The Republican Party is often called “The Party of Lincoln” after its most eminent historical member. Citizens today argue over whether or not the party has fundamentally changed since its founding by abolitionists in 1854. Some Republicans say that their party was always a conservative party, and in their narrative, they follow this tradition. Others disagree and maintain that the Republican Party has evolved into a conservative party today, but in the 19th century, did not as a party identify fundamentally with conservatism and maintain that often the Republicans were the ones fighting conservatism.
Reading the works of David Ross Locke (1833-1888) sheds some light on the matter. Locke was editor and later publisher of the Toledo Blade newspaper. He is most famous for inventing and writing from the perspective of the satirical character Petroleum V. Nasby, a lazy and semi-literate Democrat who championed the cause of the Confederacy; Locke’s utilizing a fictional absurdist alter-ego to lampoon those on the other side has led to him being called the “Stephen Colbert of the Civil War.” Lincoln was a big fan of Locke’s work, and would read it for comic relief when he struggled with his emotions during the war; indeed, at his last dinner before his fated trip to Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln reportedly read aloud four chapters of one of Nasby’s screeds for entertainment.
Locke remained a steadfast Republican throughout his life. Even when his colleague Thomas Nast, the cartoonist who had without a doubt been the most famous satirist of the Civil War, would join a group of reformist Republicans (called mugwumps) disenchanted with the 1884 Republican presidential candidate James Blaine’s reputation for corruption in supporting the Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1884, Locke’s paper strongly endorsed Cleveland’s opponent.
After the Civil War, Locke went on the lecture circuit delivering satirical speeches; I've transcribed one which ridicules “conservatives” for their views on women. It was a popular speech and would be reviewed by Mark Twain himself in the Buffalo Express.
For those using the text in the classroom, I would ask the students to identify Locke’s critiques of conservatism and write an essay about whether or not his critiques could be applied today to modern conservatives in the Republican Party. If so, how, and if not, how conservatives today fundamentally differ in their arguments from the conservatives in Locke’s day.
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