September 03, 2008

A Foolish Post on Germans in St Louis and American History: An undisciplined thought

The Republican party fascinates me. One of the things that Oliver Stone in his film about Nixon captured very well was the fact that the Republican Party is ultimately the party of Lincoln. As much as Reagen, the gaunt figure of the sixteenth President of the United States and his legacy dominates what the Republican party is today and what the history of the United States has looked like since the civil war. It strikes me that from European and American perspectives the civil war is too often played down as a factor in what America looks like today- just as for instance the great struggles of 19th Century Liberalism are played down in Britain. Superficially there may not be much to link the America of 1868 to the America of 2008- the first a war torn, battered country, whose borders did not yet extend to the Pacific and who faced racial strife, anarchy and civil war- the second a confident, innovative, prosperous and (despite the current election campaign) content superpower which functions as a beacon not a backwater, a protector not a petitioner to the rest of the world. But Lincoln's America endures- and particularly through the constellation of the partys today. I mean to take an undiscipline ramble around American history now- forgive me for my errors but I think there is a thought here- because in my view we can explain some of what happened over the last century by reference to events in the late 1860s involving German immigrants, elections and St Louis, Missouri.

St Louis is an interesting place because its a place in which there were lots of German Americans. German Americans historically were in the 1860s a Republican constituency. They voted Republican more than any other candidate and more than any other ethnic group. They voted Republican because in large part they opposed slavery. And slavery was the defining issue of American politics running up to the civil war- and the second issue (behind the issue of sovereignty) during the civil war. Germans in St Louis though hold a unique place in the history of Republicanism in the United States- not because they were important- but because they drifted away. By examining why they drifted away, we can see how some of the choices made by Republicans in the era of reconstruction have influenced the constitutions of the parties in the states ever since- particularly in the north where within a generation the issue of slavery was settled. If we live in the shadow of the Civil War, we live in it because we live in the shadow of three great movements in American politics- the first Republican moment from 1860 to 1912, the second Democratic moment from 1912 to 1968 and the third that we live in now- the conservative moment.

So what happened in St Louis? (I draw here upon Kristina Anderson's article about the history of St Louis in the American Journal of Ethnic History). Well the German population became disenchanted with the Republican politicians who they found in power. They became disenchanted for two reasons- both of which were tied to the issue of slavery and both of which provide indications of the choices that Republican politicians made in the generations after the war. In 1872, Horace Greeley the Democratic Candidate captured the German wards that had voted both for Lincoln and for his successor Ulysses Grant in 1868. What had happened was that the German citizens of those wards had revolted, they had revolted both on religious and economic grounds. On religious grounds, they feared the emergance of religious language in the Republican party manifesto and in the Missouri constitution. The Republican antipathy to slavery was built on solid evangelical foundations- but the Germans found the intrusion of an alien religion into the form of the state a threat. Particularly they saw that the imposition of an oath that would require clergymen to assert their gratitude to almighty God was the thin end of a very intolerant wedge. Catholics, Freethinkers and Baptists all protested against this measure. They feared that the arrival of black voters, in their view inclined to the majority confessions, would strengthen the Republican Party's nativist tendencies- hence by 1868 the German population of St Louis voted ambivalently about black suffrage.

But there is something else. The something else is that as blacks moved north, they threatened the position of working class whites. They provided a source of cheap labour. Whereas some German Democrats beleived that there was no way a black man could work as well as a white man, most German Republicans, having opposed slavery, beleived that of course he could. Given that they were terrified that black workers would come to St Louis and undercut their wages. Furthermore they saw this in the light of the efforts of the main businesses of the town to deal with trade unionism. When the local newspaper for instance hired a black worker to replace a striking white printer in December 1864, the news spread and became an emblem of what might happen. By April 1865, disappointed with Republicans, radical German workers had set up their own Worker's Party in St Louis to contest town elections. There is plenty of evidence of growing support for this party and growing hostility between German unions and radicals and the Republican establishment. What we see here is that the German commitment to racial equality was real, but that they began to see the Republican party as undermining other radical causes and African Americans as part of that problem. They saw African Americans as being willing to support both nativist Republican religious policy and also undercutting the rights of Missourian and German workers.

What is interesting is what this teaches us- the first thing it teaches us is that conventional wisdom is often wrong- I'm not so sure that the Germans were right in either of their beliefs about black Americans- and given the history of the US, in the long run they proved very very wrong. Ultimately some of their concerns in 1868 were to be very similar to the social concerns of Martin Luther King in 1968.

But it does teach us that the way two separate things which are worth learning if we are to understand the impact of abolition and the way that political argument works. Firstly it teaches us that the world is much more complex than we often give it credit for. The German workers of St Louis were amongst the most loyal Republican voters of all- they marched, fought and died for abolition in the civil war. But after the civil war, the reasons which had inspired Republican mainstream thinking- religious commitment and a liberal antipathy to restraints on freedom- did not convince the Germans. Religious commitment led to the development of the Missouri constitutional religious clauses. A liberal antipathy to restraints on freedom led to the ability of businessmen to use black workers to undercut the white working classes. This created and here is my second point, a new opportunity. The opportunity was for a party that was neither religious nor racist nor free market- and that is the opportunity that the Democratic party was able to grab hold of. What St Louis provides us with in microcosm is a history of the United States until Roosevelt- it explains both the success of the Republicans- the way that the nature of their party leads directly on from the successes of the civil war- and also the revitalisation of the Democratic party and the trajectory of that party.

This is an ambitious thesis- and I'm drawing too much from one example (there are plenty of reasons why I shouldn't be so keen on this example- but its late and I am being foolish)- but perhaps in a way you can see the fracturing of the Republican coalition around worker's rights and religion which happened in the late 1920s- and you can also see the facturing of the Democratic coalition in the 1960s- when these Germans supported civil rights and white southerners didn't. In that sense as the politics of today is about the Democratic fracture and the world of Nixon- the politics of today are the consequence of the civil war.


Vino S said...

Interesting article. We often forget that about 20% or so of the US population is German in origin. Their votes were crucial to the early Republican Party. One of the reasons the Republicans did better than then Know-Nothings was because the anti-immigrant sentiment of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s killed off their chance of winning support from this group.