Self-Inflicted Wounds

Believe it or not, bipartisanship and political partnership are possible.  For significant periods in US history, the two dominant parties have shared core beliefs or opted for cooperation rather than conflict.  In the antebellum era, Whigs and Democrats agreed on the sanctity of slavery; at the turn of the twentieth century, Progressivism found a home in both Republican and Democratic ranks; and in the post-World War II period, a “Cold War consensus” prevailed.

The rare moments of extreme partisanship, national polarization, and political crisis are often caused, at least in part, by deliberate decisions by party leaders.  Hateful rhetoric, malicious falsehoods, and rigid ideological requirements are not accidental, but conscious choices made by office-seekers and wire-pullers.  Both parties have engaged in these tactics, but at the present it is Republicans who are charting the course of calamity by silencing their moderate members.

Since Donald Trump assumed leadership of the Republican Party in 2016, he and his militantly conservative supporters labored to purge the organization of moderates or anyone who dared challenge the Trump cult of personality.  At all levels of the party hierarchy, Republicans willing to work or negotiate with Democrats were expelled, silenced, or punished.  The most famous victim of this ideological bloodletting is US Representative Liz Cheney (WY), who, in May 2021, was removed from her leadership position in the party conference.  Her ouster was retribution for speaking critically about President Trump and his alleged role in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol Building.[1]        

The consequences of such a partisan purge are immediate and severe.  Without moderates like Liz Cheney, the Republican Party will be largely free from internal dissent, and thus will veer farther to the right and pursue a more extreme agenda – an agenda rejected by the vast majority of Americans and not subject to debate or dissection.  170 years earlier, Democrats did exactly the same thing.  In the short term, it split their party; in the long term, it nearly destroyed the Union.  Any political association hoping to forge a majority coalition and win elections through popularity rather than chicanery should study the past and learn the lessons of the early Democratic Party.

In the antebellum era, the Democratic Party was the conservative partisan vehicle, defending white supremacy, maintaining the reign of elite Southern enslavers, and quashing all reforms, including much-needed infrastructure improvements.  Central to the Democratic agenda was the expansion of slavery and the forging of a vast hemispheric pro-slavery empire.  By the 1840s, however, opposition to the spread of slavery had grown dramatically in the free states.  Democrats in the North began to feel pressure from their constituents to halt the march of the enslavers and challenge King Cotton.    

Despite growing opposition from Northern Democrats, the Southern party bosses pursued their aggressive pro-slavery plans.  In the 1830s and 40s, they waged war on Indigenous Americans to remove them from fertile cotton lands, passed Congressional “gag rules” to prevent any discussion of the “peculiar institution,” and aided the pro-slavery Texas Revolution.  In late 1845, enslaver grandees launched an invasion of Mexico.  Anti-slavery Northerners, including several Democratic office-holders, balked at the blatant grab for more slavery territory.  Led by Pennsylvanian David Wilmot, Northern Democratic moderates made a stand in August 1846, adding a “proviso” to a war appropriations bill stipulating that slavery would not be permitted in any territory stolen from Mexico.  Since spreading slavery was the entire point of the war, party leaders were incensed.  The motion was defeated.  Nevertheless, the damage had been done: a dramatic split occurred in Democratic ranks. 

In the 1848 state and national elections, moderate Northern Democrats who opposed the expansion of slavery (like Wilmot) ran on the new Free Soil Party ticket.  The rupture proved fatal.  Both the Democratic and Free Soil presidential candidates went down to defeat and the Whigs (who had no formal position slavery’s expansion) took the White House.

Needless to say, Democratic bosses wanted blood.  Over the course of the next four years, they expunged any anti-slavery sentiment from their ranks, either by outright expulsion of intransigent Northerners or forcing them into submission through party discipline.  Votes on the infamous Appeasement of 1850 (a massive pro-slavery victory for enslavers) became the litmus test of party fealty.  Democrats who did not vote in favor of various pro-slavery measures, such as the horrific Fugitive Slave Act, were denied campaign funds, attacked in the press, and deprived patronage — a political death sentence.  Contrite Free Soilers who voted as they were told, however, were allowed back and duly rewarded. 

Things were even uglier and more chaotic at the state level.  In Indiana, Democratic chief (and secret enslaver) Jesse Bright resorted to physical intimidation and illegal schemes to defeat the anti-slavery faction and reward repentant Free Soilers with offices.  In the Empire State, a three-way political war erupted between intransigent “Hards,” who refused to brook any opposition from anti-slavery moderates, “Softs,” who were willing to make deals with former Free Soilers, and the “Barnburner” majority, who bolted the party in 1848 and wanted to expel the Hards.  Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, pro-slavery conservatives James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce, respectively, seized control of county and district conventions to deny former Free Soilers elective office at any level.  “Old Buck” and “Handsome Frank” would later be rewarded with the presidency for their service to the Slave Power.

A united Democratic Party emerged in time for the election of 1852, thoroughly shorn of any anti-slavery elements. “We have got rid of all negroism,” chirped Buchanan with pleasure.  Though good for enslavers, the victory was pyrrhic.  The party was now free to pursue even more aggressive policies without any internal deliberation or discussion. 

In short order, Democrats passed legislation that spread slavery to formerly free territories, nullified the Missouri Compromise, launched illegal invasions of Caribbean and Central American nations, enforced the Fugitive Slave Act with a vengeance, tried to force slavery on the unwilling settlers of the Kansas Territory, and physically assaulted anti-slavery activists in the streets and in the halls of Congress.  These actions precipitated the Civil War.  By 1856, Northerners had set aside their differences over banks, immigration, and internal improvements to unite against the spread of slavery in a new Republican Party.  The election of the first Republican president in 1860 triggered secession, and the Union was nearly torn asunder.  In other words, when one party became more intransigent and extreme, it united and popularized their opponents, which, in turn, motivated extremists to seek extra-political, violent alternatives to the electoral process (in 1860-61, it was secession; in 2021, it was the January 6 insurrection).

The lack of ideological diversity and any meaningful policy debate within the antebellum Democratic Party caused that organization to enact an extreme program that enraged the majority of Americans and caused national disaster.  Republicans in 2021 seem to be following that same strategy: punishing dissent, expelling moderates, and favoring ideological purity over practical policy.  Moreover, just as Democrats in the 1850s tried to force slavery on anti-slavery populations, Republicans today are forcing their minority agenda on the majority through voter suppression laws, gerrymandering, and illegal activity.  And just as Democrats tested party loyalty through votes on slavery, Republicans are determining devotion via votes on the January 6 attack.  If Republicans value the health and future of their party, and the nation, they need to examine the past and reconsider their path. 

In our current moment of hyper-partisanship and militant, polarized opinions, political leaders must provide opportunities for productive argument and respectful debate.  When partisan groups, regardless of their ideological bent, stifle dissent or enforce doctrinal discipline, opportunities for policy innovation and national consensus-building are lost.  Embracing diversity of opinion and perspectives enhances a party’s attractiveness and smooths the way toward effective governance.  In a two-party system such as the United States, moderation and cooperation are essential. 


The US Civil War as the Ultimate BLM Protest

The American Civil War, wherein over 800,000 civilians and combatants died (more than all other US wars combined), was about black lives and black bodies.  The cause of the conflagration – slavery – was about wresting tremendous profits through the physical and psychological torture of Black Americans.  The movement to free and empower those people – abolitionism – was led and inspired by people of color.  The war itself was determined by the actions of black lives, whether they were freedmen and women demanding action from the federal government, enslaved people seizing freedom, disrupting the Confederate war effort, and undermining the nascent Confederate States of America, or black soldiers in the US Army winning battles and putting to lie centuries of pro-slavery doctrine.  The profound truth that has been hidden by over a century of white supremacy propaganda is that the Civil War was the ultimate BLM protest.

The very existence of the United States was made possible by black lives.  Since the early seventeenth century, the enslavement of people of color had been the most important, lucrative, and influential business in North America, providing the “seed money”[1] for the forging of the Union.  The founding document of the country – the United States Constitution, drafted in 1787 – was largely created by enslavers (along with key Northern allies), and ensured that enslavers, especially those in the Southern states, would dominate the new federal government.  The Three-Fifths Clause, in particular, gave enslavers control of the House of Representatives, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court even before the first elections could be held.  In firm ascendancy, Southern enslavers enacted an aggressive pro-slavery agenda that ensured the spread of human bondage and dramatically increased their political and financial power.  They created a formidable partisan organization in the form of the Democratic Party to achieve their electoral and policy goals at the local, state, and national levels: denying rights to people of color; spreading slavery; mass murder of Indigenous Americans and theft of their land; trade policies that benefitted the slave states; federal legislation guaranteeing the rights of enslavers over their human “property;” and an aggressive foreign policy aimed at a vast Western Hemispheric empire built on bondage.  By 1858, US Senator James Henry Hammond (Democrat, South Carolina) could crow in Congress about the South building “an empire that shall rule the world.”  “We could bring the whole world to our feet,” he boasted with the confidence of a white man whose wealth and influence was built on the suffering and sale of black lives (and who, like many of his ilk, delighted in the rape of enslaved teenage girls).[2] 

The toil and torture endured by black bodies built the United States into an economic powerhouse.  The cotton, rice, and sugar which enriched, fed, and clothed white Americans came from black lives in the fields and swamps.  And the sale and re-sale of those black bodies, too, yielded enormous profits.  Those profits, in turn, led to the rise of modern American capitalism: Mississippi land speculators, New Orleans slave traders, New York insurance companies, Charleston merchant houses, New England textile mills, Cincinnati transportation enterprises, Philadelphia banking and investment firms, all depended upon black bodies and lives. 

Thus, the rise of a united, organized resistance to the exploitation of black lives – abolitionism –  was viewed with deep suspicion by most Northern whites, and plunged enslavers into paroxysm of fear and outrage.  Any attempt to offer security and equality to people of color was considered a direct threat to American capitalism, white supremacy, and “Jacksonian democracy.”  Then, just as today, many whites viewed any attempt to elevate black lives as a diminution of white lives.  White privilege, in short, rested on black oppression.    

The abolitionist movement, itself, was led by people of color, who risked life and limb to challenge the racial status-quo.  David Walker, a black businessman in Boston, wrote, published, and distributed the inflammatory Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which called for the immediate end to slavery everywhere, and which inspired a new generation of abolitionists and civil rights activists.  Escaped slaves like Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass were the most powerful weapons of the abolitionist movement, as their terrifying first-hand accounts of bondage, mutilation, and murder jolted Northern whites into action.  Their impassioned, vociferous attacks on racial injustice, slavery, and the “Slave Power” formed a fundamental critique of American history that can still heard by today’s BLM protesters condemning systemic racism and the politics of compromise.  Likewise, when today’s activists repeatedly put themselves in danger to fight oppression and defend the downtrodden, they are following in the footsteps of Douglass, Tubman, and their associates who constantly faced down militant white supremacists, mob violence, racist police, and a hostile federal government to insist black lives mattered.

It was not abolitionists, however, who launched the greatest slaughter in American history, it was the enslavers who could not tolerate even a whiff of racial or political reform.  Just as today, whites enjoying the wealth and power produced by racialized capitalism vilified the protesters and blamed them for jeopardizing the Union, when, in reality, it was they, in the form of armed vigilantes, angry mobs, and militarized police who caused violence, committed acts of injustice, and violated civil liberties.  “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?,” asked English writer Samuel Johnson.[3]  Johnson wrote during the American Revolution, but the question could be asked just the same in 1860 and 2020.

It was in 1860 that the Electoral College elected the first anti-slavery president, Abraham Lincoln.  Though, like the nation’s first black president, Lincoln was no radical crusader for racial justice.  Lincoln vowed repeatedly to protect the “peculiar institution” and enforce heinous pro-slavery laws.  Nevertheless, he was intolerable to enslavers, who subsequently led a revolt against the United States.  If the federal government would no longer guarantee the unrestricted expansion of slavery and the building of a hemispheric slave empire (two issues on which Lincoln drew the line), then enslavers wanted nothing more from the USA.  The very notion, in fact, of a union with anti-slavery Northerners, was anathema.  American ideals of human equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, announced enslaver Alexander Stephens, vice president of the infant Confederate States of America, “were fundamentally wrong.”  “Our new government,” he explained, in reference to the Confederate Constitution, “is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.”[4]  Lest you think white politics have advanced considerably since Stephens uttered those words in 1861, conservative organizer William F. Buckley, Jr. in 1955 appealed to whites suspicious of the renewed civil rights movement by describing the “White community” as “the advanced race.”[5]  Whether justifying slavery or opposing racial equality, white leaders have employed explicit racism to achieve the continued oppression, abuse, and exploitation of black lives.        

Black lives were also at the heart of the Civil War.  As soon as Confederates attacked the United States at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Black Americans took swift action to ensure both the destruction of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy.  The enslaved seized opportunities to resist, rebel, and free themselves, regardless of formal US policy.  While Congress and President Lincoln dithered over the desirability, legality, and process of emancipation, Black Americans acted decisively.  They rose-up against their oppressors, obstructed production, sabotaged communication and transportation, fled to US lines, and served as spies to US forces until, ultimately, they donned the blue and took up the rifle as legitimate soldiers.  “The negroes are getting free pretty fast,” observed US General John Logan.  “It is not done by the army, but they are freeing themselves; and if this war continues long, not a slave will be left in the whole South.”[6]

Many historians now see the Civil War as the world’s largest slave rebellion.  The real story of the war was not the Blue and the Grey on the battlefield, but the Blacks on the plantations, in the swamps, on the rivers, in the woods, seizing freedom, aiding US forces, and compelling white Americans North and South to acknowledge that black lives mattered. 

It was the courageous actions and self-sacrifice of Black Americans that shifted Northern public opinion toward formal emancipation, that obliged Congress to pass the First (1861) and Second (1862) Confiscation Acts (which permitted the seizure of rebel property, including enslaved people), and which inspired a reluctant President Lincoln to publicly embrace abolitionism.  Black lives were the cause, conduct, and consequence of the Civil War.  The Civil War was fundamentally a Black Lives Matter event.

Yet whites have labored to hide these epic truths of American history.  To displace black lives at the center of the American narrative, whites in the wake of the Civil War concocted a version of events that focused entirely on themselves.  Instead of slavery, the cause of the war became whites arguing about “states’ rights,” or inept white politicians (the “blundering generation” theory) mucking-up a perfectly good federal system; instead of Black actions driving events, it was great white men, like Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, entirely in control; instead of Black Americans undermining the Confederacy from within, it was white soldiers dying on the battlefield; instead the enslaved freeing themselves, it was white politicians granting freedom and white soldiers bringing freedom; instead of a story about heroic Black courage, community, and sacrifice, it’s a story about white families torn apart, white brother versus white brother.

White Americans are most comfortable with a version of history that excises racism, minimizes (or excludes entirely) black lives, and gives whites credit for anything good that may or may not have happened.  The Civil War as a BLM action is a terrifying prospect for many whites today, because it challenges their very understanding of the world and calls into question the entire history of the nation.  It is easier to dismiss or ignore the latest stage in the centuries-old struggle for racial equality happening in the streets today if people have only been exposed to a literal and figurative white-washed past.  How can whites today accept that “black lives matter” if they were taught that they never mattered before?

[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power, 156.

[2] James Henry Hammond, “The Mudsill Speech” in Finkelman, Defending Slavery, 82-83; Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie, 14.


[4] Alexander Stephens, “The Cornerstone Speech” in Finkelman, Defending Slavery, 91.

[5] William F. Buckley, Jr., “Why the South Must Prevail” in The Rise of American Conservatism, 1945-2000, 53.

[6] Williams, I Freed Myself, 5.

Mexico is the Enemy, Redux

June 3, 2019

For the entirety of his administration, President Donald Trump singled-out Mexico as a leading enemy of the US.  To build public approval for an aggressive foreign policy toward Mexico and the building of an expensive and controversial wall, Trump claimed an alarming and immediate “crisis” on the southern border.  To meet the so-called crisis, the president ordered thousands of US troops to the border without the approval of Congress.  In June 2019, Trump specifically claimed that America’s neighbor was a direct threat to national security and an “abuser” of US goodwill.  Such rhetoric and saber-rattling are strikingly similar to that of President James Polk in 1846, who also manufactured a “crisis” on the border and employed US troops to achieve his personal and political objectives.

The conquest of Mexico was a central goal of antebellum enslavers, especially after the “cotton boom” of the 1820s-30s.  Enslavers, who were among the most powerful and wealthy in the US, lusted after the rich cotton lands that stretched westward from central South Carolina into east Texas.  In 1821, when the nation of Mexico achieved its independence from its European colonizer Spain, enslavers in the US began plotting to seize Texas.  White Americans poured over the US-Mexico border, gobbling-up cotton lands and ignoring Mexican laws, including the prohibition against slavery.  When the young government of Mexico tried to enforce the laws and rein-in the white “illegal immigrants” in the 1830s, the immigrants, calling themselves “Texans,” launched an armed revolt.  There was no way these “Texans” were going to give up slavery and submit to Mexican authority. 

In 1836, Texans defeated a large Mexican army and declared their independence (though the Mexican government never granted or acknowledged any such thing, so the “Republic of Texas” existed in imagination rather than on paper).  Suffering from heavy debts and desperate to protect themselves from another campaign by the Mexican government, Texans sought annexation by the US, their neighbor nation ruled by enslavers.  The growing anti-slavery movement in the US, however, made Texas annexation a tricky undertaking.  Nevertheless, it was achieved in 1845 by Virginia enslaver President John Tyler. 

By the time of Texas annexation, white Americans were fired-up about “Manifest Destiny” – the westward march of white “civilization,” the extermination of Indigenous Americans, and the spread of slavery.  The pro-slavery Democratic Party rode this wave of expansionist enthusiasm to the polls in 1844, winning both the White House and control of Congress (their opponents, the Whigs, were skeptical of territorial expansion, and many northern Whigs outright opposed the spread of slavery).  The new president, Tennessee enslaver James Polk, entered office with the clear aim of conquering the rest of Mexico and spreading slavery throughout western North America and central America.  But anti-slavery activists stood in his way.  Polk needed an excuse to invade Mexico and steal more land – he needed a crisis on the border.

In total secrecy (and certainly without the knowledge of Congress), President Polk ordered a US army under the command of Louisiana enslaver General Zachary Taylor to proceed into Mexican territory and provoke a war.  Taylor’s orders were simple: invade until the Mexicans fight back.  Taylor made it deep into central Mexico before a Mexican army could launch a defense.  As soon as Polk received word (carried by hand and telegraph from Mexico to DC) that fighting had finally erupted, the president went to Congress on May 11, 1846 and asked for a declaration of war.  The US, he lied, had been invaded by Mexico.  Mexico had “assumed a belligerent attitude,” engaged in an “open act of hostility,” and perpetrated “grievous wrongs” against US citizens.  There was a crisis on the border that required swift military action: “The most energetic and prompt measures and the immediate appearance in arms of a large and overpowering force are recommended to Congress as the most certain and efficient means of bringing the existing collision with Mexico to a speedy and successful termination.”  With no way to quickly verify Polk’s false claims, Congress provided the declaration, and Polk got his war of conquest.

President Trump’s misleading claims about Mexico’s relations to the US bear eerie resemblance to those used by President Polk to justify war.  In particular, the assertion that Mexicans are invading the US and committing crimes against US citizens is right out of the Polk playbook.  Equally troubling is the fact that Trump’s rhetoric exhibits a blatant disregard for the history between the two nations.  Rather than Mexico being the “abuser,” it has historically been Americans who invaded, and the US who was the belligerent, whether it was Polk in 1846 or President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 and 1916.  The American public should keep US-Mexican history in mind when weighing policy decisions that may result in the massive loss of lives and property.

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