In our ongoing battle to defend American values from the unceasing attacks of the conservatives who would burn our nation in order to save it, we progressives have, of late, found ourselves once again under fire for the very name we use to describe ourselves. An attack on this flank was not unexpected – they're still very angry about the whole "teabagger" fiasco – and predictably, anti-historian Glenn Beck has taken the lead in the dumbing-down for rightist consumption the history of the Progressive Era of a hundred years past. Like many Neandercon interpretations of history, this one requires a distinct lack of contextual understanding in order to be applicable to the modern day, and it goes to the very heart of the reason Glenn Beck has been working so hard to conflate the progressives of a century ago with their contemporary namesakes.
Describing the past only in the sense of modern labels has too long served Mr. Beck's vile purposes, and his attempt to re-write the vocabulary of history cannot go unanswered forever - so join me, if you will, in the Cave of the Moonbat, where tonight we'll revisit an era when women who couldn't vote organized against alcohol, presidents wore mustaches, and even Republicans were occasionally capable of governing in the public interest.
About a blog-decade ago, the legendary Land of Enchantment suggested that the trust-busting era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries might be ripe for moonbatification. Normally, I jump right on LoE's shout-outs – she's got an uncanny knack for picking out historical topics with contemporary relevance – but for some reason, this one didn't seem to write itself. I couldn't really figure out why, until I recently heard Glen Beck railing against the old-school progressives (none of them by name or specific policy, of course, just an historically anonymous "they") – then the pieces began to fall into place.
It occurred to me that this might be linked to a diary I did a couple of months ago, in an effort to raise awareness of a recently-opened front in the broader conservative assault on American values - specifically, what our friends on the right have been doing to our history books. In their version, "titans of industry" heroically built the railroads and tamed the Wild West, while booming factory towns back East provided jobs for all those scrappy immigrants come to live the American Dream – and not-lording over it all was a benevolently laissez-faire government headed by genial Republicans. In the non-rose-colored world, of course, things played out much, much differently.
My recommendations in that diary included arming the good guys (that'd be us) with ammunition of the appropriate caliber and logical force to wreak havoc in the enemy lines, and I humbly submit this little bag of hard leaden facts for your use in verbal combat with those America-haters who would distort our history for their own short-term political gains. I also offer it as something of a primer for an upcoming HfK on 19th-century trusts and the early 20th-century attempts to rein them in – (honestly, LoE, this started as a diary about trust-busters, but once the definition of "trust" alone got to being a page long, I had to start thinking in terms of separating the glossary from the yet-to-be-written main text).
#1: Progressive - Glenn Beck has recently noticed that the democratic wing of the Democratic Party has taken to calling itself "progressive" instead of "liberal," a word which was long ago made to sound as slimy as "teabagger" in the mouths of right-thinkin' 'muricans. The change in targets bugs him; "Progressive" carries connotations of (as TheFreeDictionary.com puts it) "Moving forward; advancing" and "Promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods," while "Conservative" means "Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change" and the even-more-indicting-sounding "favouring the preservation of established customs, values, etc., and opposing innovation." Unable to sell such a backwards-looking philosophy to an American population seeking genuine innovative betterment of their lives and civilization, conservatives have now opened up a new front in their War on Nouns in an attempt to deflect attention from their defense of the indefensible.
Which are the wild-eyed bomb-throwers, again?
Mr. Beck, in his ongoing effort to simplify history to a level at which he might be able to grasp its most rudimentary concepts, is now doing his damndest to conflate modern progressives with their historical namesakes – and the results would be hilarious, if it weren't for the number of people out there in teevee-land willing to suspend disbelief and accept his word as gospel. Like us, turn-of-the-20th progressives were indeed motivated to use government to change things for the better, but both the reasons for their motivations and the goals they had in mind were vastly different from those of their modern descendents. Temperance, for example, would've sold better with today's conservatives than it would with most of the progressives this moonbat knows, though I must admit I would've been one of that gender-bending majority of males who voted to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. Similarly, like most of my fellow modern progressive, I'm all for the 17th Amendment and the direct election of Senators, but I think we'd part ways with our predecessors over the proper role of the government in the treatment of indigenous peoples and the non-white poor.
It wasn't just the issues that were different; as mentioned above, the motivations behind them were, as well. Muller v. Oregon, a landmark 1908 Supreme Court decision often regarded as a progressive victory for worker's and women's rights, provides a good example of this sort of right-decision-for-the-(nowadays)-wrong-reasons. In upholding an Oregon law limiting a woman's workday to ten hours, Justice Brewer opined on behalf of the court:
That woman's physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious. This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her. Even when they are not, by abundant testimony of the medical fraternity continuance for a long time on her feet at work, repeating this from day to day, tends to injurious effects upon the body, and, as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.
Here again, the historical "progressive" rationale – even if it resulted in improved workplace conditions and better overall quality of life – is one that sounds like something Rush Limbaugh might've said yesterday, whereas one has difficulty even imagining Randi Rhodes thinking along such lines.
#2: Trust - It's funny (and sad) what our friends over in the financial sector do to words whose original definitions convey ideas of confidence, honor, and decency. "Security" in the world of trading means nothing of the sort; ditto "insurance." Imho, though, the award for Most Cynical Adaptation of a Noun or Verb should go to "trust." That particular word has been (ab)used by financiers since as early as 1712, and while the current incarnation is mostly seen in forms like the Paris Hilton's Inheritance Protection Act, shades of the original meaning – probably from the Old Norse traust, or "confidence" – have stayed true, even through all the mangling.
Thefreedictionary.com lists the first definition of "trust" as Firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing, and it is out of this basic idea that the more legalistic forms of trust spring. One can see shades of this in the concept of the "trustee," a person who administers and maintains money or property on behalf of another. Taken a step further, a "trust" becomes something (as property) held by one party (the trustee) for the benefit of another (the beneficiary), as in "he is the beneficiary of a generous trust set up by his father" – an idea which itself gives rise to an entire subculture of douchebag slackers: the dreaded trustafarians.
In the late 1800s, a "trust" was a business combination in which individual shareholders turned over control of their stock to a trustee. The trustee would combine the shareholder's stock with his own shares, then exercise their combined power to control, destroy, or simply scrape profits from a given sector of the economy. When mixed with business models like vertical integration and leadership based upon Scientific Management, the results could be environmentally and socially catastrophic.
In a sense, today's pot-dealing snowboarders of Breckenridge and the legions of "travelers" staring numbly at televisions in bars on Khao San Road have the malicious minds of 19th-century businessmen to thank for their lifestyles. Men like EH Harriman (the link is to a 1922 biography by George F. Kennan, a Russia expert, Bolshevik-hater, and distant relative of the Long Telegram guy) and John D. Rockefeller, who went through life unburdened by any sense of economic morality, exploited the concept of "trust" to such an extent that even Republican presidents finally felt obligated to do something about it.
#3: Republican - Let's get one thing straight, right off the bat: Theodore Roosevelt would not be welcome in today's Republican Party. Just as today's teabaggers would've been first in line to cast votes for John Bell or John Breckenridge in 1860, and to excoriate Lincoln and his upstart party for sins ranging from tearing apart the union to n**r-loving to wanting to wreck the South's economy, Teddy would've failed every domestic-policy purity test they could throw at him. His successor, William Taft, while arguably a little more conservative than Teddy, nevertheless would've had some 'splainin' to do about his activist trust-busting.
By way of example, here are some excerpts from the Republican Party Platform of 1904. For a fun little game, try'n figure out which might still find their way into the teabagger-influenced platform of 2012, and which are going to be left safely in a past where Republicans actually felt an obligation to govern in the interest of the governed:
We then (in 1897) found the country after four years of Democratic rule in evil plight, oppressed with misfortune, and doubtful of the future. Public credit had been lowered, the revenues were declining, the debt was growing, the administration's attitude toward Spain was feeble and mortifying, the standard of values was threatened and uncertain, labor was unemployed, business was sunk in the depression which had succeeded the panic of 1893, hope was faint and confidence was gone.
We met these unhappy conditions vigorously, effectively, and at once. We replaced a Democratic tariff law based on free trade principles and garnished with sectional protection by a consistent protective tariff, and industry, freed from oppression and stimulated by the encouragement of wise laws, has expanded to a degree never before known, has conquered new markets, and has created a volume of exports which has surpassed imagination...
Protection, which guards and develops our industries, is a cardinal policy of the Republican party. The measure of protection should always at least equal the difference in the cost of production at home and abroad. We insist upon the maintenance of the principle of protection, and therefore rates of duty should be readjusted only when conditions have so changed that the public interest demands their alteration, but this work cannot safely be committed to any other hands than those of the Republican party...
We cordially approve the attitude of President Roosevelt and Congress in regard to the exclusion of Chinese labor, and promise a continuance of the Republican policy in that direction...
Under [T.R.'s] guidance we find ourselves at peace with all the world, and never were we more respected or our wishes more regarded by foreign nations...
Combinations of capital and of labor are the results of the economic movement of the age, but neither must be permitted to infringe upon the rights and interests of the people. Such combinations, when lawfully formed for lawful purposes, are alike entitled to the protection of the laws, but both are subject to the laws and neither can be permitted to break them...
On second thought, maybe that's not such a fun game.
The trusts which emerged in the wake of the Civil War were headed by people so unscrupulous that they made Bernie Madoff look ethical, and were founded upon industrial exploitation of a sort that makes Exxon seem like a bunch of little Loraxes. They were aided, if not abetted, by the string of Republican presidencies (well, technically Johnson was from the National Union Party, as was Lincoln in his brief second term) that ran from 1860 to 1912, interrupted only by the non-consecutive elections of Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1884 and 1892. Each of these proto-GOPers added his own seasoning to the toxic stew of economics and politics, melding together through war and industry a pot of evil that would fester and simmer for an entire century before being gleefully adopted by conservative thinkers under the moniker "Reagan Republicanism:"
Abraham Lincoln, (R, 1861-1865; National Union, 1865) – Strip away the Mount Rushmore stuff, and Honest Abe doesn't cut quite the messianic figure believed in by a lot of folks nowadays. He certainly didn't in his own day: the main reason for the whole National Union thing was because the Radical faction of his own Republican party thought, in the spring of '64, that Lincoln wouldn't be able to win re-election. Accordingly, they put up John "The Pathfinder" Fremont as the Republican candidate – the NU was meant to capture the non-radical Republican and non-Copperhead Dem vote, seeking to throw a bone to Southern and Northern moderates alike by including as Vice President the one US Senator who hadn't seceded along with his state (there were no primary elections in those days; primaries were an innovation of the Progressive Era initially meant to take electoral power out of the hands of smoke-filled back-room dealers).
Turning on one's own party's incumbent president in the midst of a literal civil war might've sounded like good politics in the spring of 1864, but it was biting the radicals in the ass by the early autumn. Over the summer, Admiral David Farragut had damned the torpedoes and seized Mobile Bay; Ulysses Grant's strategy of attrition was, in its grim, bloody way, starting to work; and William Sherman presented the president with the city of Atlanta on September 1.
To save a little face, Fremont and the radicals agreed to folding their campaign, but insisted that Postmaster Montgomery Blair, a founding member of the Republican Party who'd since had a falling-out with its more stick-it-to-the-South reconstructionists, tender his resignation as a condition. Fremont dropped out of the race, Blair resigned the following day, and Lincoln went on to victory under a combined National Union/Republican ticket. Fwiw, Blair was almost Cheney's-hunting-partner-esque about being thrown under the wagon wheel – he assured his wife that Lincoln had acted "from the best motives" and that "it is for the best all around."
The railroading of Blair, who had been quite the war hawk back in the Fort Sumter days, is one of those forgotten episodes that really ought not be forgotten, for it's instructive as to how the country was actually run during its darkest hour (and not, as too many of us want to believe, that Abraham the Righteous strode across the land like a Colossus, freeing slaves by the millions and holding the union together through sheer patriotic fervor). People played political games, even while valiant troops were getting their valiant guts blasted all over the valiant battlefields of Northern Virginia; indeed, Lincoln had rejected this very quid pro quo only a few days before, in a two-hour meeting with Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical leaders. Colonel R.M. Hoe captured the substance of Lincoln's then-answer to Stevens' demand, as cited here:
Has it come to this that the voters of this country are asked to elect a man to be President - to be the Executive - to administer the government, and yet that this man is to have no will or discretion of his own. Am I to be the mere puppet of power - to have my constitutional advisers selected for me beforehand, to my manhood to consent to any such bargain - I was about to say it is equally degrading to your manhood to ask it.
That Lincoln was in actuality a puppet of powerful forces behind the nascent Republican movement has been the subject of recent speculation by the likes of Harvard professor David Herbert Donald. His Lincoln is by no means evil, and is quite aware of the string-pullers trying to manipulate him, but Dr. Donald also portrays Lincoln as a reactive leader without clear policies, and as a politician forced to make uncomfortable compromises in order to achieve certain goals – even in 1860, running for President meant putting one's soul up for auction.
There are many more episodes to illustrate Lincoln's taint (as it were) - like the trial by military tribunal of former Democratic congressman Clement Vallandigham - but since I want to at least pretend to stick with my original thesis about the Ripple of Evil that is the Republican Party, I'll leave it to the comments to give Bill O'Reilly any more anti-Abe, Kos-bashing ammo than I already have. For the record, then: "PRAISE LINCOLN! ALL HAIL LINCOLN! ALL HAIL THE GOP, THE PARTY OF LINCOLN!" – u.m.)
In Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, Dr. Donald takes a look at a quote from Ohio Senator John Sherman (General Bill's brother and chair of the Senate Finance Committee during the war) on why Lincoln had gotten the Republican nod in 1860. Once the political code words are deciphered, it paints a pretty scary picture of just who was behind the Republican Party, even at its inception:
"Those who elected Mr. Lincoln expect him . . . to secure to free labor its just right to the Territories of the United States; to protect . . . by wise revenue laws, the labor of our people; to secure the public lands to actual settlers . . . ; to develop the internal resources of the country by opening new means of communication between the Atlantic and Pacific."
"Free labor" meant free white labor in the Territories – the thinking went that an influx of blacks, whether slave or cheap-working freeman, would serve to undercut what white settlers could earn. One can see this pretty clearly in Article XIV of the Illinois constitution of 1848:
The general assembly shall, at its first session under the amended constitution, pass such laws as will effectually prohibit free persons of color from immigrating to and settling in this state; and to effectually prevent the owners of slaves from bringing them into this state for the purpose of setting them free.
(despite Republican control of the Illinois legislature during nearly the entirety of the 1850s and '60s, and the fact that it was Lincoln's home state, Article XIV wasn't rescinded until Illinois adopted a new, Reconstruction-style constitution in 1870 – u.m.)
ahem. To continue:
"Wise revenue laws" was 1860-speak for a 47% import tariff that would shield northern manufacturers from foreign competition while obligating the South's export economy to deal with the effects of the inevitable retaliation.
"Secure the public lands to actual settlers" meant passing a homestead act that would result in the wholesale oppression of native inhabitants of the West, while inviting the looting of the now-"public" domain by speculators, investors, lawyers, and basically everyone but the poor bastard living in a sod house trying to plow the prairie.
"Develop the internal resources of the country" was code for feeding frenzy that would occur when the government started subsidizing railroad companies to build the transcontinental and other lines. Think "liberation and reconstruction of Iraq."
The danger here is in taking things too far, portraying Lincoln as wholly guided by greed and a desire for advancement. Such a case (imho, of course) is laid out by Thomas DiLorenzo in his 2002 critique The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, in which the pre-presidential Lincoln is shown to be a highly-paid railroad lawyer, petit bourgeois Whig, and wholesale backer of subsidized choo-choos. Speaking as just one moonbat, my take is that the real "real" Lincoln falls somewhere in the middle – a climber and sometimes-opportunist whose own nobility of purpose didn't become apparent until relatively late in the game. Compromised as he may have been, he was, perhaps, the greatest leader our nation has ever produced (and/or the first to truly assert the supremacy of the centralized federal government), but could he survive a purity test administered by either party today? No.
Andrew Johnson (National Union, 1865-1869) - Johnson couldn't even survive a purity test in his own time, to say nothing of now. Cantankerous and obstinate, Lincoln's death left him essentially a president without any support mechanism – the last National Union congressman resigned the party in early 1867 – and vulnerable to obstructionism the likes of which President Obama can only begin to grasp. I've diaried on his impeachment a couple of times, in the summer of 2007 as well as a few months earlier, in the heady days before the seating of the Feckless 110th, when some of us naively thought that Nancy Pelosi might actually do her constitutional duty.
Accordingly, I won't subject the dear reader to yet another recounting of the Tailor's woes; suffice to say that he wasn't in anybody's pocket, and he paid the harshest of prices for it. He did manage to get a few things done, drumming up in four years far more impressive achievements than, say, a president like George W. Bush would be able to point to after eight. Johnson oversaw the admittance of Nebraska to the Union and (over his vetoes and other objections) the passage of Amendments XIII and XIV. No Republican tried to block the money and land he allowed to be shoveled toward the railroad barons, and though they laughed at his Secretary of State, William Seward, for wasting American dollars on "Icebergia," it turned out that (Palins notwithstanding) Alaska was a pretty good purchase. Hillary Clinton's predecessor also negotiated with Denmark for the sale of what would eventually (in 1917) become the US Virgin Islands, but the congressional Republicans did stand in the way of that one – too likely the place would end up settled by southern former aristocrats and the sharecroppers they compelled to come with them, methinks.
During Johnson's Administration, the matter of whether or not the government should enforce basic human rights on behalf of more than 3 million people was still up for consideration, to say nothing of the role of the feds in regulating the banking industry. Johnson himself (who was, incidentally, opposed to those aforementioned human rights) was so tangled up in impeachment proceedings that he wasn't really in on the back-room deals that would determine his fate – he was instead completely cut out of the action. In an odd way, this might make him the most corporate-clean president of the post-Civil War era.
Next time (probably a couple of weeks), we'll pick up with US Grant waving the bloody shirt in the Election of 1868, and continue to try to grok the moral depths to which the Republican Party has shown itself historically capable of sinking. This isn't to say that the Democratic Party of the same era would have been any sort of refuge for a person with modern liberal sensibilities – across the South, Democratic "redeemer" governments filled the vacuum created when Union troops withdrew, and quickly set about legalizing Jim Crow - but that was kind of the point of this whole essay: that labels from one- to one-and-a-half centuries ago aren't going to apply all that well in the modern day. Furthermore, it's historically ignorant to try to conflate the two, and when it's done for purposes of right-populist propaganda, a la Mr. Beck, it's downright dangerous.
Special Note of Thanks: The results of the Daily kOscars™ 2009 voting were released a little while before I was due to post this, meaning I'd be completely remiss if I didn't thank EVERYONE who participated in all aspects of this grand project, from organizers like Laughing Planet and Patriot Daily down to slugs like me, who didn't do much more than vote and drop a comment – and especially those who cast their votes for the two History for Kossacks nominees! It's humbling indeed to even be nominated for such honors, to say nothing of actually being tapped to receive them, so from the bottom of my heart...thanks to all of you who've been such an inspiration and so supportive over these past four years of Cave-dwelling historioranting. It wouldn't be the same (okay, really, it wouldn't be anything at all) without youz guyz, and your recognition of my efforts means more to me than you'll ever know. Thanks again.