As a disemboweled GOP struggles to marshal an effective opposition to President Barack Obama, it can at least take heart in a singular fact: Obama’s historic election as the first African American president, and even the possibility of such a candidacy, are direct legacies of the Republican Party.
The GOP originated in the mid-19th century as a barely choate coalition of former Whigs, evangelical Christians, and New England intellectuals who had little in common save a loathing of slavery and a devotion to its demise — either by restricting its growth into the territories (the course favored by moderate Republicans) or by outright abolition (favored by the so-called radicals).
President Abraham Lincoln, initially a moderate and one of the party’s principal organizers in the West, nonetheless used the war power of the government to effect the dream of the radicals, smashing the Southern plantation class before pushing the 13th Amendment through Congress.
Ending slavery on this continent forever.
The second Republican president, Ulysses S. Grant, continued Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” by supporting and then signing into law the 15th Amendment of the Constitution (guaranteeing black suffrage in every state) and the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
In addition, Grant designated the Ku Klux Klan, an anti-black terror organization which had risen from the disaffected Confederate officer corps and which had been killing hundreds of African Americans throughout the South, as “insurgents” in “rebellion against the authority of the United States.” Grant used both the federal army and the newly created Justice Department to wage a vigorous anti-Klan campaign, which effectively crippled that organization for decades.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, African Americans slowly and painfully began to enter political life as voters and as candidates, and they did so overwhelmingly as Republicans. The first African American senator, Hiram Rhodes Revels, was a Republican from Mississippi. He was followed in the Senate by Republican Blanche Bruce, also of Mississippi. In the House, every African American congressman from the election of John Willis Menard (R-Louisiana) in 1868 until the turn of the century was a Republican. The first African American governor, P.B.S. Pinchback of Louisiana, was also a Republican.