Interest in the American Civil War never abates. Now in the run up to many commemorations, and as new sources are exhumed, historians are threading new connections: between the battlefield; politics, patronage, the two-party system, nationalism, and immigration. Was it President Lincoln the Emancipator or Lincoln the secretive politician, that was responsible for the development and growth of the Republican Party?
Why did the Republican Party not whither away when the Whigs and many other parties did? The answers are complicated and bear scrutiny.
On his way to a modicum of political rehabilitation, President Hoover spoke at the 1952 Republican Party convention in Chicago. “The Whig party,” he said with prescient hindsight, “temporized and compromised on the issue of freedom for the Negro. That party disappeared. Shall the Republican party receive or deserve any better fate if it compromises upon the issue of freedom for all men.”
Another Republican leader Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen, who had a long career in the House and the Senate from 1933 to 1969, when the Democratic Party was in the majority. He introduced over 140 pieces of civil rights legislation in his Congressional career. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins credited Dirksen with the heroic role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
At his funeral in 1969, Dirksen’s son-in-law, Senator Howard Baker delivered the eulogy. He compared ‘EV’ to Lincoln. “Both men understood with singular clarity that a great and diverse people do not speak with a singular voice and that adherence to a rigid ideology leaves little room for compromise and response to change”
Baker continued. EV had the “ability to compromise and change his position on an issue while never compromising his convictions.”
Who are the compromisers in both parties – Democratic and Republican – when the Congress is embroiled with substantive issues that divide the nation and beg for compromise? Beyond “where are the compromisers,” where is the spirit of compromise?
Two powerful and well-spoken columnists Tom Friedman in the New York Times and Don Wycliff in the Chicago Tribune have both asked this question recently. Wycliff states that he does not understand the party of Lincoln that cannot make peace with the outcome of the Civil War. Tom Friedman is fearful that vitriolic hateful language will provoke a madman as has happened too often in many nations.
Both men urged the majority not to remain silent.
I, therefore, close on an optimistic note. On Friday I joined a panel of activists and scholars, when Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. convened his Issues Forum at the Black Caucus Foundation meeting in Washington D.C. The program, entitled “From Lincoln to Obama” attracted a large and engaged audience. Many cited the similar personality traits between Lincoln and Obama. Many noted that younger voters especially in the South and the West saw a more perfect union emerging rather than rigid regional divides. Others noted that without a Lincoln and his successors there would not have been an Obama.