American History · News Media · Politics

Rachel Maddow on Reconstruction

I don’t usually watch The Rachel Maddow Show but I happened to catch part of it last night. Maddow spent about 15 minutes reviewing some basic history of Reconstruction culminating in a discussion of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, which criminalized conspiracies to intimidate voters in federal elections. The Klan Act is currently the basis for a Democratic Party lawsuit against the Trump campaign, citing his encouragement of “poll-watchers” as a conspiracy to intimidate Democratic voters. It was a happy surprise to see this period of American history the subject of a hard-hitting news program, and Maddow did a good job of covering it.

One thing that, for the sake of time and clarity, was omitted from her segment was the brief existence of the National Union Party—the party of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson in the 1864 presidential election. The Civil War had dragged on for many years and claimed the lives of thousands of Americans, and the nation held Lincoln responsible for it. This national displeasure (common during times of war) divided both political parties. The Democrats split into War and Copperhead factions, with Copperheads calling for an immediate end to the war. The Republicans were also splitting into a pro-Lincoln wing supporting moderate treatment of Confederates and a Radical wing supporting harsher policies against Confederates. In order to secure election Lincoln needed to pull War Democrats over to his side without losing the Radicals within his own party. The Republicans tried to do this by renaming their party the National Union Party and nominating a former Democrat and Southerner as their vice-presidential candidate. They wanted to make the preservation of the Union the central issue of the election, not the Union army’s performance.

Lincoln was not able to keep the Radical Republicans happy, so they split away to form the Radical Democracy Party. Thus the election of 1864 was a three-way race that pitted Democrats against Radical Republicans (Radical Democracy Party) and a fusion of moderate, Unionist Republicans and Democrats (National Union Party). The existence of the Radical Democracy Party threatened to put the Democrats in office, something the Radical Republicans did not want. They dissolved the Radical Democracy Party’s ticket shortly before the election in exchange for the removal of one of their enemies from Lincoln’s cabinet.

As we all know, Lincoln and Johnson won the election of 1864; what we tend to forget is that they were the only American presidents from the National Union Party. The policies that Johnson pursued as president reunited the Republicans, and the National Union Party was dead by the end of 1867. Maddow understandably skipped over this part of the story, but viewers confused about a Republican president with a Democratic vice-president can find an answer in this missing chapter.

You can see Rachel Maddow’s segment in full here