Just in time for next year's commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, a Republican congressman from an ex-Confederate state wants to replace Ulysses S. Grant with Ronald Reagan on the $50 bill.
A measure proposed by Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina would ditch Grant for The Gipper. My guess is Southern Republican white folks are especially fond of the idea.
Grant was a Yankee general and a Republican president. That makes him the wrong kind of Republican to the GOP’s neo-Confederates.
President Abraham Lincoln, Grant’s commander in chief, is not their kind of Republican either.
After all, Lincoln and Grant believed in using big government to fight big wrongs like armed rebellion and slavery, both of which the Confederates tried to justify in the name of “states’ rights.”
Reagan was a “states’ rights-small government” booster, too. Though he was an Illinois-born Californian, many Southern Republicans consider him one of their own. Reagan is the white South’s favorite president, except maybe for Jeff Davis, the Confederacy’s chief executive.
As a rising star of the Republican right, Reagan denounced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The white South loved it. So when he ran for president in 1980, he opened his campaign in Mississippi .
No state resisted integration more stubbornly and more violently than Mississippi . Reagan spoke in Neshoba County , where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.
Thousands of white folks turned out. Reagan promised them he was for “states’ rights.” They whooped and hollered. They might have cut loose with a Rebel Yell or two.
Before the Civil War, white Southerners shrieked “states’ rights” in defense of keeping black people in bondage. After America ’s bloodiest conflict, white Southerners yelped “states’ rights” in defense of Jim Crow segregation.
When Reagan said he was a “states’ rights” guy, “he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon" and "tapping out the code,” Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times in 2007. “It was understood that when politicians started chirping about 'states’ rights' to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you. And Reagan meant it.”
Herbert pointed out that when Reagan was president he tried to water down the Voting Rights Act. “He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," Herbert also wrote. "He tried to get rid of the federal ban on tax exemptions for private schools that practiced racial discrimination. And in 1988, he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of federal civil rights legislation. Congress overrode the veto.”
Also, Reagan vetoed a bill to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa , but Congress overrode that veto as well, Herbert wrote.
"Throughout his career, Reagan was wrong, insensitive and mean-spirited on civil rights and other issues important to black people,” Herbert concluded. “There is no way for the scribes of today (or fawning politicians like Rep. McHenry) to clean up that dismal record.”
Meanwhile, “states’ rights” Reagan carried every ex-Confederate state except Georgia , President Jimmy Carter’s home state, in 1980. Stumping for votes in the Peach State , Reagan called Davis “a hero of mine.”
While Lincoln was in the White House directing the war and Grant was down South whipping Rebel armies, Republicans up North sang “We’ll hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree.”
Of course, the GOP of McHenry is not the party of “ Lincoln and Liberty ” or of Grant. It looks more like the party of Davis .
The “right kind” Republican governor of Virginia proclaimed April “Confederate Heritage Month” in the Old Dominion. “Wrong kind” Republicans in Grant and Lincoln’s time considered white Southerners (most of them pro-slavery and secessionist Democrats) to be traitors because they took up arms against a lawfully-constituted and freely elected federal government, fired on the United States flag, killed or maimed thousands of United States soldiers, including many from my native Kentucky, and damaged or destroyed millions of dollars in federal property.
Yet a lot of their “right kind” Republican descendants see no irony in waving the Rebel flag in one hand and the American flag in the other. Some of them still prefer the Stars and Bars to the Stars and Stripes.
Indeed, many of their Rebel forbears stayed Rebels at heart long after Gen. Robert E. Lee gave up to Grant. Today, the neo-Confederate hit parade includes an old tune called “Unreconstructed Rebel.” It starts:
Oh, I'm a good old Rebel,
Now that's just what I am;
For this "fair land of Freedom "
I do not care a damn.
I'm glad I fit against it-
I only wish we'd won.
And I don't want no pardon
For anything I've done.
Anyway, this Bluegrass State history teacher fervently hopes my favorite Civil War general stays on the 50. I’m a union card-carrying Hubert Humphrey Democrat who voted for President Obama (and will again in 2012). But my heroes include more than a few “wrong kind” Republicans from the 1860s – Lincoln, Grant, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Sen. Charles Sumner and Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, to name some.
Twice I voted against Reagan, the man McHenry praised as “indisputably one of the most transformative presidents of the 20th century,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Will Bunch agrees Reagan was “transformative,” but not in the way McHenry thinks he was.
“A more factual synopsis of the Reagan presidency might read like this: That Reagan was a transformative figure in American history, but his real revolution was one of public-relations-meets-politics and not one of policy,” he wrote. “He combined his small-town heartland upbringing with a skill for story-telling that was honed on the back lots of Hollywood into a personal narrative that resonated with a majority of voters, but only after it tapped into something darker, which was white middle class resentment of 1960s unrest.”
Starting Goldwater and Nixon and continuing through Reagan to today, the GOP has successfully exploited that resentment and turned the once segregationist Democratic “Solid South” Republican Red. The Southern Republican party is what the Southern Democratic party used to be: the white peoples’ party. (At the same time, almost all African Americans -- whose ancestors voted Republican until white Democratic legislatures stripped the ballot from their hands after Reconstruction -- are Democrats.)
For the record, moderate and liberal Yankee and border state Republicans – Kentucky Sen. John Sherman Cooper among them -- teamed up with moderate and liberal Yankee Democrats (and President Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas) to get the landmark civil rights bills of the 1960s on the books. They overcame fierce opposition from right-wing, white supremacist Dixie Democrats – the antecedents of today’s Southern GOP.
It’s not just the Republican Party of “ Lincoln and Liberty ” that’s long gone. So, too, is the 1960s GOP of Cooper, dubbed "the Global Kentuckian" because he was also a veteran diplomat and the first U.S. ambassador to East Germany.
I know he would be sticking up for the Grant 50. His ancestors were anti-slavery and pro-Union.
Their famous offspring was more liberal than many, if not most, Kentucky Democrats of his era. That, of course, would make him, like Grant and Lincoln, a “wrong kind” Republican in Dixie – and even in many parts of Kentucky -- these days.