The Republican Party: Defender of Black Equality

February being Black History Month, last week began a retrospective of blacks in America and the Republican Party. As noted, the Republican Party was formed in 1856 by anti-slavery members of the Whig and Free-Soil Democrat parties, for the express purpose of ending the evil of slavery in America. During this time, Democrats sought to protect slavery where it existed, and expand it into new U.S. territories. A Democrat-heavy Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford that blacks could never be U.S. citizens, and attempts to limit slavery were unconstitutional. A few years later, war broke out when slave-state Democrats declared secession from the Union and formed the Confederacy. More than 600,000 soldier deaths later the Union, battered, bloody, and exhausted, would remain intact, though heavily fractured.

It is difficult to overstate the viciousness with which the Democrats would defend the institution of slavery and the oppression of blacks. For example, in 1856, prior to the war, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts took to the floor of the Senate and railed against the institution of slavery and its protectors, at one point singling out pro-slavery Senator Andrew Butler for excoriation, saying “Senator Butler has chosen a mistress. I mean the harlot, slavery.” In retaliation, two days later Senator Preston Brooks, livid at the criticism, entered the Senate chamber and approached Sumner, who was working at his desk. Using his gold-tipped cane, Brooks began beating Sumner in the head, blow after crippling blow slamming into the poor man’s skull. Sumner was only spared from death by the men who heard the commotion and ran to Sumner’s defense, dragging Brooks away. Undaunted, four years later Sumner would deliver a historic anti-slavery speech entitled, “The Barbarism of Slavery”.

The diametrically opposed attitudes regarding the humanity of blacks were starkly contrasted by the opposing candidates for the presidency in 1860, Democrat Stephen Douglas, and Republican Abraham Lincoln. Douglas famously dehumanized the black man, stating “I do not regard the Negro as my equal, and positively deny that he is my brother, or any kin to me whatever…” As for Lincoln, who did carry the prevailing sentiment that the black man was not equal in certain endowments; nevertheless, he felt that “…there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.” This principle would be settled by a long and brutal war. Sojourner Truth, the renowned black abolitionist, would say of Lincoln “I never was treated by anyone with more kindness and cordiality than were shown to me by that great and good man.”

On March 3, 1865, the Republican Congress passed a law creating the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was an agency created to assist freed slaves in acclimating to their newfound freedom. This agency would coordinate medical aid, literacy and education efforts, and technical expertise for the former slaves.

Just five weeks later, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution forever ended slavery in the United States. The amendment passed with unanimous Republican support and opposition from nearly two-thirds of Democrats. A little more than two months later, U.S. troops would enter the city of Galveston, Texas, to enforce the abolition of slavery that had been declared in the Emancipation Proclamation, and forever ratified by the 13th Amendment. The commemoration of this day would become known as “Juneteeth”, and is still celebrated today. And though Democrats had literally fought to the death to keep blacks enslaved, that did not keep them from trying to take credit for the freedoms which blacks in America enjoy today. In 2004, Democrat National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe issued a statement in celebration of Juneteenth. He said, in part, “This Saturday, Democrats across America will celebrate the anniversary of Juneteenth, the country’s longest-running observance of the abolition of slavery. Juneteenth is a celebration of liberty…On that day, slavery was finally eradicated from our country’s shores and a new sense of hope had been achieved for the entire nation; 139 years after that historic day, the Democratic Party remains committed to fighting for equality…” Remains committed? Seriously? Your party was still fighting against civil rights for blacks, and rioting against desegregation a hundred years after Juneteenth. The Democrat Party still fights to keep blacks enslaved today, using poverty and poor education instead of shackles and chains.

In February of 1866, Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania (whose efforts were critical in securing passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments) introduced legislation which created the policy known as “forty acres and a mule”, granting every freed slave land and a mule on which to farm and become self-sufficient. Sadly, any hope of full implementation of this policy ended with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was succeeded by Democrat Andrew Johnson, who crushed the effort. In his annual address to Congress, Johnson declared that blacks have a more limited “capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices, they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.” Stevens was furious at Johnson’s effort to block assistance for freed blacks, and worked vigorously to have Johnson impeached. Though Stevens’ impeachment campaign failed by a single vote, Johnson was severely weakened politically, unable to accomplish much else for the remainder of his term, and soon replaced by Republican and former General Ulysses S. Grant.

Though most Americans are aware of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that the Republicans had already passed such an act nearly a century before. On April 9, 1866, Republicans passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, granting citizenship rights to former black slaves. Still president, Democrat Andrew Jackson refused to acknowledge any rights for blacks, and vetoed the bill. However, the Republicans were able to sustain a supermajority to override the veto, and blacks were conferred an array of civil rights previously denied to them by Democrats. The law granted “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property as is enjoyed by white citizens.” Though Democrat President Andrew Johnson refused to enforce the law’s provisions in the southern states, many discriminatory laws were repealed in the North.

In May and June of 1866, the Republican-controlled U.S. House and Senate passed the 14th Amendment, which enshrined in the Constitution the spirit of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, guaranteeing citizenship to blacks, and equal rights under the law. Still clinging bitterly to their slaveholding proclivities, with antipathy towards those that did not look like them, white Democrats voted unanimously against the 14th Amendment, while every single Republican voted in favor.

In 1870, Republicans in Congress passed the 15th Amendment granting black men the right to vote, and the vote was almost entirely along party lines, with every single Democrat voting against the Amendment, and all but three Republicans voting in support of it (Senator Charles Sumner, referenced previously, abstained from voting because he felt the amendment was not strong enough and left the door open for states to use mechanisms such as poll taxes and literacy tests to restrict the black vote). Sumner would go on to author the Civil Rights Act of 1875, a pioneering measure which insured that all U.S. citizens were “entitled to the full and equal enjoyment” of public accommodations and facilities regardless of race or skin color.

Sadly, in 1883, the Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Acts passed by Republicans unconstitutional, going so far as to declare Congress had no constitutional authority to grant equal protections to blacks under the 14th Amendment. It also ruled unconstitutional the Enforcement Act of 1871, which banned meetings of the Ku Klux Klan. After these rulings, every single southern state would rewrite their constitutions, incorporating provisions making it nearly impossible for blacks to vote, undoing in one tragically unfair motion all of the efforts of Republicans to secure equality for all black Americans.

Any guesses as to which party the Supreme Court justices handing down this ruling were affiliated with (hint: it was NOT the Republican Party)?

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