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Early Republican Views of Race and Freedom


When we think of the Republican Party in its early years, we often think of it as a party of freedom because it opposed slavery. But that’s way too simplistic on a number of levels. The Republican Party was rife with internal factions over just what opposition to slavery meant. Many did not want to interfere with slavery in the states and simply wanted to keep it out of the territories. Others felt blacks and whites could not live together and promoted colonization, including Abraham Lincoln until well into his presidency. Once that freedom was achieved, what did freedom mean? Was it truly the ability to control your own labor? What was the limitations that race placed upon free labor? These were all highly contested questions.

It wasn’t just black and white either, as Stacey Smith shows in her Disunion piece on the California laws to bind Native American labor to whites, something that was only eliminated with great reluctance by supposedly free California. The core paragraphs:

The incomplete nature of Indian emancipation in California reflected Republicans’ own ambivalence toward Indian freedom. Most Republicans opposed the kidnapping and enslavement of Indians. They believed that Indians, like former African-American slaves, should be entitled to reap the economic rewards of their own work. On the other hand, they asserted that the key to “civilizing” Indians was to force them to participate in the California labor market. They could not be free to support themselves through traditional mobile hunting and gathering practices that removed their labor from white supervision and tied up valuable natural resources. Such a lifestyle was, in Republicans’ minds, little more than idle vagrancy. Just as their Republican colleagues on the East Coast argued that ex-slaves should be schooled to labor by being bound to plantation wage work through long-term contracts, California Republicans began to advocate compulsory labor as the only way to cure Indian vagrancy.

The Republican vision for Indian freedom quickly took shape after the Civil War. Republican appointees who oversaw California’s Indian reservations compelled all able-bodied Indians to work on the reservation farms. Those who refused, or who pursued native food-gathering practices, forfeited the meager federal rations allotted to reservation Indians. By 1867, one Republican agent declared that “the hoe and the broadaxe will sooner civilize and Christianize than the spelling book and the Bible.” He advocated forcing Indians to work until they had been “humanized by systematic labor.” These policies persisted long after the war. At Round Valley Reservation, one critic observed in 1874 that “compulsion is used to keep the Indians and to drive them to work.” Indian workers received no payment for “labor and no opportunity to accumulate individual property.”

As African-Americans learned in late 1865 when they demanded and were denied land and control over their own future, even most northern Republican whites were compelled by white supremacy to support stark racial difference ensconced into the law. We see this all over. John Chivington, the architect of the Sand Creek Massacre, was an abolitionist. Lots of Republicans were perfectly happy to go along with the Compromise of 1876 that effectively let the South control its own race relations now that slavery was in fact dead. Northern Republicans believed that African-Americans proper place was on plantations working for whites. They should just be paid a bit for it. The racial and ethnic exploitation of northern factories after the war was just another side of this.

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