“Big Government” Republicans

lincoln battlefield“Lincoln” seems like a sure-fire Oscar contender. The film has earned good, if not rave, reviews from most historians, critics and political pundits.

Maybe I missed it. But I haven’t seen anything written about the great irony of “Lincoln:” Lincoln the president and his Republican party were big fans of “big government,” the bane of the current GOP.

The film’s climax is the bitter debate in the House of Representatives over the Republican-backed 13th Amendment to the constitution.

The “small government” Democrats fiercely fought the amendment to end slavery. In effect, the Democrats said it was a big-time, “big government” overreach and a violation of “states’ rights,” meaning, of course, the right of white people who lived in states to enslave black people.

Rep. Fernando Wood, a Southern-sympathizing former New York City mayor, helped lead opposition to the amendment. “The Almighty has fixed the distinction of the races,” he said, speaking for pro-Confederate Democrats and Confederates still in rebellion. “The Almighty has made the black man inferior.”

Wood and his ilk — treasonous “Copperheads” to the Republicans — lost. The Republican-majority House, led by Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and others, approved the amendment on January 31, 1865. The Republican-majority senate had endorsed it on April 8, 1864.

After sufficient states ratified it, the amendment became part of the constitution in December, 1865.

Republican support for “big government” didn’t stop with eradicating slavery. Lincoln won the presidency in 1860 on a platform that called on Congress to:

  • Stop the spread of slavery into the federal territories (a first step toward ultimately finishing off the South’s “peculiar institution.”)
  • Impose tariffs, or taxes, on imports to secure “to the working men liberal wages, to agriculture remunerating prices, to mechanics and manufacturers an adequate reward for their skill, labor and enterprise, and to the nation commercial prosperity and independence”
  • Pass a homestead act, which would virtually give away land in the federal territories to settlers who would move west and farm it.
  • Appropriate money “for River and Harbor improvements of a National character” and for helping build a transcontinental railroad

During the Civil War, Lincoln and the Republicans used “big government” to wage total war to defeat the Confederacy, most of whose leaders had been pro-slavery, “small government,” “states’ rights” Democrats. (Eleven slave states seceded in 1860-1861 because their white powers-that-be feared Lincoln and the “Black Republicans” would abolish slavery.)

In 1861, a Republican Congress, with Lincoln ’s blessing, enacted an income tax – the first such levy in American history – to help finance the war.

During the post-war Reconstruction period, the Republicans used “big government” to do more for racial equality than just eliminate slavery. The Republicans backed the 14th Amendment, which made African Americans citizens, and the 15th Amendment, which put the ballot in the hands of black men.

Just as they had brayed “states’ rights!” in defense of slavery, the Democrats, notably Southerners, yelped “states’ rights!” against Republican Reconstruction policies, which included sending federal troops to the South to protect the lives and liberties of the newly-freed slaves against vengeful whites who were determined to restore white supremacy by any means, including murder.

The Democrats, especially those from Dixie, particularly despised the “big government” Freedmen’s Bureau, a forerunner of later federal anti-poverty programs. Congressional Republicans created the bureau to help feed, clothe, educate and find work for the former slaves.

Berry CraigAs we approach the 148th anniversary of the House’s approval of the 13th amendment, most Republicans proclaim themselves champions of “states’ rights” and “small government.” Republican, anti-taxer Grover Norquist famously said he wanted to shrink the federal government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

In any event, Fernando Wood would be apoplectic over an African American president who is a Democrat. Likewise, Thad Stevens would be aghast at the almost entirely white, tea party-tilting GOP.

Berry Craig

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on December 27, 2012
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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 33 years and their 20-year-old son.