Black, White, and Red: Antebellum Party Politics on the Ideological Margins

Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR)

Friday, April 3, 2020, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Labor and Working-Class; Politics; Race


In the American antebellum, shifting socio-political norms allowed radical and populist ideologies to flow into the mainstream. Facing an uncertain political landscape, in which traditional appeals and historical alliances no longer sufficed, politicians in the 1840s and 1850s turned toward populism, red-baiting, and racial nationalism to generate broader support for their policies. These papers focus on an era of political flux, when party loyalty seemed to be determined by geographical location and each party seemed so mired in its own political liquidity that it no longer looked past immediate expediency; when the questions at issue spoke so fundamentally to the nature and character of the national body and the stability and duration of its democratic institutions; when each of the seismic issues confronting the country carried an inflexible and insoluble moral weight on both sides; and when two discrete systems of language developed—with completely separate mediated experiences and completely divergent worldviews—so that communication became impossible. “If you wish to mark the first indications of a revolution, the commencement of those profound changes in the character of a people which are working beneath, before a ripple appears on the surface,” John C. Calhoun once advised, “look to the change of language.” These profound changes first materialized in the “altered meaning of important words,” in language that ignited and accelerated the transformation of the people’s “feelings and principles,” until the words themselves induced “an entire revolution.”

In Andrew Zimmerman’s “Black Republicans, Red Republicans, and the Coming of the Civil War,” the “colored” language associated with the Republican Party implicated it in all manner of foreign and domestic radicalism (in the words of one political cartoon, “Popery, Fourierism, Free Love, Woman's Rights, the Maine Law, & above all the Equality of our Colored brethren”) to which it was, to some extent, legitimately connected. In both Matthew Karp’s “An Antebellum One Percent: The Slave Power and Republican Party Populism in the 1850s” and Danielle Holtz’s “The Color of Loyalty: Conservatism and Racial Nationalism in Antebellum Politics,” the Republican and Democratic parties each exploit the class and racial tensions that drove socio-cultural allegiances in the hopes that these dynamics would translate into popular support. In all of these cases, mainstream parties embraced previously marginalized identities and positions to shore up their political power and were definitively changed in the process. Examining the partisan use of ideological language, each party’s real or express populism, and their strategic association with radical movements, this panel traces the path by which nominal politics take center stage in the United States.

Papers Presented

Black Republicans, Red Republicans, and the Coming of the Civil War

This paper looks at colored republicanisms—black Republicanism in the United States and red republicanism in Europe—to consider how the struggle for socialism in Europe articulated with the struggle against slavery in the United States in the 1850s.

Colors provided one of the powerful ways that nineteenth-century Europeans and US Americans expressed political identities. In Europe during the 1848 revolutions, a distinction emerged between liberals fighting under various national tricolors and communists fighting under the monochrome red flag. The latter were the red republicans, distinct from (unmarked, normal, liberal) republicans. The emergent U.S. Republican party marked a similar distinction between those committed to the stars and stripes versus those referred to as “Black Republicans,” alluding to their alleged advocacy of equality between black people and white people. In the eyes of its enemies, black republicanism invoked a range of radicalisms resonant with European communism – equality between men and women, free love, equal distribution of property, etc. So-called black republicans generally did not scoff at the stars and stripes the way red Republicans might at the national liberal tricolor. (There is, however, a revealing exception: the formerly enslaved gunsmith James M. Jones, who repaired John Brown’s weapons in Canada, rejected Brown’s proposal to carry out his revolution under the U.S. flag, complaining that former slaves already had star and stripe markings on their backs in the form of scars from whipping.) European red republicans also formed an important component of the Republican party, as the term black Republican also suggested.

Presented By
Angela Zimmerman, George Washington University

An Antebellum One Percent: The Slave Power and Republican Party Populism in the 1850s

“The whole number of slaveholders is only three hundred and fifty thousand, one-hundredth part of the entire population of the country.” So declared Senator William H. Seward in the 1855 speech that announced his embrace of the new Republican party. As historians such as Leonard Richards have shown, the objectively tiny number of American slaveholders—and the wildly unequal power they commanded in the national government—was a favorite theme of early Republican attacks on “the Slave Oligarchy.” For Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune, the true oligarchs were the 60,000 adult males who owned over ten slaves each: something closer to an antebellum 0.01 percent.

Such tabulations papered over the ways slavery was far more deeply entrenched in southern society than men such as Seward or Greeley may have wanted to believe. But they served a key political purpose for northern audiences in the 1850s. Confronted with an increasingly aggressive proslavery state power, Republicans argued that only a mass rising of “the People”—against established laws, precedents, and institutions—could break the grip of the Slave Power. A crucial corollary to the slaveholding 1 percent was an antislavery ninety-nine percent. “We are really the strong and they are the weak,” said Frederick Douglass, comparing a few hundred thousand slaveholders to the 14 million people of the free states. This raw majoritarian populism distinguished the mass antislavery politics of the 1850s from the minority movements of previous decades, and it played a vital role in the emergence and ultimate triumph of the Republican party.

Presented By
Matthew Karp, Princeton University

The Color of Loyalty: Conservatism and Racial Nationalism in Antebellum Politics

In the 1840s and 1850s, pro-slavery conservatism cannibalized the nascent left-wing in the United States, by hostile takeover of the Democratic party. Claiming to promote the interests of “true Americans” in rural, farming, and frontier communities, they constituted liberty as a function of “whiteness” and formulated “whiteness” as a privilege predicated on subjugation. In this worldview, the “white” laboring class—southern yeomanry and free labor, alike—served the conservative function in U.S. society, but only so long as they benefitted from the material co-existence and slave labor of an innately inferior “black” population. Slavery was “conservative,” the “balance-wheel” of American democracy.

The decision of prolabor northern Democrats to throw their political fortunes in with the pro-slavery South generated a political party that positioned racial nationalism as the solution to class conflict. In their effort to reconcile the needs of southern slave-holders with the political desires of the white working class, the Democrats developed an alternative mode of conservatism designed to appear populist, even as it systematically attacked democratic institutions. The Democrats exploited the language of popular reform and individual autonomy, promising to rid the government of corruption, to reduce its size and reach, to remove government interference in commerce, and to restore to each white man the liberty to pursue his own unique destiny. This paper traces the aggressive and polarizing popular politics through which the Democrats promoted a “popular conservatism,” in which the commitment to whiteness became a measure of party loyalty.

Presented By
Danielle M. Holtz, Oregon State University

Session Participants

Chair: Rachel A. Shelden, Pennsylvania State University
Dr. Shelden is Associate Professor of American History, specializing in the long nineteenth century. Her research and teaching interests include slavery and abolition, the Civil War, the U.S. South, and political and constitutional history. She is the author of Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, & the Coming of the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), which received honorable mention for the Wiley-Silver Prize for the best first book on the American Civil War. Professor Shelden is also co- editor, with Gary Gallagher, of A Political Nation: New Directions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Political History (University of Virginia Press, 2012). She also serves as the Book Review Editor for the Journal of the Civil War Era. Her current project explores the political culture of the U.S. Supreme Court from the Jacksonian Era to the 1890s. Professor Shelden received her PhD from the University of Virginia.

Presenter: Danielle M. Holtz, Oregon State University
Danielle Holtz is the Postdoctoral Fellow at Oregon State University’s Center for the Humanities. As a historian of conservatism, racial nationalism, and US political culture and foreign policy, Dr. Holtz is interested in tracing partisan politics and their socio-cultural implications in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is currently working on a book manuscript about racial nationalism and American politics based on her dissertation, “’Who Are the True Conservatives?’: A Critical History of American Conservatism in the Nineteenth Century.” She received her PhD in History from the University of Pennsylvania in 2017. She also served as the assistant editor for the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History, published in 2013.

Presenter: Matthew Karp, Princeton University
Matthew Karp is a historian of the U.S. Civil War era and its relationship to the nineteenth-century world. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011 and joined the Princeton faculty in 2013. His first book, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy(link is external) (Harvard, 2016) explores the ways that slavery shaped U.S. foreign relations before the Civil War. In the larger transatlantic struggle over the future of bondage, American slaveholders saw the United States as slavery's great champion, and harnessed the full power of the growing American state to defend it both at home and abroad. This Vast Southern Empire received the John H. Dunning Prize from the American Historical Association, the James Broussard Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, and the Stuart L. Bernath Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. Karp is now at work on a book about the emergence of anti-slavery mass politics in the United States, and in particular the radical vision of the Republican Party in the 1850s.

Presenter: Angela Zimmerman, George Washington University
Andrew Zimmerman is professor of history at the George Washington University. He is the author of Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany (Chicago, 2001) and Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton, 2010). He has also edited Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Civil War in the United States (International Publishers, 2016). In the 2017-18 academic year he is a member of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he is writing a transnational history of the American Civil War titled “A Very Dangerous Element,” under contract with Alfred A. Knopf.