As Americans begin already to sicken of the 38th presidential contest between a Republican and a Democrat, a historical review of the first 37 is a delightful distraction. In two separate volumes, Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans by Lewis L. Gould and Party of the People: A History of the Democrats by Jules Witcover, Random House has provided such a history.
These books, ostensibly biographies of the two surviving political factions in America, are really pop historical chronicles of our nation’s unique process of electing our leaders. While both authors try valiantly to cover the numerous topsy-turvy off-year congressional elections, they both focus mainly on presidential campaigns.
Taken together, they are the transformative story of how the party of succession came to champion big, centralized government and, conversely, how the party that crushed states rights came to represent a renewed spirit of federalism.
Of the two, Whitcover has more fun with the Democrats than Lewis does with the GOP. Of course, he has more to work with. The Democrats have been around a lot longer (they are the oldest active political party in the world). And let’s face it, the Democrats have had a more piquant cast of characters than the Republicans.
Whitcover dedicates his detailed first chapter to the origins of the Party. He takes us back, further than the factional fights between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, to colonial times. “Long before the American Revolution, societal forces in the colonies had foreshadowed the existence of a two-party system,” he writes.
Poor, agrarian, Scotch-Irish immigrants and their offspring were America’s first class warriors in what would become the anti-Federalists, then the Republican Party, then the Democratic Republicans, and finally, the Democratic Party. That first class war pitted these farmers in the Piedmont region of Virginia and their Eastern Virginia and New England overlords.
Those overlords, loosely known as Federalists and embodied by the proto-industrialist Alexander Hamilton and the monarchist John Adams, sought to centralize power with almost all control of the economy in the hands of the federal government.
THE DEBATE OVER THE Constitution found these two factions at odds. The anti-Federalist opposed the Constitution as a “frail and worthless fabric” because they saw it as a violation of the principles for which we demanded independence from England.
The Federalists, of course, sought to write into the document as many clauses to protect their property and political superiority. Thus were the seeds of factional discord sewn in the U.S. From these disaffected anti-Federalists — who by-and-large lost their fight over the Constitution — sprouted the Republican (Democratic) Party.
The first two attempts to counter the party of Jefferson (and later Jackson) were failures. The Federalists died out shortly after John Adams lost his 1800 re-election campaign to Thomas Jefferson. The Whigs, too, petered out over their sectional ambivalence toward slavery. Several other fringe parties had little success.
From this fen emerged the Republican Party, held together by the moral sense that what Americans had done and allowed to be done to their countrymen of African descent was wrong and needed to be remedied. Sadly, Gould dedicates only a few scant pages to this story.
Both books hit their strides during the Gilded Age. At the time the fight was so bitter because the political stakes were so low. Then, as today, America was a 50-50 nation, more-or-less. Then, as today, candidates won the presidency with a majority of Electors, but not a majority of the popular vote (Rutherford B. Haynes, Benjamin Harrison). And then, as today, ad hominem hatred fueled the passions of the other side.
Indeed, post-Civil War sloganeering was personal and hateful and therefore great fun:
James G. Blaine
From the State of Maine
Where’s my pa?
Grover Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock. Republicans would chant this ditty everywhere he went. When he won, some cheeky supporter penned the response:
Gone to the White House
Ha ha ha
UNFORTUNATELY, BOTH AUTHORS are short on opprobrium toward the Democratic Party during the post-Civil War years. Lewis and Gould bemoan Republican “bloody shirt” campaigning, without ever really calling Democrats to task for bloodying the shirts in the first place. They both dismissively quote Oliver P. Morton of Indiana who said in 1866:
Every man who labored for rebellion in the field, who murdered Union prisoners with cruelty and starvation, who conspired to bring about civil war in the loyal states … calls himself a Democrat. … Every wolf in sheep’s clothing, who pretends to preach the gospel but proclaims the righteousness of man-selling and slavery; every one who shoots down negroes in the streets; burns negro school-houses and meeting-houses, and murders women and children by the light of their own flaming dwellings calls himself a Democrat.
Forget for a moment that Morton used some of the most powerful contemporary imagery available. Forget, too, that the speech was clearly designed to enflame partisan passion. The speech was also true.
And the “light of their own flaming dwellings” was provided by the Ku Klux Klan, the unofficial strong-arm of voter suppression for the Democratic Party throughout the Solid South. The Democratic Party has never been held adequately accountable for this shame, and both Lewis and Gould let the party get away with it again in their accounts.
Obvious biases like this one will annoy conservative readers at times. Another example: the Progressive Republicans were never more than a fraction of the faction even under the presidency of their hero Teddy Roosevelt. Yet Gould treats them as a fully accredited political movement.
History, the old saying goes, is written by the victors. In America, though, history is written by the liberals whether or not they won. And these two liberal historians have an uncanny way of washing away all context and perspective.
But most of us have gotten so used to it by now, we can read right past it and get to the good stuff. And there is a lot of good stuff. Gould gives us a great rendition of Republican life during the Age of the New Deal, when the GOP really never stood a chance. His concluding chapter is especially good and almost makes up for the lack of detail about the party’s founding. He also includes helpful suggestions for further reading which will keep partisan bookworms digging for months.
For his part, Witcover treats Democrat demi-gods like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman like the real, flawed humans they were. And his chapter on the hapless “Bryan Era” — as in, William Jennings Bryan — is second to none.
If you’re tired of this party calling that one a flip-flopper and that one calling this one a liar, pick up these two books and read them together. Learn how they got to dislike each other in the first place.
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