Republicans Used to Like the Whole Constitution

gop moving rightUntil recently, the Republicans seemed cool with just slamming President Obama and the Democrats.

Oh, the GOP is still chorusing “Take our country back!” as if the president and his party are a foreign army occupying Washington .

Now some Republicans have the constitution in their crosshairs. They seem to think parts of our national charter are the root of much liberal mischief.

Various GOP conservatives have taken aim at the 14th, 16th and 17th amendments in particular.

The Republicans used to like the whole constitution. Founded in 1854, the GOP is more or less descended from the Federalist Party.

The Federalists were nationalist-minded folks like George Washington. They supported a constitution that made us a federal republic, meaning that states had power, but that ultimate authority rested in a central government that united us.

Early Republicans like Abraham Lincoln believed in a strong central government, too. They advocated tariffs. They supported federal funding for improving our road and water transportation networks.

The Republicans wanted the federal government to subsidize a transcontinental railroad. They backed a homestead act that would provide virtually free government land to settlers in the western territories.

Most importantly, the pioneer Republicans demanded decisive federal action against slavery. The GOP urged Congress to exercise its “sovereign powers” under the constitution to keep slavery out of the federal territories. Some Republicans even wanted Uncle Sam to abolish slavery, period.

Of course, the staunchly Democratic white South hated the Republicans, who all lived up North. In the 1850s, the Democrats were the “states’ rights” party. Their ancestors were the anti-Federalists.

Southern Democrats yelped “states’ rights” in defense of human bondage against the “Black Republicans” and federal “tyranny.”

One Southern politician, a “Fire Eater” Democrat, blasted the anti-slavery Yankee Republicans for believing “the government is a national Democracy.” He added, “we of the South contend that slavery is right, and that this is a confederate Republic of sovereign States.”

In 1860, most white Southerners were convinced Lincoln and the Republicans would eliminate slavery if they got in. When they did, 11 slave states exited the Union, formed the Confederacy and started the Civil War. (The Confederate constitution vested more power in the states than in their central government and forbade any law “…denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves.”)

Lincoln, the first Republican president, flexed federal muscle to the max. He and the Republican-majority Congress unleashed the U.S. military on the Rebels and whipped them.

After the war, the GOP used the constitution to expand federal power even more. The Republicans saw to it that a trio of amendments were added: the 13th, which ended what was left of slavery; the 14th, which made African Americans citizens; and the 15th, which put the ballot in the hands of African American men.

The white South again yelped “states’ rights” against this triple helping of federal “tyranny” and “usurpation” of “state sovereignty.”

Eventually, the Republicans and Democrats switched roles on federal civil rights activism. In the 1960s, the Democrats, led by President Lyndon B. Johnson, championed historic legislation in Congress aimed at ending years of societal and state-sanctioned racial segregation and discrimination.

Many liberal and moderate northern and western Republicans joined liberal and moderate northern and western Democrats in voting for the landmark civil rights laws. Nonetheless, the GOP, growing ever conservative, took off after the votes of whites, especially Southerners, who hated the new laws.

Gradually, the old Democratic Solid South crumbled. Today, Dixie is Republican Red.

Liberals are long gone from the GOP. Moderates are an endangered species. Like members of the old party of Lincoln and Liberty , they were proud of the constitution. They celebrated the fact that the post-Civil War, GOP-supported amendments moved us a long way toward living up that part of the Declaration of Independence that speaks of equality being a “self-evident” truth.

Now the almost lily-white GOP is braying “states’ rights” and “state sovereignty” against Obama and the Democrats. The Republican-tilting Tea Baggers are big on “states’ rights” and “state sovereignty,” too.

Even so, the GOP’s assault on the constitution might be based more on pandering than on principle. Take, for instance, Republican calls for review or repeal of the part of the 14th Amendment that guarantees citizenship to anybody born in the USA .

At least in part, the neo-nativism is calculated to make political hay off the latest wave of anti-immigrant — especially anti-Latino – sentiment among conservative whites, the GOP’s bedrock constituency.

The 16th Amendment empowers Congress to levy income taxes. According to the Think Progress Internet website, Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) said he wants to repeal it and the 17th Amendment, which provides for direct election of U.S. senators. (Broun also wants to deep-six the birthright provision in the 14th Amendment.)

More than a few Republicans claim the income tax is unconstitutional. (During the Civil War, a Republican Congress approved — and Lincoln signed — the first federal income tax.)

The GOP knows that the same white people who gripe about immigrants also grumble against paying taxes for “government giveaways” to “welfare cheats.” By “welfare cheats” they usually mean African Americans and Latinos. (In private, they call them something other than “African Americans” and “Latinos.”)

Anyway, in dissing the 14th, 16th and 17th amendments, Braun trashed President Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, for helping start “this process of socializing America .” A lot of Republicans probably would agree with the congressman about TR, who used to be a GOP hero.

But in today’s uber-conservative Republican party, President Eisenhower would be a socialist, too, even a Red, and Nixon would be a liberal.

Berry Craig

Published by the LA Progressive on August 17, 2010
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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.