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.