My suggested title for this column, “From Hannibal to Cannibal, the Evolution of the Republican Party and the Cannibalization of Its Initial Values,” was inspired by a question from my children, wanting to know why one of the first American Republican families believes its core values are better expressed today within the Democratic Party. Aware they are descended from the first Republican vice president in American history, Hannibal Hamlin, my children wondered why, if Hamlin was such a noble man, we — his admirers and descendants — are Democrats today.
For the uninitiated, Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president, Hamlin, was a governor, congressman and senator from Maine, where he eliminated the death penalty, a century and a half before George Bush Jr. ran with expressed pride in his record of sending the most convicts to the electric chair. Hamlin, who had a law practice in Bangor, was also a staunch abolitionist who pushed Lincoln to emancipate slaves, and was the last person to edit and review the Emancipation Proclamation before it was published.
As the vice president, he presided over the most productive Senate in our history, in part because he abolished the sale of alcohol in the Capitol building, meaning senators now showed up sober to vote, and in part because the secession resulted in the elimination of so much dissension. This historical point obviously undermines the recent arguments that we should be concerned about an electoral season where both branches of government may rest in the hands of one party; history shows the opposite: The Congress of 1861-1865 was in fact the most effective in history.
Andrew Johnson served as Lincoln’s vice president for only a matter of weeks before Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln’s choice of Johnson, a Southerner, was a nod in the direction of healing regional wounds. Unfortunately, Lincoln did not anticipate dying weeks into his second term and Johnson proved inadequate for the office and was impeached.
To answer my children’s question, I asked them to identify the values of the Lincoln-era Democrats and Republicans. They correctly identified that the slave states (then the Democrats) stood for states’ rights and against civil rights for African-Americans. Lincoln’s and Hamlin’s views on the issue of states’ rights can best be summarized by Lincoln’s response in the Douglas debates: “There is no right to do what’s wrong.”
As we discussed and considered these historical values, their next question was why the Republican Party abandoned its core values and switched to a states’ rights platform. We discussed Ronald Reagan’s regional strategy of attracting “yellow-dog” Southern Democratic voters to the Republican Party with the mantra of states’ rights, a shibboleth in the South for slave-state values. They understood that there was still evidence of regional consistency a century and a half later, but the party titles had flipped.
Were Hamlin alive today, he would be delighted that his efforts at liberty for all has led to a time when Americans could vote for a president not based on color, but based on capability, character and intellect, but he would be disappointed in the abandonment by his party (in title) of its initial values. Republican candidates who appeal to prejudice and are recently calling some parts of America the “real America,” and parts that disagree with them “un-American,” are not only playing to their party base, they are playing to what is base. Like the Eisenhower and Colin Powell Republicans who have endorsed Barack Obama, the Hamlins believe that Lincoln Republican values are best reflected within the Democratic Party today.
Kristan Peters-Hamlin is a lawyer in New York City and a former assistant U.S. attorney, who served under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Her husband, Geoffrey Hamlin, is a direct descendent of Hannibal Hamlin.