Friday, January 20, 2012

The Republican Party and the South: A Then-and-Now Perspective

Wilson Bachelor (1827-1903), Arkansas Republican Leader

In that posting taking note of Fr. Martin's recent call for renewed respect, compassion, and sensitivity among Catholics as they deal with their gay brothers and sisters, I noted that the recurring cycles of disdain openly vented in the American political context against those who are gay (vented with overt Catholic complicity in many cases) tend to wear on me.  More than just a tad.

The racism, the homophobia, the toxic discourse now commonplace in our political process, the downright lies: these have me worn to a nubbin as this work week ends.  But there's another, a quite specific and discrete, reason that I'm finding this election cycle especially hard to bear.  This has to do with the work I'm doing on that book about which I've told readers.

As my previous comments have noted, I'm working on a transcription of (and commentary about) a diary, a collection of essays, and some letters written by a pioneer doctor in Arkansas in the latter part of the 19th century.*  This man also happens to have been a Republican leader in the northwest part of the state.  He came to Arkansas after having been placed by the federal government as physician in charge at the national cemetery at Pittsburg Landing in Tennessee when it began to be constructed--the cemetery that later became Shiloh National Cemetery.

And so, in addition to commenting on matters medical, his writings also often comment on political issues of his period.  And when I compare what one Republican leader was writing in the postbellum period in an isolated and rather backwards Southern state with what the leaders of the Republican party now want to maintain, I'm shocked by the discrepancy between where this political party once found itself, and where it is now.  Wilson Bachelor, the subject of the book on which I'm collaborating, would have been run out on a rail--and very quickly--by any Republican party group about which I have any knowledge today.  And most certainly by the Republican party in Arkansas, who might have tried to hang, draw, and quarter the man as an infidel, before they resorted to the rail-running.

Here are some of the things I find him writing in the occasional pieces I'm now reading and drafting footnotes about:

1. Slavery: In an undated letter-essay he wrote to U.S. Representative Thomas Boles (R-Arkansas) that appears to have been composed around 1892, he writes,

Now I ask was it not a higher civilization and more liberal ideas that freed the slave? Of course it was. For there is not a highly civilized nation on earth that today enslaved a Race.

2. Science and religion: that same letter also states,

The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.

3. Women's rights: in an undated letter-essay he wrote to the editor of a local newspaper sometime in the 1890s, evidently with the intent that it be published as a kind of op-ed piece, he sharply critiques the religiously based notion that women should be subjugated to men, and he writes,

I contend the emancipation and elevation of women to be the first step in "Societal Parity". So long ss she remains a slave subject to a Master having no rights of her own, "Societal Parity" is hampered. Give her all the rights of womanhood. 

4. Workers' rights: again and again throughout his writings, Dr. Bachelor stresses the need to safeguard and promote the rights of workers, of the laboring poor.  An example: as the 1893 world's fair was being planned, churches and Christian organizations around the nation called on people to pressure Congress to withhold funding from this event unless the fair closed on Sunday.  Christians from all across the U.S. were urged to send petitions to Congress demanding Sabbath closing of the fair.  As Josephine C. Bateham, a leader of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, stated at the time, this crusade was necessary because the nation was at a turning point and would fall apart if Christians lost control of the political process: "If the Christianity of the nation can control this question, they can control the career of this country," she wrote.

Dr. Bachelor opposed the attempt to force government to do the bidding of the churches here for two reasons.  The first was that the intrusion of churches in secular decisions obliterated the line between church and state.  But the second was that the people on whose backs the Sabbath closing would primarily fall were working people who had no other day to attend the fair.  He wrote, 

Is it a National sin and crime to let the poor people see the Fair on Sunday, the only day they can lose, for they cannot afford to lose a single day's pay during the working days?  At the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1870 70,000 laborers and mechanics pleaded for admission on Sunday but were refused through the influence of the Clergy. At the coming world Fair ten times that number will be turned away if it is closed on Sunday. Will this be treating the poor people right? The wealthy can go to their fine carriages through the week and rest and go to church on Sunday but not so with poor laboring men.

5. Church-state relationship: as the preceding remarks indicate, Dr. Bachelor also stoutly opposed the attempt of faith-based communities to dictate to and control the political process.  In that same essay on Sabbath closing and the 1893 world's fair, he wrote, 

This incessant talk about Sunday laws and Christian government is enough to make one tired. This is not a Christian government. George Washington said, "The government of the United States is not a Christian government."  George Washington said, "The government of the United States is not in any way founded on the Christian religion." Nor is it true that Christianity is the common law of our country. The name of God is not in our Constitution neither is it used when a President of the United States takes the oath of office.

6. The political process and orthodoxy litmus tests: Dr. Bachelor was dismayed by what he saw as a growing trend to impose litmus tests in the political sphere, requiring political leaders to sign onto one or another statement assuring their political or religious orthodoxy.  He saw this as a development that would corrupt the political process and foster hypocrisy among political leaders.  On the eve of the 1892 elections, when he found promise in neither the Republican nor the Democratic presidential candidate, he wrote, 

I see the signs of the times point to the future when politics will determine everything. When a man now proposes to run for an Office in some place, he is asked if he is for or against license or alliance. In others is he of a labor organization. The time is coming when he will be asked if he is a Catholic or Methodist or Baptist or Agnostic and according to the answer he will be boycotted or supported. This tends to make politics more corrupt for candidates will be, and act the hypocrites for votes. While I deprecate this tendency, I accept this situation and hold liberty of thought above all political organizations.

7. The corrupting influence of money on the political process: as the political process grew increasingly corrupt on all sides in the gilded age, as money flowed on both sides of the partisan system to assure control of the political process by the super-rich, Dr. Bachelor wrote in 1896, 

Urged on by cheap orators of school house notoriety, the greed for money and office makes men pour their phillipics and vituperations upon the government and lawmaking power, as all are wanting government Pap. 

A bipartisan political system controlled by the super-rich, who employ orthodoxy litmus tests to control political discussion, fosters corruption and hypocrisy.  This nation was not founded to be a theocracy.  Permitting religious bodies to control the political sphere contributes to political corruption.  Workers, women, and people of color have human rights that must be defended by political leaders if we expect to build a more humane world.  When we permit religious belief to dictate science, we erode the foundations of civilized societies working towards a more humane world:

All of these points were being made, I repeat, by a Republican leader in the isolated, backwards state of Arkansas in the latter half of the 19th century.  Not a single one of them would be acceptable today to the Republican party as it is now constituted.  If we want to see what that party now is and what it has made of itself, we need, as Ben Adler writes from Greenville, South Carolina, yesterday, to look carefully at the state of South Carolina, where the religious right completely controls the political process--and where the real Republican party is on full display for all of us to see in the primary debates now occurring there.

Not a heartening picture, particularly when one studies the history of this party and sees what it might have made of itself, after its leaders courageously took the morally correct side vis-a-vis slavery in the middle of the 19th century.  The disconnect between that might-have-been history and the party we now see center-stage in South Carolina: it's downright dismaying for anyone who believes that people do have the possibility of learning, growing, developing, changing.  And learning from their mistakes.

And learning from history about dead-ends and cul de sacs, and how dangerous it is for leaders to move bodies of people and nations down roads that lead in those directions.  If the goal of those leaders is or ever has been to build a better, more humane society for all of us.

P.S. Please see the addendum to this post here.

*I should note that descendants of Wilson Bachelor who own the original documents have generously made them available to the group of us collaborating on this book.  They are themselves collaborators in the project, and will be credited when the book is published.  I'm not mentioning them here by name since I don't want to invade their privacy--but I do want to acknowledge their generosity, without which none of this scholarship could be taking place.

No comments: