By Bob Cesca: Without much fanfare and without any prime time specials on television, this past Saturday marked the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, arguably one of the most important documents in American history and what I consider to be the final chapter of the Declaration of Independence — four score and six years late. In an effort to give new meaning to the war and its unparalleled bloodshed, Lincoln chose to exercise his war powers by issuing a proclamation that, as of the signing of a formal executive order on January of 1863, would symbolically free the slaves within the Southern states in rebellion. But even though he revealed his intentions to his cabinet earlier in the year, he needed a battlefield victory to add a backbone to the proclamation, otherwise, it would’ve seemed like a desperate, ineffectual measure.
The battle wasn’t technically a victory. On September 17, 1862, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, bordering a creek called Antietam, the U.S. and Confederate armies fought the bloodiest single battle in American history — to a draw. Neither side claimed victory, though General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia withdrew out of Union territory, across the Potomac and into Virginia, so, in a sense, it could be declared a Northern win. However, the meaninglessness and futility of such a bloody stalemate was erased by the enormous gravity of the proclamation that followed five days later.
Either way, the proclamation was, initially, a pragmatic political move intended to electrify northern support for the war while undermining Confederate sovereignty and its efforts to win European recognition — neither England nor France could endorse or join a Confederate effort in which the continuance of slavery was the perceived Cause.
Not wanting to incite border states loyal to the Union into unrest and potential secession, the proclamation allowed slavery to continue in those states until the 13th constitutional amendment was ratified in late 1865. And, obviously, the only way to enforce the proclamation in the South was to reclaim those states by force. The war would ultimately have to be won by the United States for the southern slaves to be truly emancipated.
While I was reviewing some of my Civil War volumes about the latter half of 1862 and the proclamation, I happened to check out a clip from Sunday’s edition of This Week with George Stephanopoulos. For the sake of manufacturing sensationalism and balance, I suppose, they invited Ann Coulter to be a panelist and, predictably, she screeched, lied and generally went bananas.
But one thing in particular grabbed my attention given Saturday’s historical connection: she reiterated a common fallacy on the far-right that conservatives were responsible for freeing the slaves. You’ve probably heard this from other pundits like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.
It’s a big myth. Of course.
Yes, a Republican president freed the slaves. Yes, Democrats from the South were the instigators of secession in the name of slavery. So, in a broad sense, the Republican Party can ballyhoo the fact that its first president, Lincoln, issued the Emancipation Proclamation. However, conservatives had little or nothing to do with it.
The entire discussion hinges on the concept of ideological and platform shifts between the two major political parties. High school level history and civics classes (insofar as they exist any more) should’ve taught us that the parties and their respective ideology makeup have changed and evolved significantly throughout our post-revolutionary history. Some platform planks took shape within one party, then slowly and in small pieces shifted to the other side. Realistically, the parties have been, at various times, a melange of ideas that were both liberal and conservative. In fact, some conservatives would break ranks and adopt progressive ideas and vice versa. Party loyalty was often based on regionalism or even family tradition as opposed to a vice-grip around strict ideological dogma. Voters would also swing wildly between the two parties. Only in the last 30 years has party identification and voting trends become increasingly entrenched and polarized, with some notable exceptions. More on that presently.
During the Abraham Lincoln administration in the early 1860s, the Republican Party, as defined by its first candidate and president, was chiefly driven by the task of maintaining a strong federal government. Lincoln was so committed to this idea that he raised an army to enforce it, and then passed the income tax and the creation of the IRS to pay for it (the Revenue Act of 1862 created the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, which later became the IRS). To this day, a strong central government and a reliance upon progressive tax revenue remains a core tenet of liberal orthodoxy.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was driven by states’ rights and the preservation of slavery as the driving force of its economy. The mere notion of preserving a traditional means of prosperity, no matter how dubious, is inherently conservative. Today, who do we identify with small government, tradition and states’ rights? Conservatives. Conversely, “big government” is a purview of liberalism. Ron Paul, the most conservative member of Congress in the last 80 years, has a stock answer to every policy question he’s asked: “Leave it up to the states.” Conservatives hold sacred the archaic 10th Amendment, which grants state governments all of the powers not specifically enumerated in the Constitution. In 1860 and following the war, supporters of this concept identified with and voted for the Democratic Party.
In the South, party identification became locked down until the Civil Rights Act over 100 years later. Yet the South continued to be marked by conservatism. Yes, there were anti-black racists all across the political spectrum, and this was further cemented by propaganda meant to unite the North and South following the end of Reconstruction. Instead of shooting at each other across the battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam, political leaders turned freed slaves and their descendants into the common enemy. Whites from Texas to New Hampshire would have something upon which they could agree: black people were the enemies of American society and prosperity.
Throughout the 103 years between the 13th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act, liberal values shifted to the Democratic Party and conservative values shifted to the Republicans. Some Democrats in the South would remain conservative into the 1960s, even though much of the party had shifted to the liberalism of FDR, Kennedy and LBJ. Again, party identification wasn’t necessarily about the platform. The core values of Strom Thurmond’s old school Southern Dixiecrats had nothing in common with Kennedy’s New Frontier. Segregation laws all across the country were simultaneously created, enforced and opposed by both Republicans and Democrats, even though liberals tended to oppose them.
If I had more space in which to continue with the history, I’d get into Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive movement in spite of his Republican Party affiliation. I’d get into Democratic President Woodrow Wilson’s support for segregation. I’d get into liberal Rockefeller Republicans. I’d get into Truman’s desegregation of the military. Sadly, most Americans, save for liberal civil rights activists, were racists to some extent and were perfectly comfortable with “separate-but-equal” as the best way to deal with racial tensions. No one wanted another Civil War, so it was easier to ostracize, demonize and oppress an entire race of Americans.
Back to 2012.
Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck want their easily-misled fans to believe that the Republican Party of 1860 possessed exactly the same platform and ideology as the Republican Party of 2012. To reinforce this lie, they employ the words “conservative” and “Republican” interchangeably even though they’re historically exclusive. They’ll claim Lincoln as their own because he was a “Republican,” but then they’ll rapidly refer to “the conservative” who freed the slaves. Actually, it’s not shocking they would conflate and misrepresent party platforms and history, given how they’ve tried to convince their people that fascists can be socialists and that a mixed-race liberal from Hawaii could be a Nazi.
Throughout the rest of the war and his presidency, Lincoln would continue to debate emancipation and the Union with politicians from both parties — not to mention the various warring factions within those parties. War Democrats, Copperhead Peace Democrats, Radical Republicans and abolitionists without party affiliation. Famously, Lincoln’s cabinet was made up of former political rivals. Today, we continue to see liberal Republicans like, say, Clint Eastwood who considers himself a social liberal in support of same-sex marriage and the rescue of Detroit, but also considers himself to be a fiscal conservative and Romney supporter. There are Reagan Democrats and Obama Republicans. There’s Senator Bob Casey who’s a “pro life” Democrat. There’s Arlen Specter, a pro-choice Republican who switched party affiliations soon after the 2008 election. President Bill Clinton not only passed welfare reform, but he also repealed Glass-Steagal by signing the conservative Gramm-Leach-Bliley bill. There’s Joe Lieberman who’s — hell, I don’t think he even knows what he is — and the “conservadems” like Senator Ben Nelson who, while identifying as Democrats, often filibuster with the Republicans. Sometimes. There’s President Obama who, while repealing DADT and re-igniting a pitch for government’s positive role in American life, also passed the Republican individual mandate and tried to pass the Republican cap-and-trade policy. And Mitt Romney, well, it depends what gets uploaded to his neural net processor. Is it any wonder how the parties have shifted over the course of 150 years or more?
America of 1860 or 1760 or 1660 is extraordinarily different from America in 2012, so it stands to reason the parties that govern the nation would evolve and change as well. And of all large scale American institutions, none is more adept at moving whichever way the wind blows as our two major political parties.