Lessons of ’56 for the 112th Congress

by Benjamin L. Price, Ph.D.

Tuesday the Republican Party and the Tea Party made important gains in retaking government from the Democrats, but those gains, at least in national government, were largely confined to winning a majority in the House. Democrat commentators and spinners opine that the Republicans will have little impact on the Obama agenda since the Senate will be able to stymie serious reform from the lower house and President Obama will still be able to exercise his veto over any stray legislation that might manage to get to his desk. Republicans will have a tough row to hoe, blocked by a Democrat Senate and an obtuse executive on one hand, and goaded by an increasingly impatient and irate constituency on the other. I suggest that the best resort for the Republican and Tea Party dominated House will be for the leadership to employ the Republican strategies of ’56—not 1956, but 1856.

The Republican Party was born out of the turmoil of the political conflicts that shook the nation in the mid 1850s, from the influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, from the bloody debacle spawned by the Kansas/Nebraska Act, and from the decidedly bad law mongering of the Dred Scott Decision. The first campaign in which the Republicans put up a of presidential candidate was in 1856. Their candidate was John C. Frémont, the liberator of the Bear Flag Republic in the Mexican War. The Republicans finished second in the election of 1856. Party leaders knew that the important thing in the first election of a new party was to get recognition; they were ecstatic at the achievement of a second place showing. 

If, as the saying goes, politics make for strange bedfellows, the Republican Party’s bed held the strangest; it was all over the political map of the 1850s. It contained Free Soilers, northern Democrats (Barn Burners) who were convinced that their party had sold out to the “slave power,”  northern Whigs, Protestant immigrant groups like Germans and Scandinavians, and members of the Know-Nothing Party, a nativist group that opposed not only blacks, but all immigrants. The Republican Party was a patchwork of political positions and interests, some of which would seem diametrically at odds. What they had in common was that they were all northern voters who held northern interests and prejudices. The Republican Party violated the historical American political wisdom that maintained that a national political party had to be national, that is, political success depended on a coalition of interests and ideology that transcended region and had active support all over the country. The Republicans were a northern coalition of interests, hostile to the expansion of slavery into the territories, and supportive of western settlement, business and industrial interests, and internal improvement to connect the Northwest with the Northeast.

Although Frémont  was defeated in the election of 1856, Republicans made impressive gains in the House and Senate. From one House member in the 34th Congress, Republicans captured 104 more seats in the 35th. Democrats remained in control of the House with 114 seats. Additionally, the Republicans gained 20 Senate seats (up from 0 in the 34th Congress). With only 44% of the House and 30% of the Senate, Republican members might have simply given up on promoting any legislation that would inevitably fail in the face of Democrat majorities in both houses and a Democrat presidential veto. They did not do so.

The events from 1856-1860 were tailor made to build support for the Republicans. The “slavery question” dominated national politics, much as the twin issues of federal profligacy and creeping socialism dominate contemporary politics. Republicans used Kansas/Nebraska and the Dred Scott case masterfully to preach against slavery in the territories. But they knew that slavery as a single issue would not put a Republican in the White House, so, while they used the issue of banning slavery in the territories as a subject of Republican rhetoric, they enthusiastically supported several other issues dear to their northern constituents. Undeterred by repeated failure, the Republicans promulgated bill after bill in Congress in support of the interests of their constituents. Party leaders knew that each failure could be employed as a lesson to northern and western voters that the success of their interests depended on future Republican domination of government.

In December of 1856, Republicans in Congress introduced a subsidy bill to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable. The bill received the wholehearted support of American business. The Democrats killed the measure. Northern business and industry wanted protective tariffs, and the Republicans obliged by introducing tariff bills in 1856 and 1857. The Democrats opposed them again, and when the tariff bills failed the Republicans touted their failure and won more support from manufacturers, business and labor. 

The Republicans also went after Midwestern support. They promoted internal improvements there, and again the Democrats opposed them. The Democrats were gridlocked over a transcontinental railroad. Southern Democrats wanted the railroad to go through the South, and in the North, every Representative wanted it to go through his district. The Republicans promised that if they acquired power they would complete a northern transcontinental rail line. 

In 1859 and 1860, the Republicans fostered homestead bills that would make free or cheap land available in the West to settlers instead of land speculators. Democrats killed the legislation in 1859 in the Senate, but the 1860 bill passed with some Democrat support. President Buchanan vetoed the bill. Republicans garnered western support and were able to make the argument that only control of Congress and the White House could give Northerners what they wanted. Republicans also introduced a land grant college bill in 1858 that would create agricultural and technical colleges across the nation. The bill found enough support among Democrats that it passed. But, to the absolute glee of the Republicans, President Buchanan vetoed the bill. So if education was your issue, then you also had a home in the Republican Party.  The party was gradually able, between 1856 and 1860, to build a powerful northern and western coalition of farmers, laborers, businessmen and industrialists. Of course, this growing coalition of interests enabled Republicans to sweep both Houses of Congress and the presidency in the election of 1860.

What lessons can the House GOP majority of the 112th Congress take from the 35th Congress? First, legislate! Democrats will kill every bill that the GOP passes in the House and follow up with the tired “party of no” theme to argue that the Republicans have done nothing to fulfill their promises and to “move the people’s agenda forward.” The Republicans should revel in every failure, publicize their attempts to counter unwanted Democratic Progressivism, and send a loud, clear, unequivocal message that only a sweeping takeover of government will guarantee a rollback of unpopular Democratic policies. 

During the first few weeks of the new Congress, Republicans should pass bills to repeal Obamacare and offer a substitute measure that is reasonable, unintrusive and inexpensive. They should promote bills to ban earmarks, limit profligate spending, cut taxes, and even terminate departments of the federal government that are expensive demonstrable failures such as the Department of Education. They should pass a budget that cuts federal spending to the bone. 

For nearly the last year, Eric Cantor (the Minority Whip) has run a website called YOUVOTE. Citizens chose from among several truly dreadful examples of government waste, and every month, Republicans introduced bills to cut the one for which the most folks voted. These bills have predictably been killed by the Democrats. Why not bring them all up again as soon as Congress reconvenes? They are already written, they should pass in the House, they are reasonable, common-sense ways for the government to cut spending, and, they will not pass in the Senate, or, if they do, they will not escape a veto. Each bill and its subsequent failure should be publicized so widely and energetically that the American people can’t help but notice the dedication and enthusiasm of the GOP. Since Tea Partiers will expect results and complain at the lack thereof, the House members need to make sure that the Tea Party folks learn that their representatives are doing as much as they can with the state of affairs as it exists in 2010. GOP Congressmen will have shown that they are responsive to their constituents, and can argue that they will succeed with majorities in Congress and a conservative president in 2012.

Perhaps another important lesson of ’56 to Republican leadership is the importance of reading which way the wind is blowing among the electorate and embracing allies in order to build a stronger, and hence more successful coalition, even though their new friends are not “their kind of people.” In races in Alaska, Delaware and elsewhere, where Tea Party candidates who won support from the state conservative electorate, Beltway Republicans and GOP political hacks worked hard in various ways to sabotage the chances of Tea Party/Republican candidates. It may have been true that some of these candidates could not win, but the GOP should have supported them anyway, indicating party support for the will of the electorate. Good will pays dividends and consolidates future gains. Perceived ill will toward constituents is poison, as Republicans learned in 2006 and Democrats began to learn Tuesday. Republicans should use Tea Party successes as an opportunity to put a conservative vote in Congress and preclude a Democrat. Republicans in 1856 welcomed a wide range of parties and factions along with their messages into the nascent party so long as they had similar views on the major issues. Acceptance of Free Soilers, Know Nothings, abolitionists (who were undoubtedly frustrated that the GOP didn’t go far enough), business and manufacturing interests and immigrants strengthened and grew the Republican Party, and led to increasing political success. Pace Karl Rove, perhaps this, too, is a very important lesson from 1856 to the current GOP.

Another lesson that may be very difficult for Republicans will be: stay on message. Influenced by Trent Lott and other erstwhile Congressmen, now lobbyists, the Beltway Republicans will be sorely tempted toward big-spending government, and will have to realize that they were granted a timorous mandate to govern by a large potential constituency base that demands and expects frugality. Here again, the Republicans of ’56 welded together a successful northern coalition by understanding understanding their electorate. Had they given in to the most extreme elements of their party, especially the abolitionists, and become, in essence, exclusively the party of Thaddeus Stevens, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendall Philips and Salmon Chase, the GOP might not have been able to frame a diverse enough message to gain the White House and majorities in Congress in 1860 and might have become just another failed one trick pony in American politics.