Thingish Things

The ‘Black Republicans’

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Feb• 12•11

Anti-Republican Propaganda circa 1859

New York Republicans looking to get back to their roots have an opportunity staring them in the face.

By stepping forward and encouraging passage of gay marriage legislation in the state senate this Spring, traditional Republicans can remind voters, in a highly visible way, of the principal issue upon which their party once stood: equal protection under the law.

The Republican Party may be a socially conservative party today. But it wasn’t always. When it was founded in 1851 – right here in the Empire State – it was a radical party in its insistence on equal rights for all Americans.  The “Black Republicans”, as they were disparagingly called for opposing the spread of slavery into the Western territories,  arose from a revolutionary and deeply unpopular notion: freedom belongs to every American, not just white Americans. Conventions of the time be damned.

That powerful idea was kindled in New England over two decades, but it was institutionalized in New York, where abolitionists and others joined forces to form what is now the Grand Old Party (GOP).  It is a tragic irony, then, that the GOP is clinging to survival today in the very state where it first caught fire – and where the chief social issue of the day again involves equality under the law.

Many Republicans hold deep philosophic opposition to same-sex marriage, but it is fair to question whether they are Republicans or conservatives first. Indeed, the critical question Republican state legislators must ask themselves when considering gay marriage legislation this year:  Am I of the Party of Lincoln or the party of Nixon’s Southern Strategy?

Conservative Party opposition to gay marriage is consistent and understandable. Social conservatives believe that the wisdom of the ages, honed over centuries of experience, provides the most reliable personal and societal guides. Marriage and family — the traditional family unit — is at its core. It is the keystone of the Western cultural structure. Same-sex marriage threatens that construction in that it has not been parsed by time.

Adding to conservative discomfort, is the alacrity with which the gay marriage movement has progressed.  The notion of gay marriage seemed preposterous, even in ultra-liberal New York City, just over a decade ago when a City Council bill to extend benefits to the gay partners of government employees was considered controversial. Today, beauty queen pageant contestants come under attack for uttering rote support for one of the world’s longest-held traditions.

Republicans and conservatives are allies on so many fronts.  They agree that big government and high taxation limit individual freedom and initiative. They believe in personal, rather than collective, responsibility. They agree on market-based solutions to problems, and that military preparedness is the best way to avoid big wars. They are staunch political allies and will remain so. But the two parties are fraternal, not identical twins. They cannot agree on everything, and I would submit that gay marriage is a major issue on which they would logically diverge.

The Republican Party of 1851 — at least the post-Emancipation-Proclamation one of 1863 — was willing to upend long-held social norms of the time for its ideals (and, admittedly, for military advantage.)  It will be interesting to see if vestiges of that party remain in its founding state 150 years later.

I know countless rock-ribbed New York Republicans at all rungs of the Party ladder who agree with me on this.  But our opinions are shared in hushed tones on the rubber-chicken dinner circuit.  That’s not good enough anymore.  There is a close vote coming up in the state senate on a core Republican principal, and it’s time to come out of the closet and be counted. Our party’s founders would expect nothing less.

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  1. […] of this puzzle look to be fitting together nicely. Whether you  agree with gay marriage or not – I do – you have to tip your cap to a campaign well run.  There is nothing clumsy about this one. […]

  2. […] These are people I respect, and their opposition to gay marriage instinctively gives me pause. It makes me want to check and re-check my math.  But I have, over and over again, and each time I come to the same conclusion:  civil marriage is an equal-rights-under-the-law issue. Republicans should support it. Equals rights under the law is the philosophical doctrine on which the GOP was founded. Remember the “Black Republicans”? […]

  3. […] I have actively supported same sex marriage for years — even in the 1990′s. I have written about it on this blog countless times and I have privately argued in its favor in the deep, dark recesses […]

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