Dinesh D’Souza, devoted Trump supporter and prolific author of works and maker of documentaries that play to those among us who like simplistic dogmatic assertions to validate ultraconservatism and demonize Democrats, has just released a short video in which he repeats an assertion he’s been making for the past two years: that in 1860, not a single member of the Republican Party owned a slave, and challenging his critics to find even one counterexample to prove that sweeping claim false. And he insists, as he makes this claim, that it’s in the category of “important if true”–and, he also insists, it is true. And why is this so important? Because the fake news of the left-wing media rests on fake history.
Here’s the video. It’s only three-and-a-half minutes long. Please go ahead and view it. I’ll wait.
To start with the easy part, yes, there were some slaveholding Republicans in 1860. That news was delivered to D’Souza on Twitter by historians Kevin M. Kruse, Jordan E. Taylor, and Adam Rothman, who together provided a list of nine slaveholding Republicans on the eve of the Civil War (see below). It’s not very long–it comes to nine–but nine is greater than zero, which is the number D’Souza so stridently claims. And since D’Souza’s larger point is clearly that the Republican Party in the Civil War era was wonderful, there are also posts on Twitter from historian Kevin M. Levin pointing out the limits to many Republicans’ devotion to abolishing slavery and the even greater limits to their devotion to racial equality. Heather Cox Richardson argues that the Republican Party before 1863 was against the Slave Power rather than against slavery itself.
But I have another angle to take. What if it could be shown that every Republican in 1860 was passionately antislavery and passionately for racial equality? There would still be an even bigger question looming overhead: so what?
Clearly the Republican Party, founded in 1854, had an agenda of blocking the expansion of slavery, and clearly there were many in it who hoped that blocking that expansion would set the institution on a path to extinction. Motives and levels of commitment were mixed, but the party was indisputably more of an antislavery party than the Democratic Party, and it was the coming to power of the Republican Party that the southern slaveholders felt extremely threatened by, hence the secession crisis. And it’s well known the Democratic Party during those years was dominated in the South by slaveholding planters and in the North by white racists (though it has been shown to have had an antislavery wing in the North). What is more, contrary to myth, the academic history profession is not trying to conceal any of this.
Then what is all the fuss about? Good question. It’s about trying to prove that today’s Republican Party is the real party of racial equality, and today’s Democratic Party is where the real racists are. Somehow or other, what the parties were doing back in 1860 seems to be a reference point for discerning what the parties really stand for now. And here, he’s actually using a familiar tactic of history hacks: take an undisputed fact, pretend to be exposing it for the first time, pretend that the establishment has been suppressing it, and claim that it clearly speaks for itself as proving the rightness of the dogma that the hack is asserting. (Hacks who want to say that the Civil War was not about slavery claim to be exposing the startling revelation that four slave states did not secede from the Union.)
The unsoundness of that way of thinking is fairly easy to prove. A quick review of the history of the two parties in the twentieth century shows that in the 1930s, while the Democratic Party in the South continued to be the party of white supremacy–and while that same party in large parts of the South was keeping most African Americans disfranchised–President Franklin D. Roosevelt managed to win over a large portion of the black electorate to the Democratic Party, primarily in the North where disfranchisement did not prevail. That meant that the Democratic party had a split personality from the 1930s to the 1960s, with both the civil rights movement and the segregationists living under its tent. Then, after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 increased the numbers of black voters in the South, in the 1970s the Republican Party launched its “Southern Strategy” to win over southern white conservatives who had voted Democratic all those years. The terms of debate were also rewritten at that time: conservatives accepted (at least on the surface) the civil rights reforms that had already passed, but argued that the problem was solved and no more governmental action to reverse the effects of years of racism was needed.
But there’s another reason why D’Souza’s reasoning is utterly unsound, and that is that he is promoting what I call “scorecard history.” Scorecard history is the study of history to put labels of good and bad on collectivities such as nation-states, nationalities, continents, ethnicities, regions of a country, and, in this instance, political parties. (An example of scorecard history for regions of a country is the trove of books that try to justify the Confederate cause by proving that white northerners’ moral superiority about race wasn’t so spotless.) The trouble with scorecard history is simple: it claims to prove something; it actually proves nothing.
Suppose there were a debate over the moral qualities of Republicans, whether in government or in the electorate, during the Civil War years. One side would rally examples of heroic deeds done by Republicans against slavery and for black equality; the other side would show examples of the opposite. And what if there were some way of quantifying it? What if there were a way of compiling a list of every living Republican at the time and calculating the percentage of Civil War-era Republicans who took strong stands and strong actions on the right side of history? What would it prove?
The implication would seem to be, not only that the Republican Party back then had more honorable and desirable ideological positions than did the Democratic Party back then, but that Republicans were more virtuous and honorable people than Democrats–and thus they still are so today! It is, after all, no secret that members of the two parties today claim much moral superiority and accuse each other of having all manner of despicable character traits. When D’Souza says that fake news is built on fake history, the implication is that the truth today is that Republicans are better people than Democrats, and that the purported absence of Republican slaveholders in 1860 proves that it’s the Republican Party today that should be in power now. Does that make sense? Actually, I would suggest that it makes as much sense as assessing the character of a family who just bought an old house in your neighborhood by looking up the traits of the family who lived in that house a century ago.
Indeed, voters of both parties–as well as the various third parties we have among us–have their reasons for favoring their respective parties. And indeed, it’s well to know the history of both parties; obviously, being a historian, it’s my job to want people to know as much history of everything as possible. But I can’t imagine a more senseless way of choosing what party to support now, in 2019, than looking at the behavior and the character traits of the people who belonged to each party back in 1860. Part of understanding history, after all, is understanding that things change. Analyzing change is, after all, what our profession does.
D’Souza concludes this short video clip by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Ultimately, every man must write with his own hand the charter of his emancipation proclamation.” D’Souza proceeds to offer an interpretation: “In a society of equal rights under the law, we have the right to be treated equally by the government. We have that right. But we don’t have any more rights than this. And what we do with our freedom and what we make of our liberty and what we make of our lives–this ultimately is up to us.”
I must say, he’s lost me there. I get that he’s for laissez-faire and the free market; I get that he regards American capitalism as doing its most meritocratic work when the government doesn’t interfere with regulation of business and redistributive social welfare programs, and I get that he thinks the Democratic Party has been the enemy of freedom by telling people they deserve more than just the right to make of their liberty what they will. I’m not quite sure how that follows from the quotation from Dr. King, and I’m even more lost as to what that has to do with whether any Republicans owned slaves in 1860.
I have no doubt, though, that the connections all make perfect sense to the audience he’s talking to. He clearly has a support base who think he’s the real expert who has the courage to tell the absolute truth, the truth that treacherous and America-hating liberals are conspiring to cover up. And subscribers to this narrative, of course, are also the ones who think the country needs four more years with Donald Trump for a president.
Those nine names are Francis Blair, George Blakey, A. A. Burton, Robert Cook, James Glazebrook, James Sitton, Arnold Krekle, Francis Blair, Jr., and Montgomery Blair.