Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Now This Is Just Silly

I thought I might have been stretching things a bit when, in my previous post, I connected today's Republican cult of nastiness with party history stretching back to Nixon and even perhaps Joe McCarthy. But now an actual historian (Eric Rauchway at UC Davis) is claiming in this New Republic article that the GOP has been characterized by vicious demonization of its political opponents since its founding. Which means that, in this reading of history, even Lincoln was pretty much on a par with Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay. The heart of the argument:

The Republican Party began as a crusade against the enemy within, and it has never strayed far from its origins. The early Republicans deserve full marks for identifying and waging a war to expunge a real domestic threat to the United States--the institution of chattel slavery. Slaveholders really did constitute a mortal threat, not only to the United States, but to the cause of liberty generally, and Abraham Lincoln rightly identified the establishment of a racial caste of bonded labor as "one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove."

We less often remember that those mid-nineteenth-century Republicans found slavery only about as threatening as the possibility that marriage might occur among people other than just a man and a woman. The first Republican Party platform considered it the "imperative duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism--Polygamy, and Slavery."

This generous definition of enemies within became a staple of Republican rhetoric.
The rest of the article consists mainly of quotations from people like Garfield, Coolidge, and James G. Blaine (presidential candidate in 1884) that show the Republicans meanly dissing Democrats.

This strikes me as a mighty weak argument, not strengthened any by the fact that at one point the author actually resorts to quoting the words of a fictitious senator from Henry Adams's novel Democracy as evidence of Republican attitudes.

I really haven't thought a lot about my position on polygamy. But I do know that, in opposing slavery, Lincoln was not in any way behaving like a precursor of Joe McCarthy or Grover Norquist. And as for his rhetoric, where Rauchway claims to see a pattern going back to the very first Republicans of treating every political opponent not as "an American with legitimate if differing interests, but rather an enemy to be shunned," Lincoln actually addressed his opponents in the South this way:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
"Demonization of enemies"? No, if anything, "angelization."

It must be tough to be an American historian trying to come up with some new angle from which to view the much-pawed-over events and personalities of our national saga. But depicting Tom Delay as a lineal descendant of Lincoln? Please.

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