Recent years have seen a new revisionist theme emerge in the history of America’s two principal, modern-day political parties – the Democrats and Republicans. In the new debate, two questions have emerged: Did the two parties switch platforms at any point in history? And did the Democrats, with its longtime Southern stronghold, always have a monopoly on racism and white supremacy, traits that are still with them today?
These questions have always sparked historical debate but have now crept into the political arena. And with the recent work of Dinesh D’Souza, specifically his book Hillary Clinton’s America, which is an attack on the Democratic Party and its entire history, the issue has only grown larger as other conservative pundits have picked up a general theme: There never was a party switch and Democrats, largely controlled by the South for most of its history, have always been the party of white supremacy and racism.
For years modern Democrats have pushed a false narrative that the parties switched places in the 1960s with passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all in an attempt to demonstrate progressivism in matters of race. Their contention is that all the old racists that controlled the Democratic Party, mainly from the South, switched to the Republicans after Lyndon Johnson and congressional Democrats pushed through civil and voting rights legislation. It’s the main reason, they say, that the South transformed itself from solid Democrat to solid Republican and explains why the GOP is today, supposedly, full of bigots.
Republicans have begun a campaign to fight back against this “party switch myth” with a newfound “truth” of no party switchover, creating a narrative of their own to bash Democrats (and the South) with the stick of historical bigotry and white supremacy, giving them a taste of their own medicine if you will.
D’Souza, as well as the multitude of YouTube videos by various conservatives covering the subject, have correctly pointed out that this Democratic 1960s “party switch” narrative is without a basis in historical fact. The only prominent Southern Democrat that switched parties was the old Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, who did so in 1964 in support of Barry Goldwater, who had voted against the civil rights bill. But many prominent segregationists, like George Wallace, Bill Clinton’s mentor J. William Fulbright, and KKK leader Robert Byrd, remained Democrats. D’Souza and others contend that the same spirit of racism, and “subjugation, oppression, exploitation, and theft,” which has plagued it since its inception, is alive and well in the Democratic Party today.
These pundits are correct in that there is no evidence of a party switch in the 1960s or anytime after that. But where conservatives err is by suggesting that the parties have never switched ideological places at any time in American history. Their reason is simple: It allows them to trash modern Democrats (and the South), tying them to everything racially bad in our country’s storied history using the three S’s – slavery, secession, segregation – and giving credit to Republicans for everything good – ending slavery, opposing secession, and fighting for civil rights. But it’s a narrative that is simply not true and easily debunked.
In one prominent example of this new Republican theme, the folks at PragerU have an Internet video called “The Inconvenient Truth About the Democratic Party,” complete with quotes by the likes of Eric Foner and hosted by an African-American history professor at Vanderbilt, in which we get some interesting gems: Democrats defended slavery, started the Civil War, opposed Reconstruction, founded the Ku Klux Klan (“a military force serving the interests of the Democratic Party,” says Foner), established white supremacy, imposed black codes and segregation, restricted black voting rights with poll taxes and literacy tests, perpetrated lynchings, and fought against the Civil Rights Acts in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Republican Party, they tell us, was founded in 1854 as an anti-slavery party in order to stop the spread of slavery into the new western territories with the aim of abolishing it entirely, which was eventually accomplished by Abraham Lincoln, the “man who freed the slaves” but who was tragically assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a Democrat, then succeeded by another Democrat, Andrew Johnson, who “adamantly opposed Lincoln’s plan to integrate the newly freed slaves into the South’s economic and social order.” And on and on and on.
Other political polemics are also making their way around the Internet covering the same ground. One is an old Democratic Party ad from the 1860s, clearly meant to advocate white supremacy. The caption reads: “The Two Platforms,” depicting the Democrats with the platform “for the white man” and the Republicans “for the Negro.”
Ben Shapiro, during one of his Young America’s Foundation appearances last year, said this about the two parties: “Jim Crow was an entirely Democratic proposition. Slavery was an entirely Democratic proposition. The Republican Party was founded in opposition to slavery. The Republican Party fought against Jim Crow.”
Though a few of these facts from D’Souza, PragerU, and Shapiro can’t be disputed, not all of them are true. For one, D’Souza writes that the “defenders of the Confederate cause were, almost without exception, Democrats.” But this is simply not accurate, for not all Confederates were Democrats, nor were all slaveholders; in fact many of the largest slave owners across the South were Whigs and, once that party collapsed, became Know-Nothings precisely because they wouldn’t join the Democrats.
In the Confederacy there were no political parties but many of the civil officials had belonged to one or more parties while still in the old Union. Yet they were not all Democrats, as some had been Whigs or belonged to various third parties that popped up during the antebellum period. President Jefferson Davis had been a lifelong Democrat but his Vice President, Alexander H. Stephens, had been a longtime Whig, a Unionist during the fight over the Compromise of 1850, a Constitutional Unionist, then a Democrat after the war.
The President of the Confederate Convention, Howell Cobb, had been a Democrat and then joined the Constitutional Union Party. Robert Toombs was a Whig, a Democrat, and a Constitutional Unionist. R. M. T. Hunter of Virginia had also been a Whig and then a Democrat. Such was not uncommon among Confederates.
The claim that the Democrats started the war, a favorite of many modern Republicans, is an obvious reference to two things: Secession, which some conservative commentators are strangely fond of tagging as “treason,” and the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. But no mention is ever made about the multitude of arguments on the legality of secession, or the fact that the Founders “seceded” from the British Empire, or that the North threatened to secede on more occasions than the South, or Lincoln’s illegal invasion of the Southern states, an act that would constitute treason under the Constitution since Lincoln contended that the South never actually seceded. His armada moving down the eastern seaboard in April 1861 would have been cause enough for anyone to attack the fort, which was Lincoln’s entire objective.
As for the issues of white supremacy, segregation, and violence against blacks, the Republican Party was not exactly a stronghold of saints. Yet these conservative commentators like to pretend otherwise. As D’Souza writes, “Democrats have historically brutalized, segregated, exploited, and murdered the most vulnerable members of our society.” Republicans “are the ones who have the least reason to feel guilty about slavery or racism,” he says.
Upon reading the above sentences, one might consider the dilemma of American Indian tribes. Of their treatment D’Souza also blames Democrats exclusively. “For more than a century,” he writes, “this party [Democrats] focused its oppression on blacks and American Indians. The venue of this oppression was the slave population and the Indian reservation. The Democrats stole the land from the Indians, and the labor and lives of the blacks.”
It seems that D’Souza has never studied the plight of the Plains Indians, whose near total extermination was an exclusively Republican operation. In fact, the book mentions nothing about the post-war US Army – Lincoln’s army – led by Republicans William T. Sherman and Phil Sheridan, of “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” fame, in their decades-long military campaign of massacre on the Great Plains with the sole aim of complete and total subjugation of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes. By 1900 the US census showed just 250,000 American Indians remaining out of a once-thriving population numbering in the millions.
As for white supremacy in regard to blacks, it pervaded the exclusively Northern GOP every bit as much as it did the Democrats in the 19th century. In fact, by today’s standards of race, the whole country believed in white supremacy, save a handful of racial egalitarians, but they were an extremely rare find.
Aside from Lincoln’s oft-quoted racist views, the examples of Northern bigotry are numerous:
The French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s that racial prejudice was stronger in the North than in the South. “The prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.”
Republican Leland Stanford, who, as a wealthy railroad magnate began Stanford University, said in 1859 in his campaign for governor of California, “The cause in which we are engaged is one of the greatest in which any can labor. It is the cause of the white man…I am in favor of free white American citizens. I prefer free white citizens to any other race. I prefer the white man to the negro as an inhabitant to our country. I believe its greatest good has been derived by having all of the country settled by free white men.”
Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, a good friend of Lincoln, also labeled the GOP a party for whites. “We the Republican party, are the white man’s party. We are for the free white man, and for making white labor acceptable and honorable, which it can never be when negro slave labor is brought into competition with it.” He also said, “There is a very great aversion in the West – I know it to be so in my State – against having free negroes come among us. Our people want nothing to do with the negro.”
Republican Senator John Sherman of Ohio said on the Senate floor in 1862, “In the State where I live we do not like negroes. We do not disguise our dislike.” Sherman also admitted that the creation of a national bank was a greater cause than freeing the slaves and to have the former he would gladly give up the latter.
Republican William H. Seward, who would become Lincoln’s Secretary of State, said while still in the US Senate, “The motive of those who protested against the extension of slavery had always really been concern for the welfare of the white man, and not an unnatural sympathy for the Negro.”
New York Senator John Dix, who was a Democrat but became a Republican and served as a general in the war, and was later honored with the naming of Fort Dix, said in 1848 during a Senate debate over slavery in the territories that “free blacks would continue to be an inferior cast and simply die out.”
Hearing Dix’s remarks, a slaveholding Democratic Senator from Mississippi named Jefferson Davis rose to counter his colleague:
With surprise and horror I heard this announcement of a policy which seeks, through poverty and degradation, the extinction of a race of human beings domesticated among us. We, sir, stand in such a relation to that people as creates a feeling of kindness and protection. We have attachments which have grown with us from childhood – to the old servant who nursed us in infancy, to the man who was the companion of our childhood, and the not less tender regard for those who have been reared under our protection. To hear their extinction treated as a matter of public policy or of speculative philosophy arouses our sympathy and our indignation.
And it was because of the racist attitudes prevailing in the North that segregation pervaded that region throughout the 19th century and into the next. As C. Vann Woodward has written in his book The Strange Career of Jim Crow, it was the North that began segregation, not the South. “One of the strangest things about the career of Jim Crow,” he writes, “was that the system was born in the North and reached an advanced age before moving South in force.” By contrast, the South’s slave society by its very nature was integrated.
D’Souza credits Republicans for launching what he calls the “original civil rights revolution” in the 1860s and 1870s. At the end of the war, the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery garnered 100 percent Republican support, he reminds us, but just 23 percent from Democrats. Congress then passed the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866 to overturn Dred Scott and grant citizenship to blacks, with exclusive Republican support and not a single vote from Democrats.
The Fifteenth Amendment, which would grant voting rights to black men, passed in 1868 by a vote of 39 to 13 in the Senate, with all 39 coming from Republicans, while all 13 “no” votes came from Democrats. But D’Souza never mentions the significant fact that most Northern states prohibited black voting, even during the same period of Reconstruction when Congress was imposing it on the South, first with the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, then the Fifteenth Amendment. In fact, only a few Northern states allowed blacks to vote, and in the same year that the South was being forced to grant voting rights to male freed slaves, the Northern states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Connecticut rejected proposals to grant voting rights to black men.
D’Souza also cites Southern Democrats for their “infamous Black Codes,” approved by whites-only state legislatures and state constitutional conventions to greatly restrict the rights of newly freed slaves.
Fairly typical is the code Democrats adopted in South Carolina. Blacks were permitted to work only in certain professions, thus granting whites a labor monopoly in the remaining ones. White masters could whip young black servants. Blacks could not travel freely; if they did, they ran the risk of being declared “vagrants” in which case they could be arrested and imprisoned. Sheriffs could then assign hard labor or hire them out to white employers to work off their sentence. Black children could be apprenticed to white employers against their will.
Blacks were also prohibited from serving on juries, voting, carrying firearms, selling alcohol, or marrying whites. “Indignant at what they perceived as a southern Democratic attempt to nullify emancipation, Republicans struck down the Black Codes and began the process of Reconstruction,” a plan “aimed at rebuilding the South on a new plane of equality of rights between the races,” writes D’Souza.
But absent D’Souza’s polemic is another crucial fact: the North also had their own version of black codes which, in many cases, were worse than their Southern counterparts. In fact, Professor Tom Woods, in his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, states that the harsh Jim Crow laws were modeled after the Northern black codes.
Of these severe Northern “black laws” Robert Self Henry wrote that “there was hardly a feature of the apprenticeship and vagrancy acts of Mississippi, and of the other Southern states, which was not substantially duplicated in some of these Northern laws, while many of the Northern provisions were more harsh in their terms than anything proposed in the South.” Black vagrants in many Northern states could get anywhere from ninety days to three years in prison.
Free blacks were also prohibited from residing in several Northern states and, in the case of Lincoln’s Illinois, migrant blacks, as well as those who brought them into the state, faced stiff punishment, including whippings or being hired out as a laborer for a year. And it was not until the end of the war that the law forbidding free blacks from residing in the Land of Lincoln was repealed, an act that fined free blacks fifty dollars if caught in the state. It should be noted that Lincoln himself supported these Illinois black codes.
As for the often-cited votes on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 percent of House Democrats supported it, while 73 percent of Senate Democrats did. But the percentages were higher among Republicans, and LBJ did credit Everett Dirksen and the GOP with pushing it over the top, which has given modern pundits all the political fodder they need.
But the historical truth of a party switch is clear: the parties have, over time, changed ideological positions on many issues. A simple study of their platforms will demonstrate that fact clearly.
The original Democratic Party, first emerging with Andrew Jackson, at least organizationally, can trace its ideological heritage back to Thomas Jefferson. From Jefferson to Grover Cleveland, a period that encompasses a full century, the party was very conservative, as we define the term today, and advanced the principles of limited government, federalism, low taxes, revenue tariffs, no national debt, no bank, and a strict interpretation of the Constitution. It opposed energetic government, centralization, protective tariffs, internal taxes, a national debt, a bank, and a loose construction of the Constitution.
Just consider a few of the planks from the 1844 Democratic Party Platform:
That the Federal Government is one of limited powers, derived solely from the Constitution, and the grants of power shown therein ought to be strictly construed by all the departments and agents of the government, and that it is inexpedient and dangerous to exercise doubtful constitutional powers.
That the Constitution does not confer upon the General Government the power to commence or carry on a general system of internal improvements.
That it is the duty of every branch of the government to enforce and practice the most rigid economy in conducting our public affairs, and that no more revenue ought to be raised than is required to defray the necessary expenses of the government.
That the separation of the money of the government from banking institutions is indispensable for the safety of the funds of the government and the rights of the people.
The platform also denied the power of the federal government to charter a bank, to assume the debts of the states, or to levy protective tariffs. All of these are very conservative policies, unlike those of any of the opposition parties.
The permanent party of opposition, the “Party of Lincoln,” which emerged in 1854, took the opposite approach to the major policy issues of the day. They spent more, taxed more, and expanded the reach of government. As for civil rights and help for the freed slaves, those efforts praised by D’Souza, were made only to try to turn the South into a Republican stronghold, and when that failed to materialize, the North abandoned Reconstruction, and the plight of blacks, offering no assistance whatsoever to the South or any of its people.
As for the ideological change, it did not happen quickly but was an evolving process. For the Democrats, it began in 1896 with the presidential nomination of William Jennings Bryan. Following the history of the party through the 20th century, it became more progressive, particularly in terms of economic policy, with each successive presidential administration. For the Republicans, its move to conservatism began with Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, who were nothing like GOP predecessors Teddy Roosevelt or William Howard Taft. Since the Roaring Twenties, the Republican Party has remained, for the most part at least, a right-of-center party.
By the 1960s and ‘70s, more Southerners were moving into the Republican camp, not because of civil rights, but because it was the more conservative of the two parties. As D’Souza writes, “racism declined sharply in the South during the second half of the twentieth century,” while Southern whites switched parties “not for racist motives but for economic ones.” Indeed this is true. Racism and white supremacy were blights on our history that pervaded the whole nation, not just the South. But those days are long gone.
Though what D’Souza and others miss most of all is that the South has remained ideologically consistent through the history of the republic. The region has always been the stronghold of Jeffersonian political thought, more so than any other dominant political feature. Where the true principles of the American Revolution can be found, there the South will ever so remain.