Wait, Whose Plantation Now?

April 10, 2013, 4:59 pm

Photo from Duke University Library Special Collections

Patrick Rael returns! This time with a guest post on some odd (to put it politely) ways of remembering slavery:

On Sean Hannity’s April 8 television show, Scripps Howard News Service columnist Star Parker likened modern “liberal” Democrats to antebellum slave owners.

When we look at who is behind this strategy, the liberal Democrats have not changed their M.O. This is not a new strategy, they used it during slavery. Remember, every time the word ‘freedom’ was mentioned and African Americans at that time heard about freedom — if you ran away, they would bring you back to that plantation — the overseer — the overseer today is the Congressional Black Caucus, their exclusive job is to keep them on the plantation, keep them uneducated, and keep them unarmed. And this was the same job as the overseer of the slave plantation, which was liberal Democrats.

Parker’s statement is not singular. In the last election cycle, Florida Representative Allen West called himself a “modern-day Harriet Tubman” who would lead black voters away from the Democratic Party “plantation.” Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain likewise told Sean Hannity that he “left the Democratic plantation.” Others, self-identified with the right, have long sought to make something out of the fact that in the mid-nineteenth century, Democrats most ardently defended slavery and oppressed black people. Because Democrats are today “liberal,” the argument implies, the Democrats of the antebellum period who defended slavery must also have been liberal.

I suspect that most readers with even a rough familiarity with American history will find such statements suspect, if not laughable. But why is this argument bad?

Party affiliations have of course changed markedly over time. The Republican Party of the 1850s began by combining a rejection of slavery’s westward expansion with the internal improvement planks of their Whig progenitors. By contrasting the opportunities provided by “free labor” with the anti-democratic tendencies of the southern “slave power,” the party captured elements of the old Whig constituency, and pulled in those northern Democrats who leaned against slavery.

The Democratic Party of the same day harkened back to Andrew Jackson’s populist appeal in the 1820s, which posed the party as the representative of the “common man.” From the days of Jefferson, though, the Democratic Party had always protected slavery. Slaveholding southerners dominated its ranks and controlled its caucus. Steadily, and in part because of the moral crusade against slavery, some northern Democrats became frustrated with slavery’s stranglehold on their party. In the late 1840s, they began breaking with the party. So adamant were they that slavery was wrong that they even made common cause with antislavery politicians in the opposing Whig party. The Whigs fell apart, and a new party was born: the Republicans.

So, in the antebellum period, the strongest voices for political conservatism resided in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Southerners who led secession left no doubt as to their principles. “We are not revolutionists — we are resisting revolution,” the editor of the southern DeBow’s Review declared. “We are conservative.” The Democratic-dominated Confederacy viewed itself as but “upholding the great principles which our fathers bequeathed us,” and “struggling for constitutional freedom” — the freedom to hold other humans in chattel bondage. Slaveholding Democrats more closely resembled the strict constructionists and constitutional literalists of today’s Republican Party than they do the modern Democrats. Economically, slavery’s leading apologists were not liberals at all, in neither the classic nor modern senses, but men suspicious of unfettered capitalism and fearful of free labor markets.

In contrast, it was the northern Whigs and then Republicans who most clearly represented the reform element in American society, calling for the development of a national infrastructure, tax-supported state systems of free public education, liberal homesteads in the West, and a system of land-grant colleges — all examples of, by antebellum standards, an activist state. Thus many would contend that before the Civil War the Republicans constituted the “liberal” party on most issues, while the Democrats were the most “conservative.” (How these tables got to be turned is a long and fascinating story in itself.)

But such comparisons have severe limits — not just because party positions have changed over many years, but because the parties have always failed to conform to what modern commentators assume to be timeless ideological categories such as “liberal” and “conservative.” The same Republicans who championed antislavery also sought to control the lives of the poor through a vigorous campaign of temperance and urban reform. They often tended toward nativism and drew their energy from Christian evangelicalism. They even embraced a brand of watered-down antislavery that could find common cause with the widespread white supremacism of the day.

The Democratic Party, too, defied simple categorization, for urban workingmen and Irish immigrants also found a comfortable home among its ranks. These workingmen tended to despise African Americans, and hence made strange bedfellows with the powerful southern slaveholders who often led the party. But such discordant coalitions have been the norm rather than the exception in American politics, as anyone familiar with, for example, the New Deal Democratic coalition will appreciate.

Nothing I’m saying here is particularly novel or controversial. Though other historians may quibble with elements of such a quick rendering, few would fault this basic view of the antebellum political system. It’s lesson is clear: it makes little sense to map contemporary values onto the past. They just don’t fit. To call the modern “liberal” Democratic Party the ideological heirs to the antebellum Democratic Party of secession is simple nonsense.

I suspect that those who make such arguments know better. But many among the public may not. That is where history teachers and professors come in. Rather than teaching students to partake of this sort of polemicization of the past, we concentrate on humbler, far more important, skills. We spend our lives coaching students to read scholarship with an eye to argument, to place these arguments in conversation with other arguments, to develop our own historical questions from the arguments we read, to find the documentary evidence that might help us address important questions, to read these sources critically and responsibility, to use such sources to formulate our own conjectures about the problems in question, and to express our findings in ways intelligible to both broad publics and academic communities.

It is counter to our mission to misuse the past to score political points. Instead, we work to equip students with tools to evaluate for themselves arguments they may find in public discourse. It’s a tall order, but one that offers the reward of witnessing former students of all political stripes employ their critical thinking skills in public debates with intellectual honesty, respect for thoughtful discourse, and an over-arching desire to work toward something we might call the public good, however differently we may all define it.

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