What can Never Trump learn from the nineteenth century’s Free Soilers?
The pre-Civil War era contains plenty of lessons for contemporary politics
What next for the Never Trump Republicans? Their bête noire may be out of the White House, but the Donald’s influence over the GOP endures. Some, like Bill Kristol, have made the case for continued support for Joe Biden and allying with the Democrats. In a similar vein, Tim Miller envisions the possibility of a new centre-right wing of the Democratic Party, dubbing them “red dog Democrats“. Others are more skeptical of these proposals, arguing that the Democrats cannot be trusted given the party’s progressive drift.
Both sides of this debate have looked to history for guidance, with plenty of focus on the rise and fall of the Whig Party in the mid-19th century. In 2016, presidential historian Gil Troy compared Trump to Zachary Taylor, the last winning Whig candidate for president whose nomination and election in 1849 splintered the party. More recently, in an extensive historical essay for the Dispatch, Declan Garvey studied the GOP’s splintered state and offered the decline of the Whig Party as precedent. I have also drawn my own comparisons between the splintering modern Republican Party and the infighting of the Whigs.
But what if the Whigs are the wrong historical precedent? Allow me to offer, arguably more fruitful, 19th century comparison: the Jacksonian Democrats.
Many historians have identified echoes of Andrew Jackson in Trump’s rise, but it is largely based on mythology than ideology or policy. Like Jackson, Trump has been an incredibly galvanising and energising force within American politics. Because Jackson was elevated to the presidency on a vague platform of ‘reform’ (and in some cases revenge following the outcome of the election of 1824), many inside and outside of his winning coalition were unsure what policies Old Hickory would pursue and what positions he would take. From Indian removal to the Bank War, the Nullification Crisis to his nomination of the first Catholic to the Supreme Court, the suppression of antislavery literature to his refusal to call a day of prayer and fasting during a cholera epidemic, Jackson’s positions reshaped the American political system. Not only did he spur the creation of a party that would champion his policies, the American Democracy (known today as the Democratic Party), he also produced an anti-Jacksonian coalition that would oppose them, the Whigs. As the former editor of the Andrew Jackson Papers Daniel Feller puts it, “The Democratic party was Jackson’s child; the national two-party system was his legacy.”
Because of the Whigs’ eventful collapse, historians have typically highlighted their internal dramas, shaky alliances, and unreconcilable differences. But the Democratic Party of the antebellum era was not without its own competing wings, strange bedfellows, and unstable partnerships. Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s second Vice President and the man credited as the mastermind behind crafting the winning Democratic coalition, envisioned an alliance built from “the planters of the South and the plain Republicans of the north”. Because of the southern bend to this geographical alliance and in reaction to the overly romantic presentation of the Jacksonian Democrats by figures like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., historians over the last several decades have argued that the Democratic Party was built on the foundation of protecting and expanding slavery. While this trend has served as an essential corrective, it has also minimised the presence of the antislavery Jacksonian Democrats and undercut the political dilemmas they faced, both on the national stage and within their own party.
The annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, and the Wilmot Proviso all served to deepen the rifts in the Democratic Party. Antislavery Northern and master-race Southern Democrats found themselves increasingly at odds with one another, feuding over the direction of the party as well as the nation. Building off their Jacksonian ideology, Democrats who opposed the so-called “peculiar institution” saw their fight against slavery as a continuation of their battle against entrenched power and corrupt elites. Others, like William Leggett, viewed it as the natural outgrowth of their egalitarian ethos. In time, they understood their fight against the “money power” of banks and corporations to be the same as the battle against the “slave power,” viewing both as threats to American liberty. For these Democrats, opposing slavery was the only logical conclusion to the democratic revolution Jackson had launched. Walt Whitman called these men members of “the Undaunted Democracy.”
With the nomination of Lewis Cass for the 1848 election on the Democratic ticket, a supporter of popular sovereignty, antislavery Jacksonians expressed their protest in the formation of the Free-Soil Party. In a powerfully symbolic gesture towards antislavery unionism, the Free Soilers nominated Andrew Jackson’s former Vice President, Martin Van Buren, and Charles Francis Adams, the son of the man Jackson had defeated. Their platform boiled down to the slogan, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men!”
Despite their antislavery stance, however, the Free-Soil Party stopped well short of the complete abolition of slavery. Despite their heady goals of halting the spread of slavery, with such little political infrastructure, numerous organisational weaknesses, and intense internal divisions, the Free-Soil Party did not win a single state, though a few did win election to the House of Representatives.
Diehard Free Soilers were soon marginalised and spent years in the political wilderness, out of power and with almost no influence. To make matters worse, many of these Democrats returned home following the failure of Van Buren’s presidential bid. The antislavery wing of the Democratic Party continued to quarrel with one another, so much so that Francis Blair lamented, “It is unfortunate that we should be splitting our fragment of a party into smaller fragments by making new strife among our leading men.” Despite Preston King’s best efforts at the 1854 New York Democratic convention to convert the party into a free-soil party, the Southern pull of the party proved too strong. Realising there was no room from in the party of Jackson, men like King bolted, finding their way into the newly formed explicitly antislavery Republican Party.
As Jonathan H. Earle in his masterwork on the antislavery Democrats notes, “The Jacksonian element within the Republican party was by no means a majority, or even a dominant voice. But the genius of the early Republicans lay in their ability to attract various Free-Soil Democrats, Liberty men, and Whigs under a single antislavery banner.” Soon, savage critics of the Jacksonians like the radical Whig Thaddeus Stevens found themselves in the same party. Though at odds on numerous policy debates and in matters of best governance, former rivals shared the common goal of putting slavery on the course for ultimate destruction from the United States. Combining their efforts and forgetting past feuds, antislavery Democrats were able to bolster the Republican coalition that won Abraham Lincoln the presidency in 1860.
Lincoln’s victory was the result of an antislavery amalgamation.
With Trump’s defeat in 2020, the question is whether or not Never Trumpers will formally join the Democratic Party, or try and reform the Republican Party, or embrace an exile from party politics. All three have risks and rewards. Naturally, appeals to conservative voters will not score points for Biden with the online left and party progressives. Likewise, if Never Trump Republicans like The Atlantic’s David Frum, CNN’s S.E. Cupp, and The Bulwark’s Sarah Longwell do formally join the Democratic Party, it will likely be greeted by Trumpsters as confirmation of their ‘fake’ conservative credentials. There is also the possibility that Never Trumpers will lose their identity in becoming Democrats. Free Soil Democrats faced similar questions and the lessons they offer are complex though poignant.
Despite all the criticism and scorn expressed by members of their own party as well as the defections that manifested in the Free Soil Party and the Barnburners, the antebellum Democratic Party remained an incredibly powerful force within American politics. Even in the face of these party conflicts, the Democratic Party was still able to win the presidency twice with Franklin Pierce in 1852 and James Buchanan in 1856. While it is still not likely that John C. Breckinridge could have defeated Lincoln even with a united Democratic Party, when one examines the electoral college math, the race does become scarily narrower. All of this should give us pause given Trump’s ongoing power within the GOP. While Trump’s winning coalition is narrowing, as Jonathan V. Last points out, it still has enough electoral advantages to win power and influence, including the presidency.
If Democrats want to keep winning elections, they are going to need the votes of “Biden Republicans” in key swing states.
Political coalitions win elections, not bystanders and critics on the sidelines. As understandable as their protests might be, much like the Free Soilers’ failure was telling concerning the state of the Democratic Party in antebellum America, the utter catastrophe of Bill Weld’s run against Trump for the Republican nomination in 2019 and the lack of Republican support for impeachment demonstrates the dire health of “Never Trump” within the GOP. Just as the defeated Bernie Sanders and his marginalised democratic socialistic wing made common cause with Biden, so too might the small members of the Never Trump right. It is worth remember that when Free Soilers joined the Republican Party, they believed they were not abandoning their earlier Jacksonian philosophy, but rather applying them in the same spirit they had decades before. A similar case seems to be in formation on the Never Right right, though the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency has given plenty to for conservatives to be concerned about.
In that same spirit, if conservatism is to carry on, it may survive (perhaps even thrive under the right leadership) within the Democratic coalition. Trumpism, in most distilled forms, has unended match of the United States’ political and constitutional order. In what felt like a weekly violation of norms, Trump and his allies have made it clear that they are not in the conserving business. Biden’s stability as commander and chief, leadership in combating COVID-19, and lack of engagement (or at least perceived lack thereof) with the never-ending online culture war seem to be paying off dividend in terms of his popularity.
Just as the Free Soilers did not see themselves as abandoning Jacksonianism in becoming Republicans, traditional Republican voters could also not seem themselves abandoning conservativism as Democrats if Biden maintains the more moderate image and soother tone of the party. If the extremist politics and alarmist tactics of the GOP continue to hold sway, Biden’s calm presidency could prepare an enduring space for Never Trumpers in the reorganising Democratic coalition.
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