The Civil War Shapes The Political Landscape

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the civil war

This is Part 2 in a 5 part series called “The New Republican Party”. In it we look at the transformation of the Republican Party. Part 1 looks at the circumstances leading to the rise of the party, and the differing governing philosophies of the two sides. In this article we will show how that shaped the parties going into the Civil War and moving forward.

In today’s America, we tend to take an overly simplistic view of the political landscape prior to the Civil War. The Republicans were abolitionists wanting to emancipate the slaves. Democrats on the other hand were racists wanting to keep the blacks enslaved. While this became a reality, it didn’t start out that way.

Political Backdrop of the Civil War.

There were plenty of pro-slavery Whigs in the south. Their views were incompatible with the Free Soil ideology of some of the Whigs in the north. These people wanted to stop the spread of slavery into western states. However, they weren’t abolitionists. The issue wasn’t that black and white. The anti-slavery northerners split into different groups.

  • Abolitionists wanted the complete and uncompensated emancipation of the slaves, and opposed colonization.
  • Free Soilers simply opposed the spread of slavery and had varying views on if and when to end it.
  • Gradual emancipation supported freeing the slaves in the manner that northern states had. Laws would end slavery over a period of time, with or without compensation to the owners.
  • The colonization movement supported freeing the slaves and returning them to a colony on the continent of Africa.

Hence, when the Whigs split, they shattered into factions. These groups started to coalesce into two groups in the North. The Know Nothings and the Republicans.

The Civil War

Know Nothings and Republicans

“Know Nothings” wasn’t necessarily a pejorative. They formed the “American Party” out of a secret society that was instructed to reply “I know nothing” when asked of the groups secrets. Hence, the name. They were a nativist group that disliked a lot of people, mostly Germans, Irish and Catholics. They feared recent immigrants voting in elections, hence wanted to make it more difficult to become a citizen. The Know Nothings won more seats in the House in the 1854 mid-term election than any other third party in the history of that body. They seemed poised to fill the gap left by the Whigs.

The Republicans were slower getting started. They were the early choice of abolitionists, and thus were viewed as a more radical party. Abraham Lincoln was one who steered clear of the party at first. He favored gradual emancipation over abolition. However, he signed on with the party and became their Presidential nominee in 1860.

1860 Election and ensuing Civil War

The Civil War Shapes The Political Landscape

Nothing shows the danger of viewing political parties through the lens of race more than the 1860 electoral map. Clearly, views on slavery had much more to do with region than party affiliation. Furthermore, views on slavery had much more to do with economics than views on racial equality. As you can see, there were two Democratic candidates. Northern Democrats, although sympathetic to southern views on slavery, saw them as going too far and selected their own candidate.

Lincoln did not run on a platform of abolition. Moreover, he didn’t even run on a platform of emancipation. He simply wanted to stop the spread of slavery into the Louisiana Purchase and the recently acquired territories from Mexico. This, of course, would change in time.

Was the civil war about slavery?

The Civil War definitely was about slavery. However the South used different phrases to disguise that fact in hopes of getting support from European Countries. They used language like “state’s rights”. What rights? To quote Congressman David Hubbard of Alabama…

“It is clear that the power to dictate what sort of property the State may allow a citizen to own and work– whether oxen, horses, or negroes… is alike despotic and tyrannical.”

The “state’s rights” they fought for was the right of a state to allow it’s citizen to own and work a black man like they would a horse or an ox. Furthermore, they fought for a right to retrieve property stolen from the citizens of their state and held in northern states. Again, this “property” was human property. Black slaves.

They also spoke of fighting for “traditional American values”. What values were these? The institution of chattel slavery which was practiced by many of the founding fathers and protected to a small degree in the Constitution.

South v. North on the electoral map.

One can’t look at the electoral map without noticing a glaring change from today’s electoral maps. While the current Republican dominated South was then Democratic, the currently deep blue Democratic north was then Republican red. However, looking at the map and comparing it to the ideologies of the region, removing of course the issue of slavery, little else has changed.

The South is still the heaviest base of traditional values voters. Furthermore, the then “radical Republican” abolitionists of the North East are still fighting the battle for equality (LGBTQ, access to health care, raising the poor while harnessing the rich) under their new title, “Northeast Liberals”.

If the people remained largely the same, how did the parties switch turf?

In 1860, the Republicans ran on a platform of gradual emancipation. In so doing, they turned the entire south blue. They would stay that way until 1964. In 1964, a Democratic President signed the Civil Rights Act into law, giving equal rights to black citizens. In so doing, he turned the entire south red. They would stay that way, with the exception of 1976 when Jimmy Carter won, through the current day.

As the two parties embarked on their new roles of appealing to their geographical bases of support, one can visually observe the transformation of “Republican Radicals” in New England to “Northeast Liberal” as the mad turns from red to blue election after election.

The transformation of red to blue in California follows a different timeline. In 1994, California Republicans introduced Proposition 187 called Save Our State. It was a nativist proposal that demanded heavy handed State government enforcement of federal immigration law. While the proposition passed, it marked the death of the GOP in California. A state that had voted red in 8 of the last 10 elections hasn’t voted for a Republican in any of the 6 elections held thereafter.

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