New Birth of Freedom

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We all know the story.

On a mild April night, President and Mary Lincoln attended the final performance of the popular comedy, “Our American Cousin,” at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln, by all accounts was in a light, blissful mood. A week earlier Confederate forces commanded by Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, and except for some dust ups, the Civil War had ceased. We also know that John Wilkes Booth, and fellow conspirators plotted to kill, not only the President, but the whole order of presidential succession; Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, etc . . . but only Booth followed through with that night’s violence.

Andrew Johnson took office in a whirlwind of shifting circumstances. In the year up to President Lincoln’s death a notable power struggle had taken shape between the President and Congress. America had never before endured a civil war, and the path to reunion had never been trod. As President, Lincoln believed the power to restore the Union lay in the executive branch—through presidential pardon. But an emerging faction in the Republican Party, called the Radicals saw the issue differently. These men operated from the premise that the Confederate States had indeed left the Union—committed political suicide at secession—and had to petition Congress for readmission. (Congress approves statehood). And this new president, Andrew Johnson, was determined to follow through with Lincoln’s policies.

Unfortunately, Johnson was by temperament, nothing like Abraham Lincoln. Where Lincoln had a capacity to understand the views of his opponents, and utilize humor and political savvy, Johnson could not. Of prickly character, Andrew Johnson entered the White House possessed by deeply-held rancor against both the South’s Planter Class, and newly freed blacks. This new Chief Executive intended to restore the Union through the use of pardons, then govern through his strict interpretation of the Constitution. Johnson had no use for Radical Republicans, nor their extreme pieces of legislation. Every bill passed through the House and Senate found a veto waiting at Johnson’s desk, including the 1866 Civil Rights Act, and the adoption of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Congress promptly overrode Johnson’s vetoes.

Reconstruction began with a vicious power struggle. And much of the tumult came from Andrew Johnson’s inability to grasp the transformation Civil War had brought to America. While the new president aimed to keep government limited, the Radicals and their supporters knew the bloody struggle had to mean something more—America had fundamentally changed. Nearly 700,000 dead, the emancipation of slavery, the murder of Father Abraham, and a “New birth of Freedom” had heralded an earthquake of change.

But Johnson was blind to this reality, seeing only an overreaching Congress, (Tenure of Office Act) and Constitutional amendments that had gone too far. And so it was a rigid and stubborn Andrew Johnson who eventually found himself impeached by a fed-up House of Representatives. Johnson holding on to his broken presidency by a single Senate vote.

 

There have been other eras in America’s past that fomented rapid changes. The Revolution to the Constitutional period, the First World War into American isolation, the Vietnam War stirring up protest and social change. All concluding with reactionary presidencies. No less occurred with the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

2008 to 2016 witnessed social change of a new order. Administered by America’s first African-American President, Barack Obama, liberty reached further, bringing about change where once-closeted American’s hid. Gay marriage became the law of the land, upheld by the Supreme Court in Obergefell V Hodges. The trans community found their champion in Bruce, now Caitlin Jenner. Health care became available to those caught in relentless poverty and preexisting conditions. Undocumented young people were transformed into “Dreamers.” And though he didn’t take the Right’s guns, President Obama did successfully direct the mission to nab Osama bin Laden, America’s most wanted man.

So when former students began sending horrified texts to me, their old history teacher on election night, 2016, I gave the only explanation history provided. The Obama years introduced change to America that reactionaries could not stomach. (And yes, racism is certainly a large part of the equation).

So now we deal with a Donald Trump presidency. But, Mr. Trump would be wise to acknowledge and accept what has transpired in the last eight years. The thing about expanding the ‘blessings of liberty,’ is no one is willing to give them back. When push comes to shove, the new president may find himself facing the fate of Andrew Johnson.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also on Amazon.

I Want My GOP

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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 nation. 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, but 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.” He was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to solve. And it was here, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded his party and his career.

The new Republican Party had formed six years earlier in Wisconsin, established on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party grew fast. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified party maintained that free labor was an integral component of free market capitalism. The presence of slavery in growing regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future economic 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 in the fire 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, exact language guaranteeing the extension of slavery in 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 move forward.

Southern Democrats moved on as well. In a separate Richmond, Virginia convention Southern Democrats nominated Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.

In Baltimore, Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local elections determining the western expansion of slavery. Bolting Democrats in Richmond went further adding an absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground vanished.

Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party.” I’m not sure what they stood for, but clearly it wasn’t support for Douglas or Breckinridge. Convening in Baltimore as well, in May of 1860, 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, so loudly 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 Democratic Party, and launched 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, social unrest, and racial strife. This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s splintering Republican Party.

Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected the 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. Now its true that no party can be all things to all citizens, nor should hardened splinter groups run away with the party.

The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to provide 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, a memoir. Available on Kindle