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Vice President Mike Pence made another desperate campaign swing through the battleground state of Wisconsin in July, hoping to revive the flagging fortunes of the Republican Party that he and President Trump have turned into a vehicle for racism, xenophobia, economic inequality, and a rejection of science that currently endangers all Americans.
In an attempt to reconnect with the better angels of Republicanism, Pence traveled to the college town of Ripon, where the party was founded in 1854.
There, with his now-familiar aplomb, the vice president offered a false narrative that was at odds with not just contemporary reality but American history.
“The American people have a choice to make. And the choice has never been clearer and the stakes have never been higher,” announced the vice president in what was billed as a major address on July 17. “I came here to the city of Ripon, Wisconsin, where the Republican Party was born, to describe that choice.”
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Speaking in a time of mass unemployment, layoffs, scorching income inequality, and painful losses of incomes and livelihoods for working farmers and small-business owners, Pence declared, “Our economic recovery is on the ballot, but also are things far more fundamental and foundational to our country.”
If the “economic recovery” as it presently stands were the only thing on the ballot, Trump and Pence would be headed for overwhelming defeat.
That may explain why the vice president chose to emphasize what he referred to as his “far more fundamental and foundational” concerns.
Unfortunately for Pence, he got tripped up by ignorance of his own party’s history.
“Like those first Republicans,” he chirped, “we stand at a crossroads of freedom. Before us are two paths: one based on the dignity of every individual, and the other on the growing control of the state. Our road leads to greater freedom and opportunity. Their road leads to socialism and decline.”
Pence was trying to suggest that “Joe Biden would set America on a path of socialism and decline”—which, if you know anything about the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s record, is absurd. Biden beat this year’s democratic socialist prospect, Bernie Sanders, for the nomination. It’s true that the former vice president and the senator from Vermont have found some common ground, but Pence’s attempt to portray Biden as a political pushover who has “capitulated to the radical left-wing mob” was an epic rewrite of reality.
Even more epic was the rewrite of history that the vice president attempted when he suggested that he and Trump are “like those first Republicans.”
The first Republicans were radicals, who sought to upend the politics of the country at a time when the existing parties were capitulating to the demands of Southern slaveholders and their political patrons.
If you visit the Little White Schoolhouse in Ripon, which is emblazoned with the words “Birthplace of the Republican Party,” you will be introduced to the story of how Alvan Earle Bovay “called a meeting of 53 voters…to form a new party.” The historical record tells us that the meeting was organized “to protest the Senate’s passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which permitted the extension of slavery beyond the limits of the Missouri Compromise. The protest resulted in the formation of a new, albeit local party, drawn from the ranks of disgruntled Whigs, Free Soilers, and Democrats.”
Among those initial petitioners were a number of people like Jacob Woodruff, who moved to the Ripon area as “a member of the Wisconsin Phalanx.” And Hiram S. Town, who “joined the Wisconsin Phalanx in 1846.” And Robert Mason, who is recalled for “joining the Wisconsin Phalanx.” And William Dunham, “one of the incorporators of the Wisconsin Phalanx,” who served as a moderator of the first of the meetings that gave rise to the Republican Party.
What was the Wisconsin Phalanx? The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, an independent federal agency that advises the president and Congress on national historic preservation policy, describes it as “an experimental socialist community” that was established on the edge of what is now Ripon in the community of Ceresco. It was founded by followers of Charles Fourier, the French philosopher who was one of the founders of utopian socialism. Fourier’s ideas were popularized in the United States by Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, which for a number of years employed Karl Marx as its European correspondent.
Bovay, a friend and associate of Greeley, had moved to Ripon a few years before he called the 1854 meeting. A veteran organizer who had led militant movements for land reform—with the slogan “Vote Yourself a Farm”—Bovay had long advocated for the formation of an independent political movement with the purpose of gaining control of legislatures and the Congress in order to enact radical reforms.
At Bovay’s urging, Greeley popularized the new party, which drew in partisans from many political camps who were united in their opposition to the spread of slavery. Among the first Republicans were many allies and associates of socialist causes, including Joseph Weydemeyer, a former Prussian Army officer who would continue to correspond with Marx as he rose through the ranks as a military officer during the Civil War.
Decades after the founding of the new party, the great trade unionist and Socialist Party leader Eugene Victor Debs would reflect on this history in his speeches. Though he dismissed both major parties of the early 20th century as “wings of the same bird of prey,” Debs allowed as how “the Republican Party was once red.”
There may have been a measure of hyperbole in that remark. But the fact is that the Republican Party that was founded in Ripon included plenty of people whose familiarity with radical ideas would alarm Mike Pence.