Rival factions of the Democratic Party tussle over President Martin Van Buren. Lithograph, 1837. Library of Congress.

Splintered Parties

A History of Political Factions

Eric Cantor’s shock primary defeat has left the Republican establishment reeling, and breathed new life into the Tea Party movement within the party. It’s another reminder of the powerful role that party factions can play, and have often played in American history.

Disagreements within parties have shifted the terms of debate, forced new agendas onto the political stage, even birthed new parties altogether. So in this episode, Peter, Ed, and Brian peer inside our political parties and explore some of the influential factions that have left a mark on the American political landscape – from the Radical Republicans after the Civil War, to the Dixiecrats after World War II. Plus, they look back to the early Republic and a time before the formation of party organizations, when “faction” was the only game in town.

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This is a transcript from an earlier broadcast of this episode, there may be slight differences in wording.

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. In the years after the American Revolution, the country’s very survival seemed threatened by factional bickering.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Poor Alexander Hamilton confronts a bunch of people in 1795, protesting a treaty. And when he tries to calm them down and say, look, you don’t have a right to protest a treaty. Who cares what you think about a treaty? They throw rocks at his head.

PETER: But a century and a half later, the nation was still here. And challenging the political status quo remained a tricky business, as the breakaway Dixiecrats learned in 1948.


JOSEPH CRESPINO: The organizers of the meeting had to go up and actually round up people to come to sit in the seats to make it look like it was actually full. And so, they would recruit college kids to come sit in the seats for Kentucky.


PETER: Today on BackStory, a post-government shutdown special, the history of political factions.


Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation and an anonymous donor.


ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.


BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.


ED: Hi.


BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.


PETER: Hey, Brian.


BRIAN: We’re going to start today in the early 1800s. This was a time when the US government was still a new experiment, one that looked as likely to fail as to succeed. And Americans worried about a new trend in politics, politicians organizing into self-interested blocks.


JOANNE FREEMAN: Which they thought was a horrible thing, because it meant that people basically were lining up to promote themselves and not thinking any more about serving any kind of national good.


PETER: This is Joanne Freeman, a historian at Yale. She says that today, we call these blocks “political parties.” But at the time, politicians called them “factions.” And nobody thought they were a good idea.


One of the people most anxious about this new trend was a Connecticut congressman, named James Hillhouse.


JOANNE FREEMAN: And he believes that the thing that’s possibly going to tear the nation apart is the demon of faction, the demon of party. It needs to be crushed. And he has the great way to crush it.


ED: Hillhouse thought the root of the country’s faction problem was the presidential election. All that campaigning tended to get Americans roused up and divided against each other. So his solution was simple, just take the popular vote out of the election.


JOANNE FREEMAN: And so he comes up with this idea– which does sound a little insane, but which he actually meant seriously– which is that you have a box. And in the box, you have a whole bunch of white balls and one colored ball. And every senator would pull a ball out of the box, and whoever gets that colored ball becomes president of the United States.


PETER: Hillhouse’s plan was never implemented, but it did have some high-profile backers. Years later, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, wrote that, while the whole popular election thing had sounded good while the Constitution was being written, in retrospect he would have preferred the colored balls plan. Just about anything, apparently, would be better than a government structured around factions.


BRIAN: Factions, of course, are still very much with us. And it’s not clear that they’re serving us well. Earlier this month, you’ll recall jostling between the Republican old guard and the GOP’s Tea Party faction resulted in a government shutdown, and very nearly in the nation defaulting on its debt. So today on the show, we’re going to try to shed some light on that battle by examining earlier instances of splintered parties.


We’ll look at how a Republican faction after the Civil War forced through their radical agenda, equal rights for all citizens. And we’ll consider the Democratic Party faction they gave rise to the states’ rights rhetoric in today’s Republican party. Throughout, we’ll be considering this question, when has intra-party conflict stalled the government, and when has it been a force for change?


PETER: First though, we’re going to return to my interview with Joanne Freeman. She explained that, for the founders, faction and party meant pretty much the same thing, a small group of citizens pushing for their own interests. Nobody liked the idea of factional conflict, but they figured it was inevitable.


But when factions started to get big and they started to look more like what we would call national political parties, well, Freeman says the founders began to worry.


JOANNE FREEMAN: The thing that really frightens them is not local, small, clashing factions, but the idea that you might have national factions. That you might have national teams that extend broadly enough, sweepingly enough, geographically enough that it would affect the national government.


And you know, it would’ve been mind-blowing for them at the very beginning to conceive of something being able to be continent-wide. I mean, they would have assumed there were so many interests, so much diversity, so much localism, the idea that you could have two national teams, I just don’t think they would have assumed that would happen or that it would happen so quickly.


PETER: And the whole theory of the Constitution as its drafters imagined it was that it would be an insider job. That I would represent the interests of my state, and we’d work out some workable agreement. There wouldn’t be, in other words, a national political public. There wouldn’t be a national public opinion. National politics was, essentially, the preserve of the big men who were sent to New York, Philadelphia, or Washington.


JOANNE FREEMAN: Absolutely. The Congress would be a lot of guys representing local interests, banging up against each other with their interests, and somehow or other coming to some kind of agreement that– generally speaking– would serve some kind of general good.


PETER: And that notion of a national political elite solving problems and coming up with workable solutions, that’s what was at risk when there was national party formation. Because it would no longer be an insider job, and then all the risks that are associated with a volatile and mobilized public would come to the fore.


JOANNE FREEMAN: Exactly. That’s yet another component that’s scary about a national party, is if it’s national and publicly organized, it’s not just a bunch of elite guys teaming up. It’s a bunch of elite guys who have a means of arousing huge numbers of people to take a side against another side.


PETER: Was this just an abstract concern, or did they actually encounter what they feared?


JOANNE FREEMAN: No, they actually encountered what they feared. I mean, they were scared of massive numbers of people in the streets protesting, parading, marching, gathering in groups and speaking out against the government. Poor Alexander Hamilton confronts a bunch of people in 1795 protesting a treaty. And when he tries to calm them down and say, look. You don’t have a right to protest a treaty. Who cares what you think about a treaty? You’re not the government. They throw rocks at his head.




PETER: Whoa, Hamilton rocks. That’s great.


JOANNE FREEMAN: Yes, Hamilton rocks, in ways he never would have imagined.


PETER: Joanne, when fearful politicians looked out at the popular mobilization, democratization of politics and said, whoa, where is this going? What were they worried about? What form would this excess of democracy take?


JOANNE FREEMAN: Well if you put yourself back in that period when you’ve got a brand new government that people aren’t sure, at the time, is going to be sticking around for a very long– I mean, you do have people, in letters at the time, saying things like, if this government lasts another five years, here’s what I think we should do.


It makes perfect sense that having a roused populace would seem as though it’s something that could rip the nation apart. Because some of those early parties seemed to many people at the time to be sectional. You had the Federalists, who seemed to be more of a New England kind of a party, and the Republicans who seemed to be more a southern-based party.


And so part of what begins to happen really more in the 19th century is that the nation is expanding. And as it expands and it gets new states, the question keeps coming up again and again and again. Well, is this going to be a slave state or free state?


And that brings this issue again and again and again into public view, brings the controversy again into the middle of Congress, into the middle of public affairs. So slave states and free states always have that big, major problem– among other problems– that are dividing them. And it’s something that people at the time were very aware needs to be overcome.


PETER: So parties in this early period are, well, suspect. They have questionable legitimacy because they seem to jeopardize the whole national project. But something happens over the next couple of decades. And that is, Americans get right with parties.


How does that understanding of party transform? What are the sources of the normalization of party conflict? What enables that to happen?


JOANNE FREEMAN: Well partly, that’s a matter of practical politics. Partly, you have people like Martin Van Buren– he doesn’t get a lot of credit for much, but we can give him credit for this. He’s an early person who was a New York politico, was really skilled on a local level with organizing and structuring politics and getting people engaged in winning elections.


And he’s an early person. And he writes an extended essay in which he says, you know, I actually think national parties could be a good thing. Because they’re going to allow people to join up together. And not only that, but if we have national parties, they’ll hold together the North and South, because they’ll be joined together on one team.


So he actually makes that realization that actually, maybe a national party could be not only practical, not only something that could help one win if you’ve really corralled that force, but could perhaps be union-saving.


PETER: Yeah, how would it save the Union, though? You’ve suggested that there are deep strains in the union at the outset– sectionalism, and the big differences over slavery. How could parties transcend those differences?


JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, if you get people who have enough shared interests that they’re willing to find a way to– I don’t want to say fudge– get around, massage the slavery problem. Essentially, if you can get people on the same side working for the same thing who are willing to try and figure out what to do with the slavery issue in order to get these other things that they agree on, then– in that sense– a national party could hold North and South together. It could, in a sense, force people to figure out how to get by on the slavery issue in order to get other things that they want.


PETER: So the whole premise is that you have to have controversial issues that are just controversial enough to justify mobilization, but not so controversial that they’d destroy the Union. That’s a fine line, isn’t it?


JOANNE FREEMAN: I guess it is kind of fine line. Luckily for us, we have lots of issues.




PETER: What’s remarkable is the Martin Van Buren takes so long to come up with a rationale for national parties. How many years have elapsed? Almost a half-century before Martin Van Buren says, you know, what we’ve been doing is actually OK.


JOANNE FREEMAN: It’s amazing it takes that long. And it’s amazing even then that the response is kind of, huh. What an interesting idea.


PETER: Yeah, yeah. So how about the dangerous people we talked about? How did the politicians get right with the people? I mean, if parties are going to be normalized, then a mobilized people has to seem less threatening. So what makes it possible for politicians– who are, of course better than we are, and they rule the world– to accept democracy?


JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, one of the vital connectors in this whole process– and it’s not that it didn’t exist before, but it’s much more national to a much greater degree later– is the press. Because politicians, beginning more in the 1820s and 1830s than before, really realize that they can very personally use the press to talk to the public, to engage with the public, to corral the public.


PETER: You mean they’re manipulating public opinion?


JOANNE FREEMAN: They are manipulating public opinion. They are. They are happily manipulating public opinion. They are learning how, as a matter of fact. I mean, they’re in the process of learning how. You can see them in Congress in this period, standing up and saying something, and then trying to take it back when they realize that maybe they shouldn’t have said that, because the press is watching.


And actually, on second thought, you guys in the gallery taking notes on this? Don’t take notes on that. So they’re on training wheels, as far as figuring out how to milk this resource. But they’re definitely very deliberately trying to use it for all it’s worth.


PETER: Joanne Freeman is a professor of history at Yale University.


ED: It’s time for a short break. When we get back, we’ll consider whether there are any parallels between today’s Republican insurgents and southern secessionists on the eve of the Civil War.


PETER: You are listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.


BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.


PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf.


ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. We’re talking today about the history of conflicts within political parties, and how those conflicts have shaped the nation as a whole.


BRIAN: More than two weeks into this month’s government shutdown, with negotiations over the debt ceiling stalled and the nation staring down a possible credit default, New York congressman Charles Rangel was interviewed by CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield.


CHARLES RANGEL: This isn’t a question of the House and Senate differing. This is not even a question of Republicans and Democrats differing. This is all about a handful of people, who got elected as Republicans, that want to bring down our government. In the same way they fought as Confederates, they want to bring down the government and reform it.


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD: Wait a minute, whoa, whoa. I’m sorry, are you likening– and I’m only assuming you’re referring to the Tea Party members, who are pretty intransigent on their views. Are you likening them to Confederates?


CHARLES RANGEL: Well, I can tell you this. If you take a look at the states that they control, take a look at the Dixiecrats. See how they went over to the Republican Party.


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD: Michele Bachmann is not from Dixie. What are you talking about?


BRIAN: Peter, Ed. I have to tell you, I respect Congressman Rangel. But I don’t think he’s on to a powerful historical analogy. In fact, this might be a case study in false analogies.


Now in fairness to the congressman, he is supported by some pretty fancy publications. I’ve seen columns in the New York Review of Books, I’ve seen columns in The New Yorker that are comparing what’s going on today– a faction within the Republican Party– to some of the same factionalism that led to the Civil War.


But I’m not buying. I think that what we’re watching is the remarkable way in which a relatively small group of Americans has mobilized in a very self-conscious way to capture some seats in the House of Representatives. That is not a Civil War.


ED: And I should point out that they do not call themselves the Confederates or the Neo-Confederates, but rather, the Tea Party. They’re actually trying– a few Confederate flag-waving members of the Tea Party aside– to avoid that kind of association, and to claim something older. So they’re not really waving the flag of the Confederacy. There waving the flag of the revolution itself.


PETER: True enough. But what the patriots did in 1776 was to secede from the British Empire, probably with an activist minority of the Anglo-American population at that time. And there were lots of places where loyalists dominated.


But what’s important about the patriots– and I think this is what the Tea Party is trying to invoke– is a conception of a community, of a nation, coming together in the future. It’s a vision of how one day we’ll all get it. We’ll all understand what’s at stake here. And I think that is what drives this insurgency.


Brian’s exactly right about the leverage you get in day to day politics. But the dream, the vision, is much greater than that. And we dismiss it at our peril because all insurgencies begin with small vanguards, minorities, with an image of what the nation could be.


ED: Interestingly enough, Peter, that brings us back to a way that the analogy of the Confederates and the Tea Party does work. The Confederates at the time did not think that they were backward looking. They thought they were creating a modern nation, based on perpetual bondage that we set at the hub of the international economy.


And as the Confederates created a modern nation, who do they take as their symbol? George Washington. That is the symbol of the Confederacy. So ironically, everybody who wants to move forward also feels that they need to move backward to claim some part of the American legacy.


When you do that, however, you open yourself to critics who are saying, hey, you’re taking the wrong part of the American legacy. And Brian, I think what we’re seeing in the people who are saying, this isn’t the Tea Party. This isn’t the American Revolution. This is the Confederacy that threatened to destroy the United States. You can see how these historical analogies cut both ways.


PETER: Well, we’re used to thinking about factions as insurgent forces that sweep into pre-existing parties and reset the agenda, groups like the Tea Party. But there’s another kind of faction that can be equally powerful, the old guard. The people left behind when the bulk of the party moves in a new direction.


We’re going to turn now to a case of that second type of faction, the state’s rights Democrats, nicknamed the Dixiecrats.


BRIAN: Ever since the Civil War, conservative, segregationist Southerners had controlled the Democratic Party. But in the 1930s, the party began changing. First, there was the New Deal. Then in 1948, President Harry Truman, a Democrat, asked Congress to pass civil rights legislation. At the party’s National Convention later that year, Northern Democrats re-nominated Truman for a run against Republican Thomas Dewey.


And if all that weren’t enough, those Northerners managed to insert a strong civil rights plank in the party platform. Southerners were outraged.


JOSEPH CRESPINO: The cooler heads knew that the only thing to do was to hold your nose and move forward.


BRIAN: This is historian, Joe Crespino. While most of the senior southerners at the convention didn’t want to relinquish the power they had attained within the party, Crespino says a few had had enough. Much of the Alabama delegation, as well as the entire Mississippi delegation– senators, governor and all– walked off the convention floor.


JOSEPH CRESPINO: As soon as they leave, they put out an all points bulletin, meet in Birmingham where we’re going to decide what we’re going to do. And it was a last-minute decision to go there. This was not predetermined.


BRIAN: So once they actually get to Birmingham, what is it that they decide there?


JOSEPH CRESPINO: They decide that they’re going to recommend two candidates to head an alternate presidential ticket. And the two candidates they chose were Strom Thurmond for president, Fielding Wright– who was the governor of Mississippi– as vice president.


The candidates were chosen in a series of hotel room caucuses, where the party brokers got together and offered it to several people before they finally got Strom Thurmond to accept to be the head of the ticket.


BRIAN: And is that because of party loyalty? If they couldn’t find another candidate, did seasoned pros say, hey, I’m not going anywhere near this?


JOSEPH CRESPINO: Well, it was certainly because of party loyalty. And to run against the Democratic Party was going to seriously imperil your political future in a region where the democratic party’s the only game in town.


The only way Strom Thurmond was going to have any impact on the 1948 campaign was to win enough southern states so that no one gets to 270 electoral votes, and the vote would be thrown into the House. And then you can bargain with either Harry Truman or Thomas Dewey to get concessions on civil rights.


BRIAN: Right. Now what did it look like at that convention? How did the organizers of the State’s Rights Party frame things? I know they only had a week, but what message did they try to send?


JOSEPH CRESPINO: The organizers were intent on having the national symbols of the United States be on display. They went out and bought bunting. Red, white, and blue bunting was draped around the auditorium. They had American flags and that kind of thing.


But there weren’t that many heavyweights there. In some cases, the organizers of the meeting had to go up and actually round up people to come sit in the seats to make it look like it was actually full. And so they would recruit college kids to come sit in the seats for Kentucky, because nobody from Kentucky had come down for it. That sort of thing was going on throughout this meeting.


BRIAN: And was there are some kind of tension between the rhetoric that the state’s rights people wanted to use and the rank and file that did fill those meeting seats?


JOSEPH CRESPINO: Well, there wasn’t much high-minded rhetoric at this meeting. All of the cant of southern segregationism was on display in the political speeches, talking about a white race that had brought a savage race to the new world and civilized it. This kind of thing.


The rhetoric was so inflammatory the some of the national radio broadcasting networks who were broadcasting live from the convention actually cut away, because the rhetoric became so racially inflammatory. So it was in this context that Strom Thurmond gave his speech, what would become the most infamous speech of his career.


Because if you had asked who Strom Thurmond was in 1947, you would have said that he was one of the most progressive young governors then in office in the south. But as he stood up there in front of the crowd, many of them would have been wondering about him, and wondering just what kind of leader they had gotten in this deal.


There’s not a full video record of this speech. There are only about four clips of it on video. And then the final clip is the line– I don’t have the quote in front of m. It’s the most famous line of his political career, where he talks about they are not enough troops in the army.


STROM THURMOND: There’s not enough troops in the army to force a sovereign people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.


JOSEPH CRESPINO: And he uses the n-word there. But He doesn’t use that kind of racist inflammatory rhetoric on the campaign trail.


BRIAN: Why is that, Joe? Why doesn’t he go with a winner?


JOSEPH CRESPINO: But he’s trying to run is a kind of national candidate who reaches out to, what he calls, states’ rights Americans, right? Folks across the country who believe and support the rights of states. And there’s a dissonance between what he’s saying rhetorically and the strategy he needs to run to actually have the effect he wants to have.


BRIAN: So what happened? How did Thurmond do? How did the States’ Rights Democrats do?


JOSEPH CRESPINO: So Thurmond ends up winning four southern states. They’re all the Deep South states. He wins his own state of South Carolina. He wins Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. And he wins several million votes.


But he doesn’t win the votes that he needs to throw the election into the House of Representatives, although it looked very close at the time. Of course, this is the famous campaign, right? Where newspapers printed Dewey’s victory. And if you look at the newspapers, everyone assumed that Dewey was going to win. But in the end, it wouldn’t come to pass, and Harry Truman didn’t need the Dixiecrat support.


BRIAN: Do the State’s Rights Democrats, these Dixiecrats, just go quietly into the night?


JOSEPH CRESPINO: Well, there’s great concern about what’s going to come of the party. Most of the major politicos did not sign up for the party in the first place. But there are efforts to keep the party going into the 1950s, and nothing really comes of it.


Strom Thurmond eventually wins election to the Senate. Not as a Democratic Party candidate, he actually wins the first ever write in candidate for the US Senate. Eventually, he votes with and meets with the Democrats. He caucuses with the Democrats.


But the first thing he says when he goes to the caucus of the Democrat senators, he says he stands up– and this is a way to win influence among your fellow Democrats– he says, I just want to go on record to say I didn’t get here because of any help I got from the National Democratic Party.


BRIAN: Joe Crespino is a historian at Emory University, and is the author of the biography, Strom Thurmond’s America.


PETER: You know guys, I’ve always thought of the Dixiecrat moment as a kind of bizarre episode that didn’t really matter in the long term. They don’t create a new party, Dixiecrats, which would be the home for old, Southern Democrats. They return to the fold. So what does it matter?


BRIAN: So Peter, you could say the Dixiecrats don’t matter if you’re only looking at the election results in 1948. But here’s why they matter. They put their finger on a visceral commitment to states’ rights and the maintenance of Jim Crow segregation under those states’ rights. And frankly, what was going to become a major issue over the next 20 or 30 years.


Now, to do this, they had to walk away from some of their commitments to their allies in the Democratic Party in the North. Those allies promoted economic development, which helped the South quite a bit.


But what the Dixiecrats really did was say, you know, we’re making a pact with the devil here. Because as we accept this aid from a federal government, that federal government is going to become increasingly intrusive. What really binds us together as Southern Democrats is our commitment to states’ rights and our commitment to maintaining the social arrangements that had existed ever since Reconstruction.


PETER: So Brian, would you say then that the southern democratic electorate feels it’s not really, truly represented by the southern democracy, by the party, that it’s weak on fundamental issues. That whole notion that your party, the party that dominates the south, it’s a one-party region. But it’s not representing us. That becomes the crucial thing that is revealed by the Dixiecrat bolt.


ED: Yeah, the Dixicrates would say, you’ve made us a faction. We have no choice but to explicitly acknowledge that and defend ourselves.


BRIAN: And here’s the connection to what happens in the next 10 years. Politicians who remained in the Democratic fold, who did not go out with the Dixiecrats, found ways to show that electorate that they felt their pain, they heard their voices. But they found ways to do it within the Democratic Party.


They used the intricate rules of committees to bottle up civil rights legislation. They used the filibuster to publicly demonstrate how deeply they cared about local control and states’ rights in the cause of Jim Crow segregation. So they tried to have the best of all worlds. They tried to use the techniques of the solid south.


At the same time, show this mobilized electorate we hear you. We understand. Race is important. And all of this time, they’re being pushed by an emerging civil rights movement, Martin Luther King. They’re being pushed by Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that said the schools are going to be integrated nationally.


ED: And at the same time, they’re being wooed by the Republican Party who is striking a new tone. The thing about Barry Goldwater in 1964, Brian, Peter? The whole idea is the federal government is way too big. The rights of localities, the rights of individuals have to be re-asserted.


Now, Goldwater water gets plenty of electoral votes in ’64, even though he’s not talking the same accent as the Dixiecrats. But combined with the Republicans move toward a more aggressive, anti-status position combined with the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the culmination of the civil rights movement, the ground is prepared– isn’t it, Brian?– for a merger of these disaffected Southern Democrats and the Republican Party.


BRIAN: It is. Lyndon Johnson was well aware that in advocating that Voting Rights Act of 1965, he was giving the South to this new Republican Party that was talking in the terms of local control and states’ rights.


ED: And the great gift the Republicans gave was not the frontal attack on race the Dixiecrat had offered, but rather a more general attack on big government, of which support for African Americans was a part.


PETER: So Brian, what does this tell us about how factions work in American politics?


BRIAN: I think it tells us a lot, Peter. It first of all tells us that, quite often, they fail in their explicit goals. But they can have a huge impact by forcing politicians to deal with ideas that really might be a little bit more comfortable in the existing balance of power between the parties. They create subtle shifts that offer great opportunities down the road for opposition parties.


ED: We need to take another short break now. When we return, a radical faction of the Republican Party impeaches the president in 1868.


PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.


This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.


ED: I’m Ed Ayers.


BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today on the show, we’re taking the long view on political factions.


PETER: Our next story begins as the Civil War ends. Congressional leaders were grappling with how to readmit a ruined South to the Union. The contingent that took the hardest line was called the Radical Republicans. They push for immediate and full equality for African Americans, something that would eventually be guaranteed by the 14th Amendment Citizenship and Equal Protection clauses.


But they met with resistance from moderates, who feared anarchy and disorder in the conquered South. The Radicals also wanted to see former Confederates punished, well the moderates favored a more lenient approach.


BRIAN: Annette Gordon-Reed is a legal historian at Harvard. She says the radicals had often sparred with Abraham Lincoln, fearing his vision of Reconstruction was too soft on southern traitors. And so when he was assassinated and his vice president Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency, the radicals thought they finally had a true ally in the White House.


ANNETTE GORDON-REED: He was seen as someone who was going to be punishing towards the Confederates, that he was very much interested in transforming and shaking up the way of life. He was considered– well, he was a lower-class white person, and he’d always resented the grandees of the South. And people thought this was his chance to stick it to them


At one point, Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican, thought, well. He was not happy that Lincoln was gone. But he thought now we have somebody who we could work with. And it turned out to be exactly the opposite of that.


ED: So all this takes place in just a few months. Right off the bat, it’s very clear that Johnson is their enemy.


ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Yes. And he thinks that the president should control, as Lincoln did, that the president should control reconstruction. They thought that they should.


But it’s really about, the driving issue is, what are we going to do with– and they would have said, at the time– the negro and the South? And he has one idea, and they have another. And they go to war.


They would pass things, and then he would appoint people who he knew or felt would not carry forth the laws. His failure to protect people who were being killed, the freedmen who were being persecuted in the south. There are lots of things that they thought amounted to his not carrying out his duties as president. But they were hoping for something, some way to get him. And the impeachment was that.


ED: So the radicals are furious at Johnson generally. But they decide to go after him for something specific in order to really bring him to the court of justice. How does this impeachment process evolve, and what is it that they’re really trying to nail him for?


ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, they’re nailing him for violating the Tenure of Office Act. And the act forbade the president from removing anyone from the cabinet without congressional approval. And he wanted to remove Stanton, Secretary of War.


Stanton’s problem was that he opposed Johnson’s leniency towards the southern states. The South is under military rule at this point, and if you had somebody in a Secretary of War who was not actually enforcing this notion of bringing blacks into citizenship– protecting blacks, really is what it was. Well, the whole thing would be lost.


So they were infuriated. The Radical Republicans were infuriated when he tried to remove this one, the person who would be responsible for implementing their program, what they thought was the right way to go. So that was the cause of the problem and brought about the impeachment.


ED: So as it turns out, the Radical Republicans fail to convict Johnson in their impeachment proceedings. What I wonder is were they made more radical by Johnson’s intransigence? Did they come up with a more radical plan, precisely because they had such an opponent in the White House?


ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, we do get the 14th Amendment out of this. Ultimately, his recalcitrance leads to them suggesting that the only way to get around this is to pass the 14th Amendment, which brought blacks into citizenship, because it’s not clear at this point what status the enslaved people had.


So the 14th Amendment establishes this by making African Americans citizens. The 15th Amendment gives them the right to vote unintimidated, theoretically unintimidated. And so this makes blacks true Americans. For the first time, there’s no ambiguity about this.


Because then it becomes a part of the Constitution, and there are more ways to work with that, as opposed to the general laws, the civil rights acts, and things like that that were passed during this time period. So it’s one of those situations where you decry what Johnson did, it but in the end there was a good result.


ED: But as you know so well, for generations people thought the radicals were the bad guys, that heavies, in the story of Reconstruction. You know, that they seem just maniacal in their determination to push the nation too far, too fast on African American rights. Are the radicals now really enshrined as the pioneers of justice, that they were a faction who was right?


ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, I don’t know that that’s the consensus of all members of the country. But I do think the predominant view is that they were certainly right. Because if you think of African Americans as people, as real people, it’s a bit difficult, to, I think, make excuses for the failure to treat them as human beings.


I mean, people say you look at history through the eyes of people in the past. But the question is, whose eyes? And I think we’re at a moment now when people are looking at the past, particularly in the South and slavery, through the eyes of African Americans, of the people who were oppressed, and the people who wanted to help them.


So I think it’s, as you know, schools of history change. But we are in a moment where people said, these individuals had foresight. They were irritating. They were in much the same way as the abolitionists. They were irritating. People thought they had one idea, that they were harping on one thing to the exclusion of other considerations. But I do think they are seen as a vanguard.


ED: Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor at Harvard Law School, and the author of a recent biography of Andrew Johnson for the American Presidents series.


PETER: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking today about the history of struggles within political parties. As we do with each of our shows, we’ve been soliciting your comments at backstoryradio.org and Facebook.


And we got one of those commenters on the phone with us now. Marianne, from Harvey, Louisiana. Hey, Marianne, welcome to the show.


MARIANNE: Thank you. I had a question based on looking on videos– because I grew up in Shreveport– looking at videos of the sheriff’s office as they rode a horse into what was my mother’s church to break up a civil rights meeting, which was also a church service.


And just the thought of the fact that we’re used to thinking now, especially in Louisiana, that the Republicans are on one side and the Democrats are on the other side. But in this particular case, these people were all probably Democrats. I also know something about Reconstruction. In Shreveport, the Lieutenant Governor right after Reconstruction was African American, and was probably a Republican. So I was wondering, when did blacks turn to the Democratic Party?


PETER: Yeah, great question.


BRIAN: Yeah, Marianne, to answer your question about when did African Americans begin voting Democratic, well. They start experimenting with it in the 1920s. But the real tidal wave comes during the Great Depression and during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. I think it’s 1936, is the first time that African Americans vote in a majority for the Democratic Party.


Now here’s the thing. A lot of southern, most southern, African Americans are not allowed to vote. They simply are not allowed even to register to vote. So when we say African Americans voting for the Democratic Party beginning in the New Deal, that’s largely northern African Americans. Because southern African Americans, especially in the deep South, are simply not allowed to vote.


MARIANNE: That address one of my other questions. Because I feel like the African American Democrats here had no real power in Louisiana. So what there something they got out of the fact of being Democratic?


PETER: It would be some of those New Deal programs, wouldn’t it Brian?


BRIAN: Yeah. So if you were an African American farmer, ultimately you would benefit from price supports for crops like tobacco, for instance, or in Louisiana, sugar. Now here’s the thing. African Americans always got the short end of the stick even within those programs. But they did get more than they had been getting from the federal government in the first place.


ED: And in the spirit of Marianne’s question, what they got were acts from the federal government, not a role in governance itself. The Democrats were not going to let black people have an actual say in the running of the party. So this is very much unlike Reconstruction.


This changes in the 1960s in the civil rights struggle, when they say, listen. The main thing we have to have, we recognize the Democrats are our better friends, but now we must have actual representation in the Democratic Party.


BRIAN: Marianne, which is why that sheriff was riding his horse into the civil rights demonstration, because the Democrats in the south didn’t go along with their national party.


MARIANNE: Right. That was one of the things that was never talked about when I was growing up. We were protected from all of it. The most I asked my mother what happened that day, did she go to church, did she see all of this? Because of course, the police were beating the crowd. They beat the minister nearly to death. And she says, well, I didn’t go to church that day. And that is the most I ever got out of her about what happened.


ED: Well you know, this helps explain something else that’s really important about all this. Why a church? It’s because when African Americans had no real voice in either political party, the African American church became a unit of mobilization.


That’s why the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the civil rights struggle comes out of the black church. It’s because they had been precluded from being even a faction of a political party. And so they generated their own political energy, which is why southern white Democrats would ride a horse into a church.


BRIAN: But the real answer to your question doesn’t come until that Voting Rights Act of 1965. It creates a voting revolution in the South. Given the opportunity to register and to vote, African Americans register in the millions. And they do vote. And they very quickly are part of the government. They elect people to local office, and eventually to Congress and to the US Senate.


ED: And Marianne, then the irony– and I think this was own memory– is that as soon as that happens, then white Southerners say, we’re out of this Democratic Party. And now we’re Republicans, right?


So what this shows is that every time an African Americans have tried to use the American political system to gain some control over their own political lives, parties break in some ways in the very threat of African Americans having some kind of political power.


PETER: Hey, Marianne, thanks for calling.


MARIANNE: Thank you.


BRIAN: Thank you so much.


PETER: Bye bye. We got another call, and it’s from Sarah in Indianapolis. Sarah, welcome to BackStory.


SARAH: Hi, thank you.


PETER: We’re talking about parties. Join us. Let’s party down, what’ve you got?


SARAH: Great. Well, I would love to hear your thoughts on the effects of party reforms in the ’70s that opened up party processes to more women, young people and minorities. And I’m thinking particularly here about the McGovern Commission recommendations in the Democratic Party.


I assume that there were similar reforms that happened in the Republican Party a bit later, but it just seems interesting to me, and a bit paradoxical that right at the moment that the Democratic Party itself is becoming more democratic– with a small D– the Democrats as a group are finding it harder to further their policy goals.


And I just wonder if a well-oiled party machine works more efficiently than a heterogeneous group of diverse folks. So I was just wondering what you guys think.


PETER: Well, Sarah, thanks for that question. And we do paradox on BackStory, and I’m going to start with Mr. 20th Century. What’ve you got?


BRIAN: Sarah’s referring to the McGovern-Fraser reforms that changed the way the Democratic Party chose its candidates for office, starting with the president. The old way of doing it was to leave things up, for the most part, to party bosses.


So after the debacle of the 1968 convention where all hell broke loose outside the convention hall, the Democratic Party said, we’re going to put together a commission that’s going to change the way we choose candidates. Because it really doesn’t reflect what our voters in the Democratic Party are thinking.


And from 1972, when these reforms started on, the number of primaries that were used to select the Democratic candidate increased pretty much steadily. And I think you’re absolutely on the mark here, Sarah. By reflecting a more diverse group of voters, it became a lot harder to take what we could only call the party line.


And the Democratic Party got what it wanted. It got a lot of different perspectives. It was a lot harder to make the trains run on time.


PETER: Hey, Brian, I’ve got a question for you. I’m thinking about representation. And the idea of the party being representative, it has to have the demographic look of its constituents. But when you open up a party, the way the Democrats did, and then, I think, the way the Republicans have too, you’re opening up the opportunity for the people who care the most, who have the biggest agenda to push.


So it’s not, at the end of the day, that, for instance, the Republican Party right now is truly representative of all people who vote Republican. It’s been dominated, taken over by highly motivated partisans or factious people.


ED: And Sarah, it seems that the paradox you’re pointing toward is this great democratization leads to defeat, that the Democrats shoot themselves in both feet, or ever how many feet there are now. And as a result, hand the election to Richard Nixon of all people. Yeah.


BRIAN: But you also, I think, put your finger on an even more fundamental point, Sarah. And that is, when decisions about candidates are handed over to what we know are very small percentage of voters who turn out for primaries, you don’t always get the most electable candidates in general elections.


SARAH: Right. I mean, thinking back to my original question with the McGovern commission and you see the type of candidate chosen by the people who have now increased participation in the party in George McGovern himself. And he’s incredibly unelectable, right? For a variety of reasons.


And yeah, if you can’t get the person you want elected and you can’t even do basic governing functions like pass a budget and work across the aisle with each other, then–


PETER: Right, right. You’d rather lose.


BRIAN: But I also think that this is the fundamental way in which parties change. A faction pushes a party to one extreme or another, perhaps. And it loses, the way the conservative faction that nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 did. The way the anti-Vietnam, more aggressive civil rights movement faction in ’72 that supported McGovern did. And then the party reformulates around the middle. It’s part of the life cycle of parties.


And sometimes, these factions don’t always lose. The same faction that got clobbered in supporting Barry Goldwater reconstituted itself and took over the party under Ronald Reagan, and had a pretty good ride.


SARAH: Right. And I mean, if you talk about the position of women and liberals and minorities and young people in the Democratic Party, well, hello. Look at where the election of Barack Obama in 2008. So yeah, that’s a really great point. Thank you guys so much.


BRIAN: Thank you, Sarah. Bye bye. That’s going to do it for us today. Drop in at backstoryradio.org, and help Ed, Peter and me come up with names for our own party factions.


PETER: Just remember. Mugwumps, Softshells, and Locofocos, well. Those names are already taken. We’re also on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

ED: BackStory is produced by Tony Field, Jess Engebretson, Nina Earnest, and Andrew Parsons. Emily Charnock is our research and web coordinator, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel, history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham, for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.