Rand Paul’s False Civil War Memory

Well, I guess you have to give the guy credit for taking the time yesterday to visit Howard University and engage students in a little politics and history.  I was particularly interested in the latter.  One of the problems that Senator Paul ran into was his insistence on giving the student body a history lesson, but even worse was that the history itself was fundamentally flawed.  Senator Paul attempted to draw a straight line from the modern Republican Party to Lincoln and the party that ended slavery and passed the Reconstruction Amendments.  The guiding question throughout was why black Americans to not identify with the Republican Party given its history.  All of the roadblocks, according to Paul, were instituted by Democrats.  No mention of Nixon’s Southern Strategy or Lee Atwater’s work on using race as a political wedge or even Ronald Reagan’s famous references to “welfare queens” and his embrace of “states’ rights” while campaigning in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

I always get a question in class when we get to the first political parties in the 1790s inquiring about modern connections. I do my best to explain that while many of the issues that Americans debated remain consistent the parties themselves have evolved over time.

Paul’s collapse of the past 150 years constitutes not only a superficial understanding of American history, but a false Civil War Memory.  Take a look for yourself.

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13 comments… add one
  • Nathan Towne Apr 15, 2013 @ 9:05


    Trying to stir up the hornets nest are we? I agree that there are several obvious problems with Rand Paul’s central arguments. Firstly, he drastically misappropriates the use of the term ‘conservatism.’ In the antebellum period ‘conservatism’ referred to moderation, rather than a side of the political spectrum. This is well known amongst students of the antebellum period and applies not just for the Whig or Republican parties. For example, in the division of the Democratic party in New Hanpshire in 1841 over the states application of eminent domain law and licensing to corporations, especially railroads. Albert Baker and the ‘radical’ faction of the party, which today would be considered the libertarian-conservative faction, ultimately successfully impeded the ‘conservative’-Democrat/Whig alliance within the state legislature. Radicalism, whether in the more ‘conservative’ Democratic party or not was not considered ‘conservative,’ per se. Although, the Democratic party was considered the more ‘conservative’ party, as compared to both the Whig party and later the Republican party, both of which were reformationist, my point is that the application of the word doesn’t fit an antebellum usage. Secondly, by modern standards, the Democratic party was the nations ‘conservative’ party. Both the Whig party and later the Republican party were reformationist parties that seeked drastic change within the United States. So I agree with your criticism of Paul in this instance, his use of the term ‘conservative’ is problematic for several reasons and his equating the antebellum Republican party with the modern Republican party is silly.

    I will say however, that this type of revisionism is no more (or less) damaging than the preposterous type of demagoguery espoused by Ed Sebesta and Andrew O’Hehir. Efforts to impose antebellum politics upon modern issues, unless extremely carefully done, typically result in these problems

    Nathan Towne

  • Bummer Apr 14, 2013 @ 11:07

    Bummer doesn’t pay much attention to what Rand Paul says or not. However, speaking at Howard is a step in the right direction for some white politician and the audience was gracious in the extreme.


  • TF Smith Apr 14, 2013 @ 10:06

    Be worth asking the good senator to explain the election of Rutherford Hayes.

  • Marooned Apr 12, 2013 @ 5:28

    Stick with me.

    Going to a set of 1963 lectures by science-guy, Richard P. Feynman, to make a point or two about Senator Rand Paul, and his compatriots, may seem like a real stretch. But, one focus of Feynman’s talks to University of Washington students was… truth.

    “There is practically nothing that I am going to say tonight that could not easily have been said by philosophers of the seventeenth century. Why repeat all this? Because there are new generations born every day. Because there are great ideas developed in the history of man, and those ideas do not last unless they are passed purposely and clearly from generation to generation.” (“The Meaning Of It All” 1998, Perseus Books)

    That is what Kevin Levin is trying to do with these internet connections. Seeking truth is seeking truth whether in the science laboratory or in history research and communication.

    The failures of truth seeking and communication to those new generations have let intelligent people, like Senator Paul, to very wrong understandings of many realities.

    The central focus of this site’s communication, “Civil War Memory” (that is to say, seeing the realities of what led to 1861-65 and the aftermath) is as central to our world of 2013 as it was in 1863 or 1853 or 1963.

    It is easy to shrug-off the mistaken understandings of Senator Paul. But, more useful would be finding ways to pass on reality “…purposely and clearly from generation to generation…” Kevin Levin is trying to do that. Richard Feynman tried. We should all be trying… daily…

  • Lyle Smith Apr 12, 2013 @ 5:24

    What did Rand Paul specifically say in his speech that was false with with regards to Civil War memory? I don’t actually see where he speaks falsely. And I’m not seeing where you show him speaking falsely.

    Senator Rand Paul speaking falsely on Civil War history in this speech seems a false accusation to me.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 12, 2013 @ 7:31

      I believe that his appropriating Lincoln and especially the Reconstruction efforts of the Republican Party as sufficient in characterizing the modern Republican Party’s record on civil rights constitutes a false memory. It’s not that he said anything true or false about the Civil War and Reconstruction; rather, it has to do with how he framed it in interpreting the Republican Party’s history. It includes, arguably, a bit too much selective memory.

  • Jimmy Dick Apr 12, 2013 @ 5:00

    There is an argument on another blog where someone has tried to discredit the Southern Strategy as a leftist fabricated myth and supports Paul’s statements as being truthful. They then go on to accuse anyone who disagrees with them of race-baiting. The rhetoric from the right is still suffering from a major disconnect from reality. No matter how often they keep repeating their mantras over and over again, the people of this country or at least a majority of them have the intelligence to understand the basic truths. It is almost like the GOP and conservatives feel that if they repeat something often enough people will eventually believe them.
    I really feel that the next two general elections are going to result in some harsh lessons for the GOP and that their party is going to have to undergo a major shift in their platforms. This would be in line with how the Democratic Party had to make major adjustments themselves after they suffered major losses for several presidential elections after Johnson’s term of office.
    I think Arthur Schleisinger Sr. was correct in saying that American politics follow a cyclical pattern.

  • Joe Fiffick Apr 11, 2013 @ 22:13

    Mr. Paul needs to take a class on the history of Civil Rights era. Then he would know why African Americans switched from voting primarily Republican to Democrat. Not difficult to understand.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 12, 2013 @ 4:07

      My issue with Paul’s speech is that it reduces American racism to a question of political alignment. I suspect that most African Americans throughout the twentieth century did not experience racism through the prism of political parties. It no doubt transcended this distinction and politics altogether. Paul seems to be saying we’ve (Republicans) have been on the right side all along so come home. I can’t think of a more blatantly self-serving starting point that likely alienated the audience more than it led to any meaningful discussion or insight.

      • Andy Hall Apr 12, 2013 @ 5:09

        That Paul would go to Howard — Howard! — and hector them on the African American experience in history and politics is the surest sign yet of his party’s utter lack of understanding, or even ability to listen. It’s worse than the time, years ago, when Ross Perot gave a speech at the NAACP national convention and kept referring to the audience as “you people.”

        Over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall is still dumbstruck by sheer bone-headedness of Paul’s Howard University debacle:

        For about a generation you’ve been able to go to pretty much any conservative confab and find some race huckster peddling a moron’s call and response about how the GOP, far from being the country’s key remaining political redoubt of racial animus, is actually an awesome party for Civil Rights against Robert Byrd and the Democratic Klu Klux Klan.

        Hey, did you know Frederick Douglass was a Republican? No? It’s totally true! Or the people who founded the NAACP? Each is designed to lead to piqued moments of thought followed by, ‘Yeah, you’re right! I’m not the racist. You’re the racist!’

        Or, to put it differently, all building toward the epic moment when you put on a ‘racial outreach’ panel event at CPAC entitled “Trump The Race Card: Are You Sick And Tired Of Being Called A Racist When You Know You’re Not One?” How could that go wrong?


        So the big take away I guess is that these black people actually know something about their own history. So there’s that.

        The gist of what happened yesterday was that Paul took this clown show to an audience at an historically black college where, yeah, they actually do know that Lincoln freed the slaves and that Frederick Douglass was a Republican. And they’ve even heard about the Dixiecrats. After I reading Benjy Sarlin’s account I was surprised Paul didn’t introduce himself by thanking the crowd for welcoming him to the ‘Democrat Party Plantation.’

        Rand’s surprise was akin to one of those old Bugs Bunny cartoons when Bugs’ nemesis walks over a loose floorboard and the board flies up and whaps the guy right in the face. You can become so lost in your own story that you confuse your conciliation with your aggression. The GOP is so deep into its own self-justifying racial alternative reality that there’s some genuine surprise when the claptrap doesn’t survive first contact with actual black people.

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Apr 12, 2013 @ 8:20

        I’ve heard some people try to argue that the Democratic Party was the party of slavery and that Southern Democrats in the 1950s and 1960s were the ones who stood in the way of African-American civil rights… so it’s really foolish for Black people to support a party that historically stood in its way. But this argument is silly. I think we can all agree that racism towards Blacks existed long before anyone ever heard of the Democratic or Republican parties.

  • Marooned Apr 11, 2013 @ 16:16

    Does the word “desperate” occur to anyone?

    Well, the more absurd the talk of people like the already disconnected-from-reality, like the Honorable Senator, the more they disconnect from chances of extending their influence.

    If they understood real history, they would not be the people they are.


    Pity for them and for us.

  • Pat Young Apr 11, 2013 @ 14:12

    My dad was a Republican, a member of the ACLU, the AFL-CIO, and the Sierra Club and saw no contradiction in that. His Republican hero was Teddy Roosevet not Calvin Coolidge. Both parties have gone through many changes, but the Republicans today seem so different even from the party that sent Ike to Washington or Fiorello LaGuardia to Congress let along TR or Bob Lafollette. It is not true that the Democrats and Republicans merely swapped places, but neither is exactly what it was 50 years ago and certainly not 150 years ago.

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