Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Radical Republican: When the GOP Championed the 14th Amendment

by Nomad

One idea that many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around is how the platforms of the two major political parties in America have dramatically shifted over the last 150 years. 

This historical fact is brought into sharper focus with the recent talk by Republican Donald Trump about the possibility of repealing the 14th Amendment and citizen birth rights provisions.

As I have mentioned in the past, many Americans are unaware that the Republican Party was actually co-founded by a Socialist newspaper mogul named Horace Greeley
Greeley was, at the time, the editor of a daily newspaper, the New-York Tribune. For ten years, the employer of a foreign correspondent by the name of Karl Marx, the ideological father of Communism. 
(As a reporter for the Tribune, Marx collaborated with Friedrich Engels and wrote something around 500 articles for the Tribune.)
As an influential political figure of his time, Greeley would later become a member of Congress and unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1860 and 1872 campaigns.
*   *   *
Compared to the present day, the Republican Party of 1850s is practically unrecognizable.
In most respects, the newly-established Republican party was America's Far Left party and the abolition of slavery was one of its primary political goals.

The Radical Republicans

If the Civil War was a bloody mess, then the peace was hardly much better. In his second term, President Lincoln had made the fateful decision to run  as an Independent, under the National Union Party. The Republican president chose as his running mate a Democrat, Andrew Johnson reportedly with Southern sympathies. 
Such a mixed-party ticket is impossible to imagine today.

The anti-abolitionists faction- the Radical Republicans- within the GOP were appalled at the idea.  And their warnings were soon realized in the worst possible way when the president was assassinated. It placed the already badly-shaken government in an even more precarious position. 
The Unionist forces of the North had successfully put down the rebel uprising by the South and managed to keep the nation in one piece, more or less. At such a high cost, too. 
After the fighting stopped, there were now the difficult questions as to how the occupied South would be administered and the exact and equitable process for putting everything back together somehow. 
All that was thrown into chaos even before the war had even officially ended. 

Suddenly, the murder of the president (by a half-crazed Southern sympathizer) place a dubious vice-president in the White House. For the Radical Republicans, the newly sworn-in Johnson was nothing less than a Confederate wolf in sheep's clothing.  

The Outrage of Equality

At that time, the South was devastated in every way and, the population seemed largely unrepentant. The occupying Union troop struggled to keep the peace.
Those bitter feelings were enhanced by the fact that on any given day, former slaves were allowed to walk among white men and women as an equal. It was too much to bear for a self-respecting Southerner to abide.  Why, the very idea of giving Negros the right to vote equal to any white man was akin to sacrilege. 

In response, the legislatures in Southern states devised every tool including intimidation and violence, to preserve the institution of white (and male) privilege. 
The KKK changed from a social group in Tennessee to a become an organized terrorist group through the Old South, threatening local black freedmen and specific Republican leaders with violence. 
Increasingly during 1868 these actions became violent, ranging from whippings of black women perceived as insolent to the assassination of Republican leaders. It is impossible to untangle local vigilante violence from political terrorism by the organized Klan, but it is clear that attacks on blacks became common during 1868
The legislatures in Southern states enacted laws, Jim Crow Laws, to regulate voting rights of the freed slave, thereby giving them a kind of second-class citizenship. Schools and public institutions were officially segregated in a what was hailed as a "separate by equal" policy.

The Radical Republicans understood that liberty for freed slaves could not be a partial one. To be born on US soil  and to take an oath of citizenship -regardless of the race or faith or any other distinction- should be enough. 
Citizenship - if it were to mean anything at all- had to be universal for all Americans.

The Constitutional Guarantee

For this reason, the 14th Amendment was drafted in 1868 as a guarantee of citizenship rights. The rights of citizens, history had demonstrated, could not be entrusted solely to the whims of state legislatures. 
The draft reads:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside..
This change to the Constitution sealed all loopholes and in order to regain representation in US Congress, Southern states were forced to ratify it. 
In theory, states could no longer declare states' rights independence from federal law when it came to civil rights. The concept of States' rights actually originated in The Articles of Confederation when the 13 colonies considered themselves independent nations. 
The pact prohibited the central government from using no coercive power over the states or their citizens and was superseded by the US Constitution "in order to form a more perfect Union."

The sovereignty of states was something that the slave-holding South had  used to argue against abolition. Each state had the right to manage its own affairs and the federal government had no business interfering. 
The last provision of the 14th amendment provided a useful tool  by the federal government against state refusing to recognize the constitutional rights of its own residents.  
"The Congress," reads Article 5, "shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article."

Following the 14th Amendment, states could not determine which of its citizens were covered by constitutional protections.
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Although the provisions of the Amendment might have initially narrow in scope, the ramifications were revolutionary. 

It has become the basis for among other legislation,  the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act but also- strangely enough, the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United. ("Corporations are people too, my friends.")
The High Court's decision on same-sex marriage is also rooted in the 14th Amendment. 

Its one major failing was that the amendment's limited to "male inhabitants" leaving in doubt the equal citizenship rights of women. The fight for the Equal Rights Amendment would have rectified this if not for conservative opposition in the 1980s.

Crusader for Equality, Republican Thaddeus Stevens

One of the leading advocates for the drafting of the 14th Amendment was a Radical Republican named Representative Thaddeus Stevens.  Vermont-born Stevens knew how it felt to feel the sting of discrimination, as a disabled person born into abject poverty. 

Prior to the Civil War, Stevens had been a successful lawyer in Pennsylvania, and then a member the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Stevens joined the newly formed Republican Party, and was elected to Congress again in 1858.   

After the war, with the detested Johnson as president, the Radical Republicans in Congress pressed hard against what they saw as Johnson's soft approach to the South and the Reconstruction. In fact, they brought impeachment proceedings against the president which were, at the end of the day, unsuccessful.

That amendment became not only Steven's finest achievement but probably the Republican Party's greatest contributions to American jurisprudence. 

After heated political wrangling, the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted on July 9, 1868. Less than a month later, on the night of August 11, the ailing Stevens, with two black preachers at his bedside praying, passed away. 

As a measure of the respect, Stevens was afforded a rare honor as his body lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. (To that time, he was only the third person so honored, after Henry Clay in 1852 and Abraham Lincoln in 1865.) 

Southerners were outraged by the fact that his casket, lying in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, was attended by an honor guard of black federal troops.

By his request, Stevens was buried in a cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania which, unlike most cemeteries at the time, was not segregated by race. 
On his tomb were words he had written: 
I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not for any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited by charter rules as to race, I have chosen it that I might be enabled to illustrate in my death the principles which I have advocated through a long life — equality of man before his Creator.
Even in death, he was a crusader.

The legacy of Thaddeus Stevens and the efforts of the Radical Republicans should be a source of pride for the Grand Old Party and for the nation as a whole.  However, that is not the case. Quite the contrary.
Reagan and Nixon- both of whom used states' rights in the South to win elections- demonstrated how the admirable heritage of the Republican party was disposable when necessary.

The fact that the most popular Republican candidate for the 2016 election is seriously discussing the idea of abandoning the 14th Amendment is clear evidence how low the Republican party has sunk.