This weekend’s Republican Party of Wisconsin convention will, undoubtedly, reject a resolution that would make the party of Lincoln over as the party of secession.
To do otherwise would be a rejection of the founding premises of the party that traces its roots to Wisconsin.
Founded in the northeastern Wisconsin community of Ripon in 1854 to prevent the spread of the slave power, the Republican Party, with Wisconsinites often in the lead, positioned itself as the bulwark of opposition to Southern secession and to the so-called “nullification” of federal laws by the slave states of the Confederacy.
Anyone with a sense of history understands just how jarring it is that a party with this history would in the 21st century even entertain a convention resolution that not only urges legislators to nullify federal laws — such as the Affordable Care Act — but that concludes with the line: "Be it further resolved: that we strongly insist our state representatives work to uphold Wisconsin's 10th Amendment rights, and our right to, under extreme circumstances, secede, passing legislation affirming this to the U.S. federal government."
The secession resolution has caused quite a stir in Wisconsin, where it has been condemned not just by responsible Republicans but by conservative commentators who recognize the danger of the party moving toward extremes. While the GOP has for decades tried to pitch a “big tent,” the prospect of it becoming a gathering place for supporters of ideas that have been on the fringe of the discourse since Civil War days is both unsettling and politically perilous.
William F. Buckley argued in the 1960s, when he clashed with the John Birch Society adherents, who had gained a good deal of influence in some state Republican parties, “The underlying problem is whether conservatives can continue to acquiesce quietly in a rendition of the causes of the decline of the Republic and the entire Western world which is false, and, besides that, crucially different in practical emphasis from their own.” Buckley’s conclusion was that there needed to be a clear rejection of views that are ”far removed from common sense.”
For the Republican Party of Wisconsin, one of many around the country that are wrestling with questions of definition during this state party convention season, the vote on the secession resolution — which was submitted by the party's 6th Congressional District caucus — is an important one. Even a "big tent" party has a responsibility to reject what conservative commentator Charlie Sykes has decried as "crackpotism on steroids."
That means objecting not just to a wrongheaded resolution but to wrongheaded actions of partisans like those who promoted that resolution at the caucus. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Rohn Bishop, treasurer of the Fond du Lac County Republican Party, said he was booed at the March caucus meeting when he brought up Lincoln's name while arguing against the secession and nullification provisions. He said he also noted that the meeting took place two days after the 160th anniversary of the party's founding in Ripon."
"I was completely blown away that at a Republican Party event, the presidency of Abraham Lincoln would be controversial," added Bishop.
Bishop gets to the point of why the vote on the nullification and secession resolution is significant. It goes to the heart of the history of the Republican Party.
It was a Wisconsin Republican, U.S. Sen. James Rood Doolittle, who identified secession as a “fatal heresy” and who framed the struggle of his friend Lincoln and his Republican Party in the critical stages of its formation as a fight to “take from the hands of a weak (Democratic administration), the flag of the Union thus insulted, outraged and trampled upon, and raise it aloft, as the glorious standard of a common country — with not one stripe erased, nor one star obscured — and to bear it full high advanced, right onward, until, in spite of rebellion at home and threatened intervention from abroad, it should float again, honored, respected over every foot of the soil of every state and territory of the United States.”
Doolittle traveled the country in 1860 on behalf of Lincoln’s initial presidential campaign, and again in 1864, when the Wisconsinite rallied Republicans and their allies to Lincoln’s “National Union” re-election campaign, which at its convention had framed a platform that began with an anti-secession resolution:
"Resolved, That it is the highest duty of every American citizen to maintain against all their enemies the integrity of the Union and the paramount authority of the Constitution and laws of the United States; and that, laying aside all differences of political opinion, we pledge ourselves, as Union men, animated by a common sentiment and aiming at a common object, to do everything in our power to aid the government in quelling by force of arms the rebellion now raging against its authority …"
A century and a half later, the current Republican Party — in Wisconsin and nationally — is dramatically different from the Republican Party of Lincoln and Doolittle, and certainly from the “Radical Republican” sensibilities that were especially strong in Wisconsin and other states of the upper Midwest and New England. Founding Republicans like Alvan Bovay, the radical land reformer who called the first meeting in Ripon, and Bovay's friend and champion Horace Greeley, would have a hard time recognizing a party that has become so doctrinaire in its conservatism.
Yet, surely, the constant for the party that battled to maintain “the integrity of the Union” must be an opposition to the crude politics of nullification and the “fatal heresy” of secession. To cross those lines would be to abandon any connection with what Abraham Lincoln and James Doolittle understood to be the essential responsibility of a Republican.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising