Interracial Sex and American Conservatism, from the Civil War Era to the Age of Trump

Interracial Sex and American Conservatism, from the Civil War Era to the Age of Trump

Gender and race are center stage in the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton, for instance, hopes to derail Donald Trump’s recent pivot to the center and his courting of African Americans by linking him to the white nationalist “alt-right” movement. The current election has thereby brought national attention to the Internet’s extreme right, white supremacist fringe. Alt-right conservatives, disowned by mainstream conservatives, have already achieved notoriety with an epithet applied to presidential contenders deemed weak on immigration and other issues dear to white supremacists. In the alt-right’s lexicon, unmanly “cuckservatives” like Jeb Bush cannot match Donald Trump hypermasculine nativism, misogyny, and braggadocio.[1]

The designation “cuckservative” casts the extreme right’s exasperation with GOP leadership in racial and gender terms. As a conservative critic of the alt-right defined the concept, “by supporting immigration reform, criminal justice reform, etc., a white conservative is therefore surrendering his honor and masculinity (and it won’t be long before his women folk are compromised, as well!). A cuckservative is, therefore, a race traitor.”[2] These men fail as conservatives and as white men. They sabotage white racial interests, and the fact that they are cuckolded in the process suggests sexual submission to people of color. For the alt-right, yielding the white race’s political interests is tantamount to imperiling white womanhood through interracial sex. White supremacists in the Civil War era also castigated lukewarm conservatives who defected to the antislavery cause as race traitors. To protect the purity of the white body politic, conservative Democrats compared switching parties and supporting antislavery measures to encouraging interracial sex.

Democrats in the antebellum period routinely called Republicans the “Black” Republican party. A California Democrat invoked racial amalgamation when he disparaged “fusion with the Blacks” in 1859. The offspring of “fusion” with “Black” Republicans was the political equivalent of mulattoes. Political mixing portended actual racial amalgamation. The political coalitions emerging out of the 1850s partisan realignment were described as “Speckled,” “spotted,” and “the mottled tribe.” Their supporters voted the “hybrid” or “amalgamation” tickets. Virginia Democrat Henry Wise accused the Know-Nothing party of being tied to abolitionism and argued that it would siphon away supporters and split the conservative vote. Their 1856 electoral ticket was, accordingly, “a mongrel ticket—that the offspring of it is […] a mulatto, or […] a Mulungeon!” with “Mulungeon” referring to communities of free people of color of European, African, and Native American ancestry.[3]

Democrats pointed to antislavery political meetings as sites of such illicit sexuality. The antislavery movement’s alleged interracial membership represented the racially mixed society they supposedly desired. Democrats fretted over meetings which made no “distinction of sex, color, sect, or party.” Horace Greeley was charged with having “assisted at public meetings of blacks and whites in the city of New York, where both God and the Constitution have been reviled” and with supporting “free love.”[4]

Political cartoons portrayed the 1856 and 1860 Republican presidential candidates pandering to diverse coalitions of male and female, black and white reformers (see figs. 1 and 2). In this 1856 cartoon, a white woman is depicted inviting John C. Frémont to “our Free Love association, where the shackles of marriage are not tolerated & perfect freedom exist [sic] in love matters.” Playing on the candidate’s name, she tempts, “you will, be sure to Enjoy yourself for we are all Freemounters.” The message behind the placement of this scandalous woman next to a stereotyped African American man demanding black racial supremacy would not have been lost on Democrats.

Democratic political cartoon showing “fanatics” making demands of a compliant John C. Frémont, the 1856 Republican presidential candidate. Source: “The Great Republican Reform Party, Calling on Their Candidate” (New York, NY: [Nathaniel Currier], [1856]), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Democratic political cartoon showing “fanatics” making demands of a compliant John C. Frémont, the 1856 Republican presidential candidate. From “The Great Republican Reform Party, Calling on Their Candidate” (New York, NY: [Nathaniel Currier], [1856]), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Conservative Whigs used similar appeals as they lost members to the antislavery cause. In 1852 critical Whigs lambasted antislavery Whig William H. Seward for hosting a “motley crowd of men and women, white and black” at his home. “Brothers in breeches and sisters in Bloomers, in part—have been feted, entertained, welcomed, shaken hands with, if not embraced, by” Seward. This “miserable and degrading exhibition” was but a forecast of what would happen to the republic should antislavery fanatics triumph.[5]

Figure 2. Democratic political cartoon mocking the fanatics supporting Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Horace Greeley is carrying Lincoln. Source: “The Republican Party Going to the Right House” ([New York, NY]: Currier and Ives, [c. 1860]), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Democratic political cartoon mocking the fanatics supporting Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Horace Greeley is carrying Lincoln. From “The Republican Party Going to the Right House” ([New York, NY]: Currier and Ives, [c. 1860]), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Just as modern “cuckservatives” supposedly take pleasure in seeing white women sexually violated, those conservatives who chose to follow Frémont or Seward endangered white womanhood. These men further emasculated themselves by indulging their own illicit sexuality. Conservatives attacked those who entered the Republican and Know-Nothing parties as engaging in same-sex relations. In 1855, Henry Wise contended that southern Know-Nothings secretly cavorted with northern abolitionists “behind the curtain.” “These gentlemen,” he imagined, “shake hands and honey-fuggle with one another. [Much laughter.] This is what is called conservatism.” Pennsylvanian James Buchanan, likewise, used sexually suggestive language in reporting that “the Black Republicans & Know nothings are coquetting with each other,— alternately abusing & coaxing.” “In some dark and hidden recess,” warned a Georgia Democrat, “Abolition and Know-nothingism exchanged the kiss of peace and brotherly affection.”[6]

Conservative white supremacists, however, did not monopolize metaphors of transgressive sexuality and deficient manhood. Antislavery Americans, in turn, denounced northern conservatives for unmanly slavishness to the Slave Power. Republicans and abolitionists regularly indicted the South as “the slave driver’s harem” and charged northern Doughfaces with enabling coercive interracial sex in the South. Americans across the political spectrum played on anxieties over racial amalgamation, testifying to the power of such rhetoric in the Civil War era.[7]

Still, the ubiquity of the rhetoric among nineteenth-century conservatives and its endurance on the fringes of today’s Right reveal that American conservatism has not simply sought to preserve a political and economic regime but has hoped to sanctify an exclusionary racial and gender order, an intrinsic component of conservatism that has emerged starkly in the fraught racial atmosphere of the Age of Trump.

 

[1] Gabriel Debenedetti, “Clinton Aims to Deny Trump Pass at Normalcy,” Politico, Aug. 25, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/08/hillary-clinton-right-trump-gop-227391; Jeet Heer, “Conservatives are Holding a Conversation about Race,” New Republic, July 26, 2015, https://newrepublic.com/article/122372/conservatives-are-holding-conversation-about-race.

[2] Matt K. Lewis, “What’s Behind the ‘Cuckservative’ Slur? (NSFW),” The Daily Caller, July 23, 2015, http://dailycaller.com/2015/07/23/whats-behind-the-cuckservative-slur-nsfw/.

[3] C. S. Whitney to Stephen A. Douglas, San Francisco, September 12, 1859, Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library, Illinois; F. P. Stark to John G. Davis, New Berry, Greene Co., IN, July 27, 1854, John G. Davis Papers (microfilm edition), Manuscript and Visual Collections Department, William Henry Smith Memorial Library, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis; (Indianapolis) Indiana Daily State Sentinel, July 18, 1854; John S. Armstrong to Stephen A. Douglas, Mission, Lasall [sic] County, July 14, 1858, Douglas Papers; James P. Hambleton, ed., A Biographical Sketch of Henry A. Wise, with a History of the Political Campaign in Virginia in 1855…(Richmond: J. W. Randolph, 1856), 165-6; James Buchanan, His Doctrines and Policy as Exhibited by Himself and Friends (New York: Greeley and McElrath, Tribune Office, [1856]), 14.

[4] Infidelity and Abolitionism: An Open Letter to the Friends of Religion, Morality, and the American Union (n.p., [1856]), 3, 5.

[5] Whig Testimony against the Election of General Scott to the Presidency of the U. S….(n.p.: C. Alexander, Printer, [1852]), 7-8.

[6] Religious Liberty. Equality of Civil Rights among Native and Naturalized Citizens. The Virginia Campaign of 1855. Governor Wise’s Letter on Know-Nothingism, and His Speech at Alexandria (n.p., [1855]), 58-9; Buchanan to Henry A. Wise, Wheatland, near Lancaster, PA, September 13, 1856, Wise Family Papers, 1777-1973, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond; Speeches of Messrs. Weller, Orr, Lane, and Cobb, Delivered in Phœnix and Depot Halls, Concord, N. H., at a Mass Meeting of the Democratic Party of Merrimac County (n.p., [1856?]), 26.

[7] Nebraska: A Poem, Personal and Political (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1854), 25.

Joshua A. Lynn

Joshua A. Lynn is a Postdoctoral Associate at the Yale Center for the Study of Representative Institutions and Lecturer in the Department of History at Yale University. He previously taught at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he completed his PhD. Josh studies nineteenth-century culture and politics. He is revising a book manuscript on the Democratic party’s reinvention of American conservatism in the 1850s. Josh’s work investigates the intersection of political thought with cultural constructions of race, gender, sexuality, and the body. His article on James Buchanan’s sexuality and the election of 1856 is forthcoming in The Journal of the Civil War Era. He can be contacted at joshua.lynn@yale.edu.

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