Thursday, April 16, 2009

Republicans and race in 1908

Everybody knows that the Republican Party – the party of Abraham Lincoln – once enjoyed the loyal support of American Negroes.

This wasn’t just because Lincoln “freed the slaves.” It was because Republicans, for decades after emancipation, proclaimed in their party platform a devotion to racial progress and the defense of black people’s rights.

Listen for yourself.

I found a cool audio artifact via the University of California’s Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project. It is a 1½-minute statement by William Howard Taft, recorded on an Edison cylinder in 1908 when Taft was the Republican nominee for president.

The recording is titled “Rights and progress of the negro.” Click here to hear it on my Vox blog. I think it’s rather remarkable. It is history speaking.

In his 1909 inaugural address, President Taft also spoke directly of the Negro:

“The negroes are now Americans. Their ancestors came here years ago against their will, and this is their only country and their only flag. They have shown themselves anxious to live for it and to die for it.

“Encountering the race feeling against them, subjected at times to cruel injustice growing out of it, they may well have our profound sympathy and aid in the struggle they are making. We are charged with the sacred duty of making their path as smooth and easy as we can.”

Impressive, right? Now comes the turn.

In 1908, the G.O.P. declared:

“The Republican party has been for more than fifty years the consistent friend of the American Negro. ... [W]e condemn all devices that have for their real aim his disfranchisement for reasons of color alone, as unfair, un-American and repugnant to the Supreme law of the land.”

(This referred, of course, to post-Reconstruction policies throughout the South which denied black citizens their right to vote.)

But the 1912 G.O.P. platform contained no mention of the Negro at all, let alone any defense of his voting rights.

And that’s because President Taft didn’t live up to his noblest words from 1908 and 1909... all that “sacred duty” stuff.

No surprise, really. Even in 1908, Taft became the first Republican presidential candidate to campaign for white votes in the South.

And Taft’s 1909 inauguration speech, while paying lip service to the Fifteenth Amendment, justified the voting restrictions in place in the South. He described them as a protection against “the domination of an ignorant, irresponsible element.”

“The colored men must base their hope on the results of their own industry, self-restraint, thrift, and business success,” said President Taft, “as well as upon the aid and comfort and sympathy which they may receive from their white neighbors of the South.”

William H. Taft, you see, had a “Southern strategy.” He wanted to attract white Southern voters to the Republican party.

“[I]t is not the disposition or within the province of the Federal Government to interfere with the regulation by Southern States of their domestic affairs,” Taft announced. (Wink. Nod.)

As long as the U.S. government stayed out of the way, he said, “a better feeling between the negroes and the whites in the South will continue to grow, and more and more of the white people will come to realize that the future of the South is to be much benefited by the industrial and intellectual progress of the negro.

“The exercise of political franchises by those of this race who are intelligent and well-to-do will be acquiesced in, and the right to vote will be withheld only from the ignorant and irresponsible of both races.”

Alas, this bullshit appeal to white southerners didn’t pay off for President Taft. In the 1912 election, he came in third behind Democrat Woodrow Wilson (a straight-up racist) and former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt, who ran as a Progressive.


novelera said...

This was fascinating! I live in California, but grew up in Ohio. Somehow, these wonderful remarks by Taft were not included in my education.

Growing up in Ohio, I thought of the Republicans as the guys in the white hats, even though most of my relatives were in various unions and always voted Democratic. Democratic politicians in Cleveland and Akron had pretty crummy reputations for graft.

What really finished me off, long before Bush, was Richard Nixon. I've been a Democrat since then.

Anonymous said...

I know it barely pertains to race, but I'd like to point out that Taft was the heaviest president. Several times, he got stuck in the presidential bath.

Lola Gets said...

This was a great post!


Eye D. VS Mel O. said...

Man nobody ever talks about Taft and I thought I was the only person who had a strange interest in the man... you droppin that knowledge UBM... I can dig it!

Undercover Black Man said...

I'm so grateful y'all will roll with me when I go in "history nerd" mode.

SJ said...

good post