HCR: Lincoln, “better” voters, and Boogaloo Bois

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American | April 7

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

April 7, 2021

Last night, commentator Kevin Williamson published a piece in National Review justifying voter suppression by suggesting that “the republic would be better served by having fewer—but better—voters.” Representatives, he says, “are people who act in other people’s interests,” which is different from doing what voters want.

This is the same argument elite slaveholder James Henry Hammond made before the Senate in 1858, when he defended the idea that Congress should recognize the spread of human enslavement into Kansas despite the fact that the people living in that territory wanted to abolish slavery. Our Constitution, Hammond said, did not dictate that people should “be annoyed with the cares of Government,” but rather directed that they should elect leaders who would take those cares upon themselves.

It is the same argument wealthy men made in the 1890s when they illustrated that laws calling for “better” voters meant that white registrars would hand-pick the nation’s voting population. In the South and the North both, legislators wrote new state constitutions to keep Black men, immigrants, and poor workers from the polls. Leading Americans argued that such men “corrupted” the vote by electing lawmakers who provided public infrastructure like schools and hospitals, paid for with the tax dollars of hardworking white men. To keep poor voters and men of color from the ballot, new state laws called for literacy tests, in which white registrars personally judged a man’s ability to read; poll taxes for which one had to keep the receipts; grandfather clauses, in which a man could vote if his grandfather had, and so on.

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HCR: Taxes and “seed money”

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American | April 6

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

April 6, 2021

I spent much of today thinking about the Republican Party. Its roots lie in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in spring 1854, when it became clear that elite southern slaveholders had taken control of the federal government and were using their power to spread their system of human enslavement across the continent. 

At first, members of the new party knew only what they stood against: an economic system that concentrated wealth upward and made it impossible for ordinary men to prosper. But in 1859, their new spokesman, Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, articulated a new vision of government. Rather than using government power solely to protect the property of wealthy slaveholders, Lincoln argued, the government should work to make it possible for all men to get equal access to resources, including education, so they could rise to economic security. 

As a younger man, Lincoln had watched his town of New Salem die because the settlers in the town did not have the resources to dredge the Sangamon River to increase their river trade. Had the government simply been willing to invest in the economic development that was too much for the willing workers of New Salem, it could have brought prosperity to the men who, for lack of investment, failed and abandoned their town. The government, Lincoln thought, must develop the country’s infrastructure.

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