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The source and direction of the amorphous gales filling the sails of the
good ship George W. got a little clearer this week. It turns out that the
way to understand the George Bush campaign is to spend some time recalling
the lessons of what George W’s father might have called “the McKinley
thing.” The Washington Post reported that “the party of Lincoln and Reagan
has gone dizzy” over William McKinley, and that the “swami of McKinley
Mania” is none other than chief Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove.

Let’s take the hint and meditate briefly with the swami on the election of
1896 and the sweep of American history in which it found its place. We will
let the swami himself begin our meditation in the words reported by the
Post.

“McKinley was a superb politician,” says Rove. “He saw that all the old
issues of the Civil War were worn out. He understood the new economy. It
was a period of rapid industrialization. He also understood the changing
demographic. Immigrants were now providing the manpower.”

Rove, the Post says, “dug deeply into the story of a canny, soothing,
heartland governor whose party was riven by tactical and religious
squabbles. Raising money on a scale previously unimagined while scarcely
leaving his front porch, McKinley remade the party in his own charming
image — inclusive, pragmatic, noncontroversial. Republicans dominated
Washington for the next 35 years. Rove liked the sound of that.”

It does sound somewhat pleasant, doesn’t it? In fact, it reads like the
wish list of the Republican establishment today — the effortless, risk-free,
overfunded, and psychologically unruffling path to total political
dominance. But back to McKinley. Could the swami identify more particularly
the McKinley genius?

The Post says that, according to Rove, “McKinley … correctly analyzed the
political significance of the new, industrial-based economy and understood
that the wave of immigration at the turn of the century was creating a
diverse population that would require a new kind of politics,” and that
“McKinley also sensed that the campaign of 1896 represented the passing of
an older generation from political power.”

“He saw that the issues that had dominated American politics since the
1860s had sort of worn themselves out,” Rove says. “Neither party could
successfully appeal upon the basis of their Civil War allegiances. All
those issues had either become resolved or irrelevant.”

Thirty years after the war to preserve the Union, McKinley staked his
political fortune on the claim that its preservation was complete. It is a
human failing to become entrenched in old battles long after the event and
long after it matters who won and why. It is no doubt often the part of
wisdom to point out that it is time to move on, to draw the curtain of
history over disputes heavy with years and murky in their causes. This is
particularly the case when the artificial perpetuation of such disputes
prevents fruitful and edifying new friendships and common endeavor. We can
almost hear McKinley inviting his fellow Americans, Northern and Southern,
to join him in the common effort of building a bridge to the 20th century
and burying the animosities and divisions of the distant past. Thus, in his
1897 inaugural, he says “The North and the South no longer divide on the
old lines. … It will be my constant aim to do nothing, and permit nothing
to be done, that will arrest or disturb this growing sentiment of unity and
co-operation. …”

It sounds impressive. But it does raise a question. … What exactly were the
issues and divisions that were being left behind? Were they the kind that
the national soul was wise to turn away from? What might it have been that
McKinley suspected would require his “constant” attention, lest it “arrest
or disturb this growing sentiment of unity and co-operation”? Perhaps a
brief chronology of some important events of the period will suggest an
answer.

In 1877, the end of Reconstruction, all federal troops left the South. At this time, blacks were voting in fairly large numbers,
and there were elected black citizens in legislatures and in Congress. Suppression of black suffrage, sometimes by terror,
began here and grew slowly through the next decade.

In 1890, as head of the Ways and Means Committee in Congress, McKinley
pushed through a major tariff bill. Some Senators blocked this bill and the
Sherman Silver Purchase Act, demanding as their price that the GOP give up
on a voting rights bill to protect the deteriorating access of southern
blacks to the ballot box. This voting rights bill, to which McKinley gave
lip service, was called for by the Republican platform, urged by President
Harrison, and passed in the House by a partisan 155-149 vote. The choice
was between the human rights of black men, silver and the tariff. The
GOP leadership, including, prominently, McKinley, chose mammon. The
repression of blacks, including Jim Crow laws and lynchings, intensified.
The tariff bill is often cited as one of the chief instances of McKinley’s
“superb” political skills. The Post offers this: “He was very masterful at
harmonizing competing positions,” says H. Wayne Morgan, professor emeritus
of history at the University of Oklahoma and the author of an admired
biography of McKinley. “You don’t make a tariff bill without having an
awful lot of conflicting issues to accommodate.” Accommodation, indeed.
1892 saw the apex of lynchings — 226 dead that year, 155 of them blacks.
Lynching totals for 1889-1918 were 2522 blacks and 702 others. Between 1889
and 1893, the GOP was back in power and made some efforts to enforce
voting rights in accordance with the 15th Amendment.

In 1896, the year of McKinley’s first election, the Supreme Court handed
down its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, establishing the famous “separate
but equal” doctrine for meeting the due process and equal protection
clauses of the 14th Amendment. The decision, in effect, constitutionally
authorized Jim Crow laws, which proliferated as a result. Blacks were
rapidly losing the vote by this time, but in Louisiana, for example, there
were 130,000 still on the rolls. Although there were black representatives
in Congress, racist “populist” leaders were on the move in the South.

The McKinley administration directed its attention from the beginning to
economic and foreign affairs, as the deterioration of the condition of
American blacks intensified. In 1901, George White of North Carolina, the
last elected black congressman from the old Confederacy, left the House.
There would be no more until 1965. McKinley, in his second inaugural address,
stated that “sectionalism has disappeared. Division on public questions can
no longer be traced by the war maps of 1861. These old differences less and
less disturb the judgment.” At this point, black voters in Louisiana had
dropped from 130,000 to 1,342. The GOP started a long process of
cultivating the white vote in the South.

In 1899, a group of “Massachusetts Negroes” wrote an eloquent, principled,
and heart-breaking open letter to President McKinley, which read in part as
follows:

“We, colored people of Massachusetts in mass meeting assembled to consider
our oppressions and the state of the country relative to the same, have
resolved to address ourselves to you in an open letter, notwithstanding
your extraordinary, your incomprehensible silence on the subject of our
wrongs in your annual and other messages to Congress, as in your public
utterances to the country at large. We address ourselves to you, sir, not
as suppliants, but as of right, as American citizens, whose servant you
are, and to whom you are bound to listen, and for whom you are equally
bound to speak, and upon occasion to act, as for any other body of your
fellow countrymen in like circumstances.

“We ask nothing for ourselves at your hands, as Chief Magistrate of the
republic, to which all American citizens are not entitled. We ask for the
enjoyment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness equally with other
men. We ask for the free and full exercise of all the rights of American freemen guaranteed
to us by the Constitution and laws of the Union, which you were solemnly
sworn to obey and execute. We ask you for what belongs to us by the high
sanction of Constitution and law, and the democratic genius of our
institutions and civilization.

“These rights are everywhere throughout the South denied to us, violently
wrested from us by mobs, by lawless legislatures, and nullifying
conventions, combinations, and conspiracies, openly, defiantly, under your
eyes, in your constructive and actual presence. And we demand, which is a
part of our rights, protection, security in our life, our liberty, and in
the pursuit of our individual and social happiness under a government,
which we are bound to defend in war, and which is equally bound to furnish
us in peace protection, at home and abroad.

“We have suffered, sir. God knows how much we have suffered! since your
accession to office, at the hands of a country professing to be Christian,
but which is not Christian; from the hate and violence of a people claiming
to be civilized, but who are not civilized; and you have seen our
sufferings, witnessed from your high place our awful wrongs and miseries,
and yet you have at no time and on no occasion opened your lips on our
behalf.”

In 1905, the Niagara movement signaled the start of aggressive black rights
action in the US. In 1910, it became the NAACP. W.E.B. DuBois, a chief early
leader, became a communist in later life in disgust with American tardiness
at enforcing equality of rights.

In 1908, two blacks were lynched within a half-mile of Lincoln’s old home
in Springfield, Ill.

In 1909, newly elected Republican president Taft declared in his inaugural
that sectionalism was dying and that he looked ahead to a “respectable
political opposition” in the South. He indicated that he was, as it were,
“personally opposed” to racism, however, he wouldn’t endeavor to enforce voting
rights for blacks, hoping that in time, hearts and minds would change. The
15th Amendment, he said, “has not been generally observed … it ought to be
observed. … In time (real voting rights) will come.”

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson was elected, and in his administration, the national
capital and much of the Federal Government was segregated by law.

The whole sorry period is neatly summarized by Samuel Eliot Morrison, in
the Oxford History of the American People, who said that “… the thirty
years from 1890 to 1920 were the darkest for the dark people of America.”

Is it enough to argue that McKinley simply wanted to be elected? It seems
plain that his pragmatism went beyond the tactical. It was a rival,
inevitably, to the supremacy of moral principle in the heart of the party.
McKinley and others, including the pragmatists on the Supreme Court in
Plessy vs. Ferguson, aspired to a new politics based on abandoning the
party’s moral obligation to the freed slaves and to Declaration principles –
principles which the “Massachusetts Negroes” so poignantly sought to bring
to his attention.

Once McKinley had led his party to substitute tariff and industrial policy
for the old concern with the moral issue of the natural rights of man, a
national toleration of Jim Crow was inevitable. The vision of Stephen
Douglas came suddenly and unexpectedly close to fruition as the Republican
Party succumbed to moral torpor and turned instead with youthful zeal to
the material and political goods most attractive to a young and powerful
nation. Jim Crow, the American apartheid, grew from the 1890s to its apex
around 1920 precisely because the Republican Party was unwilling to pay the
economic and political cost necessary to challenge it.

Ah, but at least this was a recipe for Republican electoral success. Except
that it wasn’t. Beginning with the inception of the racist populist
movement in 1892 or so, there were 12 years of Democratic administration
and 16 of Republican. GOP dominance was greater in the 1860-1892 period
than it was after the party abandoned its moral principles. And the seeds
were being sown that would spring up as the monolithic black vote for the Democrats two
generations later, when that party exploited the sense of betrayal that
black voters in the North felt towards the erstwhile “Party of Lincoln.”
Even worse, while the black leadership under Booker T. Washington had been
patriotic and Republican, after the GOP’s betrayal, it became socialist and
radical, starting with W.E.B. DuBois and culminating in the black power
movement of the 60′s. In the long run, it was most “unpragmatic,” this
“pragmatism” of the new Republicans.

Nor was it a period to be proud of in the larger realm of Republican
policy, even putting aside the question of accommodation of racism. Let it
always be remembered that it was a GOP Congress, under a GOP President,
that sent to the states in 1909 the amendment authorizing that insidious
and more perfectly distributed form of servitude, the income tax.

Behold the “far-sighted” McKinley. It was under his administration that the
primal American issues of justice and the rights of men first lost their
relevance to a politics dominated by a new generation of men of “interest”
who wanted a unified country to conquer Cuba and the
Philippines, build the railroads and highways, and forget the natural and
eternal rights of man. His successors built, or tolerated, a system of
racial separatism that was clumsy by modern standards, but effective enough
and no longer seriously opposed by the “Party of Lincoln.” The Republicans,
accordingly, slowly lost the black vote, and when, under Hoover, the
prosperity which the Party’s “pragmatic” leadership had substituted for
decency collapsed, they were left with nothing worthy of their great founder
to offer American voters for decades, perhaps until Reagan.

McKinley acquiesced in the abandonment of Reconstruction, and
Reconstruction in its essence was about the assimilation of the freedmen
into full citizenship. But slavery, the citizenship of blacks, and their
access to the ballot are Declaration issues, and Declaration issues do not
go away. It is the essence of American statesmanship to understand that we
cannot run away from Declaration issues. We must either resolve them, or
they will dissolve us into factions unfit for self-government and unable to
live together in peace. Following instead the siren song of national unity
offered by McKinley, the Republican Party and the nation risked and
eventually wasted a great portion of the moral capital achieved at such
cost in the Civil War. The party of Lincoln led the nation into decades of
denial, during which time the festering of the moral sore of Jim Crow
continued, and the eventual resurgence of national conscience half a
century later was more painful as a result.

And now it is 1999. A little more than a century after the first election
of President McKinley, we find financial packhorses of the GOP depositing
their burdens of gold at the feet of George W. Bush, while Republican Party
political elites swarm like moths around him and his chief strategist, the
swami of McKinley Mania. Why? The answer is painfully, dismayingly,
shamefully obvious. George W. has no stomach for the Declaration issues
facing America at the end of the 20th century, and all around him, we can
see crowding those who yearn to achieve worldly success by deadening the
American conscience to the issues that matter most.



Professors Richard Ferrier and David Quackenbush are both associated with the
Declaration Foundation, a non-profit educational organization founded and
chaired by Dr. Alan Keyes. Richard Ferrier was also vice-chairman of the
California Civil Rights Initiative.

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