw analogies from the Radical Republicans of the 1860s to the politics of today. So, I'll confine myself to saying only a couple things: First, the desire of Republicans that all children be equipped to enter adulthood capable of being successful as free men and women is complicated, today, by the transformation of schooling into a process of indoctrination, especially when so many graduates enter the workforce with no useful job skill, when so many jobs are go unfilled for lack of skilled workers. And, second, the desire of Republicans for equality, in the sense of equality before the law and equal opportunity, is confronted, today, by the definition of equality as equality of results, where people are encouraged to think of themselves as members of this or that group, and where envy of the rich is promoted instead of condemned as a sin.