Party of “Lincoln and Liberty” More Like Party of “Davis and Disunion”

Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis must be spinning in their graves as the country gets ready to observe the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

Lincoln was a Kentucky-born Illinoisan and the first Republican president. He led the Union to victory in 1861-1865 and helped end slavery.

The Union won soon after Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s troops captured Richmond , Virginia , the Confederate capital. Now Virginians are in the middle of “Confederate History Month,” proclaimed by Bob McDonnell, their Republican governor.

Davis, also a Kentucky native, was a slave-owning Mississippi Democratic congressman, senator and secretary of war before he became the Confederacy’s only president. Now an African American Democrat lives in the White House.

Of course, the GOP of “ Lincoln and Liberty ” is long gone. But so is the Democratic Party of Davis and disunion.
The Republicans have mostly become what the Democrats used to be: the white folks’ party. A big part of the GOP’s base is the old Democratic base going back even before the Civil War: the former slave states.

The Republicans called the Democrats the party of the Southern “slaveocracy.” The charge was mainly true.

McDonnell, who made April Rebel time in the Old Dominion, is Yankee-born. But the forbears of many Virginians who voted for him hated Lincoln and his anti-slavery “Black Republican” party.

By word and deed, the Democrats have largely disavowed the racism and rebellion of their party’s past. The two Democratic governors who preceded McDonnell refused to proclaim “Confederate History Month.”

McDonnell belongs to the party that almost a century-and-a-half ago considered Southerners traitors. Radical Republican Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania said the defeated Rebel states should be occupied by soldiers and put under military rule. Stevens called them “conquered provinces.”

Lincoln ’s views toward the beaten South were more conciliatory. But as commander-in-chief, he directed total war against the Confederates. He was fine with Sherman ’s “March to the Sea” through Georgia , home of Newt Gingrich.

After the war, almost all white Southerners stuck with the Democrats, which became the party of Jim Crow segregation in their neck of the woods. (In the 1930s and 1940s, Southern Democrats began to part company with Yankee New Dealer Democrats, fearing they might end up favoring federal action against segregation.)

White Southerners began jumping ship for the Republicans in droves in the 1960s when the Democrats became what the Republicans were in the 1860s: the civil rights party.

Led by President Lyndon Johnson — a Texan who many white Southerners claimed was a turncoat to his race and region — Democratic-majority congresses approved sweeping civil rights bills aimed at ending years of race discrimination.

The civil rights bills almost completely reversed Southern politics. Most native born whites are Republicans descended from Democrats. Almost all African Americans are Democrats descended from Republicans.

Some people say if Lincoln and Davis came back, Lincoln would be a Democrat and Davis a Republican. Who knows? But it seems likely that neither one would recognize – or approve of – his party.

It’s not just Rebel time in Robert E. Lee land. Some Texas Republicans are talking secession. Also popular with Southern Republicans is a GOP proposal to take Grant’s portrait off the $50 bill and replace it with Ronald Reagan’s.

Nobody loves Reagan more than white Southerners. They haven’t forgotten that he opened his 1980 campaign for president in Mississippi , telling an all-white crowd he was for “states’ rights.” He knew how they’d take it. Everybody whooped and hollered approvingly.

Davis and his pro-slavery ilk brayed “states’ rights,” meaning the right of states to hold human beings in bondage. Segregationist Democrats – the Magnolia State ’s Theodore Bilbo, Jim Eastland, and Ross Barnett come to mind – yelped “states’ rights,” meaning the right of states to make African Americans second-class citizens.

My guess is the Tea Bagger-tilting, neo-Confederate GOP is disturbing the eternal rest of some other Republicans. I remember Republicans whose politics were considerably to the left of Dixie Democrats. Some were even liberals to one extent or another.

Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, my home state, comes to mind. So do Sens. Ed Brooke of Massachusetts , Jake Javits of New York, and “Mac” Mathias of Maryland. I doubt Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York would be a Tea Bagger booster or a Rebel flag waver either. Neither would Ike.

In the 1960s, moderate and liberal Yankee Republicans joined moderate and liberal Yankee Democrats in passing the civil rights bills.

Up until the 1960s, a lot of Republicans got better grades than a lot of Democrats on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Congressional “Report Card.” The NAACP has been grading Congress on what the organization calls “the ‘bread and butter’ civil rights agenda” since 1914.

On the most recent Report Card, nearly every Republican received an F. Most Democrats got As or Bs; none flunked.

“It doesn’t matter what party you are, if you vote with us, you’re our friend,” Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau, told the Washington Post. “If you don’t, you’re not.”

When the NAACP was founded in 1909, the centennial of Lincoln ’s birth, the organization had few friends in the Democratic Party, many of whose leaders were Southern white supremacists.

McDonnell’s proclamation is more proof that today’s GOP looks more like the party of Jeff Davis than the party of the Great Emancipator.

Berry Craig

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