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El Jefe

To be pedantic -- in this case, because that amounts to more than salving my lapsed-historian ego -- the Know-Nothings were only one of at least three major factions and phenomena in the explosion of the Whigs, and at the same time an event in its own right. To beat my own theoretical dead horse, they were one of the clearest instances in which we tried to split into the three "natural" ideological parties of the American nation rather than the just-two that a variety of forces (especially the Civil War that was about to happen, but even beyond that our overengineered, hypochondriac checks-and-balances system at the federal level) have shoved them into with frequent disruption for the last 175 years.

The Know-Nothings drew strongly from the Whigs, yes, but also from areas where the Democratic coaltion was dysfunctional, and from "non-political" frontier types less drawn into the Jacksonian Era's party politics (despite their sympathy for its general populism) but fused together by a burning sense of common tribe and hatred of Others (sound familiar?) The Know-Nothings damned near pulled together the Reactionary Populist Party that lurks in our two-party system. The Republicans did, initially and to some degree for about a century, build a Liberal Party* on something like the model in parts of Europe and the Anglophone world. Lincoln was firmly on the left flank of that effort.

So he really was a man who knew where he stood first, and when his party disintegrated around him, he knew where he would stand next. He was a party man, but first and foremost determined to be loyal to a coalition where he was at home on matters of principle, and where at least one major faction was one he could call home. As "party men" go, it's worth remembering he was to some degree an insurgent candidate (more in the sense Obama was in '08, another similarity between the two men, than Sanders, but with overlap for both) in 1860 because he was the "anti-Seward" standard bearer at the Convention. Now that's an alternate-history rabbit hole worth going down, a Seward presidency: as a man determined both to bring immigrants, especially Catholics (giving you for one, a very different family history of political affiliation) into the party and the body politic, and to carve out a commercial empire for a continent-wide United States, he really could have built a Liberal Party out of the Republicans more like ones visible elsewhere. We might have ended up with an enduring model more like, say, Canadian politics in the '90s-'00s: a center-straddling Liberal party (the GOP) with strong left and right wings often warring with each other, a populist right-wing party (the Democrats, trading on their Southern and Copperhead heritage), and a half-to-three-quarters party of the Left (Progressives, Populists, Social Democrats, whatever they wanted to name themselves.) A different world indeed. Quite possibly a healthier one politically although often frustrating for someone of my inclinations (unless you had a steady process of dragging the Liberals leftward as in Canada over the last 125 years or so.) But Seward lacked some deep, personal qualities that really did make Lincoln extraordinary, both his unbending moral courage and his questioning habits of mind that led him steadily from liberty-with-repatriation to Emancipation, and from general principles of liberty to the Fourteenth Amendment, which is in and of itself the closest thing we've ever had to a Second Constitution, bookended by the amendments that were intended to shatter the strongest enumerated right in the original Constitution -- the right to own slaves -- forever.

rant/ Sidebar on an earlier essay: Woodrow Wilson, that awful, overrated, high-minded authoritarian bigot who too many later Democrats (seeking virtuous ancestors in our own party and not looking hard enough at the up-country Southern populists) collaborated by accident with right-wing Republicans in labeling a high-minded liberal, had exactly one good original idea of his own (the agenda he passed his first two years were the work of many actual Progressives of all parties, intended mostly to secure his reputation for high-mindedness and dear ol' Champ's left wing as a thoroughly awful Speaker of the House.) It came up in his academic work in the 1880s and cut through our federal Gordian Knot just like Alexander: get rid of the Senate. Made sense then, makes sense now. Our sheer good luck in having a large number of capable elected senators between FDR's period and the early Eighties does not mitigate the larger benefits to American democracy if Wilson had taken the Seventeenth Amendment debate, right at the start of his term, to push ahead with his idea and abolish it entirely, moving towards a parliamentary system with a separately elected executive. /rant

*Please note I said Liberal not "liberal. Big difference. "Liberals" in the sense FDR innovated -- about as descriptive in terms of political theory as "conservative" is of the neo-feudalist and Neo-Confederate reactionaries making the GOP running -- existed both on the far, Millsian left of that Liberal party and on the right wing of a more Left-centered orientation. Hence their occasional common bursts out into reinvented versions of a Progressive Party accompanied by chunks of the Left, and their common presence, in various iterations, in both the Democratic and Republican parties especially north and west of the Mason-Dixon.) That was Lincoln's party, and why Heather Cox Richardson's title for her excellent book about the rise and fall of the GOP's years as a Liberal Party, To Make Men Free is so on the nose. The left of that party thought in Lincoln's terms (and his son's, and Oliver Wendell Holmes', and Teddy's, and some others') about that freedom in terms that would be common in, well, the right wing (always a relative term in a party) of modern Democrats which is where most of them have ended up. Individual and equally-protected rights, individual opportunity, no overweening powers (private, as well as public) that would keep them down. But the right of those Liberals were the industrialists who first worshipped the Almighty Market, figured they had theirs, and crucially across the industrialized world let that old Keyzer Soze feudalism (who once again convinced the world it was dead) back in through the rent-seeking sectors of the economy.

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