8/1/11 - a time when americans "voted as they shot"

In today's excerpt - one legacy of the Civil War was that America was cemented into a two-party system as never before, with the Republican Party dominating in the afterglow of victory and the legacy of Lincoln. The Republican Party of the 1870s and 1880s, however, was different than that of today, since it concerned itself primarily with enacting protective tariffs for business, promoting big government initiatives for internal improvements such as railroads, and doling out the self-serving spoils of power. It was a period of unprecedented growth and the very period in which America's industry might lead it to world ascendancy. Yet in 1890, on the heels of increasing tariffs yet again, an uneasy electorate overturned the Republican hegemony with landslide victories for the Democratic Party:

"The self-serving cynicism of the Republican leaders, however, had far stronger roots than mere cynicism. Ultimately it rested on a belief shared by all Republicans of note that the Republican Party was not merely superior to the Democrats but that it alone was entitled to rule the Union it had formerly saved. The capacity of the Republican Party for sustained, active, and insolent self-serving stemmed in great measure from that belief and precisely because it was not entirely hypocritical. In the long political history of mankind the moments of glory have been few. Fewer still are the moments of glory for which a political party can claim credit. The Republican Party, the party that had raised to the presidency one of the noblest figures in history, which had saved a sundered Republic, which had emancipated a nation's slaves and established them, if only briefly, on a footing of political equality with their former masters, had written one truly glorious chapter in the political history of mankind. Legitimated by the party's historic glory, the Republicans' belief in their title to rule America was readily understandable. ...

"This passionate attachment to party, little known before the Civil War, had been forged by the Civil War itself. It was as if, in the cauldron of civil strife, every American had been melted down into one or the other of two elementary political particles, one Republican, the other Democrat. To its massed and devoted partisans the party was a church, whose creeds and slogans supplied men with their political principles, whose celebrations supplied them with their holiday outings. To its massed and devoted partisans the party was also a standing army perpetually arrayed for battle, an army whose orders men gladly obeyed, whose rudest tricks its partisans cheered, as patriots will cheer the night raids and ambushes of the nation's fighting men. Identifying themselves with a party, Americans looked on their chosen party as a kind of end in itself; its victories were their victories, its prosperity their prosperity. For themselves they asked little, for the identification with party was strong and passionate. In the Middle West in the 1880s, 'the Republican Party,' recalled the urban reformer Brand Whitlock, 'was not a faction, not a group, not a wing, it was an institution ... a synonym for patriotism, another name for the nation. One became, in Urbana and in Ohio for many years, a Republican just as the Eskimo dons fur clothes.' If the Democrats' supporters did not harbor such grandiose sentiments, their attachment to the Democracy was nonetheless deep, in part because the self-vaunting Republicans treated their party rivals with arrogant contempt.

"Because the party was a church, questioning one's party's creed was looked upon as heresy. Because the party was a standing army, rebellion within a party stood condemned as base treachery and was almost unknown. ... Independent voters aligned to neither party were looked upon either as boodlers—'floaters' who voted for the party that offered the larger election-day bribe—or self-important cranks. ...

"For the post-Civil War party leaders the advantages of what Whitlock called 'those days of silly partisanship' were many. The electorate's fidelity to party enabled the leaders to pursue on the state and local levels corrupt and self-serving policies in the certain knowledge that exceedingly few of their supporters could stomach the prospect of voting for the rival party. It enabled them to overawe independent-minded politicians with crushing assaults on their disloyalty to the party that had chosen to advance them. Most important, it allowed the two national parties, for almost a generation, to keep significant economic issues out of the political arena—issues that might split a party organization and weaken its hold on the voters' elected representatives, As long as men adhered to their party on the basis of Civil War passions, as long as they 'voted as they shot,' the two major parties could refight the Civil War in their election campaigns and leave the electorate reasonably appeased. Since both parties benefited by keeping Civil War passions alive, both parties cooperated in doing so. ...

"[Yet] the voters in 1890 [rose] up in wrath against the Republicans' vaunted instrument for promoting industrial expansion, the protective tariff. The public anger was understandable. Throughout the 1880s it had become increasingly clear that the prevailing high duties on imports had completely lost their original purpose, protecting 'infant' American industries from destructive overseas competition. By 1890 America's industries had not only ceased to be infants, they had become so efficient that American manufacturers were prepared to undercut their European rivals in the markets of the world. The Republicans' best vote-getting argument for protection, namely that it protected the American wage earner, was losing its factual basis. If American industrialists could pay so-called 'American wages' and still compete abroad, then obviously they could do so at home without any need for high tariff walls. The only just and sensible tariff policy was a reduction in the prevailing rates, since every unnecessary penny of duty meant unearned windfall profits for the protected manufacturer."


Walter Karp


The Politics of War


Franklin Square Press


Copyright 1979 by Walter Karp


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