After the horrific violence in Charlottesville by white supremacists two weeks ago, right-wing Republican Dinesh D’Souza decided to take to Twitter to complain that leftists were attacking the memory of Robert E. Lee, “who opposed both slavery and secession.” A couple of years ago, I explained that Lee did, in fact, support slavery. Plenty of other historians have pointed this out, and even the right-wing Daily Caller rated D’Souza’s claim false. In addition to being false, it might seem an odd choice by D’Souza. Just last year, he released a film and a book that correctly excoriated the Democratic Party’s past support for slavery, the Trail of Tears, and Jim Crow, though he rather implausibly tried to draw a line from Andrew Jackson, Preston Brooks, Stephen Douglas, and Ben Tillman to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. And odd as it may be to imagine now, Lee almost certainly never voted for a Republican in his life. While biographers have stated that he probably supported the Whigs prior to the party’s demise in 1854, primary source evidence makes it rather apparent that Lee began backing Democrats when the GOP was founded. In the 1856 letter to his wife where he defended slavery, Lee praised Democratic president Franklin Pierce for a speech that criticized not only abolitionists but also the more moderate Republicans. That same year, he expressed his satisfaction that proslavery Democrat James Buchanan had beaten antislavery Republican John C. Fremont. In 1860, he called on Democratic Party nominee, Stephen Douglas, to withdraw from the election and unite the party behind John Breckinridge, the nominee of the “Southern Democratic Party” in order to ensure that “Lincoln be defeated.” In 1866, he blamed the Republican Party for the war. He was ineligible to vote in the 1868 Election due to, in a delicious irony, having his citizenship revoked just before former slaves were granted citizenship. Nonetheless, he cosigned a letter denouncing Republican Reconstruction policies, including black suffrage, which was then circulated by Democrats to drum up support for their presidential candidate, Horatio Seymour. 1868 would not be Lee’s year, as he suffered yet enough defeat to Ulysses S. Grant, this time by proxy, when the former Union general crushed Seymour in a landslide. So in sum, Hillary Clinton has supported more Republican candidates for president than Lee did.
D’Souza’s Twitter faux paus is far from isolated. Time and time again, we have seen modern Republicans fall on their sword by supporting or refusing to oppose tributes to the Confederacy. Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and D’Souza have tried to have it both ways by supporting the Confederate Flag while claiming that the GOP is still the Party of Lincoln. In recent years, Republican governors such as Bob McDonnell, Nathan Deal and Phil Bryant have declared April “Confederate Heritage Month” or “Confederate History Month.” McDonnell came down with a bad case of corruption charges, and Deal scrubbed the holiday in Georgia after the horrific Charleston Church Shooting. But Bryant was not deterred. Nikki Haley and Lindsey Graham supported displaying the flag on Capitol grounds until after the shooting. Jeb Bush claimed that, “The problem with the Confederate flag isn’t the Confederacy,” but rather, “what it began to represent later,” a very odd way of letting the proslavery Democrats who founded the Confederacy off the hook. It is now primarily Republicans who oppose moving Confederate statues and other monuments to museums. Two years ago, liberal columnist, Jonathan Chait, quipped, “Given their investment in this argument [that Democrats are the party of racism], you would think Republicans would be eager to divest themselves from the symbols of slavery and segregation. But far from it.” That same day, Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter and advisor for George W. Bush, remarked, “So the Confederate flag was never a symbol associated with the Republican Party – including in South Carolina, where the flag was first flown over the statehouse in 1962, at the request of Democrats in the state like Governor Fritz Hollings and Representative John A. May. Yet the Republican Party has somehow found a way to get itself attached to this toxic symbol of division and repression.” Wehner is right in one sense. For a Republican to support the Confederate Flag or, especially, retrospectively side with the Confederacy itself is antithetical to the roots of their party. Republicans should be happy to distance themselves as far as possible from the country and political movement that their first president, Abraham Lincoln, defeated. But it did not happen by accident. It happened because many Republicans chose to make it happen, including Wehner’s former boss. While Republican humorist, P.J. O’Rourke, opined that, “my Republican friends would rather hoist the Jolly Roger than fly the rebel flag like a bunch of cement-head biker trash with Nazi face tattoos,” many Republicans have consciously attached themselves to perhaps the ultimate symbol of the Democratic Party’s historic support for slavery. And other conservatives, such as former Arkansas state legislator Jon Hubbard, Michael Medved, Walter Williams, and–wouldn’t you know it?–D’Souza, have gone so far as to claim that black people today are better off due to slavery.
This bizarreness is not limited to the Confederacy either. Andrew Jackson was the first Democratic Party president and, not coincidentally, favored slavery and the Trail of Tears. Again, one would think that every Republican would be clamoring to take Jackson off of the $20 bill and scrub every tribute to him, but one would be wrong. Trump not only dismissed such proposals as political correctness gone mad but has also praised Jackson since then. Ben Carson made similar complaints about even the idea of putting Harriet Tubman’s face alongside Jackson’s. Right-wing talk radio host Michael Savage fumed that dislike of Jackson was proof that “perverted left-wing deviants who have stolen our children from us put hate in their minds about anything white, Christian and male.”
While slavery and Jim Crow laws were both established in America in the 1600s, long predating either the Democratic or the Republican Party, postbellum segregationists were mostly Democrats. If a Republican candidate ran in a statewide Southern election between the end of Reconstruction and the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it was usually as a sacrificial lamb. In fact, this allowed Southern Democratic Parties to define themselves as private clubs and circumvent the 15th Amendment to ban black people from voting in their primaries. And, of course, given the Democrats’ strength in the Jim Crow South, whoever won the primary was all but guaranteed to win the general election. As conservatives like D’Souza love to point out, Republicans voted for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, as well as other Reconstruction Era civil rights legislation, at a much higher rate than Democrats. And they usually voted in significantly higher numbers for other civil rights bills compared with Democrats through the 1960s. But D’Souza has called for repealing the portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prevent private businesses from discriminating based on race. Ben Shapiro and Jeff Jacoby, two other conservative commentators, have expressed similar views. Senator Rand Paul is on record in the past as having opposed the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. Some conservatives have gone even further. In 2014, the Texas Republican Party called for an outright repeal of the “Voter Rights Act,” which was passed in 1965 with support from 80% of Republican Representatives and over 93% of Republican Senators. In Brown v. Board of Education, former Democratic Party presidential nominee, John W. Davis, defended school segregation, while Republican Attorney General Herbert Brownell argued that it was unconstitutional. When the Supreme Court first began deliberating, its lone Republican Judge Harold Burton was one of the strongest supporters of striking down de jure segregation in public schools. And when another Republican named Earl Warren became the new Chief Justice in the middle of deliberations, he helped bring about a unanimous ruling in favor of desegregation. While conservative Republicans such as Barry Goldwater opposed the decision, the fiercest resistance came primarily from Southern Democrats. Yet Pat Buchanan, a right-wing Republican who pursued the party’s presidential nomination twice, has retrospectively denounced the decision multiple times. Pat Robertson, another ultraconservative and former GOP presidential contender, hinted at opposition to the decision in one of his books, Courting Disaster. Humorously, depressingly, or both, he was flirting with the more explicit opposition of his Democratic Senator father to the ruling. From the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth century, Republican politicians were conflicted on interracial marriage bans, with many opposing them on libertarian grounds, while Democratic politicians, overwhelmingly wanted interracial marriage illegal. States such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont, and New Hampshire never had interracial marriage bans and remained Republican strongholds well into the twentieth century. Massachusetts, the site of abolitionists’ successful campaign to legalize interracial marriage in 1843, voted for Republican presidential candidates in fourteen straight elections and remained mostly Republican until the late 1920s. In both of his presidential runs, Dwight Eisenhower managed a clean sweep of every state where interracial marriage was legal at the time. Yet according to a 2011 Gallup poll, Democrats were eleven percentage points more likely than Republicans to support interracial marriage. A 2017 Pew Research Center study showed Democrats as being twenty-one percentage points more likely than Republicans to see increased interracial marriage as positive for society and half as likely to see it as bad for society.
And, of course, I would be remiss if I did not bring up Japanese American internment. Internment was supported and implemented by Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt, a bête noire of free market conservatives. Dixiecrats such as John Rankin, Tom Stewart, and Martin Dies backed calls from West Coast racists to permanently remove/quarantine Japanese Americans. On the West Coast, Washington State Democrats Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson generally voted for black civil rights. But they also supported Japanese American internment and other similar anti-Japanese discrimination with great relish. To be sure, the Republican Party was not a bastion of opposition to internment; Earl Warren’s support for the policy as governor would to haunt him in later years. But the few politicians that joined forces with a hodgepodge of liberals and far leftists to oppose internment were primarily Republicans, including Senator Robert Taft and Mayors Harry Cain and Ralph Carr. When the Supreme Court upheld internment, Democratic Justices Frank Murphy and Robert Jackson dissented, but they were joined by Republican Justice Owen Roberts and opposed by other Democratic judges. Yet during his run for president, Trump stated that internment might have been a good policy. Michelle Malkin, still a prominent conservative pundit, wrote a book in 2004 largely dedicated to the argument that internment had been fair and reasonable.
The behavior of many modern conservatives when it comes to historical policies of bigoted Democrats may seem strange. But as a historian, it makes my job of arguing that the parties switched much easier.