Tuesday, April 14, marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. A century and a half ago, on a fateful Good Friday evening, the 16th President of the United States, the man who ended the scourge of slavery in the United States, was shot at the hand of a murderer. He died the next morning at 7:22 AM.
Lincoln, America’s first Republican President, was elected in 1860 on a pledge of stopping the expansion of slavery while letting that “peculiar institution” die a natural death. The Republican Party itself was founded in 1854 in opposition to slavery and polygamy. As Princeton’s Robert George points out, “[t]he Republican Party pledged to fight the ‘twin relics of barbarism’: slavery and polygamy.”
By the end of the 18th century, slavery was on the way out: It had never really taken root in the North and, in the South, the cost of manually cleaning cotton of its seeds made slavery increasingly a bad bargain. Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin gave slavery a new lease on life by adding technology to cotton production, thereby cutting costs.
So, while the British Empire ended slavery in 1833, slavery continued in the United States. American politicians had done what countless of their successors also do: deal with the problem by kicking the can down the road. America had “compromised” on slavery numerous times, in order to achieve “greater” goals: In the name of freedom Thomas Jefferson (who himself led a double life on slavery) excised his own condemnation of how slavery was “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty” from the Declaration of Independence; in the name of government, the Founding Fathers put off prohibitions on the slave trade for 20 years and waffled about the status of the black man, eventually making him 3/5’s of a man (only for the South’s representation in the House, not his rights); in the name of continued stability numerous Congresses paired the admission of a slave and a free state to keep both sides even in the Senate. Finally, in 1850, it was clear that the long-term longevity of slavery was in doubt: Most of the remaining territories that would become states were unsuitable for slavery. The South began to panic: Its ability to punch above its political weight was in doubt.
Up until 1850, slavery remained largely removed from many Americans’ contact. The South, where it existed, largely supported it; the North, where it had died a half-century earlier, largely talked about what “they” did Down South. The Compromise of 1850 represented a turning point. Now slavery would become a “right” in which EVERY American would be implicated.
Part of the price of the Compromise of 1850 was enactment of a Fugitive Slave Act. Southerners were outraged that escaped slaves, using the Underground Railroad, went North to freedom. They demanded that all Americans—including Northerners opposed to slavery—use the police power of the State to return their lost “property” to them. No longer could one be “personally opposed” to slavery: Federal law required your complicity in returning a slave to his “owner.”
Not content with crushing conscience, Southerners insisted on their own version of “rights talk,” using the case of Dred Scott—a Missouri slave taken to slavery-free Illinois and then returned to Missouri—to gain a Supreme Court ruling writing blacks en bloc out of humanity and citizenship.
In the context of that fateful discussion over civil rights and the fate of the Union, Democrats equivocated. Southern Democrats stood as a bloc for an absolute right to slavery. Northern Democrats, not wanting to alienate their Southern brethren, adopted the 19th century’s version of “personal opposition”: popular sovereignty. They largely were willing to let the civil rights issue of their era be fought out at the ballot box. Trouble is, it often got fought out on the street—as in Bleeding Kansas—and in politics—as in the bleeding head of Senator Charles Sumner, caned in the Senate.
Against this background, the newly born Republican Party said: “Enough!”
Firm in principle but pragmatic in process, Republicans intended to stop slavery from spreading while leaving it alone where it existed, allowing natural events there to bring it eventually to an end. But, in the 1860 Presidential ballot, Republicans were cast as the “extremists” and Lincoln’s election the excuse of the South to commit collective treason.
I rehearse this history because Timothy Egan, in the April 10 New York Times chose to commemorate the anniversary of Lincoln’s death by claiming how far the Republican Party had strayed from its inclusive, progressive heritage. According to Egan, the Party has supposedly alienated blacks, abandoned immigrants, and failed to adopt good domestic welfare legislation.
Pace Timothy Egan, I don’t think either party has changed much.
I will prescind from the Egan agenda. I am not going to get into the merits of legislation about race (although I think supporting individual equality over—e.g., some versions of affirmative action—is pro-civil rights) nor national welfare legislation (although the examples Egan cites pertain to territories, for which Congress had responsibility, not today’s States, for which it does not). I am going to get into the civil rights heritage.
Republicans 150 years ago stood for expanding the boundaries of humanity to protect the human and civil rights of African Americans. At a time when Democrats either opposed those rights or waffled about them, Republicans were committed to putting slavery on the path to extinction. Democrats generally defended Dred Scott v. Sandford.
Republicans 150 years later again stand for expanding the boundaries of humanity to protect the human and civil rights of preborn Americans. At a time when Democrats stand in lockstep in defense of all abortion right up to the moment of birth—in defiance of scientific fact, public opinion, and elemental decency—Republicans are doing what they can to prevent the expansion of abortion (limiting the time of abortion; preventing the sneaking of federal subsidies for abortion into Obamacare; making sure women know all the facts about what abortion involves). Democrats regard fealty to Roe v. Wade as something between a religious test for belonging to the Party and a loyalty oath.
Republicans 150 years ago stood in defense of marriage as a union of one man and one woman against efforts to introduce polygamy in the American West. Republicans 150 years later stand in defense of marriage as a union of a man and a woman, against efforts to introduce ersatz marriage as well as to compel everyone publicly to give it approval, by their actions if not their thoughts.
Many Democrats in the 19th century defended victimizers as “victims,” generally refusing to condemn slaveholders and even forcing all Americans to violate their conscience to restore “lost property” to those poor “victims.” But, as contemporary Polish philosopher Witold Stawrowski has noted, part of the problem in the contemporary culture war is that those who are strong enough to protect their own interests—votaries of abortion, fetal experimentation, euthanasia, or homosexual marriage—are also those prone to cast themselves in the mantle of “victims.” Stawrowski prefers another term: “sleek barbarians.”
One hundred and fifty years ago, Republicans opposed the agenda of the “twin relics of barbarism: slavery and polygamy.” Today, most Republicans (by their votes, if not always their voices) oppose the agenda of the “sleek barbarians.” So, Mr. Eagan, thanks for the concern about the GOP . . . but let me say that the Party’s moral compass—by and large—remains pretty constant and pretty humane.
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John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ (USA).
 Robert George with William L. Saunders, “The ‘Relics of Barbarism,’ Then and Now,” in George, Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2013), p. 202.
 Ian Tuttle, “Democrats Are the Real Abortion Extremists,” National Review Online, April 9, 2015, found at http://www.nationalreview.com/article/416721/democrats-are-real-abortion-extremists-ian-tuttle
 Witold Stawrowski, The Clash of Civilizations, or Civil War. (Kraków: Instytut Myśli Józefa Tischnera, 2013), pp. 21, 67-80.