D.C.’s First Lincoln Memorial and Civil War Memory

Visitors to Washington D.C. flock to George Bacon’s immense marble tribute to the 16th President of the United States. The Lincoln Memorial, at the far western end of the National Mall, is rightly considered one of the highlights of the nation’s capital, welcoming around 6 million visitors per year. Yet, while pre-eminent in the public imagination, chronologically speaking Bacon’s structure plays second fiddle to a much smaller and lesser-known statue. At the opposite end of the Mall, ensconced in the leafy streets of eastern Capitol Hill, stands the ‘Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln,’ a bronze carving of an upright Lincoln freeing a shirtless African-American slave who is cowering at his feet. In his right hand Lincoln holds a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which rests on a plinth bearing a selection of patriotic symbols including the Stars and Stripes and George Washington in profile. Behind the figures, not visible from the front of the memorial, stands a whipping post entwined with vines emerging from the statue’s base.

Fundraising for the Memorial began in 1865 and it was eventually dedicated in April 1876, thus predating Bacon’s memorial by 46 years. The dates are appropriate, with the process initiated just after Lincoln’s assassination and finally concluded just as Reconstruction, the legislative effort by the federal government to define and protect the rights of freedpeople in postwar American society, was coming to an end. The funds appear to have been largely provided by ex-slaves, but the committee which decided on the design for the Memorial, as well as its designer and sculptor Thomas Ball, were all white.

In this post I talk to my fellow Young Americanist and our resident expert on Civil War memory Alys Beverton. We discuss what the Memorial can tell us about how people remembered the Civil War in the Reconstruction era, what currents and counter-currents of memorialisation were in play, and how the Memorial might help us navigate the stormy waters of Civil War memory today.

Matt: To modern sensibilities the Freedmen’s Memorial’s depiction of emancipation is clearly problematic. Historians have conclusively shown that African Americans exercised considerable agency in the emancipation process and were far from simply helpless, distressed objects of white Northern benevolence. Memorials, though, are often of greater importance not for the accuracy of the events they memorialise, but for what they tell us about the time they are constructed. What can the Freedmen’s Memorial reveal about how the Civil War was remembered during Reconstruction?

Alys: The Freedmen’s Memorial has a very clear message – it proclaims that the Civil War was a contest between slavery and freedom, and that Northern victory therefore marked a new era of freedom and democracy in the United States. This was a reading of the Civil War shared by many freedpeople and their white allies at this time. As the prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass told a crowd in New York City, the Civil War had not been of a “sectional character,” but rather was a “war of ideas, a battle of principles.” It was, he insisted, “a war between the old and the new, slavery and freedom … and in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield.”

M: Douglass was an important figure as far as the Freedmen’s Memorial was concerned as well, speaking at its dedication in April 1876. Why did the Memorial Committee and spokespeople like Douglass feel the need to press home this message just after the Civil War ended?

A: While emancipation was secure in 1865, the precise nature and extent of the freedoms ex-slaves were to enjoy in the postwar nation were still up for debate. Those who wished freedpeople to receive the same civil and political rights as white Americans believed it necessary to remind the public of exactly what Union soldiers had fought and died for. Douglass’ speech shows that he and other advocates for African-American civil rights believed in the power of memory to persuade Americans that the magnitude of their wartime sacrifices placed on then certain duties in peacetime. The blood of your husbands, fathers, and sons, Douglass suggested to his audience, was spilt to end slavery, and it is now up to you to give substance and strength to black freedom to ensure that their efforts had not been in vain.

M: As far as we can judge, did this message have any success? I know that historians have long talked about Reconstruction as a period with great radical potential. Eric Foner famously labelled it an “unfinished revolution,” for instance.

A: It was a powerful message and one that apparently worked. In the years immediately following the Civil War, the U.S. Congress amended the Constitution to extend full citizenship and suffrage to African Americans and passed a series of legislation which empowered the federal government to protect these newly-gained rights. The Freedmen’s Memorial, then, represents a moment in American history when the national mood swung on the side of racial justice and so provided a window of opportunity for the radical reformulation of the republic’s creed on the basis of equality and universal democracy.

M: There was another side to this, though, right? I know that in 1866 the white Virginian Edward Pollard published The Lost Cause, which painted a completely different picture of the Civil War and its purpose.

A: Right. One year after the Committee began collecting funds for the Freedmen’s Memorial, Pollard publicised a distinctly and unapologetically Southern account of the conflict. Pollard argued that the Confederate cause had not been a defence of slavery per se, but rather an effort to preserve the kind of society which slavery had made possible – the idyllic agrarian antebellum South, a place of harmony and deference where the white master cared for his dependents – wife, children, and slaves – with a spirit of benign paternalism. For Pollard, the Yankees’ claim to have fought in the name of human freedom rang hollow. Rather, the Unionists had been on a crusade of conquest and plunder. Fanatical abolitionists had precipitated the Civil War, Pollard argued, in order to strip white Southerners of their political power, enfranchise freed slaves, and so secure the Republicans control over the federal government in perpetuity. This interpretation quickly spread throughout the South. In part, it served as a cultural dimension in the broader campaign launched by many white Southerners to undermine the new postwar political order by terrorising those freedpeople who dared to exercise their newly-gained liberties. Other elements of this effort included political resistance and vigilante violence – the Ku Klux Klan’s first chapters, for example, were formed in Tennessee in 1866.

M: So there were two competing versions of Civil War memory: the emancipationist as manifested in the Freedmen’s Memorial and the Lost Cause as espoused by Pollard. Which one was in the ascendancy from the early 1870s?

A: During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the emancipationist interpretation of the Civil War all but vanished from national public memory. In part, this was due to the challenge posed to it by promoters of Pollard’s Lost Cause narrative. Equally harmful to the emancipationist legacy, however, was the waning interest of its white Northern articulators. As soon as the late 1860s, Northern popular support for the use of interventionist federal judicial and military powers to protect the liberties of Southern African Americans had begun to decline considerably. The intensity of white Southern resistance to Reconstruction legislation had convinced many of them that they must choose between continuing to defend black freedom, and making peace with their white Southern countrymen – they could not have both. Ultimately, most white Northerners chose the latter.

M: So if white Northerners were moving away from the emancipationist paradigm, what version of Civil War memory did they turn to instead?

A: Historian David Blight argues that a third version of Civil War memory emerged in the North during the late nineteenth century which he calls the “reconciliationist” interpretation. This narrative all but ignored the emancipationist achievements of the Union war effort. Instead, reconciliationists presented a non-ideological reading of the Civil War which focussed primarily on soldiery valour. They wrote poems, delivered speeches, and erected statutes which memorialised the bravery and martial skill of the men who had fought on both sides of the conflict. By side-stepping the topics of slavery and race, reconciliationists promoted a version of the Civil War which they hoped could be celebrated by Northerners and Southerners alike.

M: I think it’s fair to say that, despite conclusive historical evidence that contradicts it, the Lost Cause narrative has had disproportionate resonance in popular culture and commemoration.

A: Overall you’re right about the influence of the Lost Cause, although its popularity was of course not constant over time – it typically peaked at times of particularly acute racial strife. For example, its first resurgence occurred in the 1890s, a decade in which the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Plessy vs. Ferguson case gave constitutional sanction to the doctrine of “separate but equal” and the system of racial apartheid in existence throughout the Southern states on which it was based. The hardening of the system of Jim Crow was accompanied by a flurry of memorialist activity by Confederate veterans and their descendants. In 1894, for instance, the United Daughters of the Confederacy formed and dedicated themselves to teaching a proper veneration among future generations for the glory of the Confederate cause. They did this by, among other things, raising funds to restore the White House of the Confederacy in Richmond and organising public celebrations of Memorial Day services.

M: So it’s fair to say that when the Lost Cause was peaking, racist violence against African Americans was on the rise as well?

A: The pattern is certainly more than a coincidence, but perhaps it’s more useful to think about Lost Cause memorialist activity as constituting part of the broader cultural resistance against efforts to push forward black equality. There was a second resurgence during the 1950s and 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak. During this time, commemorative associations such as the United Confederate Veterans and the Ladies Memorial Association stepped up their efforts to promote the South’s telling of the Civil War. Their efforts resulted in a wave of memorial activity which included the construction of monuments and the naming of streets, schools, and other public sites in honour of Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and other heroes of the Confederacy.

M: Confederate monuments and their impact have certainly been in the news recently, with a number of Southern cities either debating removing them, or already in the process of doing so. This seems to constitute not so much a resurgence of the Lost Cause as an attempt to, supporters of these measures would argue, remove the most visible manifestations of its injustices. Coming back to the Freedmen’s Memorial, how can looking at this portray of the emancipationist reading of the Civil War speak to these very present debates?

A: Americans would do well to take their cue from the Freedmen’s Memorial Committee and recognise that the creation of public memory is more about construction than it is destruction. The Committee gave their time and money to create their Memorial because they believed that reminding the public of certain aspects of the Civil War’s history would encourage them to continue to advance and defend black freedom even after the conflict passed from living memory. Today, those who similarly believe that shaping public spaces can shape public memories, and from that influence how the public thinks and talks about certain contemporary issues, should recognise that tearing down monuments they dislike will only get them so far. They also need to create their own ways of commemorating the Civil War in order to inspire and guide national conversations about how the conflict’s legacies – questions, for example, surrounding democracy, justice, and equality – continue to affect American society today.

Coming back full circle to the first thing we discussed, the Freedmen’s Memorial certainly has troubling paternalistic undertones. But Americans should not seek, as the reconciliationists of the nineteenth century did, to push difficult subjects such as racial injustice out of the national dialogue for the sake of an easy life. Much better to confront such issues – to probe and question the message behind the Freedmen’s Memorial, for example, and then extend these conversations further to consider what other people and events of Civil War history – abolitionists, runaway slaves, the first black office-holders – ought to be memorialised and why. Instead of being focussed solely on taking down monuments, popular attention might then focus on how such moments can be supplemented, perhaps eventually overshadowed by other memorials which emphasise different aspects of the Civil War. Another D.C. monument, the African-American Civil War Memorial on U Street, is a great example of this, emphasising the heroism and bravery of black soldiers in a far more accurate rendering of African American contributions to the conflict.

By engaging with memorials and the unsavoury aspects of America’s past which they represent, we can give Americans a broader, richer understanding of their nation’s past. And as ever with the public memory of the Civil War, the more expansive and informed it is, the better placed Americans are to engage in thoughtful conversations about the condition of the conflict’s legacies in their society today.


For more on the Freedmen’s Memorial:


For the Douglass speech cited by Alys:

Frederick Douglass, “Speech Delivered in Madison Square, New York, Decoration Day,” 1877. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division — https://www.loc.gov/item/mfd.23011/

On Civil War memory and memorialisation more broadly:

David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001)

Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997)


Foreign Interference in U.S. Elections in Historical Perspective

In 1888 during the Presidential race between incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland, and Republican Benjamin Harrison a California GOP operative had a stroke of pure political genius. George Osgoodby, posing as a British expatriate in California ‘Charles F. Murchison,’ wrote a letter to the British Ambassador in Washington Lionel Sackville-West asking who Her Majesty’s Government thought would make the best American President. Sackville-West, in a terrible blunder, actually responded to ‘Mr. Murchison’ that Cleveland’s re-election was in Britain’s best interest. The Republicans seized this upon this gaffe, and printed the ‘Murchison Letter’ across the country two weeks before the election. The 1888 presidential race hinged on the swing state of New York, which Cleveland went on to loose by fifteen thousand votes in part because of its large Anglophobic Irish electorate. Though there are legitimate questions about the precise impact of the ‘Murchison Letter’ on Cleveland’s loss, the letter clearly had some desired effect upon the American electorate, in 1888 Americans cared about perceived attempts to influence their democracy by outside agitators.


Lionel Sackville-West

In the wake of Donald Trump’s, let’s say entanglements, with Russia a narrative emerged from the Sanders-ite wing of the Democratic part, which from an historical point of view seems strange. In the places one might expect, The Nation,[1] TYT,[2] and Jacobin,[3] (this last one best articulates this argument) the point is made that by decrying Russian interference and not ‘bread and butter’ issues like healthcare, the Democrats will loose in the 2018 mid-term elections. These articles suggest that the American electorate does not care as much about foreign interference in their democracy as they do about practical problems and policies. All these articles then go on to point out that only by building a cohesive left-wing policy can Democrats win.  While I think this constructive political project is useful and important, from the historical perspective, the argument that the Russia connections will not garner votes seems, to be frank, bizarre. Americans have a long historical tradition of seeing insidious foreign intervention in their Democracy, even when it was not there. Many historical actors utilised this paranoia at election to galvanise politics.

Without wishing to simply regurgitate Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, one can cite paranoid nativism in several political movements without having to leave the 1888 election very far. The 1870s and 80s saw agitation for the ‘Blaine Amendment’ which proposed to ban public funding of parochial schools. For supporters of the Amendment there was no doubt what kind of schools would be denied funding: Catholic ones. Throughout the nineteenth century American Protestants believed that Catholics were not suited for democracy.In the fevered imaginations of American Protestants, the obedient and submissive minded Catholics would vote for whichever candidate had Papal (or Priestly) endorsement, thus allowing for foreign influence in American democracy. While the amendment did not pass federally, a version was added to thirty-eight state constitutions.


1894 Image from Puck showing the Cardinal Francesco Satolli, the first Vatican Delegate to the USA, casting an ominous shadow over the country

On tariffs, one of the most important political issues of the era, protectionists, caricatured their opponents as British stooges, as Marc-William Palen shows in The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade. Britain was the main international proponent of free trade, and American protectionists found it politically expedient to identify all tariff reform as merely British scheming to influence American politics. Republican political fortunes were made on a strong protectionism, coupled with Anglophobic baiting of liberalisers as tools of British interests. Fear about British influence in American politics was also espoused by Populists in the 1890s who, as characterised by Hofstadter in The Age of Reform, scapegoated British capitalists, as well as Jews, for their declining economic fortunes.

These movements, or at least their tactics, one might say are uncouth, Hofstadter compared Anti-Catholicism, and populism with McCarthyism, but they were electorally popular. Populism took over the Democratic party with the nomination in 1896 of William Jennings Bryan, tariffs remained high throughout the nineteenth-century USA, and anti-Catholicism was such a strong force in politics it dogged Kennedy as late as 1960, and was possibly the reason for Alfred E. Smith’s defeat in the 1928 presidential election. There is a strain of paranoia and conspiracism American politics that can deliver votes. So while I agree with critics that Democrats should build a more constructive policy agenda, advocating that highlighting Russian interference will not be electorally popular (compared to ‘kitchen table’ issues[4]) does not really stand up to historical analysis. What is more central to American Democracy than the integrity of the democratic system itself?

[1] https://www.thenation.com/article/democrats-are-wasting-time-with-russia-hysteria/

[2] http://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/24/democrats-fixated-on-trump-russia-scandal-commentary.html

[3] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/03/trump-pelosi-clinton-resistance-movement-russia-maddow/

[4] There are probably thousands of these clichés

Serving Two Masters: Missionaries in the American West

I have thought that my coming West was a great mistake. I must be in the wrong place or work, or I would not be so forsaken. In the midst of all my affliction vc in Africa, I could feel that I was in God’s work: but not so here. The trouble is the trying to serve two masters.”[i]

This was the reflection of the Revered John Menaul, a Presbyterian missionary, after five years of service in the New Mexico and Arizona Territories. A former missionary to Corisco, an island off the coast of West Africa, Menaul continued his missionary
work on his return to the U.S. in 1870. His return came at an opportune time for the Presbyterian missionary enterprise. The post-Civil War years were important in the expansion of U.S. settlements and Federal authority in the Western territories.[ii] A recurring question in this development was what would be the place of the racially, culturally, and religiously diverse peoples who lived in these regions, in what historian Steven Hahn describes as the “social and cultural landscape” of the postwar U.S. nation-state.[iii] As Hahn further explains, “nation-states generally have great interest in education and other sorts of ‘missionizing’ activities…that aim at promoting new forms of character, participation, representation, market orientation, and faith.”[iv] Domestic missionary enterprises, as self-proclaimed agencies of this kind of transformation in culture and values, were in the vanguard of those who attempted to answer this question.

1_86_menaul 2

Rev. John Menaul (1834-1912), Courtesy of the Menaul History Library of the Southwest.

Through the ‘Indian Peace Policy’ of President U.S. Grant the oversight of this assimilating process was allotted to select church denominations, with church appointees performing the dual role of Federal Indian Agents and missionary. It was a great alliance between the church and the state to finally resolve the ‘Indian Problem’.

However, the relationship between these missionizing groups and the nation-state was far from harmonious or complementary and, as Menaul’s complaint suggests, some felt torn between their service to ‘two masters’, the United States Government and the Kingdom of God. Yet this conflict is indicative of a broader pattern in the settlement of the American West. As historians Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur explain in their recent work, the growth of the U.S. across the American West was not a cohesive, smooth process of “a consolidating liberal nation”, but something more “illiberal and chaotic.”[v] Different groups and agencies, from railroad corporations and settlers, to benevolent societies and religious institutions, advanced competing agendas, and means to achieve them.

A vital component of exploring these complex and competing agendas is in the stories of the individuals who participated in them, one being John Menaul. Born in County Tyrone, Ireland, in December 1834, Menaul graduated from Princeton Seminary in 1867, and undertook medical training at the University of Pennsylvania. After two years as a Presbyterian missionary in Corisco, under the Foreign Missionary Board of the PUCSA, Menaul was dispatched to Fort Wingate, New Mexico Territory in late 1870, as a missionary to the Navajo Indians, with the role of physician in the employment of the Federal Indian Agent for the Navajo Agency. [vi]

Initially, Menaul was optimistic in his new posting, writing in December 1870 to the secretary of the Board, Rev. Dr., John C. Lowrie, “that it is the most promising field here. The people are very kind and industrious. They want a teacher. We alone [the PCUSA] occupy the ground. The Navajo Agent does, and I think will do what he can to help me.”[vii]

DSCN2277 2

John Menaul to Lowrie, September 1, 1873. RG224, Box 28, Folder 13, Letter 230. PHS.

Although he noted opposition the mission faced from “the white man”- presumably settlers – located near Fort Wingate, NM, his optimism continued.[viii] With his medical training, Menaul was in high demand, “I am succeeding beyond my expectations in my practice of medicine; have many patients, who are generally very well satisfied.”[ix]

However, as the years progressed there is evident a growing unease in his correspondence, particularly in the corruption among Federal Indian Agents. As he cautioned in one letter, “The less one knows about [Indian] Agencies the better, especially if he wishes to live in peace, or hold his position.”[x] In more stark terms, he added in a later letter, “Most of the [Indian] Agents do not care a cent for the Indian; and will not be interfered with in their [corrupt] schemes so a man must either shut his mouth, sit down and do nothing; or else, by some excuse, loose his place for a proper person.”[xi]

This unease progressed to complete disillusionment, to the extent to which he thought ‘my coming West was a great mistake.’ Though participating in a shared endeavour of westward expansion and assimilation of indigenous peoples, Menaul operated with a different agenda, and sense of purpose, from fellow agencies involved in the enterprise. He found the participation of the Federal government, with its attendant politics and partisanship, a hindrance to ‘God’s work’. And Menaul felt unable to advance the different priorities of his ‘two masters’, as he confessed, “To go under the control of an Indian Agent to do God’s work, is utter folly and useless.”[xii]

[i] John Menaul to John C. Lowrie, July 31, 1875. American Indian Correspondence: the Presbyterian Historical Society Collection of Missionaries’ Letters, RG224, Box 29, Folder 23, Letter 313, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA.

[ii] Elliot West, “Reconstructing Race,” The Western Historical Quarterly, 34:1 (Spring 2003): 6-26.

[iii] Steven Hahn, “Slave Emancipation, Indian Peoples, and the Projects of a New American Nation-State,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, 3:3 (2013): 319.

[iv] Steven Hahn, A Nation without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 (New York: Viking, 2016), 400.

[v] Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, “Introduction: Echoes of War: Rethinking Post-Civil War Governance and Politics,” in The World the Civil War Made, Downs and Masur, eds., (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 3.

[vi] Necrological Reports and Annual Proceedings of the Alumni Association of Princeton Theological Seminary, Volume IV, 1910-1919, 165-166. See also, RG414 Biographical Vertical Files, PHS, Philadelphia, PA.

[vii] Menaul to Lowrie, December 21, 1870. RG224, Box 17, Folder 17, Letter 264.

[viii] Menaul to Lowrie, October 31, 1870. RG224, Box 17, Folder 14, Letter 219.

[ix] Menaul to Lowrie, May 4, 1872. RG224, Box 27, Folder 6, Letter 158.

[x] Menaul to Lowrie, March 18, 1874. RG224, Box 29, Folder 7, Letter 68.

[xi] Menaul to Lowrie, July 31, 1875. RG224, Box 29, Folder 23, Letter 313.

[xii] Ibid.

The idea of historical progress before the American Civil War

One of the consequences of the Trump victory has been to make historical parallels more ubiquitous than ever. Some say we’re living through the 1930s, or perhaps returning to the days of the Know-Nothings – a party of nativists from the decade before the American Civil War. Is Trump the second coming of President Andrew Jackson? In some senses, these comparisons suggest Trump’s views are somehow ‘backward’ – that he belongs to whatever time his supporters desperately want to return to. He is still easier for some to picture in a textbook about the 18 or 1930s, than on today’s news.

Far from evidence that we are beginning to ‘think historically,’ or ‘put Trump in historical context,’ these analogies sometimes suggest an unwillingness to understand the President as a truly contemporary figure. In my view, we need to do more to reconsider the way we make sense of ‘historical development’ itself, rather than make too many comparisons with years gone by. In fact, I think the Trump Presidency has begun to force us to ‘think historically’ in a more interesting sense: by getting us to reckon with the ‘place’ we assign ourselves in stories about the past.

One historical narrative, popular during the 1990s, is beginning to look less and less convincing, although it was recently resurrected by a man who did so much to define that decade – Tony Blair. In an interview at the end of last year with the New Statesman, Blair explained:

‘Of course history has a direction…there is progress, we are making progress, even in our own countries…there’s a lot to celebrate. There is absolutely no reason to be pessimistic about the human condition.’[1]

In what I think are less strident and more qualified terms, President Obama nonetheless agreed with this central premise, when he offered up some comfort after the victory of Donald Trump:

‘The path this country has taken has never been a straight line, we zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways some people think is forwards and others think is moving backwards.’[2]

This view of history echoes a figure described as the ‘chief intellectual spokesperson’ of the antebellum Democratic Party, the historian and diplomat George Bancroft. As a leading light of the antebellum Democrats, Bancroft was among the most significant architects of the contemporary liberal world-view. Despite popular comparisons between Trump and ‘backward,’ or ‘reactionary,’ Jacksonians, Bancroft’s life and work suggest a different course. As I’ll explore in this post, Trump’s language about ‘spheres of interest,’ and of America taking a less ideological role on the world stage, would have been repellent to him and his readers.


George Bancroft’s historical output was prodigious – his themes grand, and rather overblown to modern ears. As a young man, he studied in Germany, attending lectures by Hegel that inspired his ideas about the ‘spirit of the age.’ In terms of policy prescriptions, the historian championed self-government for states and nations, at a time of liberal revolutions in Europe and Latin America. He advocated territorial expansion, free trade and popular sovereignty. He took a relatively laissez-faire attitude to both culture and economics, and was a supporter of immigration from Europe. These might seem familiar tenants of US policy, but only because they defined the post-WWII liberal order. In fact, the moment the Civil War began, Bancroft’s vision of liberal internationalism began to wane for most of the next century, particularly his faith in free trade.

Behind these policies was a view history that became incredibly popular before the American Civil War: a narrative not only of technological and scientific but also moral and political progress, preordained by divine providence. George Bancroft was its most articulate advocate, proclaiming ‘the exact measure of the progress of civilisation is the degree to which the intelligence of the common mind has prevailed over wealth and brute force.’[3] Bancroft believed history was tending towards an ideal state, with humankind becoming morally better as it became more technologically sophisticated. Just like engineering, the social sciences could unlock ‘truths’ – in this case about the human condition – which would allow men to live alongside each other peacefully.

For Bancroft, the nation was a mere stepping-stone to an internationalist social order. In his 1854 lecture before the New York Historical Society, entitled ‘The Necessity, the Reality and the Promise of the Progress of Humankind,’ he explained that ‘with each successive year, a larger number of minds in each separate nationality inquires into man’s end and nature,’ and since ‘truth and the laws of god are unchangeable,’ ‘the nations are drawn to each other as members of one family and their mutual acquisitions become a common property.’[4] In the realm of morality, greater philosophical inquiry would make everyone aware of their common humanity whilst political economy would ‘solve the question of the commercial intercourse of nations by demonstrating that they are all naturally fellow workers and friends.’[5]

Bancroft’s argument is eerily similar to Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis – a view of history popularised in the 1990s. Historian Daniel Howe has even said of the antebellum Democrats that they sought ‘liberation from history.’[6] As well as supporting many of the same policies as Bancroft, Fukuyama put forward a ‘non-ideological’ vision of liberal internationalism, whereby all would be uplifted through the effects of globalisation. Deep-rooted social conflicts and inequalities between nations would ‘flatten’ under the effects of global capitalism. In this view, ideological contests become obsolete, as people realise the universal benefits of liberal democracy, and even the nation state fades away.

These predictions are reminiscent of Bancroft’s, and will possibly turn out to be just as misguided. At their heart, I think both perspectives remove what Reinhold Niebuhr called ‘the embarrassing factor of power’ from political affairs.[7] Just as Democrats like Bancroft provided no satisfactory solutions to the problem of slavery, issues of class and nationality are not just ‘blind spots’ in the contemporary liberal vision: they are structures of power the liberal worldview is not equipped to understand. In my view, some of Bancroft’s conservative critics from the antebellum Whig party offer us some clue as to why.

Caleb Sprague Henry was one such figure – an American Protestant Episcopal clergyman, translator, editor and Professor of History and Philosophy at New York University, who, by attacking the historian head on, became Bancroft’s chief intellectual rival.

On the surface, Henry shared many of Bancroft’s central concerns. Both men, for example, saw the development of American intellectual culture as central to becoming a stable, independent nation. Bancroft celebrated authors (especially Democrats) like William C. Bryant as apostles of republican freedom whilst Henry also wanted to strengthen America’s literary class.

Despite sharing these interests, Henry disagreed with Bancroft and the ‘Young America’ faction of the Democrats, explicitly challenging the historian and the progressive company he kept. Henry was particularly scathing of the idea that moral progress could be achieved in a secular context. As a Protestant minister, he certainly did believe in the elevation – even salvation – of mankind. But, unlike Bancroft, Henry saw this as a religious transformation. The idea of social or political advancement, which is so popular now, was simply incomprehensible in the absence of religious faith.

In a lecture entitled ‘Bancroft’s View of Progress,’ delivered before the New Jersey Historical Society, Caleb Henry described Bancroft’s assertion that the ‘last political state of the world…is ever more excellent than the old’ as ‘pernicious rigmarole.’[8] It was untrue to ‘tell mankind at this age that they are going gloriously onward in a perpetual movement towards something better.’[9] Without Protestant piety, the enlightened society Bancroft hoped to create, through technological progress, free trade and territorial expansion, was ‘only the increase and expansion of what we are now.’[10]

In fact, Henry argued that global interconnectedness might actually result in greater conflict, rather than political unity. ‘The widest extension of commercial relations,’ could – perhaps – increase material prosperity (although Henry did not really think so).[11] However, it would definitely not transform the human character, or replace the role of Protestant faith in making man more virtuous. The discovery of ‘universal laws,’ through humanistic, political or scientific inquiry, did not mean men would become more tolerant of each other, more rational or more aware of their common humanity. Henry recognised ‘there was simply ‘no security against the collision of interest, ambition, pride’ – at least not in a religious vacuum.[12] Indeed, contemporary history was reinforcing Henry’s argument: ‘the late Mexican war has proved that the civilisation of the 19th century has been no more a security for peace on this than on the other side of the ocean.’[13]

Caleb Henry also attacked Bancroft’s view of democracy as an inherent moral good. The theologian took the historian to task for claiming that the ‘multitude is wiser than the philosopher.’[14] He had no time for the idea that majoritarian rule went hand in hand with social liberalism. Even if ‘all the nations of the earth had free governments,’ they would ‘not contain the guarantees of rational progress.’[15] The majority of people could become wise, but only if their views conformed to God’s will. There was nothing inherently moral about the voice of the masses.

Despite his more conservative politics, Henry joined the new Republican Party that emerged in 1854 to oppose the extension of slavery into western territories. By contrast, Bancroft remained a Democrat until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. Many historians have described the Northern members of the Democratic Party as ‘doughfaces,’ or ‘Northern men with Southern sympathies.’ However, to me, this label doesn’t sufficiently capture Bancroft’s genuinely progressive instincts. He earnestly upheld the principle of ‘popular sovereignty’ in new territories as a means of solving the conflict over the extension of slavery. Just a few decades after the right of suffrage became widely accepted in America, Bancroft argued that unorganised bands of new settlers should decide the fate of slavery in places like Kansas. This was a policy that genuine conservatives like Sidney George Fischer abhorred.

A decade earlier, in 1844, Bancroft had argued that the United States should go to war with Mexico. He justified the conflict on the grounds that Americans should extend ‘liberal principles’ over the continent. Promoting slavery was not, for the historian, a cause for concern, since the tropical climate of the new territories would ‘naturally’ draw African Americans out of the original 13 colonies towards new land nearer the equator. What resulted was a huge lunge for power on the part of the Southern states and one of the boldest power attempts to perpetuate slavery the modern world has ever seen. Moreover, 25,000 Mexicans were killed or wounded in battle and thousands of Indians were displaced from their homes in the expansion that followed.

The point here is not that Bancroft was a secret agent of the Slave Power, or that he was consciously upholding a ‘fig leaf’ for slaveholders. In fact, it was Bancroft’s strident commitment to a liberal international order – both political and intellectual – that made him push the idea of power to the very periphery of his political vision. The liberal world-view of the antebellum Democrats drove the party to invade Mexico and expand slavery. Even when it was clear that Southerners were extending their political reach, Bancroft’s ‘progressive’ faith in popular rule was so great that he left the question of slavery to the whims of popular sovereignty. For antebellum Democrats, there was no contradiction between ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy,’ nor any doubt about the fate of social progress in the United States – so confident were they in their teleological view of the past. In my view, Bancroft reaffirms the instincts of the English conservative writer Samuel Johnson, when he asked ‘how is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?’

By contrast, conservatives like Caleb Henry generally understood that people were part of ‘organic communities,’ with their actions entwined in infinitely complex ways: one person’s increased liberty invariably impacted upon another. In this view, conflicts could not be resolved, but merely contained within a political unit, tied together by the bonds of nationality and a shared culture. The political freedoms Americans enjoyed were the result of a convergence of complex historical forces, rather than enlightened ideas. They could not, therefore, simply be transplanted from one territory to another. Similarly, Henry understood that voting was a political privilege. Unlike freedom from slavery, it was not a ‘natural right’ that would automatically materialise once political oppression was taken away. Without the traditions and institutions of the nation, the political process would crumble.

Another thinker who understood the limits of ‘liberal internationalism’ in the mid-19th century was the French historian and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. Like Caleb Henry, he was sceptical of efforts to create a liberal global order. He also saw that the nation was a fragile construction, containing a multitude of competing interests within the same political community. It might have been a ‘social construct’ but perhaps a necessary one. The liberal faith that an enlightened intellectual culture could take the strain of political unification was the more dangerous fiction.

Whilst every page of Bancroft’s histories anticipated a political millennium, Tocqueville saw that liberal thought would lead to new and deeper social conflicts. American Democrats might have presented a rosier picture of international cooperation but Tocqueville saw the United States hurtling towards civil war. In his history, ‘The Ancien Régime et la Révolution,’ published at the same time as Bancroft’s ‘History of the United States,’ in 1856, Tocqueville explained how the French Revolution popularised a radical cosmopolitanism that began to replace the nation as a site of political belonging.

Like Bancroft, the French aristocrat saw that technologies such as the printing press and the steamship were making the world more interconnected from the late 18th century. Political alliances were emerging between groups scattered throughout the world. As such, the French Revolution represented a fundamentally new form of political upheaval. Unlike the English and even American Revolutions, the French overturned the political order in the name of ‘universal rights’ rather than their rights as a particular national group. Whilst place and tradition had always formed the bedrock of national identity, Tocqueville saw that people living millions of miles apart were increasingly connected through ideological affinities. In his view, ‘the Revolution created, beyond the separate nationalities, a common intellectual homeland where men of all nations could become citizens.’[16]

However, unlike Bancroft, Tocqueville noted that this construction of this ‘intellectual homeland’ created new divisions whilst dealing in the rhetoric of universality and human rights. People might have discovered kinship and sympathy with distant revolutions, but they became more intolerant of those closer to home. As Tocqueville explained, we could see the Revolution ‘uniting or dividing men despite their laws, traditions, personality or language; it turned fellow citizens into enemies, strangers into brothers.’[17] During times of heightened internationalism, Tocqueville saw that nations tend to divide against themselves. Conversely, Bancroft maintained his faith in a converging international order in the face of the American Civil War – a conflict that broke out in 1861 and remains the bloodiest war in the nation’s history.

As Caleb Henry and Alexis de Tocqueville saw so clearly, advances in science and technology do not map neatly onto the social realm. Whilst many 19th century Americans put their faith in ‘moral progress,’ Henry recognised ‘ ‘individuals, the nation, the race, can go the road downward as well as the road upward.’[18] Try as they might to extract it, liberals must face up to the fact that competing interests will always dominate the political realm, even when we least intend it. Drawing the boundaries of power lies at the heart of every political decision. The likes of Tony Blair might pose as ‘non-ideological’ pragmatists. Nonetheless, they subscribe to a liberal world-view that is difficult to achieve in a secular context – a fact Caleb S. Henry understood.

Moreover, Tocqueville’s view of internationalism seems incredibly relevant to today’s climate. Whilst we are now seamlessly connected to people across the globe, many find themselves more and more confounded by the beliefs of those closer to home. Evidently, internationalism has a complex and complementary relationship with nationalism that isn’t accounted for in the progressive view of historical development that crystallised in the mid-19th century. Far from making nationalism redundant, globalisation merely modifies and reconfigures it. By rooting our communities in ‘universal principles,’ we draw divisions in new and more violent ways.

As some have argued, Trump is a strikingly modern figure because he deals – in alarming ways – with the language of power. He views relations between states in transactional terms of costs and benefits, laying out ‘spheres of interest,’ rather than liberal values. Thus, I think those who talk of returning to the 1930s are perhaps wide of the mark. At that time, competing ideologies, resting on grand theories of history, flourished. The US is instead returning to the more historically ‘normal’ role it carved out in the late 19th century: as one of many great powers, scrambling for increasingly scarce resources on a disordered world stage.

[1] Jason Cowley, “Tony Blair’s Unfinished Business,” (http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/11/tony-blair-s-unfinished-business),

[2] Barack Obama (https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/11/09/president-obama-speaks-results-election).

[3] G. Bancroft, ‘The Office of the People in Art, Government and Religion,’ 1835, p.426-427

[4] G. Bancroft, ‘The Necessity, the Reality and the Promise of the Progress of Humankind,’ Literary and Historical Miscellanies, (New York: Harper and Bros, 1855), 504.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Daniel W. Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs, (The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p.70.

[7] R. Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, (The University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[8] Caleb S. Henry, ‘Remarks on Mr Bancroft’s Oration on Human Progress,’ (https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=w54RAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA264), p.264

[9] Ibid, 265

[10] Ibid, 290.

[11] Caleb S. Henry,  ‘The Historical Destination of the Human Race’ p. 226

[12] Ibid, 226.

[13] C.S. Henry, ‘The Historical Destination of the Human Race,’ p. 245

[14] C.S. Henry, ‘Remarks on Mr Bancroft’s Oration on Human Progress,’ p.275

[15] Ibid, p.221

[16] A. Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, (Penguin Classics, 1998), 25.

[17] Ibid.

[18] C.S. Henry, ‘Remarks on Mr Bancroft’s Oration on Human Progress,’ p.285

When Currying Favour with the United States Theresa May Should Study her Political Idol

When Theresa May entered office as Prime Minister a slate of articles appeared identifying her political idol as Joseph Chamberlain.[1] The former Secretary of State for the Colonies may be a fitting role model in his foreign policy, particularly in regard to the United States. May in some ways seems to be cosying up to the current administration in Washington in much the same way her hero did in the 1890s and 1900s. Chamberlains example, though, sets an unpromising precedent for the Prime Minister to follow.

Chamberlain had a great many qualities to make him a political idol. He was a Liberal Unionist who favoured protectionism and imperial preference in order to keep the British Empire together. Renowned as one the foremost political orators of his day, by the 1900 election he had become the public face of the Salisbury Government and possibly its most powerful member.[2] Chamberlain was also an inveterate supporter of the United States and hoped to forge an alliance between the two nations. Indeed his third wife was American and his father-in-law a former Democratic Secretary of War.[3] But Chamberlain’s interest in the United States went beyond his family life. Britain in the 1890’s, he believed, needed to look for allies abroad. Decades of ‘Splendid Isolation’ from Europe meant that, as British imperial and industrial decline looked more likely, the nation found itself without global allies. The United States, Chamberlain thought, could fill this void and act both as an ally bolstering British international clout and as a beneficial trade partner.


Both in his policy and his rhetoric Chamberlain made his adulation for the United States clear. During the American conquests of Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico in 1898, Chamberlain declared that it was Britain’s duty to “maintain the bonds of permanent unity with our kinsmen across the Atlantic.” He described the US as a “powerful and generous nation, speaking our language, bred of our race, and having interests identical with ours.”[4] Indeed though the UK remained neutral during the Spanish-American War, the policy of the Colonial Office clearly favoured the United States. British and American citizens smuggled Filipino independence leader Emilio Aguinaldo from his Hong Kong home to a US warship so he could join American forces on the islands. When the Spanish government protested, Chamberlain dismissed their objections.[5] Chamberlain also ignored Spanish pleas to deport American diplomats decamped from Madrid to Gibraltar to keep a close eye on the Spanish Navy from there. He did however see fit to deport similarly placed Spanish diplomats who moved from Washington to Canada at the start of the war after American accusations of espionage.[6]

Chamberlain’s love for the United States can be attributed to his Anglo-Saxonism, which is to say his belief in the popular notion of shared racial affinity between English-speaking peoples globally. Duncan Bell argues in The Idea of Greater Britain that an Anglo-Saxonist concept of ‘Greater Britain,’ gained popularity in the 1860s as a response to the unraveling of the British Empire and renewed European political and economic threats. In the 1860s and 70s, Britain saw its settler colonies federate and move toward self-government, while also witnessing the rise of new threatening foreign powers like Germany and Russia, fracturing the so-called ‘Concert of Europe.’ The Franco-Prussian War, Russian territorial gains in China, and the growing industrial output of continental powers lead politicians like Chamberlain to worry that Britain might fall behind these emergent powers both politically and economically.[7] By embracing a belief that English-speaking, Protestant settlers were not pulling away from the mother country but fulfilling a kind of British duty to settle and bring good government to the far reaches of the globe, Britons could reassure themselves about their status. Not only did their Anglo-Saxonism lead them to believe that their empire was not disintegrating, it also promised allies in any future European struggle.[8] It is easy to see how simply the United States could fall into this Anglo-Saxon thinking. It was, after all, another English-speaking, Protestant nation settling a vast territory. For Chamberlain, by the close of the Spanish-American War the United States had the potential to become an English-speaking economic and colonial power that could serve to bolster British interests.

In his lifetime Chamberlain’s attempt to build an Anglo-American alliance was unsuccessful. During the Boer War American public opinion was firmly against the British Empire. Indeed support for the Boers appealed to both Democratic ‘anti-imperialist’ and Republican anti-monarchical rhetoric, leading politicians from both sides to declare their support for the South African republics.[9] In places where British and American policymakers agreed, for instance on Chinese trade policy, harmony existed, but US politicians acted out of fear of domestic industrial overproduction and desire for new markets rather than Anglo-Saxon sentiment.[10] When the United States entered the First World War on the side of Britain, it took German unrestricted submarine warfare and a poorly thought out telegram to the Mexican government suggesting an alliance contra the USA to convince Americans to enter, not romantic Anglo-Saxonism. Woodrow Wilson accompanied American intervention in Europe with a declaration affirming the right of people to self-determination, a rhetorical repudiation of the British Empire.[11]

What is the lesson of this discussion? Chamberlain found out the hard way that for all his romanticism about the United States and overtures towards détente, Americans did not care much for Britain. When faced with problems in Europe, Chamberlain turned his vision towards the United States but was ultimately rebuffed. American foreign policy was made out of pure national self-interest rather than concern for Britain or her empire. As Brexit looms, Theresa May seems to be seeking to follow her idol. She remains either glaringly silent or actively in favour of Trumps immigration and foreign policy. Political decisions that make little domestic sense unless she is trying to cozy up to the United States and the new administration after Brexit. Chamberlain’s example suggests she may find the policy makers in the United States as uncaring and self-interested as her hero did.

[1] ‘Joseph Chamberlain, Theresa May’s New Lodestar’, The Spectator, 2016 <http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/07/the-man-theresa-may-wants-to-be/&gt; [accessed 31 January 2017] and Goodall, Lewis, ‘Who Was Theresa May’s Political Hero Joseph Chamberlain?’, BBC News, 15 August 2016, section UK Politics <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-37053114&gt; [accessed 31 January 2017]

[2] Peter T. Marsh, ‘Chamberlain, Joseph (1836–1914)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2013 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32350, accessed 1 Feb 2017]

  [3] Dana Cooper, ‘From New England to Old England: The Anglo-American Life of Mary Endicott Chamberlain Carnegie, 1864-1957’, Massachusetts Historical Review, 13 (2011), 96–125 https://doi.org/10.5224/masshistrevi.13.1.0096 p. 97, 101

[4] Quoted in Paul A. Kramer, ‘Empires, Exceptions, and Anglo-Saxons: Race and Rule between the British and United States Empires, 1880-1910’, The Journal of American History, 88 (2002), 1315–53 https://doi.org/10.2307/2700600 p. 1334

[5] National Archive Kew. FO 881/7267 “SPAIN & UNITED STATES: Corres. Spain and the United States. War” No. 3 in Telegram No. 669 Mr. T.S. Smith to Senor de Novarro signed T. Sercombe Smith, Acting Colonial Secretary. p. 426

[6] Ibid. Telegram No. 568. Sir J. Pauncefote to Salisbury. 3 June 1898. pg. 339-40 and Telegram No. 739. Sir R. Biddulph to Chamberlain. 1 July 1898. pg. 453-4. and. Telegram No. 795. Colonial Office [Hereafter CO] to Foreign office [Hereafter FO]. 22 July 1898. p. 488

[7] Marsh, ‘Chamberlain, J.’ Oxford DNB

[8] , Duncan Bell, The Idea of Greater Britain : Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900 (Princeton, NJ; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007) p. 8-31

[9] Michael Headley, “Americans in the Boer War, American Involvement in the Second Anglo-Boer War and Public Opinion at Home,’ via https://norwich.academia.edu/MichaelHeadley p. 35-40

[10] Steven Hahn, A Nation without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910, (New York, New York: Viking, 2016) p. 490, 495

[11] Ibid. 514

From Slavery to Trump: Manchester Protests American Injustice

On the night of Monday 30 January 2017, an estimated 5,000 people gathered in Manchester’s Albert Square to protest against President Trump’s recent executive order, which bans nationals of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days. Along with tens of thousands of others across the U.K., the Manchester demonstrators powerfully signalled their opposition to the measure, while urging British politicians to take a strong stand against the Trump administration.

Watching over the demonstration were the statues of two giants of nineteenth-century statesmanship. The stern likeness of Rochdale-born liberal reformer and MP John Bright stands guard on the eastern edge of Albert Square itself, while the gaunt figure of the sixteenth American president Abraham Lincoln can be found just a few steps away in Lincoln Square. The sight of large numbers of Mancunians speaking out against American injustice would have been familiar to both of them.

Monday’s protestors were walking in 154-year-old footsteps. On New Year’s Eve in 1862, a mass meeting of Lancashire’s “industrial classes,” as the Manchester Guardian put it, was held at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, just a few steps away from Albert Square. The intention of the gathering was to show textile workers’ support for Lincoln’s attempts to suppress the Confederate rebellion and emancipate enslaved African-Americans. Speakers recorded their “detestation of negro slavery” and praised Lincoln as “a noble spectacle in the history of the world.” The main resolution of the meeting, which was to be sent to the President himself, commended the progress that had been made since Lincoln took office, noting that slavery had been abolished in the District of Columbia and that the U.S. had recognised the black republics of Liberia and Haiti. But it was the Emancipation Proclamation—to be enacted the very next day—that was the primary reason for rejoicing. The resolution declared it a “humane and righteous cause” and an indispensable step towards the fulfilment of America’s founding promise that “all men are created equal.”

Such noble sentiments were not shared by many in the upper echelons of the British government. Although historians continue to debate how close Britain came to intervening on the side of the Confederacy, a number of high-profile figures such as Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and the Foreign Secretary John Russell certainly on occasion expressed their willingness to recognise Confederate independence. Speakers at the Free Trade Hall criticised those “ill-wishers” towards Lincoln and the Union as “chiefly those who oppose liberty.” Like the protestors against Trump denouncing “Theresa the Appeaser,” the 1862 meeting directed their disapproval not just at the slaveholding Confederacy, but also at the lack of moral backbone displayed by their own government.

The textile workers’ support of Lincoln and emancipation ran contrary to their own material interests. Prior to the Civil War, the mills of Lancashire had been heavily reliant upon the slave-grown cotton exported by the southern states. When the Lincoln administration placed an embargo on southern ports at the outset of the conflict, this supply quickly dried up, leading to what became known as the ‘Cotton Famine.’ With other sources of cotton such as Egypt and India unable to pick up enough of the slack, there were severe repercussions for the textile mill workforce in Manchester and its nearby towns, leading to a sharp rise in unemployment. However, rather than pushing for recognition of the Confederacy to lift the embargo and restart the flow of cotton, remarkably the attendees of the Free Trade Hall meeting retained their support for the Union. For the English philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill, this was a sign of their “moral greatness” and “a just rebuke to the mean feeling of so great a portion of the public.”

While John Bright was not present at the meeting, he would doubtless have approved of the actions of its attendees. As an admirer of Lincoln and one of his strongest supporters in the British parliament, Bright would have welcomed that even those most disadvantaged by the conflict were expressing solidarity with the Union. Lincoln, meanwhile, famously wrote a letter thanking the “working men of Manchester” for their support, labelling it “an instance of sublime Christian heroism” and “an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom.” Both the resolution of the 1862 meeting and Lincoln’s response can be found engraved upon the plinth of the statue in Lincoln Square today.

Trump’s words and actions since he first announced his candidacy have drawn numerous negative historical comparisons with, for example, Andrew Jackson and Adolf Hitler. “We are history teachers. We know how this ends,” read a placard at the Albert Square protests, above pictures of the Hitler at Nazi rallies. Yet there is also a worthy precedent for Britons making a heartening stand against the worrying course of American affairs. The story of the 1862 meeting shows that Monday’s protests are just the latest in a proud tradition of Mancunians speaking out against American injustices.


  • The Manchester Guardian report of the Free Trade Hall meeting, including a full account of the resolutions, letters and speeches quoted here, can be accessed online via a subscription to the Guardian/Observer archive, or for free in a reproduced form here: https://archive.org/details/manchesterabraha00hour
  • The full letter from Lincoln to the workingmen of Manchester along with an assortment of other related images can be viewed on the Manchester Archives flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/manchesterarchiveplus/sets/72157632764698753
  • An episode of Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ on the Cotton Famine: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05tly3f
  • On the political context of the role of the British government during the American Civil War: Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (New York: Random House, 2012).
  • On the question of British public opinion during the Civil War: R. J. M. Blackett, Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2000) and Duncan Andrew Campbell, British Public Opinion and the American Civil War (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2003).

Bright Lights, Dusty Archives: My Research Trip to Washington D.C.

When I found out I had been awarded the BAAS Postgraduate Travel Grant my first feeling was, unsurprisingly, elation. As a student of nineteenth-century U.S. politics I viewed my proposed two week visit to the Library of Congress, Washington D.C., as a pilgrimage to my research Mecca. But beneath my excitement was a ripple of uncertainty. What if I did not find anything useful in the archives and returned home at the end of my trip with nothing to show for it? My supervisor seemed untroubled, even slightly amused by my concerns. “Just go and see what you find,” he told me, “besides, the most important part is just being out there.” As it turns out, he was absolutely right. For all the useful sources I gathered during my time in D.C., of infinitely greater value was the experience of living in a place that I had spent so much of my time only reading about. My visit gave me a deeper understanding of American society, both past and present, and enabled me to better imagine the world which my historical subjects inhabited – the sights, sounds, and smells of their everyday lives. This in turn has helped me to understand them as real people and to write what I feel to be richer, more faithful histories of their experiences.

Before I left for D.C. I drew up a rough timetable for my visit and set aside some time to explore the city. The hours I spent pounding the sidewalks turned out to be the most memorable part of my trip. Washington D.C. was established expressly to serve as the U.S. capital, and this is evident in every inch of its design. Downtown the buildings are built in the neo-classical style – large, white, columned, and imposing. Each vantage point gives another stunning panoramic view of the city, a vista of domed ceilings rising up from a canopy of cherry blossom trees.  Beyond soaking in the atmosphere, I had a hit-list of landmarks I was determined to see, including the White House, the Supreme Court, and the Lincoln Memorial. The real thrill I got from visiting these places was the feeling of being transported back in time. As a student of nineteenth-century America based in England, at times I feel not only temporally but geographically removed from the society I study. When I looked up at the grand façade of the Capitol Building, it therefore struck me that this was the same view the politicians I study would have seen over 150 years ago when they convened for Congress. The thought made me feel somehow closer to them, as though I could now begin to build a more accurate picture in my mind of these men  and how they lived their lives.

This feeling was strengthened by my time in the archives. Before my arrival I looked up the Library’s registration process and used its online catalogue to compile a list of sources I wanted to see. This minimised the chance of any nasty surprises (“what do you mean the special collections room is closed for refurbishment?”) and maximised my time in the reading rooms.  This was fortunate because, contrary to my fears, the Library held masses of fascinating material. For two weeks the contents of a treasure trove of historical materials passed over my desk in conveyor-belt fashion – political pamphlets and posters, memoirs, reports, diaries – so many that I gave up trying to read them all and took photographs instead. I should perhaps also admit that I had some help mining these archives.  If you spend two solid weeks in a single library, chances are you’ll get to know the people who work there. I befriended one librarian, Stephen, who after learning my research interests took it upon himself to do some digging on my behalf. He brought me what is unquestionably the most curious source I came across while in D.C.; the minutes of a meeting held in 1882 in New York by a gentleman’s political club dubbed the “The Old Fogey’s Association.” Only Stephen’s intimate knowledge of the Library’s archival system could have dug up such an historical oddity.

This was one of many incidents whereby I stumbled across something unexpected. Before D.C. my research practices largely consisted of reading digitised newspapers from a computer screen. After spending hours rifling through the Library’s manuscript collection, I realised what I had been missing out on. Using the keyword searches of online databases is an efficient way to find materials that I know I need. However, it also means I skim past an awful lot of articles and texts which are not necessarily relevant to my research topic, but which might be valuable nonetheless. Being in the archives gave me the freedom to explore such unusual avenues, to pursue unlikely leads.  I began to enjoy the feeling of not knowing what I would find in the next box I called up from storage. Sometimes a folder labelled simply “Misc.” would contain a stack of unpublished essays by a prominent politician. Other times I might find only the letters of a irritable congressman to his mother back in Pennsylvania, complaining about the sticky Washington summer heat.  Unexpected triumphs encouraged me to push the boundaries of my research and investigate aspects of my subject which I might otherwise have ignored. Yet even the dead-ends, the mundane and apparently unimportant sources, had their uses. Holding the letters of nineteenth-century politicians humanised them for me. And while the trivia I learned from their private correspondence will never make it into my final thesis, those details added depth to their characters and renewed my sense of interest in their lives.

Another memorable part of my trip had little to do with my PhD, at least not directly. As a visiting researcher I occupied a curious role in the city. To be sure, I gushed over iconic landmarks and stood in long queues to get into museums like any other tourist. But I also lived the life of a regular Washingtonian. I stayed in accommodation in a residential part of the city, commuted each day on the metro, and bought my food from the local supermarket. My research was like a job; it gave me a stake in the city and a feeling that I was a cog  spinning in the workings of its larger machinery. I had gone from distant observer of to active participant in American society (at least temporarily). Just like reading centuries-old handwritten letters, or ambling down the National Mall,  the experience strengthened my connection with the place and people that I study. This has had a subtle but lasting impact on how I view my PhD project. No longer a student analysing her subject from afar, I now feel closer to being a legitimate researcher of U.S. history, someone with a genuine knowledge of and affection for the country who can make a meaningful contribution to how we understand its past. So while after two weeks in D.C. I left with a memory stick full of sources, undoubtedly the most valuable things I took away with me was a new appreciation of the United States, a deeper understanding of its history, and a renewed passion to continue my efforts to learn more about both in the future.

First Term Reflections

One of the many difficulties at the start of a PhD is attempting to give an intelligible answer to the perennial ‘what are you researching?’ question. At my first academic conference, I was sat next to one of the titans of US historiography, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning historian, whose books and articles grace many a syllabus. Whilst summoning the courage to introduce myself he leans over casually extending his hand, “Hi I’m….”, “I know,” I blurt out, “I’ve read your books.” Awkward introductions aside we exchange some small talk, a couple of jokes, and then the dreaded question arises, “So Andrew what’s your field of research?” My mind starts racing, ‘quick what can I say? Say something smart. Well of course! But what?’ I patch together a sentence “racial exclusion…er…late-19th century…er…citizenship.” Needless to say, the elevator pitch was bit of a flop. But the historian throws me lifeline, “You’ll be alright,” he reassures me, “you’ve read my books, you’ll be alright.”

One of the more memorable moments of the first term embarking on a PhD, the episode does neatly epitomise the persistent frustration of the first term, trying to work out what exactly you’re going to spend the next however many years researching and writing about! Despite having the best laid schemes, they go-often awry, as the initial intentions of the project change, adapt or get completely thrown out the window, as you begin meander through the historiography and the scrutiny of supervisors. And when you do manage to settle around an idea it is always grasped with hesitancy, as you await serious engagement with primary sources. But at least you have something to say when someone asks you the “what are you researching” question.

Personally, I began with the intention of continuing with previous research into three pieces of legislation in 1880s: the Chinese Exclusion Act 1882, Alien Contract Labour Law 1885, and the Dawes Act 1887. But this project proved untenable, and so, at supervisors’ suggestions, I started looking for something more concrete and tangible, like a key social constituency (a trade union, political party or class) or a location, possibly a settlement that was impacted by the legislation. One individual I came across, among many others, was William Speer, a Presbyterian minister and former missionary to China. Based in San Francisco, Speer headed (no pun intended) the Presbyterian Church in America (PCUSA) mission to Chinese immigrants of California in the 1850s & 60s, and was a vocal critic of Chinese exclusion in California and nationwide. Speer was not an isolated individual, I learnt that he was but one cog in a much larger missionary enterprise of the PCUSA (along with every other church denomination), that was supporting thousands of missionaries, educators and religious institutions among diverse groups of racial and cultural ‘outsiders’ within the United States in the late-nineteenth century. As I hesitantly grasped this theme, I read everything I could lay my hands on American religious history, domestic missionaries, nineteenth-century missionaries and empires, to add some context and understanding to this initial discovery.

However, the first term endeavours have not simply been about amassing information and facts about US history. I’ve also learnt important skills as a historian. And I have begun to understand how historical research is a negotiation of personal interests (i.e. the things that get you out of bed in morning), of practicalities (i.e. are there sources available that shed historical light on those interests that get you out of bed in the morning), and appeal (i.e. would an audience turn-up to listen to your historical research into those interests that get you bed out of the morning). Managing to balance these concerns is major part of forming a research project.

Aside from the task of formulating a research project, you are presented with an intoxicating amount of free time. After having spent the previous year in the ‘real world’ of work, with the routine 9-5, meetings and deadlines, on returning to university I was surprised to see just how sparse the PhD timetable was. It was so empty! A research training seminar once a fortnight, a subject seminar per week, and a meeting with the supervisors once every 2-3 weeks, peppered with a couple of training sessions here and there. With no strict deadlines (remember you’re meandering through historiography) it’s easy to lose focus, binge on a several box-sets (The Night Of was my favourite), and develop professional skills in procrastination (my own being testing every form of brewed coffee – Vietnamese drip the latest). Making the most use of this freedom has been one of the most difficult tasks of the first term – and is something I still haven’t quite nailed down.

Finally, one of the great things that struck me in the first term was the true value of a PhD student community. Despite the solitude (often welcome) of the library, archive or a good book, a PhD is a very communal endeavour. You are, after all, researching and writing to present your findings to an academic community. But this community is not simply waiting at the end of the course, it is involved throughout. As you listen to peers present their research in seminars, attend academic conferences and chin-wag over drinks, you pick-up the tricks of the trade, hone your own research ideas, explore new ways of framing your arguments, and just maybe, have a jolly good time in the process.

Defining ‘democracy’ in antebellum America

In the US, the present moment is not a bright one for liberal democracy. With the rise of Donald Trump, Democrats – and many Republicans – see an authoritarian figure, riding a wave of popular discontent to satisfy his own dangerous ambitions. Many Americans also view Clinton as a threat to self-government, but in a slightly different way: in thrall to ‘special interests,’ she’s unable to affect real change within a globalised economic system.

Conservatives are tripping over themselves to declare the ‘death of the American dream,’ whilst liberals argue that democracy doesn’t always result in constitutional liberty. It feels like US  politics is in crisis and, in many ways, it is. But, ‘democracy’ is an incredibly recent invention, and is relatively new even in the American context. For the first 70 or so years of US history, Americans didn’t need to be reminded that self-government stood on precarious foundations. Indeed, some denied that it could exist at all.

Far from seeking to create a ‘New World,’ the Federalists who drafted the US Constitution sought to protect their political inheritance. Alexander Hamilton called for a ‘President for life,’ modelled on the British monarchy, on the grounds that it would create social stability and enable long term economic planning. Other Federalists were highly sceptical of ‘progress,’ distrusting anything reminiscent of ‘innovation.’ The interminably gloomy Fisher Ames wrote ‘I rejoice with you that the spirit of our Massachusetts Legislature is adverse to innovation.’[1] Jedidiah Morse went further – ‘let us guard against the insidious encroachments of innovation, that evil and beguiling spirit which is now stalking to and fro through the earth seeking who he may destroy.’[2] These men’s only use for democracy was as a term of abuse.

Although the Federalist Party was wiped out after the War of 1812, their republican political ideas lived on through the cultural influence of New England elites. The biggest challenge to the Federalists’ view of the nation arrived in 1828, when Andrew Jackson’s Democratic party emerged as an electoral force. A prolific drinker and gambler, Jackson was also a cultural and economic libertarian. He embraced immigrant voters and rallied against government interference in trade and banking. A self-styled man of the people, he invited the public to his ‘open house’ inauguration at the White House, where he served moon-shine based ‘orange punch.’ This marked the transformation of American political culture from republic to a fully-fledged democracy, at least for white men.

One of the most interesting critics of this new culture was the New England Whig, Calvin Colton. The Whigs, especially in the 1830’s, were a conservative lot. United over little else, they could at least agree on the need to control the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ Overwhelmingly, they feared that the ‘mob’ would use the power at their disposal to rob the propertied classes of their wealth, and ruin the economy. Although their opinions varied on the morality of slavery, northern Whigs tended to be more forceful in their denunciation of the ‘institution’ than their Democratic counterparts; partly because egalitarianism at this time was defined by the subordination of black labour.

In my view, Calvin Colton was the most interesting of the many critics of ‘ultra,’ or radical, democracy within the Whig Party. Whilst his peers denounced the cheapening of high culture and worried about protecting property rights, Colton challenged the very notion of ‘democracy’ itself.

In 1839 Colton wrote a tract, called “Voice from America to England,” warning the Anglo-American community of the tide of egalitarianism, rising on both sides of the Atlantic.[3] Colton’s primary case was that democracy – as an abstract notion – was a meaningless slogan. He contended that ‘the very necessities of society present true democracy as a ridiculous theory. Every stage in advancement in civilisation is a proportionate remove from a proper democracy.’[4] Sounding fairly radical himself, he claimed that a system of representative government extracted true power from the people. ‘Aristocracy’ and ‘monarchy’ weren’t institutions of the past that existed only in Europe: they were forms of power, established wherever social associations existed. In Colton’s words, ‘every magistrate was a king. Every law-maker an aristocrat.’[5]

In this analysis of democracy, Colton strangely echoed the arguments of the radicals he set out to criticise. ‘Ultra Democrats’ were constantly assailing representative government because it facilitated ‘office-seekers’ and ‘base partisans’ who sought power only to oppress the people. But, they were far less comfortable with this situation than Colton was.

For these Democrats, the essence of democracy was not representative government, nor two-party competition. Calling themselves ‘the Democracy,’ the party believed that they – alone – gave voice to the body of ‘the people,’ through a process akin to Rousseau’s ‘general will.’ The idea that their Whig rivals might be annihilated didn’t represent a threat to the system. In fact, smashing a conservative, or ‘aristocratic’ faction would prove that the principles of self-government were gaining ground.

Indeed, for many Democrats, particularly the radical nationalist group ‘Young America,’ ‘democracy’ had a cultural and economic, as well as a political, meaning. In his ‘Democratic Vistas,’ the ‘poet of democracy’ Walt Whitman cried:

‘Suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest form of interaction between men, and their beliefs – in religion, culture, literature and schools.’[6]

Despite staving off British power in the War of Independence, and then again in the War of 1812, Whitman believed that the American Revolution was still an on-going process. The US might have obtained political independence in 1776, but the nation had not created a new cultural order. Through the development of a truly ‘American,’ or ‘democratic’ form of literature, he thought Americans might undergo an intellectual transformation: ‘few are aware how the great literature penetrates all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will.’

Similarly, the leader of the ‘shirtless Democracy,’ Mike Walsh looked outside the process of political representation for ‘true’ democracy. He wrote:

‘I care not what man it is that subscribes to the democratic creed; if he’s a split licking, cringing crawling journeyman, an overbearing employer, a tyrannical landlord, a haughty overbearing acquaintance – such man is no democrat. No man can be a good political democrat without he’s a good social democrat’ (sic).[7]

Just as Whitman wanted to see the democratisation of culture, Walsh clamoured for an economic order to match America’s political egalitarianism. A passionate advocate of land reform, Walsh knew that ‘democracy’ – in the sense of voting rights – was a sham in the absence of economic redistribution. Unlike his contemporary Horace Greeley, Walsh was no socialist. He certainly supported the protection of private property rights. But, first, he wanted to level the playing field, by obliterating ‘landlordism’ and ‘monopolies’ of wealth. Only by breaking down these inequalities of economic power, did Walsh think democracy could be achieved in any meaningful sense. Hence, in this quote, Walsh’s ‘overbearing employer’ is no democrat, however many times he might cast a vote in a mere election.

These forms of cultural, social and economic democracy are often associated with a later generation of Pragmatist philosophers, like John Dewey. But, in the early days of American egalitarianism, the concept of ‘democracy’ was thought to have limitless potential. Many historians might focus on the narrow sphere of party politics, but 19th century contemporaries detested ‘base partisanship,’ and had far more expansive conceptions of the ‘political’ than we do now.

Returning to our New England Whig, Calvin Colton was alarmed by these levelling impulses in American culture. Despite sharing Whitman and Walsh’s view of the limits of representative government, he was hostile to attempts to create a more authentic popular voice. For Colton, pure ‘Democracy’ was not a remedy for imperfect systems of representation: it was a mere abstraction, hiding a multitude of interests and instincts behind a vague idea of ‘the people.’ Colton warned England ‘what potency and what sweep of influence has (liberty) acquired by being distilled into an abstract notion and then bounded about in all such applications as their interests, appetites and passions have inclined! There is no limit to its meaning no bounds to its influence.’[8]

In my view, Colton differed from Walsh and Whitman in that he didn’t think the notion of ‘the people’ was an entirely coherent one. The nation did not have a single will, repressed only by a corrupt and overbearing aristocracy. Where Walsh saw the potential to create a harmony of social interests, through increasing personal freedoms, Colton saw only power – in the form of ‘interests,’ ‘instincts’ and ‘appetites.’[9] In a Hobbesian vein, Colton rejected the liberal idea that the erosion of a centralised government would necessarily return man to a ‘natural’ state of freedom. For him, the state of nature consisted of conflicting interests and competing freedoms – ‘all the rights of my fellow beings are a proportionate abridgement of my rights.’[10] In this context, economic levelling and cultural expression would not create a ‘general will’ but a mass of irreconcilable impulses, and a descent into anarchy. In order to create a society that could guarantee security and fundamental liberties, Colton believed that individuals needed to surrender some of their personal freedoms. Only then could the Union become a harmonious organism, and achieve social progress through the guidance of a Divine Providence.

Colton, therefore, advocated a representative government, however imperfect. In his own words, this would consist of ‘my voice, by representation only, in company with the millions associated with me in the same manner represented in making laws for our mutual government: otherwise our subjection.’[11] In Colton’s vision, culture would not be used for self-expression but to quell passions and refine public sentiment. Believing this system was actually a ‘republican order,’ he nevertheless argued that it should be labelled ‘democratic’ to please the people – thereby taking the sting out of the increasingly bold demands of transatlantic radicals. Conscious of what he saw as necessary restrictions for a stable social order, Colton dismissed the egalitarian ambitions of his age: ‘what then are mankind in pursuit of under the banner of liberty and equality that they are ready to fight and die for? – mere phantoms!’[12]

Although the political situation in America is alarming, the nation has always had a fraught relationship with ‘democracy.’ In the antebellum republic, many perceptive commentators – both radical and conservative – recognised the imperfections of representative government. The most staunchly conservative of Whigs as well as the most radical of Democrats did not define the America of the 1830’s as a ‘democracy’ in a strict sense; and they had a very different conception of that term to the one we have now. What separated the two groups, however, was how content they were in the knowledge of this fundamental fact.

[1] Fisher Ames quoted in ‘Review: Works of Fisher Ames,’ The North American Review, Vol. 80, January 1855.

[2] H. Adams, NEL The Great Histories, (London: The New English Library, 1966), 92.

[3] C. Colton, A Voice From England to America, 1839, https://archive.org/details/avoicefromameri00coltgoog, accessed 04/08/2016

[4] Ibid, 216.

[5] Ibid, 8.

[6] W. Whitman, Democratic Vistas, 1871, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/whitman/vistas/vistas.html, accessed 04/08/16.

[7] S. Wilentz, New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class 1788-1850, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 222.

[8] C. Colton, A Voice from America to England, 12.

[9] Ibid, 56&68.

[10] Ibid, 12.

[11] Ibid, 171.

[12] Ibid, 17.


Whigs, Republicans, and Coalitions

Recently my fellow Young Americanist Matt Griffin and I were discussing if the Republican Party will crumble like the Whigs in the 1850s.  Will Donald Trump’s rise split the Republicans?  Should Trump fail to gain the Republican nomination he has not counted out running as an independent or for a new party. Even if Trump does win the nomination the party may be so weakened and tarred by his candidacy it may fail to recover. True then there are some shades of the early 1850s in Trump’s rise there are also two other examples from history to consider. The current state of the GOP can be compared to the Whigs, but also the British Liberal Party in the early twentieth century, and the Democratic Party at the end of the same century. Both examples maybe more illustrative, and provide a better sense of the direction the Republican Party is heading.

The State of The Party

When commenting on the state of the Republican Party, we need to ask ourselves how close to the precipice is it? The short answer is the party is in trouble, but not finished. While the GOP has fared well in midterm elections under Obama they have only been able to hold onto these victories as a result of gerrymandering. A simple glance at the raw popular vote tallies from the 2012 congressional elections reveals that while the GOP held the House of Representatives, more Americans voted Democrat. Thus it is in the drawing of the congressional districts that gives the edge to the GOP, rather than raw vote tallies.  The party has lost (in terms of popular vote) five of the last six presidential elections, and looks to lose another this year. Polling from the 2016 Senate races reveals problems as well.   Even states like John McCain’s Arizona may be competitive, particularly if Republicans disaffected by Trump stay home. Simply put in presidential electoral years the GOP has lost big nationally.[1]

What is destroying the party? The reason for Republican failure is their inability to adequately address both the failures of their own policy between 2001 and 2009, and a lack of acceptance of the changing demographics of the United States. George W. Bush’s legacy in office has been a real problem from the party. His foreign policy, and handling of the economy are obvious failures there is little the Republican Party can attack without impugning the credentials of American Conservatism, or playing counter to their electoral base. Low or even flat tax policy still holds sway among the party faithful, and some (though not all) of the Republican base remains hawkish on defence. The GOP does not feel that it has to (or maybe can) confront the failures on Iraq, or the failure of Bush (and Clinton, and Reagan etc.) to avert financial crisis. Indeed according to Bush speechwriter David Frum, internally the party has only really discussed one legacy of the Bush administration seriously: profligacy on domestic spending, as if that was any real issue for voters.

Republicans have also proved very poor builders of voting coalitions since the 2004 election. The United States is changing demographically, and the party must make inroads outside their elderly white Christian base. This statement though is not to say that the Republicans are a party without coalition. Rather they are a party of a strong coalition with a restricted demographic. The conservative coalition that exists in the United States is made up of wealthy fiscally conservative voters and more importantly backers, and mainly suburban and rural white Christian socially conservative voters. Sure libertarians and gun nuts are thrown in there but those two groups have a lot of overlap with the two sides of social, and fiscal conservatism. This coalition exists on a very easy even keel. The fiscal voters support the GOP because they get all the free-market, low tax policy they want, while the social conservatives, not really engaged economically by either party, get to vote on social issues. It should not be misunderstood that this socially conservative group is also fiscally free-market. To the contrary American social conservatives are generally protective of government entitlements like Medicare. Part of the Bush Administrations problems were that in order to satisfy this coalition spending on entitlements had to be expanded while taxes lowered.[2] There has been little successful outreach to other elements of American society. Even American Jews a wealthy and white demographic end up voting for the left, or as the old axiom goes they “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” A bloc that should by all accounts of race, and income (before even throwing in the GOP’s near fanatical commitment to Israeli security) be the Republicans for the taking, votes between 70 and 80% Democrat. With Hispanics, African-Americans, sexual minorities, and even non-Christians religious groups Republicans have proved woeful at attracting much support. Rather the only firm community outside White Christians the Republican Party holds is Cubans, and this victory is only because of Democratic failure on Cuba (Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion rather turned the community). Even in this demographic younger Cuban-Americans show far less loyalty to the Republican Party and relatedly are less hawkish on Castro’s Cuba.

The party is also in an uncomfortable moment governmentally. Republican strategy during the Obama administration can essentially be boiled down to retrenchment. This strategy has not only been ineffective and damaging in the immediate (the government shutdown for example did not look good for the GOP) the long-term contradictory narrative it establishes is problematic. Professional politicians do not come out well if Congress is seen to be useless. Enter Donald Trump a nonpolitician who speaks to social conservatives, and employs all the hallmarks of American demagogic populism. The Bush Administration does not tar him nor is he concerned about keeping the fiscal social conservative coalition together. His campaign is a pure self-aggrandizing appeal to social conservatism and American nativism


The story of the Whigs is one that has been expelled in far better places than here.[3] To give a brief retelling the Whigs were a party built to oppose the policy of Andrew Jackson. By the 1840s and 50s the party was a political force for economic modernisation and protectionism. It had a wide national appeal, though did play to the upper and middle classes. Looking at the presidential contests in the 1840s and 50s the Whigs were able to win southern states with some consistency, as well as northern industrial centres. However, by the 1850s the party could not come to an agreement on slavery, and this was the issue that tore the Whigs apart. Free-Soilers, pro-slave advocates, and outright abolitionists all inhabited the party, and simply could not come to an agreement as to where the party stood on the issue of human bondage. By their 1848 electoral victory Whigs sill lost votes to Free Soil candidate Martin Van Buren, and by 1856 the party was gone replaced by the firmly anti-slavery Republicans of John C. Fremont, and the nativist No Nothings. Slavery was simply a problem that the Whig party did not have an answer for, and thus the movement collapsed.

The two issues for the GOP: a slim voting base, and inability to deal with party failure are serious problems, but not the problems of the Whigs in the 1850s. Slavery was of course so divisive it not only destroyed the Whigs but led to civil war. No issue exists today that is so all encompassing. The GOP is not going to ruin itself over a single issue, there is simply no issue that would- on its own- destroy a political party. As conservative and vile as Donald Trump’s rhetoric is, his two main appeals, Nativism, and Economic Protectionism, are both stalwart, and it must be said rather boring principles of American populism.[4] Also the American two party system has proved remarkably resilient. Not only does the USA tend to favour two parties but since 1876 with the exception of 1912 no party besides Democrats and Republicans have cracked the top two spot in a presidential election. It would then in my opinion take an issue that could fracture the nation to really destroy an American political party.

The Liberal Party

             There is though an international example that should give Republicans pause. The collapse of the Liberal Party as a realistic party of government in the United Kingdom does give some example for how a plethora of issues can destroy a political movement. As recorded in The Strange Death of Liberal England the Liberal party simply could not respond to issues like Irish nationalism, suffragettism, and militant trade unionism, and so fell as a party of government. The party was easily outflanked on the left and the right by the Tories and the emergent Labour Party. I would also add that the massive expansion of the electorate certainly helped the rise of the Labour party in the early twentieth century.

The Republican Party does seem to be in similar situation to the British Liberals. As a party they have no answer to new problems in American politics, and there is no sign of any update to the republican narrative. On issues like the environment, which will become increasingly important as the effects of climate change are felt, the Republican response is denial. Though the party was effective in the mid 2000’s at winning battles in the culture wars, they have for the most part lost the conflict. Polling suggests young people overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage, and generally back abortion rights. Should the economy fall into another recession the Republican model of economic liberalism, which has governed American fiscal policy for the last fifty years may look feeble. Indeed the emergence of Trump and Bernie Sanders reveals a deep desire in the United States for economic protectionism. The GOP needs to find answers to all of these problems, and if they don’t they risk losing ground to new political forces.

Who though would outflank the GOP on the right? I do not believe a new party will arise, but rather that one side of the Republican coalition could take complete control. Just as the Rockefeller Republicans were whittled out of the party by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, Trumpites, and whoever their successors will be,[5] maybe able to purge free-market types from the party. With Trumpites in full control of the GOP in could then be reinvented as a party of American nativism and protectionism.

Democrats 1968-1992

Perhaps the most illustrative example for the Republican Party is the collapse of the Democratic New Deal Coalition between 1968 and 1992. This democratic example is not only the most similar, but provides the best insight into how Republicans can respond to the crisis. Essentially what we are watching with the GOP is the end of a voting coalition. Trump is pulling the socially conservative voters away from the fiscally conservative ones. Americans who care more about their entitlements, immigration, and the culture wars have their candidate in Trump, they simply do not need a Marco Rubio type to satisfy their goals. This kind political disintegration has happened many times before in American history but the most recent case is the end of the New Deal Coalition.

To give some background Franklin Roosevelt was able, as only he could, to unite Southern Whites, Blacks, urban ethnic voters, trade unionists, and upper crust intellectuals into a political voting bloc. So strong was this bloc it was able to keep Democrats in the White House, with the exception of Eisenhower, between 1933 and 1969. However changing economic circumstances, the war in Vietnam and associative rise in counterculture, and most importantly the Civil Rights Act broke this coalition. Large elements of urban ethnic voters and nearly all the southern white bloc were both disaffected by Civil Rights. Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan were able to capitalize on the Democratic embrace of Civil Rights by campaigning on State’s Rights and Welfare Reform issues that would disproportionately harm Blacks.   The growth of the countercultural movement of the 1960s split Democratic voters between socially conservative, hawkish, blue-collar workers, and the anti-war youth, most clearly at the 1968 convention in Chicago. More slowly rising incomes also turned working class white elements of the New Deal Coalition into Reagan Republicans as they moved up in class.

While there is no great crisis among conservatives akin to the Civil Rights Movement, or the rise of counterculture in the United States today the GOP is seeing a split in their coalition much like 1968. However this example while dire for the immediate future of the party also shows a clear way out. Bill Clinton offers an excellent example to any ambitious American conservative. By tracking to the centre Clinton was able to win the Democrats back the White House. While some of the core of the Democratic base (schismatic unbending lunatics living in places like Berkeley California) still consider Clinton to have betrayed leftist principles this kind of centrism has proved remarkably effective. Clinton’s Third Way has become the dominant ideology of the Democratic Party. Social liberal policy has generally united Democrats while both Obama and Clinton (or perhaps Clintons) are committed free-marketeers. Until the most recent cycle the most realistic Democratic candidate since 1992 to have an economic policy anything like the Great Society of the 1960s was John Edwards.[6] By firmly occupying the centre to centre-left Democrats have won five presidential elections, and forced the GOP into the extremism it now espouses. As Democrats become more complacent, and move to the left (cough cough Sanders) ground will open in the centre for the GOP to occupy. Especially by leveraging American unwillingness to pay large tax bills a more firmly libertarian, economically driven Republican Party could effect this move towards the centre.  There is essentially a way out for ambitious republicans as long as they stay away from the fringe politics of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and keep open a path to centrism.

[1] The GOP have done well at the state level though.

[2] According to the free-market Cato Institute Bush entitlement spending was the greatest of any president since Lyndon Johnson.

[3] See the work of Daniel Walker Howe

[4] Curiously protectionism is where there are commonalities between Trump and Bernie Sanders. Sanders also opposes free market trade deals, and plays on fears of elite shady economic dealings in this regard.

[5] The mind boggles.

[6] Apologies Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich