Inside the Wigwam

The Wigwam, GOP convention 1860 Chicago(Courtesy of Library of Congress)
Nominating conventions came into being in the 1830s, after Andrew Jackson and his ilk turned party politics into a more egalitarian affair.  The elite caucuses that had once chosen presidential candidates gave way to more inclusive mass gatherings where delegates styled themselves as representatives of the people.  By the time the Republican Party formed in the 1850s, nominating conventions had become significant political events in the life of the country.  Journalists, artists, and photographers documented the appearance and actions of the delegates and the spirit and style of the gatherings.

This particular artist’s drawing shows the meeting of the Republican Party in Chicago in 1860, when the young anti-slavery party nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency.  The Republicans went to the trouble to build a special hall for the convention, a vast domed wooden structure that they called the Wigwam.  (It stood at the corner of Lake and Wacker and was reportedly destroyed by fire in the late 1860s.)   Notably, the illustration shows a mainly female audience crowding the galleries to follow the proceedings.  (Women would not gain the right to vote until 1920.)

Faced with the likelihood that the federal government would sanction the spread of slavery into the West and strengthen its legal underpinnings everywhere in the US, those participating in the Republican convention believed it to be an event ‘on which the most momentous results are depending.’  ‘No body of men of equal number,’ the convention chair proclaimed, ‘was ever clothed with greater responsibility than those now within the hearing of my voice.’

The Republicans, though only a northern regional party, were intent on dislodging the dominant Democratic Party, which they did that November, against all odds.

Image from this source.



Thomas Nast’s ‘Central Park in Winter’

Two scenes, showing skating and sleighing in Central Park. The top panel includes drawings of James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley
For the January 30, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast drew a many-paneled illustration of Central Park in winter.  Like many of his works, this one featured a large central drawing, surrounded by smaller vignettes in round and elliptical frames.  The main drawing shows New Yorkers ice-skating on Central Park’s Pond.  (The Park was then only a few years old.)  Below that is a rather wild sleighing scene, in which genteel New Yorkers ride through a desolate terrain, as urchins throw snowballs or rocks at them.

The opening of Central Park coincided with ice-skating’s growing popularity, which took hold in earnest in the 1850s.  The Park was most heavily visited in winter, when its pond became crowded with thousands of skaters, whose activities Nast captures here in wonderful detail.  (Note the woman in the skating chair.)

Perhaps inevitably, Nast’s wonderland contains some politics, too.  Two months earlier, President Lincoln had been reelected as an inconclusive Civil War dragged on, inflicting terrible casualties.  New York, being a commercial center, had always viewed the war with ambivalence.  The conflict was contrary to the city’s interests, disrupting a lucrative trade with the South on which New York’s economy relied.  While many New Yorkers were ardent Unionists and Republicans, the city also had a large Democratic constituency, including a politically active immigrant population, which resented the war, the federal government, and the fuss about slaves.  Many, wishing a return to peace, had lately voted for Lincoln’s challenger, Democrat George McClellan.

Anger over the federal government’s war policies had boiled into violence the previous July.  New York became the scene of bloody draft riots, in which rioters lynched at least 11 blacks and 120 people were killed in street fighting between protesters and the police.  Poor whites were inflamed against a draft bill that Congress had recently passed: while ostensibly requiring all fit men to serve in the Union military, it contained a loophole that wealthier Northerners would use to evade the draft: arranging for a replacement by paying a bounty.

In the foreground of his skating scene, Nast (who ardently supported Lincoln and the war) highlights several figures, including a military man at the far left wearing a kepi—a reminder of high-minded Northerners voluntarily leading the Union effort as officers.  At right are two prominent New York newspaper editors, James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley, who have run into trouble on proverbially thin ice.  Greeley is teetering, while Bennett has fallen, both near a hole signifying treachery.  Bennett had been an outspoken critic of Lincoln and proponent of McClellan, whereas Greeley, while fitfully supportive of the war, had recently embarrassed the Lincoln administration by engaging in bogus ‘peace negotiations’ with some Confederate representatives who turned out to be fakes.

Both editors, though overwhelmingly influential, earned Nast’s scorn because they were feckless peace-mongers.  To have ended the Civil War through a settlement at that juncture would have rendered the suffering of the soldiers in vain.

Their presence heightens the allegorical meaning of the left side of the tableau, where three figures guard the safety of the family and society.  Besides the Union officer, who holds a small boy in his arms, Nast’s own editor Fletcher Harper (with mutton-chop whiskers) stands over a young girl protectively, while a third man (unidentified, but probably a prominent editor, too) deferentially greets a woman standing at the edge of the ice.  Nast depicts these figures as both benevolent and patriotic.  Harper gave Nast a venue for his pro-Union and radically egalitarian views.

So what at first glance passes for an innocuous pleasure scene is a comment on specific editors, and a paean to the value of virtuous editors in a conflict-ridden time.

Image from this source.

February 12–Lincoln’s Birthday

Thomas Fogarty's "February 12--Lincoln's Birthday," 1901 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).
Drawing by Thomas Fogarty, originally published in Collier’s on February 9, 1901.

Fogarty (1873-1938) imagines a group of female well-wishers paying Lincoln their respects on his birthday.  Girls and a fashionable lady cluster affectionately about the president, who holds a beaming child on his arm.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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Hello, February

Ice skating; The Lincoln Memorial in the background, Washington, DC (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

February is seldom as fun as I hope it will be.  I dream of escaping to the sledding hill or spending an afternoon out ice-skating, but instead I end up trapped at my desk, thinking of dead presidents, the white and black races, and slavery.

Its calendar page filled with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, the birth and death dates of Frederick Douglass, and the observance of Black History Month, February is a minefield of historic associations, of significance buried but waiting to explode.  Continue reading

Looking In on Lincoln’s Inaugurations

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln (1861), photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress

How fortunate we are that Lincoln’s presidency came just after the development of photography!  Of course, by the time he first took office in 1861, certain photographic processes, notably daguerreotypes, had been around for decades.  But only around mid-century did photography develop into a versatile, practical, and widely circulating medium.  As a consequence, whereas photographs of Lincoln’s predecessors in the White House are scarce, Lincoln and his political contemporaries had their pictures taken many, many times.  Some even became shrewd retailers of their mechanically reproduced selves.

The result, from the point of view of the present, is an opening-wide of the window onto history.  Whereas details of James Buchanan‘s 1857 inauguration come down to us mainly through artistic and verbal description (there is this one blurry photograph), good photographs documenting both of Lincoln’s inaugurals survive.  From 1861, for instance, there are several fine distant views of Lincoln taking the oath of office, though none of them is close enough for us to make out his great defeated rival, Senator Stephen A Douglas, who, according to historical testimony, is said to have been looking on from a seat nearby.

These photographs remind us of the immature, precarious state of the Union at the time.  The great addition of the new Capitol dome was incomplete, and, even as Lincoln moved to forward to assume his elected office, the elements that made up the nation were breaking apart.  Prior to March 4, 1861, when this picture was taken, seven pro-slavery states had seceded, and afterward, four more southern states would depart.  On April 12th, with the firing on Fort Sumter, the nation would descend into a state of war.

A closer view of Abraham Lincoln's Inauguration in 1861 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) of Abraham Lincoln in 1865

The crowd gathered for the swearing-in knew that they were witnessing a momentous scene.  The crowd was thick; most had furled their umbrellas; men, straining for the best possible view, mounted light poles and trees.  Motionless, they strained to hear the unamplified proceedings, the camera preserving the style of their hats and clothing.  Two men turn to face the camera, cannily.

The succeeding years saw a widening use of open-air photography, so that we know with some immediacy the Civil War’s corpse-strewn scenes.  Photographers like Alexander Gardner (by then working for Mathew Brady) tirelessly trailed the armies, unflinchingly recording the realities of camps, hospitals, and battle-fields.  By the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural, in 1865, the war was in its final months, slaves had been liberated, and the nation had become accustomed to seeing itself through the lens of photography.

The crowd at Lincoln's Second Inauguration, March 4, 1865 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

This wonderful photograph by Gardner captures the look of that later crowd.  Here, the people themselves, not the government nor the army, nor their most powerful representatives, are recognized as camera-worthy, as they gather on an inauguration day that is once again wet and muddy.  Great coats and banners billow in the breeze, as knots of spectators stand about, chatting or strolling as they please.  In time, they part to make way for the inaugural parade, in which Union regiments of both races proudly march.

Alexander Gardner, Stereographic view of the crowd at Lincoln's Second Inauguration, March 4, 1865 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) Lincoln's Inaugural Parade (1865)

Is it my imagination, or is there a touch of jubilation here, missing from the earlier proceedings?  Though the war had yet to end, the prospects for the Confederacy were dwindling sharply, and Americans who had fought to keep the nation together knew that their victory was sure.

Alexander Gardner photograph of Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address as President of the United States (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Bare-headed, Lincoln reads his message of reconciliation to a crowd radiating around him like magnetic filings, the dais overflowing with dignitaries.  A miscellaneous crowd of watchers stands beneath him, studying the crowd while listening.  It is a homely scene with little pageantry, suited to a federal republic that, though riddled with conflict, has endured trials to grow in confidence and power.  Outside the frame, the Capitol dome has been completed, and stands triumphantly capped with the Statue of Freedom.

All images from the collections of the Library of Congress.
Click on the images for more information and larger views.

A Working Holiday

Map of US Territorial Acquisitions (Credit: National Atlas of the United States via Wikimedia Commons)

New Year’s has often been a working holiday for American statesmen.  More than a day of moral resolution, January 1st marks the anniversary of several bold, ambitious actions that have opened new eras and horizons for Americans as a people.


New Year’s Day in 1803 found Thomas Jefferson secretly laying the groundwork for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a scheme that had to be covert because it proposed scouting out vast tracts of land that at the time belonged to other countries.  The French lands now referred to as the Louisiana Purchase would not belong to the United States until the spring, while the Oregon Territory would remain the property of England for many decades.  Yet Jefferson was undeterred in his determination to familiarize himself with, and strengthen American claims to, these unknown neighboring regions.

So he began crafting a confidential message to Congress, describing the possible benefits of reconnoitering these lands and asking for an appropriation of the $2,500 necessary to supply the journey.   Congress looked with favor on his request, thus inaugurating a initiative that pioneered knowledge of the West’s lands, resources, and native peoples.

A map from the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Courtesy of Yale University Library via Wikimedia Commons).

The government was rewarded with a treasure-trove of maps and documents that facilitated its later dealings with, and gradual displacement of, native American tribes.  Today, we tend to discount the expansionist ambitions that motivated Jefferson, instead lauding the Expedition as an early model of the many progressive scientific projects and surveys the US government would subsequently fund.


Sixty years later, President Lincoln spent New Year’s Day greeting callers to the White House and putting his signature on the final version of his Emancipation Proclamation, which was sent out over the telegraph wires later that day.  Not unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition, Lincoln’s statement had had a long fruition, with earlier drafts of the measure being floated and discussed the previous fall.  Lincoln’s determination to associate the waging of the Civil War with the moral cause of ending slavery marked a tipping point in the long struggle to secure for African-Americans personal freedom and civil equality, a struggle begun decades earlier and continuing on for more than a century, even down to today.

Watch meeting in Massachusetts

The executive order, which famously declared the freedom of all slaves held in rebel states, was on display at the National Archives in Washington yesterday, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary.  Though limited in its scope and practical effects, the proclamation spelled liberation for a people who had suffered oppression since colonial times.  Lincoln’s deliberate blow to slavery paved the way for its complete and permanent abolition, accomplished through the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.


Finally, on New Year’s Day in 1892, the first immigrant (of some 16 million) passed through the doors of Ellis Island.  It is commonly said that “American is a nation of immigrants,” but the establishment of Ellis Island and other formal points of entry gave that rite of passage a dignity and regularity that was previously missing.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1905 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Located near the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island bestowed welcome and the necessary paperwork on immigrants who had previously been less distinguishable from American citizens.  At a time when many born Americans went through life without the legal documentation of a birth certificate, Ellis Island conferred a bureaucratic identity on the newly arrived, routinizing a more paper-bound and legalistic conception of Americanness that is with us still.  Today, however, Ellis Island stands as a cherished symbol of the rational means the government employed to bind its disparate population into one people.

May these complex and impressive projects inspire today’s political leaders to lift up their sights and grapple bravely with the issues confronting the nation now.

A World Without Lincoln

sketch by Charles Dix of Fort Monroe in the offing, 1863 (private collection)

For those whose consciousness is tuned to the Civil War, April is strewn with anniversaries.  The war began April 12th, 1861, with the Confederate barrage of Fort Sumter.  Four years later, it ended on April 9th, with the rebels’ surrender at Appomattox.  A week later, President Lincoln was slain while sitting in a box at Ford’s Theater.  That spring the injured nation lay under a blanket of a peace, a peace fraught with exhaustion, anger, uncertainty.

It’s hard to fathom what Americans at that time felt, experienced.  On the far side of a dreadful, violent division, they had run a course that intransigence — impatience — and distrust — dictated.  To say Progress Is Unpopular is putting it mildly.  Those who could not put up with change, those unhappy with the course of progress, those who were sick of compromise and unwilling to think even for one minute of living without slavery — these were the people who threw in the towel.  They walked away from Congress, from compromise and debate.  Rather than accept a turn of events they conceived of as a humiliating political defeat, they rebelled against the federal government and sought to go their own way.  The ensuing war was coercive, decisively establishing the ultimate authority of the Union and the federal government relative to other interests and claims.

Among my belongings is a small drawing, a bit of memorabilia from that unhappy time.  It’s a tiny sketch on Union stationery, showing a view of Fort Monroe from the water.  The artist was a young man, Charles T. Dix, whose father, John, was in charge of Union forces there at the time.

Located in Virginia at the tip of the peninsula formed by the confluence of the James and York Rivers, Fort Monroe became a haven for former slaves who gained their freedom by leaving rebel territory.  After the war, the fort was where former leaders of the Confederacy were imprisoned.  Jefferson Davis was held there for what many considered to be an unconscionably long period.  Hitting on the appropriate way to treat men who had presided over such a protracted and devastating rebellion took a long time.

It has taken far longer to discover how to realize the dream of freedom and equality that was an inseparable part of that dark struggle.  Ultimately, though, we have struggled toward it, however benightedly, struggled toward it with and without great statesmen, struggled toward it in a world without Lincoln.

Parties Made New: Our Critical Elections

As observers of all stripes lament the staleness of today’s political rhetoric, it’s worth looking back on the elections that really shook up the parties and recast the terms of national debate.  This post describes six critical elections and their consequences.  They changed the character of the parties and the politics of their time.

Although we’ve had only two monolithic national parties for the last 150-plus years, the long perspective of history shows us that there are other possibilities, and that even the parties we have can be transformed from inside.

The elections are presented in chronological order, but, to tell you the truth, I wrote this piece backward, so feel free to jump around, or even start with the conclusions first.  For a definition of what makes a “critical election,” check out this prequel: 2008: The Critical Election that Wasn’t (Part I).


Rembrandt Peale's 1800 portrait of Thomas Jefferson

The election of 1800 marked the beginning of organized party opposition in the United States.  By then, eleven years had passed since the states had ratified the Constitution and set up a new government along its lines.  One of the peculiar features of the new government was the virtual absence of dissenting parties and the existence of something like one-party rule.

The Federalists, who had done the most to establish the Constitution and the new government, naturally found themselves in a dominant position, almost unilaterally in control of the new polity they’d willed into being.  Former opponents of the Constitution either participated in the new experiment as a skeptical minority–ready to take action should the government fail–or chose to opt out entirely.

As long as George Washington was on the scene to embody the Federalist spirit and serve as president, most of his contemporaries were comfortable acceding to his authority.  He was elected president unanimously.  His immense personal popularity and the almost universal respect he commanded, both as statesman and commander-in-chief, limited dissent, as did longstanding ideas about the destructive effects of faction in a republican government and a practical recognition that infighting could destroy a government so new and frail.

Washington’s retirement and the succession of John Adams to the presidency in 1796 brought changes to the scene.  Under Adams, the repressive and restrictive tendencies of Federalism became more evident, and critics became justly concerned about his absolutist leanings.  Adams’ vice-president was Thomas Jefferson, who had served the new government faithfully as Washington’s Secretary of State and Minister to France.  Jefferson now became concerned about the direction of  government under Adams and the way the provisions of the Constitution were being realized.  While Adams hewed to a very backward-looking vision of the government, as being the province of a tiny group of elite leaders, Jefferson wanted to realize the Constitution’s more egalitarian possibilities.

With the aid of his fellow-Virginian, James Madison, Jefferson successfully mobilized other dissenting politicians to form a party dedicated to government along truly republican lines.  After a very nasty and bitterly fought campaign, Jefferson and his fellow “republicans” carried the day.  The election of 1800 established the nation’s ability to withstand a contested election, a landmark event that served to legitimate the idea of political parties–and partisan strife.


Photograph of President Andrew Jackson in old age

Despite the democratizing spirit that inspired the formation of the Jeffersonian party (or Democratic-Republicans, as they were sometimes called), politics remained a gentleman’s game, where men of a certain class ran the country and informally determined who the nation’s next leaders would be.  Madison and Monroe followed Jefferson in the presidency, and they were similar enough to him (and to George Washington) in outlook and background to inspire the phrase “Virginia Dynasty.” (All were Virginians and masters of plantations).

Nonetheless, satisfaction with the type of leadership they embodied was sufficient to give rise to what is known as the Era of Good Feelings, for once the Jeffersonians triumphed over the Federalists, that party gradually died, and no party of equal coherence took its place.  Instead, competition organized itself around the visions of particular men.  Instead of national parties, there were cliques of followers, as in 1824, when there were four presidential candidates, each backed by circles of “friends”.  Campaigning that year was carried forward by groups referring to themselves as “Adams’ men” or “Crawford’s men” or “Clay’s men,” for instance.

The disappointment of one of those four candidates–Andrew Jackson–would give rise to a tremendous upheaval in the next election cycle.  In 1824, Jackson won the popular vote for the presidency, but won only a plurality in the electoral college, rather than the majority that victory required.  This threw the election into the House of Representatives, where Henry Clay, the lowest-polling candidate, was also the Speaker.  Clay threw his support behind John Quincy Adams, giving him, rather than Jackson, the victory.  After the inauguration, Clay became Adams’s Secretary of State.

This “stolen election” infuriated Jackson.  He determined that in 1828 he would defeat Adams with a victory expressing the popular will, the people’s sovereignty.  In the process, he and his friends changed the very definition of democracy.  They embarked on a systematic campaign to establish Jackson committees in every state and reached out to engage a mass electorate in an unprecedented way, destroying the power of the coteries.  By the time the election was over, the Jacksonian Democrats were an organized national force, and Jackson had been elected by a landslide.  Assisting in Jackson’s victory was his friend and political ally Martin Van Buren, a brilliant political manager who understood that the future of American politics lay in engaging the public fully.

Not only did 1828 mark the birth of a new, more democratic style of presidential campaigning, it gave birth to a new type of president, who espoused a bold and distinctive set of ideas that were firmly “anti-aristocrat” and that rejected forms of government action believed to confer disproportionate benefits on the privileged.

Jackson came from a very different background from the men he succeeded.  His father had died before he was born, and he grew up with little schooling and in relative poverty.  He was from the frontier rather from the long-settled coastal regions of the country.  Jackson was, famously, a boy-soldier in the Revolution who experienced captivity and ill-treatment at the hands of British authorities.  Throughout his meteoric rise as a soldier, lawyer, judge, plantation-owner, and legislator, he retained a rough and violent side.  He was a person of great personal courage, whom the threat of pitched conflict did not unnerve one iota.

Not surprisingly, high levels of conflict characterized his presidency.  Jackson ran on a platform of “reform, retrenchment, and economy.”  He eliminated funding for many government-backed projects and wiped out the $60-million debt the government was carrying.  He refused to re-charter the national Bank of the United States, a private bank relied on to regulate the money supply, on the grounds that government should not be propping up its small group of directors.  Jackson pushed lifers out of the national civil service and tried to make it more of a meritocracy.  And he sought lower tariffs and designated funds to be given to the states to spend as they pleased.  Jackson’s extensive use of the veto enabled him to thwart and neutralize a Congress he viewed as elitist.  He was also an ardent nationalist who presided over the removal and relocation of Indian tribes from Georgia and other southeastern states, a shameful project known as the Trail of Tears.

Opposition to Jacksonianism coalesced in the newly emergent Whig Party.  The Whigs took up the mantle of the Federalists.  They advocated for commerce, a stronger national currency, and internal improvements (what we would call “infrastructure investment” today).  While the Democrats wanted decentralization and a laissez-faire economy, Whigs wanted a stronger federal government and tariffs to protect domestic manufacturing.

Many intelligent, influential people were drawn to the Whig Party, but it was born under an unlucky star.  Only two times did Whigs manage to win the presidency, and, on both occasions, the presidents died–William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Zachary Taylor a decade later.  In the latter instance, the succession of the southern-born Vice President, James Polk, to the presidency caused chaos within the leadership of the Whig Party.  By the mid-1850s, the party was in shambles, all its unity and promise gone.


Abraham Lincoln in 1860

Which brings us to the election of 1860, which I guess you could say is my favorite critical election.  Not just my favorite, but the one I think people like to know about because it precipitated this Civil War and resulted in the election of Lincoln.  It’s in this election that you can clearly see the emergence of a new constellation of political beliefs that were distinctive, and you can appreciate, I believe, how fluid the parties were back then: that parties devolved, they ended, and they became exhausted and they ceased to be, and that that was a very common phenomenon in the nineteenth century, and one that we’re a little bit less accustomed to these days, I think unfortunately.

The issue of slavery, and specifically whether slavery should be allowed to spread into new territories and states, was the thorniest issue in American politics, one so thorny that, for decades, the major parties sought to avoid it.  Throughout the 1820s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, whenever it was absolutely necessary to deal with the issue of slavery, the Whigs and Democrats compromised.  An equal division between slave and free states enabled the two parties to maintain a balance of power in the federal government, so, while neither party wanted to lose power by losing control of this issue, neither did they wish to alienate any of their voters by agitating this issue too strongly, for both parties drew support from all parts of the country.

During all this time, there was an abolition movement, but, to be honest, there were never enough Americans who felt strongly enough about this issue by itself to make it a mainstream party.  For decades, the drive to get rid of slavery outright languished, while the opening of many new territories in the West and the question of whether slavery would be allowed there made it increasingly important that the issue be settled.

Many members of the Whig party (including Abraham Lincoln) recognized that their party, though popular, was never going to be quite popular enough to triumph over the Democrats.  After 1850, single-issue parties–like the Know-Nothing Party, which was an anti-immigrant party, and the Anti-Slavery Party, which was an abolitionist party gaining some headway in New England and New York–began to draw off some of the Whigs’ base of support, and, with the death of President Taylor in 1854, the Whig Party itself began to dissolve.

This left many talented Whigs without a party.  Some became involved in the “Free Soil” movement.  Unlike the more radical Anti-Slavery Party, which was unequivocally against slavery–whether in the Old South or the new territories–, the Free-Soilers, as they were called, sought only to keep slavery out of the new territories.

Meanwhile, the urgency of the slavery question intensified.  After 1856, when violent pro- and anti-slavery forces began killing one another over whether slavery would be legal in the Kansas Territory, middle ground on the issue grew scarce.  The Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic party were deeply invested in slavery’s continuation and continued to defend it ardently.  Meanwhile, politicians in the North began trying to figure out how to make opposition to slavery a central element in a new mainstream party.

They did this by yoking  opposition to slavery’s expansion to other economic arguments that would appeal to white people.  Lincoln was one of the masters at this, arguing that a continued toleration of slavery would result in a “house divided” that could not stand.  Slavery could not be allowed to exist in a free economy, not just because slavery was bad, but because it weakened the rest of the economy and undermined the peaceful operation of our political system.  It threatened the independence and integrity of free whites.

In fact, Lincoln’s ability to strike a more moderate tone in discussing slavery was exactly what enabled him to prevail over other candidates seeking the new party’s presidential nomination in 1860: his rivals were all more openly and unequivocally anti-slavery.  The newly formed Republican Party appealed to white northern voters because it promised them that the territories would remain the domain of free workers rather than slaves, and that their prospects would be brighter because of the existence of “free soil.”  Republicans’ avowed desire to create economic opportunity for free white workers also garnered them the immigrant vote.

The Republicans swept to power with the potent formula “Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men.”  Even before the election, the Southern states had begun pledging armed resistance, breaking the Democratic Party apart into Northern and Southern wings.  Each wing put up its own slate of candidates, while in the South a hastily formed party of pro-slavery unionists provided a fourth alternative.  As we know, solid Northern support carried the Republicans and Lincoln to victory, setting off a Civil War and consigning the Democrats to oblivion for the next twenty-five years.  Such was the birth of our present-day Republican party, though, from then to now, it has undergone much change.


Photograph of President William McKinley in 1900

We don’t think much today about William McKinley.  Assassinated in 1901, just a few months into his second term, and succeeded by his charismatic vice-president Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley had an understated style of governing.  His election in 1896 was nonetheless a pivotal event, ushering in major operational changes in politics and redefining Republicanism in ways that altered its base of support and ideals.  In 1896, the party shook off the vestiges of its Civil War identity and poised itself to do battle in the twentieth century.

The Civil War had a devastating impact on the parties, which the passage of time was slow to heal.  The southern rebellion had left the Republicans unilaterally in charge of the government for several decades, and even after the so-called “end” of “Reconstruction” in 1876, political sentiments remained balkanized.  A solid South supported the Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, corruption and issues related to the commodification of agricultural output and other farming grievances tended in the late-nineteenth century to hold center stage.  Ruinous fluctuations in crop and land prices and the growing power of railroads, banks, and grain speculators fueled a populist movement in the South and Midwest that was hard to contain.  The Republicans had lost their edge in appealing to those who might once have identified themselves as “free soilers.”  Yet, all was not lost, for McKinley and other Republicans correctly saw that the power of rural voters was destined to wane, as more and more Americans became city-dwelling.

With demography on their side, McKinley and his advisers fashioned a platform catering to the the urban and industrialized parts of the country, using advocacy for the gold standard to gain support among Eastern capitalists, and advocating protectionism in a way that appealed to manufacturers and skilled workers alike.  During the primary season, McKinley’s forces also sought to break down the monopoly over the South that the Democratic Party had long enjoyed.  McKinley’s success in securing the support of some Southern delegates proved crucial to his nomination.

In the general election, McKinley secured a solid victory over his Democratic opponent William Jennings Bryan, an outcome attributed largely to the formidable strategic skills of McKinley’s friend Mark Hanna.  Just as Martin van Buren presided over the birth of Jacksonian Democracy, so Mark Hanna recast the politics of his era.  McKinley and Hanna were both from Ohio, then the economic powerhouse of the US.  While McKinley maintained the illusion of passively awaiting the verdict of the general election (in what was alluded to as the “front porch” campaign), Hanna worked tirelessly behind the scenes, raising an unprecedented amount of money and increasing the potency of the Republican committees.  His efforts capped off a period during which the bureaucratic structures of both parties increased to the point where their organizations became permanent and national.  Hanna is said to have outspent the Democratic opposition by a margin of five to one.

Although in the coming years, the Republicans would harbor a progressive wing, with McKinley’s election they shifted decisively away from the landed and egalitarian basis they emphasized previously.  Henceforth, the party became the champion of big business, catering to the needs of capitalism and industry, and working to enhance America’s growing global might.


FDR in 1930

Our next critical election was in 1932, with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  In a way, this critical election belongs in a category all by itself.  Because it was through FDR’s election, really, not prior to it, that a big ideological change occurred within the Democratic party.  It’s a perfect example of how parties can change within themselves, just as the Republicans did during the election of 1896, where they abandoned their foundational ideas and formulated new ones that enabled them to become a substantially different party.

The same thing happened after FDR gained office.  Sure, he mentioned something about a ‘new deal’ when he was running, but no one knew what that meant, and it wasn’t in his interests to elaborate.  The distress of the Great Depression was driving voters away from the incumbent Republican Herbert Hoover; FDR’s only task was not to alienate them.  Only after his election did he and his “brain trust” figure out what the New Deal meant, and create and defend the ideology of the New Deal, which had to do with a more active government, a government active in times of distress, especially.

This was a new theme: the theme of protecting people from calamity.  The whole notion of social welfare was one that earlier generations of American leaders didn’t really consider.  What we think of today as securing a particular quality of life for Americans and keeping them from true hardship: this had not been a dominant idea.  It had been a lesser idea.  That the government needed to take an interest in securing our well-being now came to the fore for the first time.  This conception lastingly reshaped the Democratic Party, as this traditional champion of decentralization and states rights became a champion of centralization, regulation, and greater state power.

New Deal Democrats were understandably intent on finding ways to uplift the nation and its citizens in a time of terrible and endemic calamity.  This wasn’t something that needed to be done only for the sake of the poor and the downtrodden; the Depression affected so many people at every level of economic existence that it was a matter of great national concern.  By the end of Roosevelt’s first two terms in office, a host of new government practices and institutions had been established.  To paraphrase FDR’s biographer, Alan Brinkley, during this period the government established Social Security and other forms of assistance for the poor and unemployed; began protecting the rights of labor unions; created a more stable banking system; instituted agricultural price supports and farm subsidies; established a prototype for the FDIC; and undertook many other initiatives the government had never before contemplated.

Now, you may decide that you don’t approve of a lot of the things that happened during the New Deal era, whose consequences extended far beyond FDR’s presidency, which ended with his death in the mid-1940s.  You can say, “Oh, we didn’t need the WPA,” or “We didn’t need the CCC,” but in fact by the time it was over, banking, farming, and the labor system had been changed, as had the nature of the pact between ordinary people and their government.  All these fruits of the New Deal are still with us, and this is why FDR’s election was a critical election.  It changed the entire landscape, political and economic, and it changed who the Democrats were, in ways that were permanent and profound.


Official photographic portrait of Ronald Reagan

Our most recent critical election occurred in 1980.  It carried Ronald Reagan into the White House and rejuvenated the Republican party, again changing its identity.  Now, to this day, many liberals dismiss Reagan as a fool, mistaking his folksiness for foolishness, and shrugging him off as simplistic and naive.  People who fail to credit Reagan with enormous shrewdness and judgment, though, are much mistaken.

What’s interesting about Reagan’s election is not so much Reagan himself but the whole ferment that occurred in conservative America around the time he came to prominence, and the way he and his coterie assimilated those ideological trends and political forces and rode them to power.  All those subcutaneous percolations and permutations stamped his presidency with great significance.  Because, when Reagan came to power, so did certain ideas, and certain elements of the body politic, which are still very much with us, attained influence for the first time.

The first of three major ideological elements that became important in 1980 and afterward was the Moral Majority.  The Moral Majority was composed—not of Christians per se, but of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, of conservative Christians—who organized themselves and decided that they wanted to make a difference in the polity; they wanted to use their political power as citizens to further agendas that were moral in nature.  Although we no longer use the term Moral Majority to describe the religious right, they remain one of the most significant political forces in the country.  It is equally important to recognize that, though powerful, they are a minority rather than the majority they wish to be.  But, since their emergence in the 1980s, they have used their considerable influence to push the state to “legislate morality,” in a manner that our Founding Fathers could not have foreseen.

Besides this moral stance, Reagan Republicans embraced two other transformative ideas.  The first was the idea of returning power to the states, basically countering the centralizing aspect of national politics.  The direction of our political evolution had been toward greater power in the federal government, and people on the right correctly argued that this centralizing aspect is only one strain of our political tradition; the other aspect of federalism is state identity, state variety.  Republicans took this basic idea and managed to go a long way with it; many people found it very empowering.  The idea of returning power to the states was a very appealing idea and something that, though at the moment you may not have agreed with all of its implications, was a legitimate organizing idea.  It served to correct an excessive activism at the federal level, which many people had come to see as ineffective and costly.  For, though the government was purporting to carry out many noble goals on behalf of the nation and its people, there was widespread skepticism about whether those goals were being realized, or even could be.  The Democratic Party was slow to realize this, but it was true.

The final concept central to the Reagan era was, of course, Reaganomics.  What a great term.  Reaganomics entailed the embrace of laissez-faire economics—the principle of “letting the market be”—, along with an unflagging belief that free-market capitalism would confer broad benefits on the whole American people.  If only government would refrain from interfering, the benefits of a powerful unfettered capitalism would “trickle down” to society’s very lowest levels.  Republicans still rely heavily on this idea.  It receives reinforcement from the principle of limited government.  The idea that prosperity created at the top will “trickle down” and benefit all Americans magically wills away the idea of any conflict or tension in capitalism, while supplying a political justification for helping capitalists and corporations enrich themselves to the fullest degree they can manage.

Now, if most of this sounds familiar to you, it’s because this historical moment has defined the Republican stance down to the present day.  The crystallization of these disparate ideas into something called Reagan Republicanism has served the party well, gaining it enough support to capture the White House for the past 20 out of 32 years.  Even now, Republican hopefuls try to wrap themselves in Reagan’s mantle–a sure sign that these ideas are stale.  The 2008 defeat of the McCain-Palin ticket demonstrated the difficulty of continuing to hold together a national majority on the basis of Reagan-era ideas.  That the Republican party is in crisis continues to be evident in the present election cycle.  (If you don’t believe me, check out this article by Thomas L. Friedman.)


So, that would be my recap of the critical elections.  Now for a few conclusions.

1. One of the things we can observe about critical elections is that they are periodic.  They don’t happen close together.  No, they tend to happen at 30-, 40-, even 50-year intervals.  They occur as new conditions and preoccupations emerge that the existing ideologies of the parties do not adequately speak to.  Critical elections are the mechanism by which our massive parties remain relevant to voters and the country.  Historically, the best party leaders have been able to understand and anticipate national needs and refocus their party’s mission around those concerns.  This is what doesn’t seem to be happening now.  It’s not just something that the Democratic Party isn’t doing; no, neither of the political parties is doing this.  Yet the time for a critical election is now.

2.  Past critical elections demonstrate the great mutability of our political parties.  It’s inspiring to know that the polity can and has functioned without the political parties we have currently.  Over time, the two parties we are familiar with today have changed substantially.  There’s nothing irrevocable about the ideology of our parties, and we can all benefit when their core ideas are retooled.

3.  As our parties change, they appeal to different elements of the electorate, so that the same parties have had very different voter bases over time.  Prior to the Civil War, for example, the Democratic Party was a favorite of the more laissez-faire elements of the citizenry.  One of its strongest bases of support was Southern slaveholders, along with others who did not want an overly active central government.  It was many, many years before the modern, activist Democratic Party came into being.  There is no reason why it cannot now change itself substantially from within, just as it did in the 1930s.

Similarly, the Republican Party has gone through some amazing transformations prior to its emergence as a favorite of Evangelicals, market capitalists, and social conservatives.  In its infancy, the Republican Party had embraced the idea of a free multiracial republic, empowered by a more equitable ownership and enjoyment of landed property.  Its past was very different from the sort of pro-capitalist triumphalism that many of its leaders are committed to today.  As with the Democratic Party, there is no reason why the Republican Party cannot reinvent itself, embracing a more nuanced and worldly conception of our civic state and thereby recovering the broad support of the American mainstream that it enjoyed until lately.

4.  A final and very important observation has to do with the role of thought and strategic organization in achieving these crucial redefinitions within the parties.  All of our critical elections have been centered on figures who have proved to be extraordinary statesmen, but the ideological transformations they are associated with have never been the work of just one person.  Critical elections depend upon ideas–on their articulation, appreciative promotion, and recombination.  Critical elections occur when ideas and principles are recombined, coalescing into an ideology that is coherent and appealing.  This is too big a task for a single person to accomplish.  In every critical election, scores of intellectuals, writers, political strategists, and operatives have labored tirelessly behind the scenes and in their various states and regions, fashioning and popularizing principles and strategies that have revitalized their parties.  Their judgment and knowledge, as well as their sensitivity to the needs of the state and the broad mass of the citizenry, have been essential in the creating platforms that voters can be proud of and rally around.  The occurrence of a critical election thus represents a massive intellectual and organizational achievement.

When will we have another critical election?  For my take on what’s been happening with the parties since 1980, read this sequel: 2008: The Critical Election that Wasn’t (Part II).