Some very silly books have been written about the history of the Republican Party (and the Democrat Party). They tend to read like The Story of Moses, with Christ-like figures overcoming tremendous roadblocks to achieve greatness and sanctify not only themselves, but the entire nation. They are usually written by political hacks and funded rather surreptitiously by various business and other special-interest groups that are associated with the Party. Such books, of course, are pure baloney: "GOP" should really stand for "Gang Of Plunderers."
The Party of Plunder
As soon as the newly-created GOP gained enough power in the late 1850s, the first thing it did was to get the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the protectionist Morrill Tariff during the 1859—60 session, before Lincoln’s election and before any southern state had seceded. The Party then vigorously defended southern slavery. Two days before Lincoln’s inauguration, after the seven states of the lower South had seceded and taken their fourteen senators with them, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate passed a constitutional amendment (that had already passed the House) that would have forbidden the federal government from ever interfering with southern slavery. Two days later, Lincoln would pledge his support for this amendment in his first inaugural address, saying he preferred that the defense of slavery in the Constitution be made "express and irrevocable." He also promised in that same address a federal invasion of any state that failed to collect the newly-doubled U.S. tariff rate.
The GOP opposed the extension of slavery to the new territories, not southern slavery, and it did so for the basest of reasons. Reason number one was the desire to keep all blacks — slave or free — from the territories, which the Party wanted to be an all-white preserve. To the GOP "free soil" meant soil that was free of black people, not freedom per se. That’s why states like Illinois, "Land of Lincoln," had previously amended their constitutions to make it illegal for black people to move into them. The few blacks who did reside in these areas had virtually no citizenship rights and were grossly discriminated against in all aspects of their lives.
The second reason for opposing the extension of slavery to the new territories was to limit congressional representation of the Democratic Party, which would have been increased due to the Three-Fifths Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which allowed for every five slaves to be counted as three persons for purposes of determining the number of congressional representatives in each state. Thus, pork-barrel politics and white supremacy were the reasons the "Grand Old Party" gave for opposing the extension of slavery in 1860.
As for politics, the purpose of the GOP’s quest for political domination was so that it could finally adopt the old mercantilist economic agenda of the Whigs, who were mostly transformed into Republicans when the Whig Party fell apart in the early 1850s. Once the south seceded, and the Southern Democrats left Congress, the GOP immediately pushed through the entire Whig economic agenda.
Lincoln’s "New Deal"
Incapable of ever doing anything but praising the early GOP, most contemporary historians, who are largely ignorant of economics, praise this "achievement" to the treetops. A good example of this appears in the October 2004 issue of The Smithsonian magazine, in an essay by Lincoln biographer David Donald entitled "1860: The Road Not Taken." The essay is part of a "what if" symposium that poses the question of what America would look like had the outcomes of the presidential elections of 1860, 1912, 1932, and 1980 been different.
Donald zeroes in on the Lincoln administration’s "social legislation." Had Lincoln not been elected, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer writes, a sizeable Democratic minority in Congress
Would have blocked the important economic and social legislation enacted by the Republicans during the Civil War. Thus, there would likely have been no high tariff laws that protected the iron industry, so essential in postwar economic development, no Homestead Act giving 160 acres to settlers willing to occupy and till land out West, no transcontinental railroad legislation, no land-grant colleges, no national currency or national banking system, no Department of Agriculture to offer expert guidance on better seeds and improved tillage. Without such legislation, the economic takeoff that made the United States a major industrial power by the end of the century would have been prevented . . .
Like most Lincoln scholars who comment on economic issues, Donald is mostly ignorant of the subject he is speaking of. Protectionist tariffs made the U.S. steel industry lazy and inefficient by isolating it from the rigors of international competition. Consequently, it became a perpetual whiner and complainer about the "unfairness" of competition — the spoiled brat of the American economy. For decades, it has lobbied for protectionism that has plundered the American consumer, made the industry even lazier and more inefficient, allowing it to pander to its unions and their grossly inefficient featherbedding rules, and generally made it far less competitive that it would have been under a free trade regime. Despite a century of "protection," the steel industry has all but disappeared from my home state of Pennsylvania, for example.
Furthermore, the higher steel prices caused by protectionist tariffs have always been harmful to American steel-using industries, which includes virtually all of American manufacturing. Thus, GOP protectionism was a serious drag on American industrial success during the late nineteenth century, contrary to Donald’s assertions. American industry grew despite these foolish and counterproductive policies, not because of them.
Late nineteenth-century tariff protection was especially harmful to American agriculture. American farmers have always sold a large portion of their output on foreign markets. Tariffs that reduce the volume of international trade end up reducing the amount of money that our foreign trading partners have with which to purchase American goods, especially American agricultural output. That’s why the farmers of the Midwest were vociferous proponents of free trade during the late nineteenth century. GOP protectionism did far more harm to American farmers than any conceivable good that David Donald’s beloved U.S. Department of Agriculture bureaucracy could ever have done. Not to mention the fact that our trading partners often retaliated with protectionist policies of their own that blocked the sale of American goods in their countries.
As for the Homestead Act, the majority of the land given away under the Act, as historian Ludwell Johnson has shown, went to timber and mining companies, most assuredly in return for political campaign contributions from those same companies. And the giving away of the land, as opposed to selling it, was a political impetus to keep tariff rates high — and economically destructive — during this pre-income tax era when the majority of federal revenues came from the tariff.
The government-subsidized transcontinental railroads were arguably the worst examples in all of American history of the corruption and inefficiency that is always associated with government "public works" projects (See Burton Folsom, The Myth of the Robber Barons). They resulted in the Credit Mobilier scandal of the Grant administration, and fueled the arguments of the "progressive movement" to have government regulate and control American business. By contrast, James J. Hill built his highly successful transcontinental railroad, the Great Northern, without a dime of government subsidy.
Land-grant colleges opened the door to the politicization of higher education that plagues virtually every American college and university today, and is the inevitable result of the politicization of education. The Department of Agriculture was never necessary to educate farmers about the latest seeds; the free market can handle such tasks much more efficiently. Instead, the Department of Agriculture has always been, first and foremost, an enforcer of the agricultural cartel operated by federal politicians on behalf of a very important political bloc, farmers. It is the U.S.D.A. that paid farmers for not raising crops and livestock during the Great Depression, when thousands were starving or suffering from malnutrition. Its programs of paying farmers for not farming have always been simply special-interest politics designed to allow federal politicians to buy votes (with taxpayers’ money) from farm communities by plundering American consumers with the higher food prices that are caused by these policies.
The Lincoln administration’s banking legislation, which Donald also praises, was a precursor to the inflationary-spiral and depression-generating policies of the Fed. They replaced what economic historian Jeffrey Hummel described as the most stable banking system in American history, the so-called free-banking system that existed in the two decades prior to the war, and opened the door to a tremendous centralization of governmental power. That of course is exactly what the Republican Party, comprised of the political descendants of the Federalists and the Whigs, always wanted.
As economists Mark Thornton and Robert Ekelund, Jr., note in their book, Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War (p. 99):
The flurry of new laws, regulations, and bureaucracies created by President Lincoln and the Republican Party is reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, for the volume, scope, and questionable constitutionality of its legislative output. . . . [I]t should not be too surprising to learn that the term “New Deal” was actually coined in March 1865 by a newspaper editor in Raleigh to characterize Lincoln and the Republicans and persuade North Carolina voters to rejoin the Union. The massive expansion of the federal government into the economy led [historian] Daniel Elazar to claim that “one could easily call Lincoln’s presidency the New Deal of the 1860s.”
The historian Daniel Elazar who is cited by Thornton and Ekelund put together the following table to characterize "Lincoln’s New Deal":
Lincoln’s New Deal
- Morrill Tariff (1861)
- First Income Tax (1861)
- Expanded Postal Service (1861)
- Homestead Act (1862)
- Morrill Land-Grant College Act (1862)
- Department of Agriculture (1862)
- Bureau of Printing and Engraving (1862)
- Transcontinental Railroad Grants (1862, 1863, 1864)
- National Banking Acts (1863, 1864, 1865, 1866)
- Comptroller of the Currency (1863)
- National Academy of Sciences (1863)
- "Free" Urban Mail Delivery (1863)
- Yosemite Nature Reserve Land Grant (1864)
- Contract Labor Act (1864)
- Office of Immigration (1864)
- Railway Mail Service (1864)
- Money Order System (1864)
Source: Daniel Elazar, "Comment," in D. Gilchrest and W. Lewis, eds. Economic Change in the Civil War Era (1965), pp. 98—99.
More importantly than this legislation, the GOP orchestrated the abolition of the voluntary union of the founding fathers and in its place put a non-voluntary, consolidated empire, waging total war on fellow citizens for four long years in order to succeed. Their stated motives were never to abolish southern slavery, as mentioned above, but they skillfully used the slaves as pawns in their imperialistic scheme, causing the U.S. to become the only nation on earth in the nineteenth century to associate the violence of war with the abolition of slavery. The GOP continued to use the ex-slaves as political pawns during "Reconstruction," a twelve-year plundering expedition throughout the South. When the military occupation ended in 1877, the hapless ex-slaves were then left to fend for themselves against a vengeful population. The Gang of Plunderers did nothing to help them, for Reconstruction was over and they voted overwhelmingly Republican anyway.
Having declared that it possessed "a treasury of virtue" for having "saved the union" and freed the slaves, the GOP then enjoyed a monopoly of political power for decades. Such "virtue" was immediately used to wage a campaign of ethnic genocide against the Plains Indians — to make way for the government-subsidized railroads, announced General Sherman, who was the commanding general of the campaign for many years. The South — and the rest of the country as well — was plundered by protectionist tariffs for the next fifty years by the "virtuous" GOP, primarily for the benefit of the Party’s big-business supporters.
To this day politicians — especially Republican Politicians — use the fake history of the origins of the GOP as the Party of Saints during the Lincoln era to "justify" any and all manner of interventions, from an expanded welfare state, to the nationalization of the education system, to the current regime’s attempt at imperialistic conquest in the Middle East. But in reality it’s the same old Gang of Plunderers.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His latest book is How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold Story of Our Country’s History, from the Pilgrims to the Present (Crown Forum/Random House, August 2004).