As we head into a Republican convention that will formally nominate a candidate whose weak prospects have led him to "double down on whiteness," it's not a bad moment to look back at the distortions that a sectional embrace of white supremacy embedded in the politics of the pre-Civil War United States. Let's continue my discussion of Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: the transformation of American 1815-1848. Previous installments here and here.
Howe is no fan of Jacksonian politics (1828-40). He describes this south western movement rooted in Alabama, Mississippi, and the further frontier as a force that turned racial prejudices into a political principle.
As we watch Mitt Romney pander to white racial anxiety, we are reminded that it was the political party carrying the name "Democratic" that pioneered assembling majorities by manipulating racial fears. The labels change; the poisonous power of race among whites has been chronic.
This bit of political sleight of hand from the 1830s seems awfully contemporary, doesn't it? Then as now, the one percent always seek to turn popular discontent to their own advantage.
Okay -- so there were a lot of white people in the early United States who wanted to keep black slaves and freed black people down and to kill off native people entirely. But it is worth also attending to how racial animus effected the policies and strategies that politicians adopted to grow the new country. The rapidly expanding nation needed government to build its infrastructure and communications; then as now, private enterprise was not going to create roads, canals, and communications systems that were universal and rational. Whigs fought for a national bank to mitigate financial panics (recessions) and for such institutions as a national post office. The party of populist white supremacy feared such innovations would lead to a slippery slope that might end slavery. The contemporary label for government action in the economy was "internal improvements."
The era's Democrats won three consecutive national elections based on their racially inflected opposition to this kind of government meddling. The Northern states, where big industrialists had more influence, did create their own improvements -- the slave dependent South, though apparently as wealthy or more so, did not, for fear of destabilizing the slave system. It took the Civil War to make a breakthrough, not only by freeing the slaves, but also by empowering national government to assist "interstate commerce."
The party labels have changed. Now it is Republicans who lead the white supremacist and anti-government charge. Their geographic base looks a lot like that of the Jacksonian Democrats. But we're still living with the race-soaked contradictions of our early sectional history.