Tag Archives: Republicans

Editor’s Note: June 2017 Issue

The essays in this issue seek to reopen debates on topics central to our understanding of Civil War causes and the administration of the war, namely, tariffs, states’ rights, and Confederate draft exemption. Another essay revisits an important freedom suit that stood ominously in the background as the Dred Scott case was argued. In each, the author pays careful attention to the words and actions of legislators—and litigators—as they sought to respond to local needs while navigating a national crisis. There are all sorts of surprises here.

The issue opens with Earl Hess’s Tom Watson Brown acceptance speech. Hess issues a call to action for scholars to continue to find ways to revitalize military history by refusing to limit ourselves to four years and by continuing to internationalize the field. Hess also encourages scholars to take on the smallest aspects of military history, for in them we can illuminate larger issues in the history of war—something that Hess did with great effect in his Watson Brown Prize–winning book, Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness.

Daniel Peart’s essay reveals the fierce politicking at work as Congress deliberated the 1846 tariff. Rather than following their party, congressmen operated on a diverse set of interests, including the demands of their constituents and their personal principles. Peart reminds us of the importance of paying attention to agency and contingency within the party system as he charts the tariff’s unlikely passage, in a Democratic Senate, after an eleventh-hour resignation of a principled Democrat. Peart shows us that the period’s interminable tariff debates need not be narcolepsy-inducing but rather can offer historians a fresh perspective on antebellum politics.

Sarah Gronningsater tells the story of the freedom suit that, had it arrived at the Taney court, had the potential of bringing slavery into states that had long ago prohibited it. The case hinged on whether a Virginia couple—Jonathan and Juliet Lemmon—retained ownership of their slaves when they arrived in New York, where they prepared to board a steamer to New Orleans. Once there, a local black activist—Louis Napoleon—launched a freedom suit on the slaves’ behalf, one that, in the wake of Dred Scott, had the potential of receiving a ruling sympathetic to slave owners demanding an absolute right of safe transit for their slave property. Revisiting the 1852 Lemmon case allows Gronningsater to explore how black laborers used the legal process in the North to force the nation to debate the legal limits of slavery.

States’ rights, Michael E. Woods tells us, was an issue that northern Republicans felt keenly. Indeed, he argues that in the 1850s Republicans rediscovered and claimed “an alternate states’ rights tradition” and refined it into a powerful antislavery weapon, criticizing federal slavery policy. Republicans, Woods insists, were the real antebellum proponents of states’ rights, adhering closely to eighteenth-century precedents intended to protect civil liberties.

John Sacher reconsiders the controversial Confederate draft exemption called the “twenty-negro” law.” Popular resentment of the law, he argues, often focused on those who abused it, and, in any case, very few men were exempted for this reason. Stressing popular demands for protection from slave rebellion, Sacher refers to the law as an “overseer law” and examines how Confederate congressmen revised it in response to criticism. Sacher argues that rather than a regressive measure that fell heavily on the shoulders of the poor, the law was shaped to respond to their needs.

William Carrigan’s review essay on lynching rounds out this issue. Carrigan surveys recent scholarship expanding our perspective on lynching to include understudied groups—such as Native Americans and Chinese, Italian, and other immigrants—and new approaches, such as global and transnational perspectives. He finds that the Civil War era was a critical turning point in the history of American lynching, a point that has been missed in the scholarship that focuses on the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Historians have much to learn by situating the study of lynching in the history of mob violence, beginning in the antebellum period.

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The GOP’s Civil War Over Trade Is Nothing New

According to the Financial Times, the Trump White House is fighting a civil war over trade.[1] Trump’s ultra-nationalist “America First” program does not sit well with Republican free traders. Why? Because the program contains a variety of protectionist weapons, including retaliatory tariffs against the country’s largest trading partners, dismantling NAFTA, withdrawal from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and taking potshots at the World Trade Organization (WTO). In justifying his protectionism, Trump has harkened back to the ideas and policies of the Civil War era. “Listen to this,” Trump said last June. “The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, warned that, quote ‘the abandonment of the protective policy by American government will produce want and ruin among our people.’ He understood it much better than our current politicians, that’s why he was Abraham Lincoln, I guess.”[2] Although it ignores the myriad ways in which the global economy has changed between then and now, Trump’s drawing upon the Republican Party’s protectionist past is illustrative of the long fight between economic cosmopolitanism and economic nationalism that helped define Civil War Era party politics and foreign relations.

Trade was a divisive issue within the GOP from its founding in the 1850s. While the party’s broad adherence to the antislavery mantra “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” at first hid this ideological conflict between economic nationalism and economic cosmopolitanism, the internal war over trade would end up reshaping and redefining the Republican Party by the early 1880s. The Republican majority, including Abraham Lincoln, was wedded to the Whig-protectionist “American System” of economic nationalism. But, overlooked until recently, the fledgling party also contained a vocal minority of free traders: a regular “who’s who” of radical northern abolitionists.[3]

This minority of Republican abolitionist free traders–most notably Joshua Leavitt, Henry Ward Beecher, Edward Atkinson, William Cullen Bryant, Charles Sumner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Lloyd Garrison–did not adhere to Jeffersonianism, however, which had become tied to a defense of Southern slavery. Rather, they subscribed to the mid-century, British-born free trade ideology called “Cobdenism” (aka the Manchester School), named after the Victorian British “apostle of free trade” Richard Cobden, a staunch abolitionist and leader of the mid-century international peace movement.[4] Building upon the international dimensions of David Ricardo and Adam Smith, Cobdenism entailed the belief that free trade and a non-interventionist foreign policy would lead to prosperity and peace the world over. Cobdenism was also closely associated with the Anglo-American abolitionist movement, believing “free men” and “free trade” were but two sides of the same coin.

In 1846 Cobden had led in the successful overthrow of the protectionist Corn Laws in England, ushering in nearly a century of British free trade.[5] That same year, Cobdenites on both sides of the Atlantic had further cause for celebration, when the United States also lowered its tariff (the 1846 Walker Tariff), signaling a transatlantic move toward trade liberalization that continued for another fifteen years.[6] Cobdenites claimed this shift toward freer trade had also helped avoid war with Britain over the Oregon boundary dispute. A “free trade tariff on both sides will settle the matter quickly,” William Cullen Bryant’s New York Evening Post had predicted in late January 1846, “and give us something better to do than fighting.”[7]

This 1846 cartoon from London’s humor magazine, Punch, depicts how free trade in grain would bring a peaceful settlement to the Oregon dispute, with Sir Robert Peel [left] pelting a militant President Polk [right] with “Free Corn.” Courtesy of the author.
But this brief American flirtation with freer trade came to a halt by the time Lincoln entered the White House in 1861. In that year, Republican protectionists got what they wanted. Thanks to the secession of various Southern states in late 1860 and early 1861, the Republican Party’s economic nationalist majority suddenly found itself with the congressional numbers to push through passage of the protectionist Morrill Tariff in March 1861, to the great dismay of the GOP’s Cobdenite minority—and to the great consternation of many in Free Trade England. The close timing of Southern secession and the tariff’s passage caused many in economically cosmopolitan Britain to think at first that the protective tariff’s passage had caused secession, when in fact it had been the other way around. This initial confusion gave rise to the great Civil War lie that the Morrill Tariff had sparked secession, still erroneously touted to this day by myriad neo-Confederate advocates of the Lost Cause. The tariff’s passage thus created serious problems for Anglo-American relations in the first years of the Civil War—and further alienated the Republican Party’s free trade minority.[8]

The rift between the GOP’s protectionist majority and its Cobdenite free trade minority grew even wider after 1865, with the end of the Civil War. With the slaves now freed, the antislavery cause no longer bound together Republican protectionists and free traders. On the one hand, the party’s majority of protectionists sought to establish the party as the economic nationalist defender of the American System; as a result, slogans like “America for Americans” and “Protection for the American Workingman” increasingly peppered post-war GOP parades and conventions. On the other hand, the GOP’s minority of cosmopolitan free traders sought to overthrow the party’s fast-developing, ultra-nationalist protectionist system; for them, freeing trade was a necessary prerequisite for American peace and prosperity, as well as the next step in the emancipation of mankind.

Bearing a strong resemblance to Trump’s “globalist” conspiracy theories today, the Republican protectionist majority became ever more paranoid about the mounting Cobdenite free trade agitation in the United States.[9] Although never finding a smoking gun, the GOP’s top protectionist ideologues were prone to charging that there was a transatlantic free trade conspiracy afoot to undermine American infant industries by dismantling American high tariff walls and thereby allowing in a deluge of cheaper British manufactured goods. As Republican Cobdenite Joshua Leavitt observed in 1869, “no man of prominence in America can support even a partial relaxation of the rigours of Protection without bringing upon himself the stigma of being a partisan, and probably a pensioner, of ‘British Free Trade.’”[10]

The GOP’s internal ideological conflict over trade reached a breaking point in 1872, much like last year when free traders in the Republican National Committee contemplated running a third-party ticket once Trump appeared the likely nominee.[11] In 1872, however, the re-nomination of the corruption-laden protectionist Ulysses S. Grant broke the Republican elephant’s back. Disgusted, Republican Cobdenites decided enough was enough, and ran their own independent ticket. They named themselves the Liberal Republican Party, “liberal” in the Civil War era referring to liberal economic policies like free trade. The attempt ended in dismal failure, however, when protectionist editor of the New York Tribune Horace Greeley hijacked the nomination proceedings, to the dismay of the splinter party’s free trade founders.[12]

In this cartoon, Thomas Nast mocks the New York Tribune’s editorial tactic of tying Cleveland to British free trade and Southern slavery in the lead up to the 1884 elections. Courtesy of HarpWeek.

The Republican Party’s free trade independents learned hard lessons from the debacle of 1872. So when the GOP nominated another corruption-laden protectionist candidate in 1884–the “Plumed Knight” James G. Blaine of Maine–those in favor of free trade decided instead to throw their support behind the reform-minded Democratic nominee, New York Governor Grover Cleveland, who seemed amenable to lowering US tariff walls. Their party treachery earned them the moniker “Mugwumps” and helped swing some close races in the northeast for Cleveland. Their defection also allowed the GOP to become the party of protectionism through and through, an ideological position that its rank and file would maintain until the Reagan Revolution. Trump’s “anti-globalist” nostalgia for Lincoln’s economic nationalism is therefore rather apt, heralding a return to the party’s paranoid protectionist roots. If the Republican Party’s Civil War era past is any guide, Trump’s protectionism might also herald another GOP civil war over trade, and the return of the Mugwumps.

[1] “White House Civil War Breaks Out Over Trade,” Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/badd42ce-05b8-11e7-ace0-1ce02ef0def9 (10 March 2017).

[2] “Read Donald Trump’s Speech on Trade,” Time, http://time.com/4386335/donald-trump-trade-speech-transcript/ (28 June 2016).

[3] Marc-William Palen, The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle Over Empire and Economic Globalization, 1846-1896 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); See also Marc-William Palen, “Free-Trade Ideology and Transatlantic Abolitionism: A Historiography” Journal of the History of Economic Thought 37, no. 2 (June 2015): 291-304.

[4] See, especially, Peter Cain, “Capitalism, War, and Internationalism in the Thought of Richard Cobden” British Journal of International Studies 5 no. 3 (October 1979): 229-247; David Nicholls, “Richard Cobden and the International Peace Congress Movement, 1848-1853” Journal of British Studies 30 no. 4 (October 1991): 351-376; Martin Ceadel, “Cobden and Peace,” in Anthony Howe and Simon Morgan, eds., Rethinking Nineteenth-Century Liberalism: Richard Cobden Bicentenary Essays (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006): 189-207.

[5] Anthony Howe, Free Trade and Liberal England, 1846-1946 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Frank Trentmann, Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[6] Scott C. James and David A. Lake, “The Second Face of Hegemony: Britain’s Repeal of the Corn Laws and the American Walker Tariff of 1846,” International Organization 43, no. 1 (January 1989): 1-29; Patrick J. McDonald, The Invisible Hand of Peace: Capitalism, The War Machine, and International Relations Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 141-155.

[7] New York Evening Post (12 January 1846).

[8] Marc-William Palen, “The Great Civil War Lie,” New York Times, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/05/the-great-civil-war-lie/ (5 June 2013); Palen, “Debunking the Civil War Tariff Myth,” Imperial & Global Forum, https://imperialglobalexeter.com/2015/03/02/debunking-the-civil-war-tariff-myth/ (2 March 2015); Palen, “The Civil War’s Forgotten Transatlantic Tariff Debate and the Confederacy’s Free Trade Diplomacy” Journal of the Civil War Era 3, no. 1 (March 2013): 35-61.

[9] “Globalism: A Far-Right Conspiracy Theory Buoyed by Trump,” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/us/politics/globalism-right-trump.html (14 November 2016).

[10] Joshua Leavitt, An Essay on the Best Way of Developing Improved Political and Commercial Relations Between Great Britain and the United States of America (London, 1869), 32-33.

[11] “Republican Party Could Split if Trump is Chosen,” BBC Radio 5, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03pwkgk (3 April 2016); “The GOP’s Nuclear Option to Stop Donald Trump: A Third-Party Candidate,” Daily Beast, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/04/01/the-gop-s-nuclear-option-to-stop-donald-trump-a-third-party-candidate.html (1 April 2016).

[12] See, for instance, Andrew L. Slap, The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).

Marc-William Palen

Marc-William Palen is a historian at the University of Exeter. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalization, 1846-1896 (Cambridge, 2016). He is also the editor of the history blog The Imperial & Global Forum, and co-director of History & Policy’s Global Economics and History Forum (King’s College, London). He can be reached at m.palen@exeter.ac.uk. You can follow him on Twitter @MWPalen.

Whither the Whigs? Donald Trump, the Know-Nothings, and the Politics of the 1850s

The historical curiosity of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Republican nomination has resulted in, among other things, a seeming endless litany of historical comparisons. As modern pundits, politicos, and historians have attempted to explain the success of Trump’s campaign, they have compared his candidacy to any number of historical precedents, ranging from Barry Goldwater and George Wallace in the 1960s, to Teddy Roosevelt and Huey Long, and, perhaps most frequently, Andrew Jackson.[i] Of course, Trump’s candidacy is also notable for the fractious impact it has had on the Republican Party, and that, too, has produced its own share of historical parallels. Predictions of a contested Republican nominating convention earlier this year, for example, invoked the stereotype of the supposedly corrupt party conventions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when wirepullers brokered nominations in smoke-filled back rooms. When that scenario failed to materialize, the divisive rhetoric of this summer’s Republican National Convention prompted several prominent historians and political scientists to rate it among the worst conventions ever, placing the 2016 RNC alongside such luminaries as the 1868 and 1968 Democratic National Conventions.[ii] (As a side note, however, it was disappointing that the 1860 DNC failed to make that list, as it is difficult to imagine a less successful convention than one that adjourned without a nominee.)

Some historians have compared the 2016 Republican National Convention to the Democratic National Convention that met in New York City in July 1868. Harper’s Weekly, July 7, 1868. Courtesy of HarpWeek.

Earlier this month, political commentator Rachel Maddow and the host of MSNBC’s nightly The Rachel Maddow Show offered an extended piece exploring the similarities between the current state of the Republican Party and the collapse of the Whig Party and the so-called “Second Party System” of Whigs and Democrats during the decade of the 1850s.[iii] To be sure, Maddow is by no means the first observer to compare the fortunes of today’s Republican Party with the fate of the Whigs. For that matter, neither is today’s political milieu the only historical moment when Americans have predicted the doom of a political party by hearkening back to the Whigs. Indeed, as the only major, national, political party in American history to disappear, over the years the Whigs have served, if nothing else, as political fodder for commentators to invoke any time a modern political party appears in a state of disarray.

Maddow’s piece is noteworthy, however, not only for her focus on the collapse of the Whigs and the Second Party System, but also her explicit, and at times even sophisticated, discussion of the link between the disintegration of the Whigs and the political nativism of the 1850s. That nativism produced the so-called Know-Nothing Party—an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic third party that experienced substantial electoral success in 1854 and 1855. In the editorial Maddow argues that, historically, the breakdown of America’s two-party system (in her words, “when normal politics collapses”) has allowed fringe voices to gain a mainstream audience, even if temporarily, thereby eclipsing “decent political discourse.” Thus, as Maddow tells it, in the context of the 1850s, the collapse of the Whigs created a political “wasteland,” which allowed the Know-Nothing Party to emerge and spread their nativistic message of intolerance, bigotry, and hatred. Maddow suggests that this provides a lesson for our contemporary election, as she claims a similar political message of intolerance, bigotry, and hatred has emerged, in part, “because the Republican Party was weak, and failing.”[iv]

The so-called Know-Nothing Party produced virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric. Its supporters believed German and Irish immigrants were disrupting American democracy, as depicted in this ca. 1850s political cartoon, likely penned by political cartoonist John H. Goater. Original held at the New York Public Library. The author thanks Tyler Anbinder for providing the location of the original cartoon, and Jason Stacy for help in tracing the cartoon’s origins, particularly in identifying its hitherto unknown artist.
The so-called Know-Nothing Party produced virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric. Its supporters believed German and Irish immigrants were disrupting American democracy, as depicted in this ca. 1850s political cartoon, likely penned by political cartoonist John H. Goater. Original held at the New York Public Library. The author thanks Tyler Anbinder for providing the location of the original cartoon, and Jason Stacy for help in tracing the cartoon’s origins, particularly in identifying its hitherto unknown artist.

While there certainly exist eerie parallels between the politics of the 1850s and some of the developments of the 2016 presidential election, Maddow has it slightly backwards. The Know-Nothing Party did not emerge, as she claims, only after the Whig Party collapsed, but rather the other way around. As Michael F. Holt, author of the (1,248 page) book on the Whig Party (and in the interest of full disclosure, my dissertation advisor) has pointed out elsewhere, it was precisely the meteoric rise of the Know-Nothings that served, in part, to finish off the Whigs (rather than the collapse of the Whigs producing the rise of the Know-Nothings).[v] At the very same moment when nativism was emerging primarily in Northern cities as a grassroots social and political movement, some Whig leaders had been openly courting the support of immigrant voters—particularly Catholics who had traditionally voted Democratic. In response, native-born white voters registered their disgust by seeking political outlets outside of the two major parties. In sum, the emergence of political nativism helped destabilize the two-party system, rather than the breakdown of party politics giving rise to political nativism, as Maddow claims. I would argue that the same is true today: Donald Trump has not emerged because the Republican Party is weak and failing, but the other way around. Much like his Know-Nothing forbears, Trump’s success stems from a grassroots appeal. It is that appeal which has in turn created the perception that the Republican Party may be failing, thus drawing comparisons to the Whigs.

Moreover, while the politics of the 1850s provides an intriguing comparison to our current political moment, any serious discussion of the collapse of the Second Party System has to account for the role that slavery played, and on that point, there is simply no modern parallel. As the Whig Party crumbled between 1852 and 1856, Northern outrage at the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act fueled the subsequent rise of the Republican Party. It was only those developments, combined with the Know-Nothings, which led to the displacement of the Whigs. Maddow does briefly mention slavery at the outset of her editorial, though she brushes over the disappearance of the Know-Nothings, which also stemmed largely from the disagreement between its Northern and Southern wings over the issue of slavery extension.[vi] In other words, Maddow is correct that there is a link between nativism and the disruption of politics in the 1850s (even as she slightly mischaracterizes that link), but the real story was slavery extension.

It is certainly possible that we are in the midst of some sort of extended political realignment, though I am not sure the 1850s and the death of the Whigs provides the best historical example for comparison. In the years immediately following the Civil War, political observers regularly offered predictions that both political parties would soon disappear, commenting repeatedly on “The Reorganization of Parties” and offering forecasts and explanations as to “Why the Republican Party is Breaking up” (there were plenty of similar predictions for the Democrats, as well).[vii] One cannot overstate just how ubiquitous these predictions were. The assumption was that Republicans were essentially an ad hoc coalition that had come together to end slavery and stop secession, while others argued that the Democrats might never overcome the stigma of secession and treason. Informing these predictions was also the belief of many Americans in the mid-nineteenth century that political parties were fundamentally impermanent organizations—as evidenced by the disappearance of major parties like the Federalists and Whigs, not to mention a host of third parties along the way. The decade that followed witnessed several third parties come and go and produced a significant amount of shifting across party lines. Yet, even as the politics of Reconstruction evolved and some voters and politicians switched parties, both the Republican and Democratic organizations remained intact. That, I would argue, provides a more relevant historical parallel. The Republican Party may emerge from this election in a modified form, but the past would suggest that it is unlikely that it will go the way of the Whigs.

If you have thoughts, comments, or questions for the author, please discuss your ideas or pose questions in the comments section below. We would love to hear from you!

[i] Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, “Why I Support Donald Trump: He’s The New Roosevelt,” Forbes, December 15, 2015 <http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2015/12/15/donald-trump-teddy-roosevelt/#4607493d349c>; Matthew Mason, “The Disturbing Parallels Between Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson,” History News Network, March 20, 2016 <http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/162259>; Steve Inskeep, “Donald Trump’s Secret? Channeling Andrew Jackson,” New York Times, February 17, 2016 <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/17/opinion/campaign-stops/donald-trumps-secret-channelling-andrew-jackson.html?_r=1>.

[ii] “The Worst Convention in U.S. History?” Politico Magazine, July 22, 2016 <http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/07/rnc-2016-worst-convention-historians-214091>.

[iii] “Trump anti-immigrant speech follows dark pattern of US history,” The Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC), September 1, 2016 <http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow/watch/trump-nativist-speech-follows-dark-us-pattern-755626563851>.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Michael F. Holt, “Are the Republicans Going the Way of the Whigs?” Sabato’s Crystal Ball, University of Virginia Center for Politics, March 10, 2016 <http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/going-the-way-of-the-whigs/>. See also Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 956–957.

[vi] On this point, see Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know-Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 162–193.

[vii] Baltimore Sun, August 31, 1865; Mount Vernon (Ohio) Banner, July 7, 1865.


Erik B. Alexander

Erik B. Alexander is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, where he teaches classes on American history, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and Abraham Lincoln. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. He was an Assistant Editor on volume 9 (1831) of the Papers of Andrew Jackson (University of Tennessee Press, 2013). He is currently finishing his first book manuscript, a study of Northern Democrats after the Civil War, titled Revolution Forestalled: Northern Democrats and the Politics of Reconstruction, 1865–1877. He can be reached at eralexa@siue.edu.