Who's an Uncle Tom?

As the Democrats' nomination process descends into the ugly area of racial politics, it may be helpful to explore and to learn about the origin of some of the equally ugly racial mockeries that have become a part of American political life.  The term "Uncle Tom" was used extensively during the decade of civil rights reform to describe a black man who simply did what white people wanted.  Where did this term come from?

The literary reference, of course, comes from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the passionate and simple anti-slavery novel published before the Civil War.  The pejorative term comes out of the decade of Reconstruction.  While the Union Army remained in the South, blacks were allowed to participate in state and federal elections.  But they could not do that alone.  The support of white Republicans was essential . 

There has been much written about the horrors of Reconstruction, of illiterate blacks being elected to state legislatures, and the need to withdraw Union troops to bring peace.  Unfortunately, that history is largely false.  The blacks who could not read were blacks who could not read because slave owners had made it an actual crime to teach blacks to read.  Many black leaders in the South came from the North and had excellent college educations.  Some had the same electrifying eloquence of Frederick Douglass and nearly all simply wanted to live in peace and have a fair transition from slavery to liberty.

The Republican Party and blacks

Too often the Republican attitude toward blacks in the Nineteenth Century is presented as the position of Abraham Lincoln or the position of Ulysses S. Grant.  Lincoln famously said during the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 that if he could save the Union without freeing slaves, he would do so; he also spoke out against racial intermarriage.[1]  Because of his reputation as the Great Emancipator, it is often assumed that Lincoln expressed the Republican position regarding blacks.  Neither Lincoln nor Grant was a strict abolitionist, although Grant did much to end the first incarnation of Ku Klux Klan terrorism. 

Lincoln, the frontier lawyer from Illinois, was not nominated because of his strong opposition to slavery, but rather because he had a chance to win the election.  He understood those immigrant voters in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky who cared little for slavery but who cared much for someone who understood their concerns and talked their language.  Lincoln did win the general election and he won it because he carried Ohio, Indiana and Illinois - states that only a candidate who played the abolition issue with finesse could have carried - which with New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts would give the Republican ticket electoral victory.

How out of synch was Lincoln with the rest of the Republican Party?  His principal rivals at the 1860 Convention were Samuel Chase and William Seward.  Chase, who later served as Secretary of State under Lincoln, began his anti-slavery career long before Lincoln and as a lawyer defending runaway slaves earned the nickname "Attorney General of Runaway Slaves."  When he was made Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, one of his first official acts was to allow John Rock to be the first black attorney allowed to argue cases before the Supreme Court.

William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, was also an unrelenting opponent of slavery long before Lincoln.  Consider his words to the jury when he was defending two black men accused of murder in 1846 - fourteen years before the Republican convention that nominated Lincoln:

"The color of the prisoner's skin, and the form of his features, are not impressed upon the spiritual immortal mind which works beneath.  In spite of human pride, he is still your brother, and mine, in form and color accepted and approved by his Father, and yours, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race - the image of our Maker.  Hold him to be a Man."[2]

Thaddeus Stevens, the powerful Republican congressman who pushed the Reconstruction Act and the impeachment of Democrat Andrew Johnson through Congress, is often portrayed as a mean, deformed man.  Someday history may be kinder to him.  When the Pennsylvania State Constitution was re-written in 1838 to deny blacks the right to vote, Stevens was the only member of the legislature who refused to sign it.  He fought for blacks without cease his entire life, and at his death he chose to be buried in a cemetery for blacks only, with the short epitaph:  "I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, Equality of Man before his Creator."[3]

All of the Republican presidents elected in the Nineteenth Century after Grant served in the Civil War.  All of them were strong supporters of full equality for blacks.  Rutherford B. Hayes, as Governor of Ohio, successfully won for blacks the right to vote in state elections.  He served one term as president and then devoted the rest of his life to helping poor young blacks in the South.

James Garfield was a general during the Civil War and was elected after Hayes. When the question of arming blacks to fight was hot, said:  "It is not in my heart to lay a feather's weight in the way of our black Americans if they choose to strike for what was always their own."[4]  And on March 4, 1881,  Garfield said:   "The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution in 1787."[5]

James Blaine, Republican Speaker of the House and unsuccessful candidate for president, not only supported emancipation but spoke out for "equality and freedom" for blacks and he condemned the disenfranchisement of blacks.  Blaine largely wrote the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equality of all persons before the law as well as due process of law.

Benjamin Harrison, the next Republican president, when he was Senator Harrison said:  "The colored race in the South has been subjected to indignities, cruelties, outrages, and repression such as find no parallel in the history of civilization."[6]  Whether that is hyperbole or not, Harrison's comments show just how fiercely Republicans felt about equal political and social rights for blacks in the South.

The last Republican president of the Nineteenth Century was William McKinley.  As Governor of Ohio before being elected president, he supported black civil rights in Ohio; he fought against lynching of blacks; and he appointed blacks to state offices.  Every single Republican president - except Lincoln and Grant - and every important Republican leader was a supporter of much more than just emancipation of blacks from slavery.  This did not gain the Republican Party votes -  it was estimated to have cost the Republican Party at least one million votes in every national election - but the Republican Party was not founded to gain votes, but to stand for moral principles.

Blacks and Republicans in the South

Working together, white Republicans and black Republicans were able to elect fourteen black members of the House of Representative during Reconstruction and two blacks Senators.  Significant numbers of black Republicans were also elected to state offices.

While black and white Republicans competed with white Democrats in the South for political power, the death of Lincoln caused a similar conflict in Washington.  Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's Vice President, was a Democrat and a supporter of slavery.  During the 1860 Presidential Election, Johnson had supported Breckenridge, the racist Democrat candidate from the Deep South. 

Almost as soon as Johnson took office, he clashed with his anti-slavery Republican cabinet.  Democrat Johnson spoke of the need for "White man's government," and he told Governor Fletcher of Missouri:  "This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.  Everyone would, and must, admit that the white race is superior to the black."

While Democrats in the South and in Washington were fighting to keep blacks down and Republicans were fighting to elevate blacks to full equality, the Ku Klux Klan began to terrorize Republicans as a way of breaking the political stalemate.  A federal grand jury in North Carolina in 1871 found that:  "The operations of the Klan were exercised in night, and were invariably directed against members of the Republican Party by warnings to leave the country, by whippings and by murder."[7]

Whites as well as blacks were victims of Klan violence and Klan terrorism, but the only whites who were terrorized by the Klan during this period were Republicans and, to a large extent, blacks who were Republicans were terrorized by the Klan rather than blacks who were Democrats.  Why was the Klan, the terrorist arm of the Democrat Party, so intent upon wiping out the Republican Party in the South? 

Contrary to what many people think now, the South had a very vigorous two party system in the years following the Civil War.  Democrats and Republicans had rough parity in political power.   I have studied the congressional election returns from the South during this period:  elections were often won by very close margins.  As long as black and white Republicans could stand together, Democrats could never establish the sort of one-party state necessary to enact Jim Crow and the utter debasement of blacks.

The coming of Uncle Tom

The political stalemate in Washington meant that when Republican congresses would pass legislation to grant equal voting rights to blacks, like the Lodge Federal Election Law, it was either blocked by Democrats in the Senate or declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Cruikshank and in U.S. v. Reese.  

But there was one way to disenfranchise blacks:  Turn the South into a region in which only the Democratic Party held any political power at all.  This is why the Ku Klux Klan focused on the extinction of the Republican Party so much.  Blacks could have whatever theoretical rights Washington and Republicans wanted to give them, but if the South was a one-party state and that one party of the Democrat Party, it did not matter.

Political parties were private associations and could make their own rules.  Blacks were welcome to join the Democrat Party, but they were not allowed to participate in the caucuses or selection process at all.  When the time came that winning the Democrat Party nomination was tantamount to election, then the disenfranchisement of blacks was complete - so that became the goal of Klan terrorism.

And it worked.  There was a vigorous two party system in the South in 1876, but by 1896 there were hardly any Republicans elected to any state or federal offices at all.  Why?  Republican whites left the South and Republican blacks joined the Democrat Party instead.  Many black men, supported by strong black women who could not vote but who could speak, resisted as long as they could, but when medical care for their families and purchasing supplies at stores was even denied to them, they relented.  Black women had a name for men who quit the Republican Party and became Democrats - this process was known as "Crossing the Jordan" - and that name was "Uncle Tom."

Will we ever reach a time when Dixiecrat politicians like Bill Clinton cease to own black voters?  Perhaps we will, if enough people know the truth about the history of Uncle Tom.  Perhaps then Democrats will lose their stranglehold on black America and blacks will begin to see that the party founded to make them free is their friend.

[1] Michael Lind, What Lincoln Believed (Doubleday: 2005), p. 130.

[2] William Seward, Transcript of Argument in Defense of William Freeman (Auburn, NY: Oliphant, 1846)

[3] Allen Weinstein and David Rubel, The Story of America (New York: Agincourt Press, 2002), p. 315.

[4] Christopher Booker, African Americans and the Presidency (Franklin Watts, 2000), p.

[5] Inaugural Address of James Garfield

[6] African Americans and the Presidency, Booker, p. 84.

[7] Brenda Stalcup, Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995), p. 122.

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