A Left-Wing History of the Republican Party

The Republican Party was once a party of property redistribution, workers, and the liberation of Africans. . .

After reflecting on the materialization of discourse in revolutionary France during 1789, one can’t help but notice the prevalence of radical republicanism. Republican virtue was synonymous with liberty, solidarity, and equality. In bringing such ideas to prominence in government, Maximilien Robespierre once wrote on “Political Morality” professing

Republican virtue can be considered in relation to the people and in relation to the government; it is necessary in both. When only the government lacks virtue, there remains a resource in the people’s virtue; but when the people itself is corrupted, liberty is already lost. . . [7]

For fear of subversion from royalists and external duress from British invaders, the crazed and emboldened leader of France proclaimed the Revolution belonged to those fighting the struggle to bring down the monarchy and the unholy alliance made between clergy and nobility — the republicans. There was a direct bond between the people and virtue for Robespierre. He argued that when a people become apathetic to the need for virtue, freedom is lost. Therefore, there must be a concerted effort on behalf of the government to preserve virtuousness. This philosophical discourse establishes important historical precedents for the development of a radical society. One being the dialectical reiteration of “republican” as the radical archetype in revolutionary France, both ideologically and regarding praxis. The fermentation of these ideas transcended Europe and spread far and wide, including toward America. In fact, some of Jefferson’s writings are pertinent to this phenomenon.

While today’s Republican Party presents itself as everything but left-wing, its early history demonstrates the contrary. The Republican Party was modeled after the working class struggle and egalitarianism seen in the platform of the Jacobin Party in France. There has been an ample history of early American political thought that was affected by the French Revolution. Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution is the most essential. Rachel Hope Cleves, on the other hand, focuses mainly on France and America by simply looking at how the violence during the Reign of Terror informed American conservatives in the Federalist Party about the nature of human behavior. While she is correct about the response from conservatives, she misconstrues where the effect of radicalism posits. In her book, she claims conservatives identified the violence in France and responded by advocating popular ideas such as anti-slavery. [3]

First, not all Federalists were abolitionists. By claiming that the violence of the French Revolution led to antislavery and antiwar movements carried out by fear of violence, Cleves asserts the causal relationship between humanitarianism and abolition movements was born out of the Federalist’s antagonism concerning revolutionary upheaval. In fact, the Federalists were hellbent on their Hobbesian leanings regarding the ‘excesses of democracy’ and ‘violence as a product of human passion.’ One can argue that the Federalists did a lot to hold back progress on numerous fronts. In Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky identifies writings by James Madison discussing the need to curtail popular freedoms in order to secure essential power for the wealthy and more educated. How can such a conservative position inform the anti-slavery movement? Most of the anti-slavery movement had actually encompassed skeptics of early capitalist institutions, which conservative Federalists were not — Federalist adherents advocated the “natural” proclivities of property rights. Republicans who had been most critical of slavery happened to be those who identified most with the French Revolution, irrespective of its violence.

Cleves’s book, nevertheless, does offer an edifying look into how the culture of violence in France influenced American civic discourse. Whether we disagree with her argument of conservative thought being transcendent to later radical movements in America, she demonstrates — rather paradoxically — that the Federalists were committed to stamping out radicalism in all its forms. Therefore, we come to understand that there was a need in America for a radical alternative.

Thomas Jefferson, an anti-Federalist, was a supporter of the French Revolution and had been persistent in his views on slavery despite virulent complaints about his radicalism from close colleagues like Adams. While Jefferson privately owned slaves (like many of the founders), he was publicly committed to legislative reform that would eliminate the institution. Some of his Notes on the State of Virginia demonstrate his concerns:

I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed. . .

Many have remained curt with Jefferson’s history for reasons that are understandable. However, he is vital in contextualizing the French connection. In that, he had no problem considering himself a republican of the Jacobin type. Therefore, it is important to look deeper into the cultivation of his early radical thought in America. For instance, during his frequent travels to France in 1785, he observed the various inequities present in French society and began to take issue with the right of private property. Some of this becomes most clear in his letters to Madison:

It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the increase of their revenues by permitting these lands to be laboured. I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. . . Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.[1]

In this passage, Jefferson, without reservation, proclaims that the unequal distribution of property is in direct violation of natural rights. This is a significant deviation from the traditional consensus of laissez-faire economics that pervades American history. This experience shaped Jefferson’s views on equality and introduced a strain of egalitarianism into the lexicon of anti-Federalist thought. Unlike the Federalists who dramatically upheld the principle of property in natural rights, Jefferson offered a critique that sparked consciousness of social class divisions and the need to mitigate such inequality through progressive reform, including taxation on the value of assets. Likewise, his criticism of such a widely protected doctrine expanded the legislative domain and grew more class-based in a polemical attack against the aristocracy.

The wealthy, on the other hand, and those at their ease, know nothing of what the Europeans call luxury. They have only somewhat more of the comforts and decencies of life than those who furnish them. . .

Though Jefferson led a public campaign against the wealthy and the institution of slavery, he was not successful in deconstructing its edifice during his tenure. Additionally, he benefited from its institutionalization in his private life. The fact of his owning slaves is a testament to the pervasive obsession with property rights in American history. Even those who publicly stood against it were privately participating in it — and even profiting. Politically, however, Jefferson’s public legacy left an impact on the anti-Federalists, who happened to grow skeptical of elites and committed to egalitarian policy alternatives in order to solve the era’s injustice.

Slavery continued well into the age of Jackson and beyond. Republicans would eventually establish themselves as a political party in America aimed at deconstructing institutions of unfettered capitalism while ensuring centralized governance. Slavery, for most abolitionist Republicans, was the epitome of private excess. Republicans would reach back to Jefferson’s lost history of egalitarianism to find a solution to the growing humanitarian crisis of slavery. Individuals like Alvan E. Bovay, a left-wing radical who founded the Republican Party; Horace Greeley, who published the New York Tribune and featured many of Marx’s writings; Thaddeus Stevens, a consequential politician who famously attacked the Southern Democrats’ stronghold on supporting the slave trade; among others — all of their radical interpretations of republicanism would shape their new revolutionary party. Not to mention, they also often intermixed in early feminist engagements, some of which were led by Frances Wright, who had been a key mobilizer for the Working Men’s Party, a precursor to what would become the Republican Party.

All actors were primary figures who were committed to a progressive transformation of America. On top of that, they were frequent readers of Marx and Engels who believed equitable models of wealth distribution (self-proclaimed as the “Free Soilers”), worker-controlled production, and abolitionism would lead America down a new path of moral virtue. John Nichols’ The S Word presents how socialist-leaning individuals of early American history had been consequential in establishing the Republican Party as a political alternative. Its early organization would seek a redefinition of American identity and restructure society to accommodate the most downtrodden. They would reignite the egalitarianism of Jefferson and institute a comprehensive approach to regulate the market by first eliminating the institution of slavery and equally redistributing property to the most vulnerable. [6]

The Republican Party’s platform of property redistribution happened to affect the watchfulness of most Democrats, who collectively feared such a position would transform the traditional fabric of the nation — that is, alter the principle of property in “natural rights.” This also fed into the critics of Abraham Lincoln, charging him with accusations of being a dictator seeking to usurp total control over the country and peoples’ private decisions. This antagonism however, stems back to the original party platform in 1854 when the party was founded. Alvan Bovay was a Free Soiler lawyer who had been a prominent Whig Party member. He grew frustrated with the passage of a series of acts that violated the Missouri Compromise by permitting slavery where it was outlawed. [2]

Alvan E. Bovay

Most significantly, the Kansas-Nebraska bill would serve as a key legislative act for Bovay’s dwindling patience. One reason is that The Kansas-Nebraska Act would reverse the Missouri Compromise which sought to curb slavery’s expansion in the Louisiana Purchase territory.

After fervently threatening to put old party politics in the proverbial dustbin, he led the People’s Mass State Convention as secretary. This group was made up of a variety of political stripes: new Republicans, former Whigs, disenchanted Democrats, and other radicals. The group would acknowledge that the South and their representatives had disgracefully sold their political will to slave power, and would have to face an absolute opposition party made up of individuals seeking to transform the nation. The Republican Party had been born.

Bovay had to reach all opponents of slavery, including people who were not exactly on board with total abolition. That meant garnering support from Democrats who were merely for putting a halt to the expansion of slavery. While opponents of slavery extension were critical of slavery and wanted to see it come to an immediate halt, they hesitated its complete removal from society. However, those who were for complete abolition had the more successful argument. Ceasing slavery’s “extension” hinged on the complete gutting of it from the nation. It also suggested a restructuring of the nation’s economy — something of major concern for radicals and the majority of the population. Both sides, however, shared negative attitudes toward the institution overall and Bovay would lead the new coalition into political existence. It was, therefore, an imperative for Bovay to communicate this en masse. He henceforth linked up with Horace Greeley, a publisher for The New York Tribune who had socialist leanings. Greeley at first seemed apprehensive due to the daunting task ahead of Bovay, but he supported the movement and became a fellow Republican. Bovay clarified the obstacles that led him to that particular point in time:

It is not to be supposed that I went into the organization of the citizens of Ripon, and the country thereabouts, blindly; that has been said frequently of me and my intention in calling the first meeting there, to protest against the actions of our representatives in Congress, and the lack of organized opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Bill; I have each time denied it, and pointed out an abundance of evidence and living witnesses in support of my contention. I organized those men in those first meetings, with the avowed purpose of making that a national party organization; the first well defined thought and movement began there and then; this statement has never been successfully disputed, and the men who knew me in those days will well remember against what odds I had to labor.

This was the first time Bovay spoke out in terms of what motivated him to charter the Republican movement. In facing significant hostility from adversaries, Bovay did not rule out rebelling against his own institutional counterparts, even if they publicly vilified the spreading of his message. Interestingly, he did not resort to partisan attacks, even when they were thrown at him. This was likely due to the fragility of the Republican coalition that included potential detractors from the Democratic party.” However, Bovay was not afraid to break with the status-quo. As a zealous opponent of President Franklin Pierce, he made sure to take aim at the Administration. Pierce and his Democratic coalition were focused on alienating anti-slavery groups during his term. Bovay commented numerous times that Pierce’s victory was a symbolic victory for slavery. He stated,

With the election of Franklin Pierce in 1852, there was a victory for slavery; its adherents encouraged, became more active, intrusive and intolerant, the Kansas-Nebraska idea became prominent, persistent and alarming; then, I started the work of organization, on a larger scale with men who stood by me. I again wrote to Horace Greeley, respecting the situation, and my work; he looked upon my plan with caution, but he did much to spread the idea.

Bovay was skillful in organizing party politics and in creating an actual opposition party formed separately from the governing institutions that presided over slavery. This is what granted the Republicans such astounding electoral success. Though, Bovay needed more in the form of literature in order to connect with Americans. Greeley’s Tribune had been the organ used to propel some of the ideas of the Republican movement. Adam-Max Tuchinsky’s article “The New-York Tribune, the 1848 French Revolution, and American Social Democratic Discourse” comments on how Marx and Engels published numerous articles with Greeley, some of which were encouraged to advance the Republican Party agenda. Greeley openly welcomed voices that were critical of capitalism, writings supporting worker organizations and thought pieces written about the worker and slave experience. Marx happened to be a favorite of Greeley’s. Not to mention, Abraham Lincoln had been a frequent reader of Marx’s articles in Greeley’s Tribune. [4]

In a letter from Marx and the First International Workingmen’s Association to President Lincoln, they cordially praised Lincoln for his election and his presidential agenda holding enormous significance for the working class and the oppressed seeking liberation around the world.

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

Tunchinsky also notes how Greeley made the Tribune one of the most important national mediums that brought the meaning of free labor to a popular audience of over a half million readers. The paper lasted for two decades discussing socialism, class, property, and labor. Tunchinsky prompts us to reconsider “the nature, origin, and complexity of Republican ideology on the eve of the Civil War.” Greeley and his editors were publishing major works that challenged the race-based views promulgated by many Democrats of their day. In contrast, the work of the Republicans followed the Marxist goals of achieving economic class consciousness and illustrating how race had merely been tied to the inequalities embedded within the social/super structure. [8]

In 1854, one particular book by George Fitzhugh, a sociologist and prominent Democrat, infamously wrote Sociology for the South, which advocated for the institutionalization of systematic slavery for the “protection” of vulnerable blacks and other laboring poor. In it, he outlines a defense for slavery conjectured on how it would protect them from the harms of the greater society. The book is known to have been the bulwark for the eugenics movement in America as well as serving as an early guide for hate groups like the KKK. In the antebellum period, these ideas gained traction and served as a justification for the South’s secession. Greeley responded to some of these writings by publishing Hinton Helper’s pamphlet entitled Impending Crisis. Helper wrote:

Those who have studied with care the social condition of the South, have long foreseen that sooner or later a struggle must take place there, not so much between the whites and the blacks as between the great mass of poor whites . .. and the few rich slaveholders. [8]

Helper emphasizes the importance of class consciousness in the struggle for the liberation of the slaves. This was an important analysis as it refocused the attention on class power and its connection to privilege and its systemic control. Democratic opponents were fiercely against ideas such as class struggle being discussed in the Tribune, nonetheless, they were adopted in the Republican Party platform. The New York Express, for instance, wrote a counter-piece characterizing the new party’s operations as “ultra-revolutionary” and inciting “war-invoking sentiment.”

Additionally, Helper was charged by Democrats with espionage, as being an “agent” of the North looking to disrupt the South. The Republicans went ahead and endorsed Helper’s pamphlet as a campaign strategy. This bold political move enraged Democrats so much that they blocked John Sherman from becoming Speaker of the House because he endorsed Helper’s pamphlet. Slaveholders began denouncing abolitionists, immigrants, and radicals altogether, labeling them “red republicans!” The Republicans wore it as a badge of honor. In fact, John R. Commons discusses more about Red Republicanism as a movement in itself that defined the Republicans’ radical tendencies. [4]

Sherman was another Republican at the time who had specialized in finance but was also a skilled legislator who planned the Confiscation Acts of 1861–62. These unique pieces of legislation enabled the government to confiscate property being used by Confederate forces. This meant that slaves were freed from slaveholding properties after being liberated by the legislation’s mandate. The subsequent Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 13th Amendment, and the 14th Amendment solidified emancipation constitutionally and gave the newly freedmen citizenship. These legislative accomplishments were also accompanied by the Homestead Act affirming Free Soil policy goals. The Act was the first piece of legislation to function as an affirmative action program for African-Americans. Women and immigrants were also encouraged to take part in the program. It was so successful that in 1900, a quarter of black farmers in the South, who never had the opportunity before, obtained and managed their own farms. [9]

Thaddeus Stevens

The impetus behind the Homestead Act was born out of the reformist plans of Thaddeus Stevens. Another radical, Stevens believed Lincoln was moving too slow as President, and insisted on moving toward complete liberation for blacks, and in the process, utilize government to help achieve a broader equality for the poor. His goal was to give newly freed African Americans a chance to build their own future in the South. Stevens had other ideas that were even considered ‘far too radical’ by his colleagues that didn’t end up entering the House floor for a vote. Nevertheless, Stevens was admirably committed to achieving structural changes in America that would upend the notion of private property and reverse the class power dynamic in favor of newly freed African Americans and working poor. His egalitarianism had been a guiding light for his mission in government. In his plans for confiscation, he wrote:

Strip the proud nobility of their bloated estates, reduce them to a level with plain republicans, send forth to labor, and teach their children to enter the workshops or handle the plow, and you will thus humble proud traitors. [5]

Republican plans to confiscate land, nationalize it, and make it available for freedmen and the poor to own, stands as one of the most radical and clearly socialist events to ever occur in American history. In his 2019 State of the Union Address, President Donald Trump denounced “calls to socialism” as “concerning.” Yet, the history of his party experienced some of the most experimental left-wing ideas in our nation’s development. The modern Grand Old Party hesitates to embrace such a legacy. The neoliberalism of Ronald Reagan still continues to saturate the party’s leadership. Will Republicans ever realize their true red history? It is difficult to answer such a question at this point. Perhaps such a thought is quixotic.

Looking into America’s early history illuminates a unique revolutionary politics. This particular moment sheds light on important nuances that have been marginally hidden. A vulnerable population under siege by land-owners prompted some of the most sweeping political reforms. On top of that, The Tribune, a vehicle of the popular press, worked hand-in-hand to deliver justice and equality with the then-Republican Party. It opens our eyes to America’s radical history, something obfuscated in the contemporary classroom experience.

References (and further reading)

[1] “Equality: Thomas Jefferson to James Madison.” Electronic Resources from the University of Chicago Press Books Division. Accessed December 29, 2018. http://presspubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s32.html.

[2] “Long Road to Harpers Ferry.” The Rise of the First American Left (n.d.), 150–168.

[3] Cleves, Rachel H. The Reign of Terror in America: Visions of Violence from Anti-Jacobinism to Antislavery. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

[4] Commons, John R. “Horace Greeley and the Working Class Origins of the Republican Party.” Political Science Quarterly 24, no. 3 (1909), 468. doi:10.2307/2140888.

[5] Fleming, Walter L. Documentary History of Reconstruction: Political, Military, Social, Religious, Educational & Industrial, 1865 to the Present Time. 1906.

[6] Nichols, John. The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism. Verso, 2011.

[7] Robespierre. “Robespierre 1794.” Marxists Internet Archive. Accessed December 29, 2018. https://www.marxists.org/history/france/revolution/robespierre/1794/political-morality.htm.

[8] Tuchinsky, Adam-Max. “”The Bourgeoisie Will Fall and Fall Forever”: The “New-York Tribune”, the 1848 French Revolution, and American Social Democratic Discourse.” Journal of American History 92, no. 2 (2005), 470. doi:10.2307/3659275.

[9] Wilentz, Sean. “America’s Lost Egalitarian Tradition.” Daedalus 131, no. 1 (2002), 66–80.

**Also published in Cosmonaut

M. A. Iasilli is receiving his doctorate in history at St. John’s University in Queens, NY, where he also teaches World History. His research investigates state-formation in the Soviet Union and the intricacies of revolutionary socialism.



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