Rather than focus on this week’s Republican Convention, I’d rather focus on those moments in the history of the Republican Party that all Americans, regardless of their political persuasion, can appreciate.
One of the brightest moments in Republican Party history was the period during the Civil War and the Reconstruction era when Radical Republicans were passing laws that protected the rights of the newly freed African American population. The Radical Republican legislative achievements led to a brief period where African Americans enjoyed equal rights, until a white Southern backlash took away those rights.
Among the Radical Republicans of this time were Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens, Massachussetts Senator Charles Sumner, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Secretary of State William Seward. During the Civil War, the Radical Republicans pushed for the abolition of slavery.
Both during and after the Civil War, the Radical Republicans worked on legislation that would grant full and equal rights to African Americans. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman placed Special Field Orders No. 15 that would’ve granted freed slaves 40 acres and a mule to give them economic independence, getting the idea from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Radical Republican abolitionists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens. President Andrew Johnson, however, reversed and annulled Special Field Orders No. 15.
The Radical Republicans passed the Thirteenth Amendment (which abolished slavery), the Fourteenth Amendment (which made all freed slaves American citizens with the full rights of citizenship), the Fifteenth Amendment (which granted all citizens the right to vote regardless of race), and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (which provided for equal treatment in public accommodations and public transportation and prohibiting exclusion from jury service). These laws led to a brief period where the black community had equal legal rights, though they still faced social discrimination.
These laws led to a period where many black leaders were voted into political office. Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass became a lifelong Republican because of the Radical Republican efforts to protect African American rights. A few years ago I read Philip Dray’s wonderful book “Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen” that talked about the black Congressmen like Robert Smalls, Robert Brown Elliott, and Blanche K. Bruce who advocated for reforms such as public education, equal rights, land distribution, and the suppression of the Ku Klux Klan. All of them were Republicans.
Sadly, this brief period of multiracial democracy ended when white Southern backlash took away those rights and imposed Jim Crow laws throughout the Southern states. I noticed that whichever political party is dominated by Southern whites tends to be the party that struggles the most with white backlash politics, When the Democratic Party was dominated by Southern white segregationists, the generally progressive policies of Democratic Presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt were tainted by racist compromises with these Southern segregationists. When Lyndon Johnson signed his great Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s, these segregationist Democrats switched to the Republican Party. Since that time, the conservative policies of Republican Presidents like Nixon, Reagan, and the two Bushes have been plagued with similar racist compromises to appeal to Southern Republicans like Jesse Helms and Jeff Sessions.
Here is a scene from Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln” where Abraham Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens debate about the best way to fight for social progress. Stevens argued for a radical politics that pushed for full equality regardless of public sentiment. Lincoln argued for a more politically pragmatic course, pushing for more incremental reforms that did not go too far ahead of public sentiment and working to persuade public opinion to accept more changes.