From a Facebook discussion I’m having:
How are you defining “conservative,” James? I’ve done a lot of reading on the 19th Century, and the early Republican Party has always seemed mighty liberal to me. You know, “Radical” Republicans, valuing civil rights over property rights, redistributing wealth–40 acres and a mule and all that.
I should probably start by linking back to my first post, which sketches out my basic understanding of what conservatism is all about. (And I should probably apologize to Brian for not yet replying to his comment.) Now we can go from there.
I, too, have done much reading on 19th century politics, especially surrounding the War. The only Republican president I ever saw who was more conservative than Mr. Reagan was Mr. Lincoln — fine though the line that he was forced to walk. His fealty to the rule of law, and especially the text of the Constitution; his sturdy resistance to the Democratic doctrine (championed by Steven Douglas and the Dred Scott Court, which is now nearly ubiquitous and protected by Cooper v. Aaron) that Supreme Court rulings are binding on all constitutional actors in every respect; his steady prosecution of a bloody and wearisome war despite quagmire, incompetence, and peace riots in the streets of New York, simply because it was his necessary duty; and, above all, his reluctant determination to grant equal protection of the laws to *all* persons, even when inconvenient… all these signify a president who is living out conservative principles under the most trying circumstances imaginable. Lincoln might easily have used the war to subvert or undermine the Constitution, assail federalist principles, and establish federal police powers, as Wilson would do during World War I — but he didn’t, because, even when he feared that he might have no choice, Lincoln loved that document and all the principles it stood for. It sings through all his writings, from the debates with Douglas to the Cooper Union address on to the First Inaugural. Package that loyalty to the Law up in a man with a cool head, a sharp, quiet wit, and a deep humility and reverence toward the Almighty (seen best in his Second Inaugural), and you’ve got a man I’d love to see atop the GOP ticket today.
Ah, well. So much for that.
I must admit myself considerably sympathetic to the radicals in Congress, though. As you say, they campaigned quite ruthlessly so that all men might be treated equally under the law — the basis for the age-old Republican belief in maximizing equality of opportunity before (and, when necessary, against) equality of outcome. They enforced this through a military occupation won by right of war — a right I don’t think political liberals have recognized since at least Armistice Day. (It was under the auspices of military conquest that General Sherman instituted his short-lived policy of “40 Acres and a Mule.” Though never enacted by any Congress, it would have been no sin against property to seize that owned by the vanquished and yield it to their slaves. Still, Lincoln thought it unjust and imprudent, and I must pay him some deference.)
In short, early Republicans were social conservatives, obsessed with affirming the equal right of every human being to rise or fall on his own two feet, equally protected under the law. They were foreign policy conservatives, willing to prosecute a war that was extraordinary in its extravagant expense, bloodletting, and the national agony it engendered, despite the fierce opposition of more short-sighted protesters — and they were willing to prosecute the occupation for as long as necessary. They were obsessed with the Constitution and its particular text, obeying that text despite the less studied broad assertions of the secessionists (and the Northern Democrats), even when that meant ignoring the unconstitutional orders of the Supreme Court when directed against the co-equal executive and legislative branches. And it so happens that they were economic conservatives, too, defending property rights in the territories and opposed to large deficits and any but the most basic spending on national improvements like roads and the Transcontinental Railroad. (Although, back then, EVERYONE was an economic conservative compared to everyone today save Ron Paul.)
About the only place a modern Republican would part ways with the GOP platforms of 1856, 1860, or 1864 would be on legal immigration, and then only because there is a great deal more *il*legal immigration now than there was immigration of any sort at the time.
I know much less of the GOP during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Age. I can say that I am certainly disappointed with President T. Roosevelt, who ultimately broke away from the party anyway, but I am generally fond of President Coolidge. I am uncertain whether I think better of modern free-trading conservative doctrine or old high-tariff conservative doctrine, but, either way, there’s clearly been a change in tarriff policy over time.
Our great sin as a party was allowing that scumbag Nixon to adopt his “Southern strategy” to win votes along purely racial lines. It was a disgusting betrayal of ancient conservative principles — but, then, betraying conservative principles, from wage controls to Watergate, was more or less Nixon’s metier. (Not that Watergate was a “liberal” thing to do. No, it was just a scummy thing to do.) It has cost us far, far more than the exactly nothing we gained through the fifteen years between the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the election of Ronald Reagan, and lost us (quite rightly!) the loyalty of a demographic group conservatism has otherwise done nothing but champion from its rebirth in 1856 down to today. One day — perhaps as progressives continue to use the courts to deprive the unborn of human rights, endeavor to nationalize everything from Boeing plant locations to lightbulbs, and usurp the institutions of religion by mandates and broad redefinitions of institutions in which the State has no prior right to interfere — we may hope to win those voters back. Until then, we have penance to do.