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Marion On February - 12 - 2010

Watching the Teabaggers ponce, preen and pontificate for the better part of last year, and ending with their recent convention, I’m always struck by the fact that they and their ilk have channeled Thomas Jefferson as their Founding Father icon. Jefferson has become their idol – from the armed idiot who carried the ‘Tree of Liberty’ banner, to those souls who like to parrot Jefferson’s other paradigm of ‘he who governs best, governs least.’

So you can imagine my surprise when I heard President Obama’s Snowmageddon speech earlier this month to the Democratic Party, when he reminded the audience that we were not only the party of FDR and the Kennedy brothers, but also the party of Jefferson.

That confused me.

Many years ago, I graduated from Mr Jefferson’s university – a member of the Bicentennial class, no less, and only the third graduating class to number women amongst its members. As one  is wont to do, when one is young and foolish, being young and foolish, I became associated, in an amorous sort of way with a young Alabaman law student, of the conservative ilk. (Picture Lindsey Graham with balls and you have an accurate picture of my beau.) I was a very Left-leaning Democrat and he was, what would be today, a dying breed of intelligent, intellectual Republican. Political arguments were common, but the make-up sex was good. (I can understand the ethos behind James Carville’s and Mary Matalin’s marriage, believe me).

After all these years, my own marriage and his subsequent marriage, divorce and military career, we’re still in touch; so when Obama uttered those words about the Democratic Party being the party of Jefferson, I consulted the oracle that is my friend Allen. I was under the impression that Jefferson was a Teabagger’s wet dream, I told him: Fond of minimalist government, writing the Kentucky Resolution, which framed States’ Rights and formed the basis of Secession that caused that minor conflagration of the mid-19th Century. Even that little snippet of ‘The Tree of Liberty, from time to time, needs watering with the blood of tyrants.’

All true, my friend assured me, but Jefferson, as well as being a bit of a political intriguer, himself, was also a political chameleon; and many of his later ideals closely resemble Democratic principles. In other words, Jefferson was a straddler, like our own state, Virginia, was described, during the early days of the country: neither Northern nor Southern (but eventually opting for the South).

I’ve recently begun reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln biography, “Team of Rivals.” Lincoln is one President, who was swiftly glossed over in my earliest elementary school history lessons, and – to a great degree – during high school as well. One of my earliest memories is the Centennial celebration of the beginning of the Civil War in 1961. (Notice that we celebrated the ‘beginning’ of the War, not the centennial of its end; by 1965, sociological changes were afoot in Virginia, in the form of civil rights and de-segregation, and besides, we lost the war – and that was glossed over too).

The sum total of my knowledge of Lincoln was:

– Abraham Lincoln was President at the time of Fort Sumter.

– Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.

– Abraham Lincoln was the first President to be assassinated.

– Oh, and … Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.

When I was in the Fifth Grade, my class made a field trip to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. I remember poking my head inside an old bookshop there and wrinkling my nose at the musty odor. I was only nine years old, but – so steeped in Civil War was the place, I reckoned that’s what the Civil War smelled like. To this day, if I smell damp mildew, I describe it as ‘smelling like the Civil War’ (which confuses my British husband, as his idea of the Civil War occurred two hundred years before mine).

I was raised in Mosby’s country. My great-great-grandfather’s youngest brother rode with him, was captured and executed by General Custer. When the East got word that Custer was killed at the Little Big Horn, my great-great-grandfather toasted Sitting Bull. Even if my Virginia-born-and-bred mother and my second generation immigrant father were Roosevelt-cum-Kennedy Democrats, the War Between the States was ingrained in my blood.

In order to avoid any discussion, in depth, of Abraham Lincoln’s philosophy and Presidential achievements, later on, my high school US history teacher sought to teach the class about the battles fought and the military history, good and bad.

So I never knew that much about Lincoln the man, much less, Lincoln the politician.

Oh, I knew about him being born in a log cabin, and doing his homework at a rough-hewn table by candlelight. I knew his mother died when he was nine and that her name was Nancy Hanks. I knew he split rails, read the law, and married a crazy woman (something he has in common with Todd Palin, Mr Bachmann and Dick Cheney’s son-in-law).

I’m not even a quarter of the way through the book (which is massive), and I’m learning something new every day. Like Lincoln was an arch pragmatist. I’d heard this before – how he really didn’t want to end slavery per se, just not see it extended into the newer territories of the United States, hoping it would die a natural death eventually in the South (much like Ron Paul still reckons), or that, in an effort to deflect the oncoming war and to keep the Union intact, he sought financial reimbursement to Southern slave-owners, in exchange for passing an amendment to ensure freedom for slaves. This proposal was overturned by the more radical part of his party in … guess what? … Congress.

This is not only a biography of Lincoln, it’s a biography, as well, of his team of rivals: Salmon P Chase, William Henry Seward and Edward Bates – all of whom, challenged Lincoln in the 1860 Presidential convention, and all of whom served in his Cabinet. But, more than all of those four men, combined, this book is actually a history of how the Republican Party was formed from the old Whig Party.

And this is the interesting part!

The end of the first quarter of the 19th Century saw universal suffrage – well, universal, as in all white males over the age of 21, as opposed to white males over the age of 21, educated to a certain standard and owning a certain amount of land and/or a certain amount of property to a certain value.

That’s right, Teabaggers … The Founding Fathers, whom you clasp to your bosom and profess to love second only to God, Himself, didn’t want your grubby, little Cracker hands anyplace near the helm of government. They were elitists, you see – educated at Harvard and William and Mary and founding universities like the University of Virginia. In fact, to paraphrase James Madison (my personal favourite of the bunch), he wrote the Constitution specifically to ensure that the riffraff of the country was kept well away from anything to do with governing. For all the wonderfully poetic justice of the First Amendment, the real message behind that to the hoi polloi was this: Sit down, shut up, and your betters will decide what’s best for you … So punk ONE for the notion that the United States was founded as a purely classless society. It wasn’t. It was framed and founded around the notion that the natural aristocracy would govern the lesser mortals, and these natural aristocrats were, to a man, secularists. And those lesser mortals only concerned the type of the white variety with a dangly bit hanging down between their legs. If you were a black person or a Native American or a white woman, forget it.

Real social mobility opened up in the 1820s, when any white male over the age of 21 was allowed suffrage. That opened up the power of the Democratic Party, with Andy Jackson the first ‘people’s President.’ General Jackson of the Battle of New Orleans fame, just an ordinary guy, self-educated, a man’s man, plain spoken, a guy just like any guy, someone you could have a beer or a fistfight with … kinda like …you know who …

For two decades after Jackson, with the occasional Whig, there followed a period of Democratic political domination. The Democrats were the party of the working, rural people … no different from today, on first glance. But then, a bit different. Their supporters were found in the mostly agrarian South, and they were either slave-holders or sympathetic to the system. The Whigs, on the other hand, who got weaker and weaker, were the traditional party of business interests and intellectual conservatives. In the 1850s, however, their Leftwing, Progressive branch broke off from the dying party, itself, and remolded themselves into the Republican Party, fiscally conservative, but socially liberal, advocating an abolition of slavery, amongst other things, and a very liberal social agenda.

It’s significant to note that in the decade preceding the Civil War, the Whigs produced the Republican Party, while the Democrats produced the mercifully short-lived Know-Nothings, who derided intellectual pursuit and virulently hated foreign immigration.

What stands out about Kearns Goodwin’s book is the significance of its title – that the three men listed above, were all ambitious, socially progressive experienced politicians, all educated and refined, who looked down on Lincoln, the President, as a man of little experience, but who were chosen by him, after he defeated them in the Republican convention, to serve in various capacities in his Cabinet, where they all excelled. Well, I hold Seward responsible for a pretty reprehensible act – he bought Alaska at a bargain basement price from Russia, and we all know what came from that moment of madness …

Seward’s Folly, yes?

And so thing toddled along, after Lincoln’s assassination, with the Republican Party’s identification with big business and corporate development, spawning social philanthropists and cultural liberals from Teddy Roosevelt to Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney. Theh Democrats, always a big tent, produced the Northeastern quasi-socialist rich-men-for-a-poor-man’s-fight bruisers like Franklin Roosevelt and the Kennedys, the Southern populist Huey Long and people of the ilk of George Wallace. That part of the party of FDR were segregationists was an anomaly, and when a Southern Democratic President signed the Civil Rights bill, by 1972, the Dixiecrats embraced Richard Nixon’s Republican party.

After Johnson, the Democratic Party moved steadily to the Left, unelectable until people voted in the Carter Administration, as a demonstration of discontent with the Watergate Republicans. And then we had the seesaw of Ronald Reagan campaign for and win the hearts and minds of middle-class Democrats, by means of faux promises of economic wealth (delivered up in the form of a plastic card) and ‘Morning in America.’ When the Democrats came back again, for an 8-year stint, it was in the shape of a former Leftwing populist governor, who took a leaf out of the book of Henri IV of France, who sold his religious Protestant soul to become the Catholic King of France. Bill Clinton pulled the protest party of civil unrest, of hippy students waving banners in the face of National Guardsmen, of black radical civil rights’ protesters, into the late 20th Century with the compromising pragmatism of the Third Way. He governed from the centre, and he got two terms and left the US with a balanced budget.

During this time, the Republicans got dirtier through an astute dirty trickster with an appropriately reptilian name and embraced the Religious Right, not through devotion to the Christian theology, but to achieve power through the galvanisation of their base. If forcibly ramming God and the Christian way into every aspect of American life was the price to pay for a Republican hegemony, so be it. And whilst all this was going on, this courtship of the rural, agrarian South and Midwest, the Democrats, embracing socially progressive ideals of same-sex marriage and equal rights for LGBTs, as well as pro-Choice, gun control and an anti-War agenda, creeped closer to court big business and the corporations.

So what have I learned from one quarter of this book? Only that we now occupy the place and the same basic set of core values (that aren’t written on the palms of our hands) that the fledgling Republicans held at the beginning of the Civil War; and that the Republicans are now the intransigent, unbending, socially and intellectually backward agrarian Democrats of that same period, complete with the call for states’ rights to be dominant to the point of secession.

In learning that, I think I’ve sussed how the Democratic Party can wrest control of the situation at hand and squelch the GOP in its current form: We should declare ourselves the natural successors of Lincoln, proclaim ourselves the real Republicans, and brand Boehner, McConnell and co, secessionist Democrats.

Not only would that confuse them to no end, Sarah Palin would be struck dumb in consternation, Rush Limbaugh’s head would explode and Glenn Beck would decompensate.

Happy birthday, President Lincoln … from your natural children, the Democratic Party.

XX

23 Responses so far.

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  1. escribacat says:

    Once again, Marion, a brilliant bit of writing. I think you have hit on how Obama sees his own role as well, with his own “team of rivals.” There is another parallel — Lincoln’s appeasing suggestion to “buy off” the Southern slave-holders and Obama’s incessant attempts to include the Republicans and his willingness to let the insurance companies and banks “live” instead of offing them the way most of the rest of us would love to see. The book almost sounds like a biography of our current president.

  2. KQuark says:

    Marion I thoroughly enjoyed this article being a huge history buff myself.

    It’s you bring up you VA education because my wife grew up in the VA school system too and I grew up in NI. She’s a history buff as well but it’s amazing how different our US history curriculum was. She has a very similar experience to what you stated about learning little about Lincoln and of course the Civil War was considered the war of Northern aggression in the Old Dominion. Meanwhile in NJ we spent a whole semester on slavery, Lincoln and the civil war. We spent a half a semester on native Americans and my wife said they spent no time learning that part or US History.

    I think people also need to understand few of our greatest presidents were ideologies which is a fact lost on both sides of the political spectrum today.

    • Marion says:

      Where did your wife to to school? Ask her if she had a big thick Virginia history book for the 7th grade with pictures of well-fed slaves, dancing happily about, and a text that said that the slaves were happy with their lot and better off during slavery?

      I’ll bet she did.

      You look at Virginia now … you’re either very Left or low-hanging fruit. We have one very Progressive Senator, and one Blue Dog, who’s slapped about a bit by the senior guy. What I wouldn’t GIVE to see James Webb as Majority Leader. He’d simply take NO shit from the GOP. He knows them -- he used to be one, but came over from the Dark Side.

      • Khirad says:

        Oh yes, those. I’ve been told a few plantatiion museums still sell books with those same themes. That it really wasn’t that bad, and all.

        Ooh, James Webb. Now that’s a good suggestion. I wonder if others feel his old views are a liability. I sorta always thought of him as more moderate, but one thing is true -- he don’t take shit from no one.

      • KQuark says:

        She went school in Churchland and I’ll have to ask her about the text book. She often talks about the times her class went to Jefferson’s Plantation in Monticello. She said depending on the guide they had you heard very different accounts of his life.

    • Khirad says:

      Indeed, I was surprised I didn’t see “The War of Northern Aggression” or “War Between the States”.

      Fun fact: I have a second cousin in the textbook business in Georgia. Get past his Savannah drawl and gun-loving and he’s a bleeding heart liberal.

      Doesn’t have much to do with anything. Just sayin’, things have improved -- and Tucker Carlson can kiss my ass.

  3. PatsyT says:

    Marion, Great Article, Love the Title and all the pics. Bravo!

  4. Chernynkaya says:

    Marion, this was a wonderful post! It really made me remember what I DID learn in my school (public education in Los Angeles during the sixties was pretty liberal!)but only dimly remember. Thank you for this great lesson. And yes indeed-- the Reptilians of today bear NO RESEMBLANCE to the Party of Lincoln, nor even of the Party of Nixon!

    • PepeLepew says:

      Good point about Nixon. Nixon was a paranoid toad, but, looking at just his politics, to today’s Teabaggers, he would be a RINO.

      • Khirad says:

        I think in some respects, they’d even disavow Reagan today. But definitely. Nixon would be a pinko today by their standards. Talking to Communists, social programs…

  5. PepeLepew says:

    Great piece.

    I wonder how many Teabaggers also realize that a lot of the “Founding Fathers” were agnostics and atheists?

  6. Marion says:

    Thanks for your kind comments. After high school, I neglected my American history, in favour of Mediterranean Europe -- so I end up in England. Go figure. But in the same county where two other Virginia gals lie in the soil -- Pocahontas and Nancy Astor.

    It’s such a revelation re-reading U S History from this perspective and realising that there’s a lot our present day politicos could learn from their forebears. The early Republicans are simply unrecogniseable in their present form today.

    What’s even more interesting is that Hillary Clinton started out her adult life as a Republican, and Sarah Palin entered adulthoos as a fully paid-up Carter Democrat. Who’da thunk it?

  7. Khirad says:

    Indeed, I’ve often given thought to the morphing of the parties. One of the things I learned from your post were the Whigs being absorbed into the GOP. I guess our razz a year ago wasn’t that far off.

    I, too, have also been mulling over the cipher that is Jefferson. More than anything, these Founders should be seen as a product of the situation in which they found themselves (like occupation, and threat of Britain still looming large to be culminated in 1812).

    Jefferson seemed to have quite contradictory ideas seen through our modern lens. I always felt deep down that he’d be a Democrat; maybe a Green today. Whatever his view on the size of government, banks or federalism -- he wouldn’t be caught dead with such anti-intellectual fundies. After all, he cut out all parts of the Bible they abuse whilst saving the parts they neglect.

    But, that’s the thing about Jefferson. In the popular imagination he seems to be like a Rorschach. Someone both Liberals and Conservatives (and especially Libertarians) can see themselves in. I’ll let the historians sort out the complexities. One day I hope to get back to this, myself.

    • Marion says:

      Khirad, a line in one of the Python films always made me think of Jefferson: ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!’

      Jefferson was up to all sorts of political mischief -- Nixonian dirty tricks behind the scene, all orchestrated from the drawing room at Monticello. He cleverly orchestrated the tradition of Presidents only serving 2 terms, by nudging his colonial operatives to put the word out that George Washington was senile, secure that he would win the Presidence next time around. (He didn’t). He was Adams’s Vice-President (the loser always got that consolation prize -- can you imagine that today? John McCain as VP?), yet he threw Adams, his best friend, under the political pony-cart, by kicking up a stink about Alien and Sedition, to the extent that that law has never been invoked today -- about time it was!

      He literally invented political muck-raking, and then had the man he cultivated turn it on him (Sally Hemings, anyone?). I think the Repugs claim him for the small government idea, as well as being a States’ rights champion, but he changed his mind about both toward the end of his life, and certainly, when he was President.

      Jefferson was certainly an ‘everyman’ viewed through the hindsight lens of today.

      Madison was always my favourite Founding Father.

      • Khirad says:

        Ah, yes, come to think of it, he was quite the scoundrel. His and Hamilton’s exploits are quite infamous. And yes, even in Giamatti’s ‘Adams’ we got a view of Jefferson’s metamorphosis. Quite poignant, really. How many of these same anti-government folks scream when their party is in power (oops, I’m sorry, they’re “non-partisan”)?

        You’re gonna have to sell me on Madison and jog my memory on him.

        • Marion says:

          Madison had a very sexy mind. He wrote the Constitution, and if you read the main bit, it’s got all the answers. It even tells you how you can go about changing the whole thing.

          I’d pay money I didn’t have to see Bill Maher interview James Madison, especially since he likes to cherry-pick Madison’s quotes to serve his own purposes.

          Madison would show him what a REAL elitist is. And he wouldn’t tower above him in height, either.

  8. whatsthatsound says:

    Very, very good article. Really interesting, and I learned so much!

  9. choicelady says:

    Marion this is marvelous! Succinct history that illuminates as you go. Wow!

    I follow the threads through my own family history. One forebear (father’s side) was a founder of the Republican Party via the Ripon Society that gave rise to it in the late 1850s. That good man was a die-hard abolitionist and later went on to invent the first practical typewriter which he sold to Remington because inventing, not being rich, was his goal. Another (mother’s side) ran an underground railroad stop on Owen Lovejoy’s trail up out of Missouri through Illinois to the Great Lakes on to Canada. Both sides of the family were Republican until the Great Depresion at which point most of my mother’s family turned to FDR while my father’s side continued to embrace the failed hopes of Hoover et al. That part of the family still think Nixon was framed and Reagan is God. I have nothing at all to do with them.

    One of my heroes is Robert LaFollette the fighting Republican who wanted the party to be what it had been, a reformist party, and not what it was by the early 20th C., the mouthpiece for giant corporate interests. Needless to say, he lost. But he was certainly admirable.

    Today I still have hopes that the Dems will remember that they almost alone are responsible for clean air, clean water, the weekend, minimum wage, Social Security and Medicare, for Civil Rights, for union rights, for decent and safe working conditions, for good public transportation, for decent public education, for regulation of public goods such as utilities, for so many things we take for granted that keep our streets clean, our lives safer, our poorer families out of the gutter. We must be PROUD of that legacy! The Republicans indeed were and are elites who have the spoils and wish to keep them.

    What are Dems fearful about? Thomas Franks in “What’s the Matter with Kansas” notes that the Dems crashed when they lost touch with their roots. They did nothing for the working rural or urban working people, and we can actually thank Jimmy Carter for that. Many of us muttered in 1976 that he was really Republican Lite, and I think we were correct. When both parties desert the basics of what people need, but one of them taps into social fears (that great cartoon says it all!) then people WILL go with the one discussing social issues since neither is discussing the essential economic concerns.

    C’mon Dems -- GROW UP and GET A SPINE! The American electorate sent a message that they wanted change, not the same old same old. If the Dems cannot or will not deliver, then what will happen is that Dems who are disillusioned will sit it out.

    We the people deserve real reforms. We’ve lived with the Cold War foreign policy and the Reaganomics, neither of which works, for 40-60 years. We want our nation BACK. It’s WE, not the teabaggers, who understand that. The teabagger want the antebellum years back, and sorry, no can do. But there is no reason we can’t have the prosperity of 1945-73 coupled with the civil rights we so bravely won. Those are NOT incompatible goals. And only the Dems can make it right, but they have to remember THEIR history as a party of bold courage.

    I see real possibilities rumbling in DC -- now it’s up to us to keep the momentum. Come on home, Dems. We’re waiting with open arms.

    • PatsyT says:

      Watching the teabagger fight an imaginary enemy has been
      amusing but now, it’s getting old.
      This is where reality and facts can help out all the way around.
      Seriously Dems… the FACTS are on your side USE THEM !

  10. AdLib says:

    As with Cher, I’m coming back to savor this post in full (almost time for Vox Populi!) but I have to say, this is one of the best titles I have ever seen on The Planet!

  11. Chernynkaya says:

    Marion-- I am saving this for tomorrow, but I gotta say-- Great title!


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