From Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party, pp 67-73.
Oddly enough, slavery for many centuries needed no defenders because it had no critics. It was like the family, a longstanding institution that was simply taken for granted.
But starting in the seventeenth century and continuing through the nineteenth century, slavery came under attack. The attack was two-pronged. The first prong of the attack was the American founding, which had no power to end slavery but which established a framework for reducing, corralling, and ultimately placing slavery on a path to extinction. The second force, which emerged almost a century later, was the Republican Party, a party explicitly founded to block and then eliminate slavery, healing the “crisis of the house divided” and creating a single union of free citizens.
These attacks on slavery provoked the defense of slavery that formed the cornerstone of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party in the South invented the “positive good” school that argued slavery was good not only for the master but also for the slave. The champion of this school was the Democratic Senator John C. Calhoun. Northern Democrats, led by Senator Stephen Douglas, produced a subtler but no less invidious apologia for slavery: “popular sovereignty,” a doctrine that allowed each state and territory to decide for itself whether it wanted slavery. Democrats on the Supreme Court also forged the majority in the notorious Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery and insisted that blacks have no rights that a white man needs to respect. Democratic presidents after Jackson— from Polk to Buchanan— Buchanan— protected slavery from abolitionist, free soil, and Republican attack.
Even during the Civil War, many northern Democrats— the so-called Copperheads or Peace Democrats— took the side of the Confederacy, urging Lincoln to make a deal with the slave-owning South. They tried, unsuccessfully, to defeat Lincoln for reelection in 1864. Finally, even after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, a small group of Democrats made a last-ditch attempt to save their cherished institution by assassinating Lincoln.
“Whoa!” you might say. “We’ve never heard this story about the Democrats. Are you making this stuff up?” Actually, no. Nothing I write in this chapter is controversial in terms of whether it happened or not. I am relying on the mainstream historians of slavery: David Brion Davis, Kenneth Stampp, Eugene Genovese, Orlando Patterson. How, then, can my arguments sound so outrageous? The reason is that progressive Democrats have whitewashed the party’s history. They have cleaned up the record.
How? They have done it in two ways. The first is to take the crimes of the Democratic Party and blame them on America. Progressives today are quick to fault “America” for slavery and a host of other outrages. America did this, America did that. As we will see in this book, America didn’t do those things, the Democrats did. So the Democrats have cleverly foisted their sins on America, and then presented themselves as the messiahs offering redemption for those sins. It’s crazy, but it’s also ingenious. We have to give them credit for ingenuity.
The second whitewash is to portray the Civil War entirely in terms of the North versus the South. The North is supposedly the anti-slavery side and the South is the pro-slavery side. A recent example is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article about the Confederate battle flag in The Atlantic. 3 Now of course there is an element of truth in this, in that the Civil War was fought between northern states and southern states. But this neat and convenient division ignores several important details.
First, the defenders of the Confederate cause were, almost without exception, Democrats. Coates cites many malefactors from Senator Jefferson Davis to Senator James Henry Hammond to Georgia Governor Joseph Brown. Yet while identifying these men as southerners and Confederates, Coates omits to identify them as Democrats.
Second, Coates and other progressives conveniently ignore the fact that northern Democrats were also protectors of slavery. We will see in this chapter how Stephen Douglas and other northern Democrats fought to protect slavery in the South and in the new territories. Moreover, the southerners who fought for the Confederacy cannot be said to have fought merely to protect slavery on their plantations. Indeed, fewer than one-third of white families in the South on the eve of the Civil War had slaves.
Thus the rigid North-South interpretation of the Civil War conceals— and is intended to conceal— the active complicity of Democrats across the country to save, protect, and even extend the “peculiar institution.” As the Charleston Mercury editorialized during the secession debate, the duty of the South was to “rally under the banner of the Democratic Party which has recognized and supported . . . the rights of the South.” 4
The real divide was between the Democratic Party as the upholder of slavery and the Republican Party as the adversary of slavery. All the figures who upheld and defended American slavery— Senators John C. Calhoun and Stephen Douglas, President James Buchanan, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, architect of the Dred Scott decision, and the main leaders of the Confederacy— were Democrats.
All the heroes of black emancipation— from the black abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, to the woman who organized the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, to the leader whose actions finally destroyed American slavery, Abraham Lincoln— were Republicans. It is of the utmost importance to progressive propagandists to conceal or at least ignore this essential historical truth.
Let’s begin with the progressive indictment of the American Founders. “Jefferson didn’t mean it when he wrote that all men are created equal,” historian John Hope Franklin wrote. “The truth is we’re a bigoted people and always have been.” Franklin argued that by betraying the principles of freedom and allowing slavery to continue, “the founding fathers set the stage for every succeeding generation of Americans to apologize, compromise and temporize on those principles.”
In the same vein, Senator Bill Bradley articulates the progressive view that “slavery was our original sin.” And former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall refused to “find the wisdom, foresight and sense of justice exhibited by the framers particularly profound. The government they devised was defective from the start.” Instead of jingoistic celebration, Marshall wrote, Americans should seek an “understanding of the Constitution’s defects.” 5
Notice the rhetoric here. “We’re a bigoted people.” This is an African American talking. Does he mean that he himself is bigoted? Of course not. “We” here means “Americans.” So too with Bradley. “Our original sin” obviously doesn’t refer to Bradley, who never owned slaves. Rather, it is an assumption of collective responsibility, or more accurately, an allocation of responsibility to America as a whole.
In the progressive narrative, America is to blame, and the first offenders were the Founders themselves. The progressive conclusion is that the founding was “defective,” setting up the progressive agenda to replace and move away from founding principles, what Obama called the “remaking” of America.
Sins of the Founders?
So let’s examine whether the progressives are right. Were the Founders a pro-slavery lot who enshrined slavery in the new republic and in the new constitution? Was their assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” a big lie? If these charges are true, then America was indeed “defective” from the start.
But they aren’t true. This is not to deny that the Founders were flawed and self-interested men, or that several of them owned slaves. Jefferson, for example, owned more than two hundred slaves and never freed them; Washington also owned slaves and freed them only upon his death.
Yet Jefferson’s case is revealing: far from rationalizing plantation life by adopting the “happy slave” arguments that would later become popular among southern Democrats, Jefferson the Virginian vehemently denounced slavery as unfair and immoral. “The almighty has no attribute that can take side with us,” he wrote. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
Moreover, Jefferson insisted that slavery was bad for slaves and bad for the masters. It was bad for the slaves because, unable to keep the fruits of their labor, they became unenterprising and slothful. Jefferson pointed out, however, that slavery had exactly the same effect on masters. Not having to do any work, masters too became unenterprising and slothful. Moreover, many masters exercised a despotic rule over their slaves, making them little tyrants in their own kingdom. 6
These arguments may seem surprising coming from a slave owner, and they are. The remarkable thing is not that Jefferson the plantation owner had slaves, but that this slave-owning planter nevertheless declared that “all men are created equal.”
Here we can instructively contrast Jefferson with the founder of the Democratic Party, Andrew Jackson. Unlike Jefferson, Jackson never expressed any doubt about the injustice of slavery. What provoked Jackson’s indignation on the subject was abolitionist agitation. In his 1835 Annual Message to Congress, Jackson called for laws to “prohibit, under severe penalties, the circulation in the southern states, through the mail, of incendiary publications intended to instigate the slaves to insurrection.” 7
Jefferson, however, was typical of the Founders in that he recognized slavery was wrong and that black people had rights. Confronted by those who justified slavery with the argument that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, Jefferson retorted, “Whatever be their talents, it is no measure of their rights.” 8
If Jefferson and the Founders knew that all men are created equal, and that black people have rights, why not outlaw slavery and establish equality of rights under the law at the outset? The simple answer is that had they done so, there would never have been a union. The Founders in Philadelphia were not choosing whether to have a union with slavery or a union without slavery. They were choosing whether to have a union that had slavery or no union at all. If the Founders decided not to have a union, then slavery would have continued in the various states. In that case, slavery may well have lasted much longer in America than it actually did.
The Founders chose a better option. They set a date a few years ahead for ending the slave trade— no more importation of slaves. They prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory (essentially the modern upper Midwest, including Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio).
Most important, they established a union on anti-slavery principles that nevertheless temporarily tolerated the practice of slavery. Nowhere in the Constitution is the term “slavery” used. Slaves are always described as “persons,” implying they have natural rights. The three-fifths clause, which some progressives have claimed shows the Founders’ low estimation of the worth of black life, was actually a measure to curb the voting power of the slave-owning states— it helped eventually to swing the balance of power to the free states.
The Founders believed that these measures would over time weaken slavery and cause it to die out. In this they were mistaken, because Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793— which the Founders had no way to anticipate— revived the demand for slavery in the South.
Still, the Founders’ efforts did weaken slavery. Before 1776, slavery was legal in every state. Yet by 1804 every state north of Maryland had abolished slavery either outright or gradually. Slavery was no longer a national but a sectional institution, and one under moral and political siege.
The Republican abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had once denounced the founding as a hideous compromise with slavery, came to understand the accomplishment of the framers. “Abolish slavery tomorrow,” he said, “and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution needs to be altered.” Slavery, he concluded, was merely “scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building was completed.” 9 Douglass knew that it would take Republican efforts to do this and finally end slavery.
Anti-slavery activism, of course, preceded the Republican Party, although it finally found its most effective expression in that party. The earliest opponents of slavery in America were Christians, mostly Quakers and evangelical Christians. They took seriously the biblical idea that we are all equal in the eyes of God, and interpreted it to mean that no person has the right to rule another person without his consent.
Remarkably, Christians discovered political equality through a theological interpretation of the Bible. For them, human equality is based not on an equality of human characteristics or achievements but on how we are equally loved by God. Moreover, the argument against slavery and the argument for democracy both rested on the same foundation, a foundation based on human equality and individual consent.
The American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1833. A few years later, the Liberty Party was founded to pursue emancipation. In 1848, the Liberty Party, anti-slavery Whigs, and Democrats who opposed the extension of slavery merged to form the Free Soil Party. Abolitionism, which sought the immediate end of slavery, had been present since the founding but grew in political strength during the middle part of the nineteenth century.
With the passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act— repealing the Missouri Compromise which curtailed the spread of slavery beyond the designated 36-30 latitude— Free Soilers, former Whigs, and abolitionists joined together and created the Republican Party.