As the Republican Party tries to recover from crushing defeat in the mid-term elections, a little historical perspective is in order. Halfway through his second term, an unpopular Republican president saw his party lose its majority in the House of Representatives, ending more than a decade of congressional control, and Republicans wondered why they had lost the “fire in the belly” of just a few years before.
I’m referring to President Ulysses Grant and the mid-term elections of 1874.
That year, the Republican share of seats in the House plunged from 68% to 35%, and a Democrat became the Speaker. Just fourteen years earlier, the GOP had swept into control of Congress and the White House with a vision for fundamental reform. With ideologues such as Thaddeus Stevens leading the way, the Radical Republicans (that is, Republicans who radically opposed slavery) enacted Abraham Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” for the American people:
the 13th Amendment, banning slavery
the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing due process and equal protection of the laws
the Civil Rights Act of 1866, according citizenship to African-Americans
the 15th amendment, forbidding states from abridging any African-American’s right to vote
On March 1, 1875, just before adjourning, the Republican-controlled 43rd Congress passed the most comprehensive civil rights legislation ever. Among its provisions, the 1875 Civil Rights Act banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. Sound familiar? Though struck down by the Supreme Court eight years later, the 1875 Civil Rights Act would be reborn as the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The reactionary Democrats who then assumed control of Congress were quick to undo many Republican achievements. Bringing an end to Reconstruction’s federal government protection of African-Americans was their top priority. Contrary to the impression left by generations of liberal history professors, the Compromise of 1877 was not the end of Reconstruction. Rather, it had ended the year before, when the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives refused to fund the U.S. Army unless occupation forces were withdrawn from the South.
By early 1877, the only federal troops remaining there were in the state capitals of Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida, protecting the Republican governors from Democrat mobs. As the price of the presidency, the Republican nominee in 1876, Rutherford Hayes, agreed to withdraw those troops and so allow Democrats to seize control. Of course, had Democrat nominee Samuel Tilden won, this would have happened anyway. Forgotten today is the fact that, losing 185-184 in the Electoral College, Tilden was soon discovered to have offered a $50,000 bribe to a Republican Elector. Outrage at the Democrats’ duplicity would contribute to the Republican landslide in the next presidential election.
Just as the Radical Republicans faded away, enacting the 1875 Civil Rights Act just before their flame flickered out, so did the Reagan Revolution. Will the energy, tax and trade reforms passed at the last-minute by the 109th Congress prove to be the final achievements of the Reagan legacy?
All too often, Republican leaders act as if our Grand Old Party was born the day they were. In fact, anti-slavery activists created the Republican Party in 1854, to oppose the pro-slavery policies of the Democrats and to lay the foundation for the modern American economy. The year 2004 was the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Republican Party, yet hardly anything was done to commemorate the event. February 23rd of last year was the 150th anniversary of the Republican National Committee, yet the RNC rejected my suggestion that they celebrate the event. Just think of the magnificent public relations, outreach and fundraising opportunities that just slipped away!
How can Republicans expect voters to place their confidence in them when they lack confidence in their own heritage?
The way for Republicans to take the political initiative once again is to embrace their true heritage and rediscover the zeal, the determination to be found in the founding principles of our Grand Old Party: free minds, free markets, free expression, and unlimited opportunity.