Partisan Politics and the GOP
From the Civil War of the 1860s until 1932, the federal government of the United States was dominated almost completely by the Republican Party, also known as the G.O.P (Greedy Old Predators to some, Grand Old Party to its fans).
The Republican Party was an outgrowth of the old Whig Party, supplemented by reformist Middle-Western rural elements from the Free Soil Party and, after 1861, from northern Democrats.
It brought together the common traditions of rural and small town Protestantism of the New England, Middle Western, and German-American persuasions, along with antislavery urban immigrant elements from cities such as St. Louis.
Thus the GOP possessed a strong moralizing element, dominated by northern Protestant ideas, an element which expressed the ideals of the independent small farmer and small entrepreneur and which, therefore, was very hostile to the use of Black captive labor (and also often hostile to free "colored" labor).
This same tradition was quite anti-Native American in the sense that it supported the continued opening up of the Native land base and was hostile to Native religious and communalistic traditions (although containing within itself a minority tendency towards Christian communalistic experiments, such as the Shakers).
When the Republicans came to power, however, they became the vehicle for an unbridled capitalism, a capitalism accepting and even demanding that the federal and state governments provide monetary and legal support for the rise of a wealthy elite and for corporations.
The GOP effectively controlled the levers of power for decades and thus became the target for every possible scheme to plunder the country's wealth and patrimony. But it also arose from Protestantism's tendency to exalt the successful, to see the rich man as being virtually anointed by divine favor, flashing back to the ideals of Calvinistic New England but also back to the class-dominated ranking systems of the European heritage.
As the years went by, the GOP retained its moral element, which often was corrupted into high-handed Christian attacks on "tribalism" and "heathenism"; and upon "foreigners" and Roman Catholic or Jewish big city populations. But the party was actually controlled by very aggressive capitalist elements which made it the most corrupt party in U.S. history, between the 1860s and 1890s, and again in the 1920s. This strange combination of Protestant-based moralism with a controlling and often corrupt capitalism, has given the GOP its special flavor ever since.
The key to Republican success was its control over moralistic reform movements, such as the anti-alcohol movement, moralistic tendencies which managed to prevent northern rural elements who were being crushed by the railroad and other monopolies from bolting the party.
Ohioans, for example, continued to believe that the GOP was a clean party, a Protestant party, not tainted by the "treason" of the Southern Secessionist Democrats and by the sinful cultures of the Big City Democrats.
It is true that a few farmer's parties tried again and again to rebel against the GOP hegemony, but their economic democracy vision could not overcome the combination of the loyalty of most Protestant Northerners to the party and to the rich men who were "making the country rich and prosperous" (in spite of repeated crashes, wholesale corruption, and scandals).
What we now refer to as "Federal Indian Law" is, by and large, Republican Indian Law. The Supreme Court was dominated by Republican judges from the 1860s until World War II, and most legislation until 1934 or 1935 stemmed from GOP philosophy.
Needless to say, the Supreme Court attempted to "screw" Indians at every opportunity, denying that a Native American who was no longer in tribal relations could be a citizen, on the one hand, and asserting federal supremacy over tribes, on the other.
Treaties were reduced to pieces of scratch paper, and 50 million acres of land was lost to Native Americans after the Dawes Act was crammed down the throats of hundreds of reluctant tribes. Huge areas were also lost even before that, from the 1860s through the 1880s, and many Indians died in the wars carried out by U.S. soldiers under GOP command, by and large.
African-Americans were, at first, given some token help by the Republicans and Southern Blacks were used to insure GOP victories through the 1876 sell-out, a deal to insure that Republicans retained the presidency in a disputed election. Thereafter, African-Americans found some slight benefit from GOP control of the White House, including ambassadorships to Haiti and a few other favors. (Woodrow Wilson of the Democrats brought southern extreme racism into direct power in the District of Columbia, thus showing Blacks and Indians that the GOP might be awful but the Dems could be much worse or at least as bad.
Both parties were, in an absolute sense, white men's parties, although white women were often used as work horses on the moral issue front in the GOP, although not allowed to vote far many years.
Under Republican domination, corporations controlled by white men were designated by the Supreme Court as "artificial persons" protected by the Fourteenth and Fifth Amendments, while Native and African-Americans were denied the status of "persons" within the meaning of the Constitution. So much for morality! Today the very clever men who control the GOP still know how to use the morality game, currently using the abortion and gay marriage issues to try to mobilize middle and lower-income people to vote for a party which is dominated by the same class of rich men and their organizations as in the nineteenth century.
© 2004 Professor Jack D. Forbes, Powhatan-Delaware, is a historian, social critic, and poet, covering issues of international and inter-ethnic relations for 45 years. He is the author of Red Blood, Africans and Native Americans, Apache, Navaho and Spaniard and other books. He is professor emeritus of Native American Studies, University of California, Davis. He can be contacted at his web site.
This article was originally published in News From Indian Country August 9, 2004