WASHINGTON: Democrats invented American slavery, and Republicans ended it. This is just one notion that Republicans and their biggest fans—men like Dinesh D’Souza and Mark Levin—now push with regards to race. Their historical mythology says that Republicans tried to heal the wounds inflicted on America by the race policies of Democrats. These intellectual entrepreneurs blame the Democratic Party for slavery, Jim Crow and almost every other race-based blot on American history.
Republicans, in this revisionist history, are the angels who wiped out the racial inequities imposed on America by Democrats.
This is a pudding of untruths studded with plums of equivocation. But we are dealing with political parties, the very wombs of prevarication.
Dinesh D’Souza is a naturalized American who understands his adopted country’s history about as well as most people understand quantum physics. He claims that Democrats were responsible for slavery, as if the DNC existed in the 17th century and held Hollywood fundraisers to finance slave ships.
If his target is the Democratic Party—formerly the Democratic-Republican Party, formally called the Republican Party—founded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in 1792, that party was no more or less responsible for slavery in America than the Whigs.
The story of slavery in America flatters neither party.
Most American schoolchildren learn about “molasses, rum and slaves“, the triangular slave trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. The Portuguese began exploring the African coast in the 1430s, looking for gold. They found slaves, and by 1500 had taken over 80,000 of them to sell in Europe and to Muslim merchants in Africa.
After the discovery of the Americas, slave traders began taking Africans to Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America, ultimately transporting over 11 million people across the Atlantic as cheap labor. A million and a half of them died in transit.
In 1860, slaves made up 57 percent of the population in South Carolina. This is the highest percentage of any slave-owning state in the union. Mississippi’s slave percentage was 55 percent, followed by Louisiana (47 percent), Alabama (45 percent), and Florida and Georgia (44 percent). In 1860, Virginia had the highest slave population, 490,865, of any state in the country.
These states were the first six states to secede from the Union following Lincoln’s election.
Just a year later, Virginia was home to the Confederate capital of Richmond.
Who bought the slaves?
Most slaves in North America were purchased from the Caribbean. From 1600 to 1776, they ended up in almost every colony. According to Ira Berlin, in 1770, there were almost 5,000 slaves in Massachusetts, 5,700 in Connecticut, and over 19,000 in New York. Merchants, plantation owners and regular householders all bought slaves.
By 1700, over 40 percent of New York City’s households held slaves.
Slave ownership crossed party lines. These slaves were held by people who ended up in every major political party after American independence.
D’Souza claims that the Democratic Party was pro-slavery
D’Souza argues “scientifically” that not a single Republican owned a slave in 1860. “Name five”, he demands, and he’ll withdraw the claim. The claim is almost certainly true. The claim is not that no Republicans had ever held slaves, but only that, in 1860, none did.
The Republican Party was created in 1854 from the ruins of the Whig Party in direct response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the extension of slavery into some U.S. territories. Its early ideology was in support of classical liberalism. Because Republicans opposed expanding slavery, it isn’t surprising that, by 1860, when they first came to power, there were no Party leaders who owned slaves.
But the Republicans were not all abolitionists. Many considered black people human only in principle. They opposed extending slavery into the western territories, but many were inclined to leave it in place in the South. However, many did hope to repatriate freed slaves to Africa or Central America.
Lincoln’s Panama Plan called for relocating former slaves to Central America, including Panama and Belize, the British Colonies (REMEMBER THAT TIME ABRAHAM LINCOLN TRIED TO GET THE SLAVES TO LEAVE AMERICA?):
As early as April 10, 1861, two days before the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the new president met with Ambrose W. Thompson, head of the Chiriquí Improvement Association, to explore the creation of a colony for emigrants in Panama, where newly arrived emancipated slaves would earn a living by mining coal for the Navy. Gideon Welles, the secretary of the navy, opposed Lincoln’s scheme, but three other members of the cabinet — Interior Secretary Caleb Smith, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and Attorney General Edward Bates — supported the plan.
Lincoln, like several other antislavery Republicans and activists, had a long, deep attachment to freed-slave colonization.
Since 1816, the American Colonization Society had sought to relocate free blacks to Africa
Proponents of colonization included two of Lincoln’s political heroes, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Clay. Others were John Marshall, James Madison, and Daniel Webster. Even Harriett Beecher Stowe supported the idea.
Lincoln’s position on race was not, by modern standards, enlightened. In his opening remarks during his first debate with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln said:
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.
The Black Codes and Jim Crow
D’Souza claims that Jim Crow laws were Democratic innovations. That’s a simplification so gross that bends the concept of truth. The Republicans were in power during the period of Reconstruction, which lasted from the end of the Civil War until 1877. The North maintained a military occupation of the South during this period.
The Southern states, Democratic in opposition to the conquering, Republican North, enacted a series of laws in 1865-6 to suppress the newly freed blacks, the Black Codes. These codes restricted black “vagrancy”, limited property ownership, and otherwise worked to keep freed blacks subservient to their former masters.
And these codes weren’t opposed by the Republican North. The Northern states maintained laws similar to the Black Codes, designed to keep freed blacks out. It was, as many said, that Lincoln and the Republicans freed the slaves then ignored the blacks.
Jim Crow laws were enacted in the South in the 1890s. By now the North had abandoned Reconstruction, leaving the South to its own devices. Once again it ignored the blacks. The political and military war over slavery had been won, and Republicans had no interest in waging a war over civil rights.
Federalism is not nationalism
“There was a civil war that was fought, fought between two groups – one group, states’ rights, and slavery; another group, federalism, and anti-slavery. Now, that’s simplistic, but you get the point.” – Mark Levin: ‘I Support’ Dems Paying’ Reparations’ to Progeny of Slaves
Federalism is not nationalism, which is what Levine preaches. The concept of federalism in the United States – the states united in a federated union – is that of state sovereignty i.e., states’ rights, which ensures that states oversee the federal government.
“States’ Rights” is the explicit principle for which the South fought, and federal primacy is the principle that technically animated the North. Leven thus argues that the same people were both for and against slavery. His view is the simplistic one.
Messy political legacies
This D’Souza-Levin argument over which party is better on slavery and civil rights is largely a pointless one. Both D’Souza and Levin implicitly assume that today’s Democrats and Republicans are the direct intellectual heirs of their namesakes 150 years ago. It’s as if we were to praise modern descendants of Thomas Jefferson for their ancestor’s brilliance or damn them for his use of Sally Hemmings and his black slaves.
Factional disputes in Jefferson’s Republican Party begat the Democrats under Andrew Jackson. The Republican Party rose from the ashes of the Whigs, taking its name from Jefferson’s same Republican Party. The Republicans were the “progressives” of their time, the Democrats, the conservatives.
Death of a Nation
D’Souza’s latest film asks if we can, as we did in age of the Civil War and President Lincoln, bring this nation together, again.
Probably. But it won’t be any quicker, or easier, than it was during the Civil War. But a first step is to make sure we have the history of the players in that earlier battle correct. Sure, Southern Democrats fought for the furtherance of the slave state. And most Northern Republicans, sans the very wealthy, did not own slaves. But neither side can hold themselves up as a beacon of slave morality.
So what, exactly, are Republicans heirs to? A name. Nothing more.
Republicans were historically opposed to slavery. They were never supportive of full civil rights for the blacks they sought to free. They never wanted them to live among them, work side by side with them, marry their children or attend their schools.
Until the 1940s, those racial boundaries were taken as a given by both Republicans and Democrats.
Since the 1940s, the race game has played out with new goals, new rules, new motivations. Republicans and Democrats have chosen their sides and their strategies. They’ve used black Americans as pawns, recruited them as allies, proposed different models of bringing them to economic and legal equality, and largely failed at the former while succeeding at the latter.
Which side did better for enslaved blacks is irrelevant to the question of which side has done better for blacks today. Politics is a business, and every businessperson wants to know, what have you done for me today?
In a free society, Levin and D’Souza can say anything they like, and they usually do. But history is what it is, not what the loudest person says it is. Their goal is to create a narrative to frame modern political debates. That’s rhetoric and politics, not history. Your great grandfather might have been a wonderful man, but how good you are depending only on you.
The same goes for your Party.
Dr. James Picht is editor and contributor to this article