Race and Republicans
From William Lloyd Garrison to Trent Lott
Jun 7, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 36 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
In 1984, in Biloxi, Mississippi, deep in the heart of the old Confederacy, the future Senate majority leader Trent Lott declared that "the spirit of Jefferson Davis" now lives in the Republican party.
It's a mystery quite how the party of Abraham Lincoln, born in the moral outrage of the great northern abolitionists, could become in the minds of some of its most visible modern leaders the party of Davis. To some, Davis's legacy may seem one of support for states' rights. To others, however, he remains a Southern slaveholder, Democrat, and president of a Confederacy born in rebellion and secession.
Or perhaps it's not such a mystery. From their 1854 beginning, the Republicans were the party that fought slavery, imposed Reconstruction, and opposed segregation, while the Democrats were the party of Jim Crow, race baiting, and Dixiecrats. But for many years, "progressive" historians have been telling a story of America's "steady march to liberalism," in which all good comes from Democrats and all evil from Republicans. And not only have Democrats learned this false lesson and claimed an undeserved reputation on race, but even Republicans have absorbed their enemies' lesson -- until at last they find themselves claiming Jefferson Davis as one of their own.
In order to construct their progressive story, these left-leaning historians -- Henry Steele Com-manager, Allen Nevins, Claude G. Bowers, and the Arthur Schlesingers -- were forced to pass over innumerable Democratic sins: Andrew Jackson's treatment of native Americans, southern populists' racial demonizing, Woodrow Wilson's segregationism, William Jennings Bryan's support of the Ku Klux Klan, and Franklin Roosevelt's indifference to anti-lynching legislation.
Simultaneously, they were compelled to ignore the efforts the conservative "stand patters" made to improve race relations. New York boss Roscoe Conkling escorted Mississippi's Hiram Revels, the first black senator, down the aisle to his swearing in when no one else would -- but his courage has found few admirers among reform-minded historians. In the 1880s, as a young congressman, Henry Cabot Lodge introduced a voting rights bill -- but he's known to history primarily as Woodrow Wilson's antagonist in international relations. "Uncle Joe" Cannon, the tyrannical speaker of the House in the early 1900s, backed every civil rights measure introduced during his long tenure -- but he's more famous for liking tariffs and trusts.
Presidents Grant, Harrison, Harding, and Coolidge tried to outlaw lynching, protect voting rights, and increase tolerance -- but all receive "failing" or "below average" grades from historians who disapprove of their economic policies. Textbooks record that Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock to enforce the Supreme Court's 1954 anti-segregation decision in Brown -- but always with the caveat that he did so "reluctantly and late." They make less mention of his peaceful desegregation of the nation's capital or his success in passing the first civil rights bill in almost a century despite Democratic efforts to weaken it.
So complete has been the victory of this view of American history that even Republicans turn away from their past: No serious candidate invokes the names of Grant, Harding, Cannon, or Coolidge. Yet African-American activist Frederick Douglass stood up for Grant in his day. His political descendants did the same for other Republicans. If progressive historians had been less willing to relegate race to secondary importance in explaining the past, or if Republicans had proved less apt pupils, the GOP could cite with telling effect a long train of heroes in the fight against racism -- beginning with William Lloyd Garrison.
In his marvelous new study All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery, Henry Mayer has rescued this nineteenth-century abolitionist from common distortions. Historians have typically depicted Garrison as marginal at best and a firebrand fanatic at worst, typical of the abolitionist troublemakers who made more difficult the work of practical politicians like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Stephen Douglas.
But Garrison, in fact, is one of the rare examples of a presumed extremist who proves more practical than the temporizers. All he needed to make his vision a reality was a complete shift in prevailing public opinion -- and Garrison did more to bring that shift about than any other figure of his time. Mayer believes Garrison's greatness was his ability to understand that by eschewing both compromise and conventional politics, he could -- through logical analysis, agitation, confrontation, and grassroots organizing -- move public opinion his way.