How the Party of Lincoln Became the Party of Lee

How the Party of Lincoln Became the Party of Lee

On November 2, 2021, Arizona State Senator Wendy Rogers tweeted her support for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin. She encouraged Virginians to vote Republican and “Make General Lee proud.” While Rogers’ instruction attracted media attention, it is fully within the neo-Confederate nature of the modern Grand Old Party (GOP).[1] Confederate battle flags were a common sight at Donald Trump’s rallies. Trump, like many Republicans – most notably southern Republicans, who have produced a slew of heritage laws – is a staunch defender of Confederate memorialization.[2] Bitter-end defense of Confederate monuments has served as the cornerstone for numerous GOP campaigns in recent years, including Corey Stewart’s gubernatorial and senate bids in Virginia. Appearing at the 2017 Old South Ball in Danville, Stewart told supporters: “I’m proud to be next to the Confederate flag. That flag is not about racism…It’s not about hatred. It’s not about slavery. It’s about our heritage…Over my dead body…are we ever going to take down the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.” As a transplanted Minnesotan, Confederate commemorative culture offered him a way into the culture war conservatism endemic in the GOP.[3]

Tweet with words on a white background
Wendy Rogers encouraging Virginians to “Make General Lee Proud” (Twitter)

The contemporary relationship between Republicanism and Lost Cause memory is the culmination of historical transformations rooted in the civil rights era. From the end of Reconstruction through to the 1960s, the former Confederate states were largely loyal to the Democratic Party. There were exceptions, and in the 1950s – with Dwight Eisenhower as its presidential candidate – the GOP made some inroads in the Border South. However, the Deep South, aided by comprehensive restriction of black voting, continued to view Republicanism with disdain. Southern Republicans understood the necessity of convincing white voters that the GOP was no longer the party their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had loathed, because of its role during the Civil War and Reconstruction, if they hoped to rupture the “Solid South.” Pro-Confederate historical memory was a crucial part of their arsenal.[4]

As long as Republicans have worked to boost the party in the South, they have relied on historical references. For instance, during the New Deal era, Essie Messervy and Cornelia Dabney Tucker, activists in the South Carolina state party, invoked their Confederate ancestry – and in Messervy’s case, her grandfather’s service alongside Wade Hampton during Redemption – to reassure fellow white southerners they had nothing to fear from the GOP.[5] The scale of southern Republican activism, and, as a result, southern Republican engagement with Civil War memory, expanded significantly during the 1960s. This came as a result of growing white southern disaffection with the national Democratic Party’s support for black equality, in the context of the Civil War centennial and the concurrent civil rights movement.[6]

Southern Republicans during the 1960s tackled their party’s negative image head-on. Candidates such as William Workman, who ran for the Senate from South Carolina in 1962, and Rubel Phillips, who sought Mississippi’s governorship in 1963, toiled to convince white southerners that the contemporary GOP repudiated its Reconstruction heritage. In their highly conservative, arguably segregationist campaigns, Workman and Phillips did not refute Tragic Era caricatures of Reconstruction. Instead, they concurred with them, casting Democrats in the part of carpetbagger and scalawag. Phillips agreed with his Democratic opponent, Paul Johnson, that “the Republican party had its foot on the necks of Mississippians a hundred years ago.” “Today the shoe is on the other foot and the Democrats in Mississippi are doing exactly what the Republicans did 100 years ago” he countered.[7] While primarily encouraging Mississippians to ignore the GOP’s historic associations with Reconstruction, Phillips, like other southern Republicans, hoped to redirect white southern animosity away from the Republican Party of the past and towards the Democratic Party of the present

Attacks on the civil rights designs of John F. Kennedy’s White House were at the heart of southern Republicanism in this period. Southern Republicans hoped to harness white anger regarding civil rights advances, especially federally supported integration – such as the 1962 desegregation of the University of Mississippi (perhaps a precursor to the coded attacks on teaching “Critical Race Theory” central to Youngkin’s triumph). At an October 1962 rally, Workman thanked the band for playing Dixie. “I just hope that that song could be heard all the way from Oxford, Miss[issippi]. to Washington, D.C.” he thundered.[8] As southern Republicans increasingly mirrored southern Democrats in their rhetoric and positions, GOP campaigns adopted trappings common in Dixie politics. With the disavowal of Reconstruction and embrace of the Lost Cause, it was unsurprising that southern Republicans and their supporters felt comfortable waving Confederate battle flags or playing Dixie.  

While Workman and Phillips focused on removing the albatross of Reconstruction, James Martin, who challenged Alabama Democratic stalwart Lister Hill for his Senate seat in 1962, openly embraced pro-Confederate memories. Martin encouraged white Alabamians that a vote for him was comparable to the labors of their Confederate ancestors. He celebrated how “our forefathers in 1861 founded a new nation to fight for what they believed in.” “Today”, Martin asserted, “we cannot take up the rifle and bayonet, but we can fight back from the ballot boxes of the South.”[9] Martin regularly told voters to “go to the polls with a Rebel yell”, proclaiming that “the South will rise again” if he was victorious.[10] On the eve of polling day, Martin and the Alabama GOP held a rally at Montgomery’s state capital. A spotlight flashed to Martin standing on the star marking where Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated as the Confederacy’s president. Bounding down the steps to address supporters waving Confederate battle flags, he declared his victory would be “a drastic change” for Alabama, comparable to “the inauguration of Davis.”[11]

Bronze star inlay in light gray marble with dark gray marble about the top point.
The star marking where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated (Library of Congress)

Workman, Phillips, and Martin were all unsuccessful in their campaigns. Workman won 43 percent of the vote, Phillips 38 percent, while Martin was within a percentage point of defeating Hill.[12] Despite defeat, these were incredibly impressive showings given the one-party nature of these states and the century of history they were butting up against. The Republican Right was buoyed by the results, which tendered the possibility of a two-party South and reinforced the claims of GOP conservatives, especially Barry Goldwater, that white southerners were the party’s most fertile ground. Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, which ended in resounding defeat but saw five southern states vote Republican – largely thanks to the senator’s vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act – solidified the reorientation of the GOP towards racial conservativism and the white South. Richard Nixon built on Goldwater’s foundations with a successfully executed “Southern Strategy” during his 1968 and 1972 presidential runs.[13]

The responses of national, non-southern Republicans to the campaigns waged by their southern comrades would decide the road ahead for the GOP. Black and white liberal Republicans were horrified by the racial conservativism of Workman, Martin, and Phillips. However, more right-leaning Republicans acquiesced to their Lost Cause memories. In his 1964 presidential bid, Goldwater was comfortable with his southern supporters using Confederate memory. During a visit to Fayetteville, North Carolina, he was welcomed by supporters in replica Confederate uniforms, carrying a battle flag, and firing a Civil War-era cannon.[14] Goldwater also echoed the rhetoric used by southern Republicans to reframe white anger rooted in Reconstruction. He informed southern audiences that there was “nothing left…of the principles that your fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers stood for in the Democratic Party”, encouraging listeners that he was “fighting for…the same things your fathers’ grandfathers fought for as Democrats.”[15]

The ultimate concession of the national party to the Lost Cause came in May 1970, as Spiro Agnew spoke at the dedication of Stone Mountain. Agnew praised the Confederate luminaries – Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis – depicted in granite. The appearance of a Republican vice president at a space associated with the Ku Klux Klan’s re-emergence, and his public praising of three men who went to war to preserve the institution of slavery, illustrated the willingness of Republican leaders to capitulate and abandon the party’s Lincolnian history for the sake of white southern support.[16]

 

Man standing at podium on stage in front of a mountain and engraved soldiers in background.
Spiro Agnew speaking at Stone Mountain, May 1970 (Georgia State University)

The line from James Martin to Spiro Agnew to Wendy Rogers is not difficult to draw. Southern Republicans in the 1960s employed Civil War memories in their efforts to realign the former Confederacy. National Republican leaders read the turbulent political winds and played on anti-civil rights, white backlash sentiments, acquiescing to pro-Confederate memories circulating in southern politics. The GOP was irrevocable transformed in the civil rights era, continuing the course charted by southern Republicans and their national allies by becoming increasingly racially conservative, ethnically homogenous, and southern. As conservative white politicians and voters, inside and outside the South, migrated to the GOP, the party of Lincoln became a safe space and breeding ground for the Lost Cause. Lost Cause memories offer shared culture war touchstones for a contemporary Republican Party which is overwhelmingly uniform in belief. This enables Republicans based outside the former rebel states, like Trump or Rogers, to wave battle flags or defend Confederate monuments without irony or introspection. Wendy Rogers encouraged voters to “Make General Lee proud.” Republican politicians, activists, and supporters have been busy transforming the party of Lincoln into the party of Lee ever since the civil rights era, when the emancipatory promises of the 1860s took a step closer to fruition. One can only wonder what both Lincoln and Lee would make of the Republican Party of today.

 

 

[1] Gabriela Miranda, “Arizona state senator encourages Republican voters in Virginia to ‘Make General Lee proud’”, USA Today, 2 November 2021, https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2021/11/02/make-general-lee-proud-arizona-senator-tells-voters/6248805001/.

[2] Richard Fausset, “As Trump rises, so do some hands waving Confederate battle flags”, New York Times, 18 November 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/19/us/confederate-flag-trump.html; Eugene Scott, “Trump’s ardent defense of Confederate monuments continues as Americans swing the opposite direction”, Washington Post, 1 July 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/07/01/trumps-ardent-defense-confederate-monuments-continues-americans-swing-opposite-direction/; Jonathan S. Blake, “Republican legislators want you to think Confederate monuments aren’t political”, The Nation, 15 June 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/republican-legislators-want-you-to-think-confederate-monuments-arent-political/.

[3] Jane Coaston, “Virginia Republican just nominated an alt-right hero to run for Senate”, Vox, 8 August 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/6/13/17458452/alt-right-corey-stewart-virginia-gop; “Corey Stewart Proud of Confederate Flag, Claims It Isn’t Racist (4/8/17)”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4rk6a1za4Y.

[4] There is extensive historiography on the growth of southern Republicanism during the civil rights era. See, for example, Earl and Mele Black, The Rise of Southern Republicans (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2002), Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields, The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[5] “New South Carolina Republican Party”, New York Herald Tribune, 15 October 1939; “Resolution offered by Mrs. Messervy for state rights” newspaper clipping, [1940?], Scrapbook, 1928-1962, microfilm R.174, Cornelia Dabney Tucker Scrapbooks, 1928-1967, South Caroliniana Library, Columbia, S.C.

[6] On the intersection of the Civil War centennial and the civil rights movement see Robert Cook, Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007).

[7] “Rubel wants two parties”, Jackson Clarion-Ledger, 16 October 1963, p.16.

[8] “W.D. Workman speech at Walterboro First Congressional District Rally”, October 1962, General, Speeches, 1962, Elections, U.S. Senate, Johnston vs. Workman, Box 5, Campaign Files, William D. Workman Jr. Papers, South Carolina Political Collections, Columbia, S.C.

[9] “Martin, Hill foe, ‘Out For Victory’”, Dothan Eagle, 23 July 1962, p.1-2.

[10] “Cheering crowd hears Martin predict victory”, Montgomery Advertiser, 2 November 1962, p.1-2A; “Need for strong 2-party system”, Montgomery Advertiser, 29 September 1962, p.12.

[11] “Martin says victory ‘near’”, Birmingham News, 2 November 1962, p.29

[12] “Political Profiles of the States: Revised”, September 1965, Frames 230-281, Reel 4, Papers of the Republican Party, Part II, 1911-1980, Reports and Memoranda of the Research Division of the Headquarters of the Republican National Committee, 1938-1980, Reel 4, Frames 230-281, Roosevelt Institute for American Studies, Middleburg, Netherlands.

[13] Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000); Joseph Crespino, Strom Thurmond’s America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

[14] “Johnson plan on poverty hit by Goldwater”, Chicago Tribune, 19 January 1964, p.8.

[15] “‘Whitewash’ charged by Goldwater”, Los Angeles Times, 18 September 1964, p.1-2; “Goldwater woos Dixie Democrats.” Washington Post, 17 September 1964, p.A6.

[16] “Agnew mellow in talk hailing Confederate heroes”, New York Times, 10 May 1970, p.69.

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