I Want My GOP

This post originally appeared in early 2016. Cassandra award?

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A divided national party . . . voices of extreme rhetoric . . . an ugly, contentious primary season. Does this spell doom for two-party system?

Sounds modern, doesn’t it? But the year was 1860, and the party in question was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and shaped in the image of Andrew Jackson: The antebellum Democratic Party.

On the eve of Civil War, the future of the Union appeared in fatal doubt. Political leaders in the Deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida had all but washed their hands of the centrally powerful United States. Adding to the precarious atmosphere, a faction of Democrats in the North promoted a policy to permit slavery into the western territories under the principle of Popular Sovereignty, or direct vote. Others voices in the northern branch of the Democratic Party believed the Southern States should depart the Union in peace. And these pro-secession advocates became the most worrisome threat for Senate leader, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1860.

Douglas found himself in a hell of a spot. He fervently burned to lead his party to the White House and save his nation, dangerously poised on the verge of civil war. As the principal heir to Senate leadership, Douglas had spent over twenty years in Congress working to stave off Southern secession, taking over when Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” died. Clay had also spent most of his earlier career drawing up one concession after another in a noble attempt to preserve the Union. Eventually the effort wore him out, and Senator Douglas pick up the cause.

As far as Douglas was concerned, slavery wasn’t a moral issue, merely a bump in the road. The issue could easily be decided by the good folks migrating west. Douglas believed if settlers didn’t want slavery, they would decline to establish laws necessary for supporting the “peculiar institution.” But the Senator was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to fix. And it was this miscalculation, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded both his party, and his career.

The new Republican Party had organized six years earlier in Wisconsin, founded on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party spread quickly. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified alliance insisted that free labor was an integral component to a flourishing free market economy. The presence of slavery in sprouting regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future commercial growth.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these Republicans did not sing Kumbaya or braid their hair. These men did not believe in equality between the races—they were not abolitionists. Economic principles drove their political platform, (Emancipation came later with the transformation of President Lincoln through the caldron of war).

For Stephen Douglas the approaching 1860 election meant vindication for his support of popular sovereignty, and reward for his faithful political service. And Douglas was no political hack. He fully understood the solvency of the Union lay in the delicate art of sectional balance, and his ascendancy to the White House as a Democrat would go a long way to placate the Southern hotheads. But this Illinois Senator failed, once again, to fully comprehend the temper of the nation, or of his own party. The era of seeking middle ground had passed—America’s course had been set toward industrial modernity with no place for an antiquated, barbaric labor system.

Charleston, South Carolina, was selected as the site of the 1860 Democratic convention. Chaos immediately broke loose on the convention floor. While Southern Democrats demanded strict, precise language guaranteeing the extension of slavery into the territories, Northern Democrats and those from California and Oregon pushed for Douglas’ popular sovereignty. This tense deadlock forced the latter faction to walk out and reconvene in Baltimore where party business could function.

Southern Democrats moved on without Douglas or his faction. In a separate, Richmond, Virginia convention, Southern Democrats proceeded to nominate Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.

Back in Baltimore, Senator Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local voters determining the western migration of slavery. Meanwhile, the Democrats in Richmond took a step further, adding the absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground had vanished.

Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks with both Douglas supporters, and the Richmond faction. Calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party,” this coalition nominated John Bell of Tennessee.

So what can we make of this 1860 fiasco today, in 2016? If I could attempt a bit of divination I would suggest that the political party that can present the most united front will prevail in the general election. If current Republican candidates continue to employ such wide-ranging, and scorching tones to their rhetoric, and stubbornly defend the innocence of their loose talk, the party may run head long into oblivion, as did the Democrats of 1860. If the roaring factions, currently represented by each GOP aspirant goes too far, the fabric of unity will shred, crippling the Republican’s ability to field serious candidates in the future.

Looking at the past as prelude much is at stake for the unity of the GOP. In 1860 party divisions nearly destroyed the Democrats, propelling the nation into a bloody civil war. And though Republicans at that time elected our greatest Chief Executive, Abraham Lincoln, the Democrats suffered for decades, marginalized as the party of rebellion. And even the best lessons left by the past are still forgotten in the heat of passion, by those who know better. (The Democrats shattered their party unity once again a hundred years later, splintered by the Vietnam War.) This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s turbulent Republican Party.

Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected their national party, certain it no longer represented them, and ultimately silenced the party of Jefferson and Jackson for decades. The lesson is clear for today’s Republicans. By tolerating demagoguery, extremism, and reckless fear-mongering in their field of contenders, the RNC may indeed face a similar demise.

Though it is true that no party can be all things to all citizens, malignant splinter groups should not run away with the party.

The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to field candidates of merit and substance.

We deserve leaders worth following.

As Senator Stephen Douglas refused to recognize that the political skies were falling around him, and his party, the modern Republican Party must not.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight a two-part memoir. Available on Kindle

Reading Tea Leaves

Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision.

Abraham Lincoln

From 1790 to now, American midterm elections have functioned as an effective gauge of public opinion. 

Despite southern secession, and the subsequent war of rebellion, President Lincoln viewed national elections as the indispensable foundation of a free government. There were dissenting voices calling for cancellation of the 1862 midterms due to the war, but Lincoln did not hold to that. 

After two years in office, Lincoln needed to know where he stood with the people. The Republican Party kept majorities in Congress, but a significant shift among unhappy voters surfaced. 

Democrats (those still in the Union) picked up 27 seats in the House. Though the Senate did remain in Republican hands, Lincoln understood the first two years of war had cost him plenty. Bloody defeats on the field of battle at Bull Run, the Peninsular Campaign, plus the massive casualties at Antietam had cost his administration.

In the Twentieth Century, the bi-election in 1934 delivered a powerful message of support to Franklin Roosevelt and his administration. Not only did the public approve of his New Deal, they added nine more members to the House majority, and an additional nine to the Senate. Clearly Roosevelt’s economic measures had grown in popularity across the stricken nation. Conversely, by 1938, Democrats lost 72 House seats with 81 gains for the GOP.  FDR took those results to heart changing course on some of his policies.

Harry Truman, FDR’s successor inherited a more divided America. The Democrats had enjoyed nearly fourteen years in power, but Truman’s presidency faced a shifting change. In the midterm election of 1946 the GOP secured majorities in both the House and the Senate. Fifty-five seats changed hands in the lower chamber, and seated twelve more in the Senate. The public did not view Harry Truman in the same light as his predecessor.

There are other illustrative bi-elections to examine. For example, 1982, where the Democrats picked up 26 seats in the House, and seven in the Senate after two years of the Reagan Administration. And in 1994 Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” where the GOP picked up 54 House seats, and eights seats in the Senate. With that majority, Republicans worked to undermine the Clinton Administration. 

The midterms do act as a barometer of America’s political winds. A great deal is to be learned by analyzing voter turnout and the winners and losers. Political Parties can find where they stand with the people, and adjust accordingly.

In that light this last 2022 midterm spoke volumes as well. In a most unlikely scenario, where inflation and high gas prices, plus low poll numbers for our sitting president, the public rejected the GOP’s crazy MAGA’s. Yes a hand full of seats did shift the House, but barely. The former guy has clearly worn out his welcome, and voters have had enough of that sideshow. 

That he and his followers are oblivious to the temperament of the people makes no difference. The numbers don’t lie.

If this half-dozen, or so reelected extremists believe they have a mandate from the American people they are seriously mistaken. For next the two years the country will be forced to watch the same tiresome, noisy political antics they rejected at the polls.

You all are going to overplay your hands, and sink your party.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Newt Gingrich. He’s out of office and has time for your call.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Chumbley has also penned two historical plays, “Clay” on the life of statesman, Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an exploration of racism and slavery in America.

Broken

This was the situation in April, 1841. Newly inaugurated president, William Henry Harrison died after only a month in office. The 68-year-old Harrison apparently succumbed to pneumonia after delivering an exceptionally long inaugural address in foul weather. Harrison, the first Whig to win the presidency, was also the first chief executive to die in office, and the Constitutional protocol of succession had never before been exercised.

Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, moved quickly upon learning of the President’s demise. He located a judge to administer the oath of office, and moved into the White House. When members of Harrison’s cabinet informed Tyler they would take care of the daily business of governing, he cooly responded that they could either cooperate, or resign.

Tyler had been an odd choice for Vice President. The Whig Party had gelled during the Jackson administration, proposing financial and internal developments over sectionalism and states rights. The Whigs further found slavery not only inconsistent with liberty, but also an obstacle to the growth of a modern economy.

Foremost among the Whigs was the Party’s greatest voice, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay had first been a presidential candidate in 1824, and again in 1836. However, in 1840 when the Whigs met in Harrisburg, PA to nominate their candidate, Clay failed to gain the top spot, and then declined the offer of the vice-presidency. Clay later regretted his momentary pique.

Though John Tyler had been a Virginia Democrat, he had publicly broken with Andrew Jackson over Jackson’s misuse of presidential power. In particular, Tyler objected to Jackson’s threats against South Carolina in the Nullification Crisis, leading Tyler to forsake the Democrats, but not the philosophy of states’ rights, or the institution of slavery.

The Whigs decided that Tyler’s opposition to Jackson was good enough to offer him the second spot on the Whig ticket, and Tyler accepted. Then a month into his term, Harrison died, and this Southern Democrat, a wall-to-wall sectionalist assumed the presidency. 

From there, Whig policies quickly unraveled.

If the Whig’s aimed to realize their platform of national economic growth, their hopes died under President Tyler’s veto pen. Predictably, the Whig cabinet soon grew frustrated, then disgusted with presidential obstruction. Members began to resign. Only Secretary of State Daniel Webster hung on, as he was in the middle of boundary discussions with the British. Then he, too, submitted his resignation. Shortly after the cabinet fled, the Whigs formally expelled Tyler from the party.

To their credit the Whig leadership didn’t excuse Tyler, or defend his contrary actions. No one said ‘let Tyler be Tyler.’ They publicly broke and denounced the President’s antics, though the cost, for the Whigs, came due ten years later when they disbanded. 

Yet, the story doesn’t end with the demise of the Whigs, but begins anew with a stronger and more principled political movement. For, from the ashes came the birth of the Republican Party, much like a rising phoenix. And that party still exists today, for now. That is, if they haven’t already submerged their once decent name in the cesspool of Trumpism. 

*This post appeared in 2019. And now, in 2022, the GOP has formally forsaken all that was decent in the Republican Party. They now publicly support a coup attempt through silence and excuses, abandoning leadership of their party to propagandized fanatics.  

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January:Figure Eight,” “Clay,” a play chronicling the life of Senator Henry Clay, followed by another, “Wolf By The Ears,” a study of racism and slavery.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Earned Wall Space

Poking around the basement in my mom’s house I unearthed a framed black and white portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The picture had been in a stack with other effects from one set of grandparents or the other. Certain this pic would probably end up in a dumpster, I packed it in my suitcase and brought it home. Our 32nd President is on display among other WWII pieces I’ve collected over the years.

What was it about Roosevelt, and his times, that earned him wall space during the Depression and war years of the United States? Today the idea of commemorating a political leader with a  wall display seems laughable. 

So again, why did my grandparents include FDR in their home decor?

Admiration may be one reason. FDR appeared bigger than life. The man seemed to have it all, looks, money, and a pedigree that stemmed back to the early Dutch Patroons in America. His distant cousin, who also acted as his uncle-in-law, Theodore Roosevelt, still loomed large in American memory. That Franklin Roosevelt wished to serve his countrymen in a time of economic collapse felt assuring.

The laissez faire policies of previous administrations made common widespread fraud, especially on Wall Street.The 1920’s had been a heady time of speculation on the Dow, with banks making reckless loans on high risk investments. When the party came to a screeching halt in October of 1929, the sitting Republican President, Herbert Hoover, shouldered all the blame.

That fact raises another strength of President Roosevelt.The public trusted him. While autocracies generated “cults of personality,” Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler, this candidate earned his place promising America a “New Deal.” He assured the country they had not failed, the system had forsaken them, and as their new President he meant to correct those abuses.

The choice to hang Roosevelt’s portrait came from genuine respect. The people elected FDR because he meant to serve America. 

This President brought energy and purpose to the Executive Branch reaching Americans personally in their daily lives. New Deal legislation quickly translated into action with legions of new programs all designed to get folks working again. The public felt a connection to the White House that perhaps hadn’t existed before that time. Mail arrived in a vast volume, most requesting a “hand up,” not a hand out. The correspondence frequently mentioned that any financial help would be repaid. Repaid.

FDR brought electric light to rural America, and chatted with the folks via the radio in his Fireside Chats. Bridges, schools, and other large engineering projects connected the nation as never before. It’s a sure thing your town or city still bears an imprint of FDR’s time in office.

So it is with gratitude that I have placed Franklin Delano Roosevelt on my wall. After all, it’s a family tradition.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. Chumbley has also authored two historical plays: “Clay” on the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” concerning the evolution of racism and slavery in America.

gailchumbley@gmail.com