It has long been a claim of conservatives arguing against charges of racism that "the KKK was Democrat". And, apparently building on this throw away claim, inspired by Dinesh D'Souza's recent film, the claim has now arisen that Democrats have always been the party of racism, all the way back. Now, in a sense, I suppose one could make this claim, but it is based upon very dubious historical approaches, and, even if it were true, it really means nothing. After all, what does it tell us about modern Democrats that various members were once segregationists? (For that matter a number of Dixiecrats are now Republicans, does that prove the GOP is racist?) However, before going into the reasons why this claim is meaningless, as someone who once wanted to teach history, let me point out why this historical claim is so absurd*.
First, let us look at the reality of antebellum politics. By the early 1800s, the US party system had settled into a fairly stable two party system. The Democrats were the party of small, decentralized government an state sovereignty. By extension it was opposed to central banking, protective tariffs and trade regulation. And, since slavery was allowed by some states and not others, it also appealed to slave states. On the other hand, the Whigs (and later Republicans) were the party of centralized, powerful government. It also was the party of soft money, of protectionists, of trade subsidies, and, because the Democrats were the party of the south, it became the abolitionist party.
However, this does not tell the whole story. The western Democrats and their small northeastern contingent often contained abolitionist elements. Thus, it is a bit absurd to claim the Democrats were the party of slavery. Yes, the slave owners were almost entirely Democrats, but not all Democrats were pro-slavery. Also, if we look at the northeastern Whigs and Republicans, the party contained a fair number of merchants who traded in slaves (to the degree it was allowed), and others who either supported slaver, were ambivalent about the issue, or thought the freeing of slaves not worth the cost**, so obviously it was not a consistent moral principle for everyone. Slavery, in truth, cut across party lines. It was why there were a number of races where third parties made a fair showing, or a single party ran more than one candidate. Slavery was an issue which cut across party lines.
Now, let us look at the post-war era. Here is where the claim "the KKK was Democrat" comes into play. Granted, the KKK was Democrat, but that was largely because it was southern. Most KKK members in the south were Democrat. So were most teachers, most ministers, most chefs, most cotton growers, most poor people, most everyone. The south remained solidly Democrat until the 1980s or thereabout. So it only makes sense a southern movement (be it the KKK or Dixiecrats) would be Democrat. It is akin to looking at Nazis and blaming it on Lutheranism. Of course all Nazis were German, and Germans were predominantly Lutheran.
Nor is the post-war Republican party very appealing. Ever wonder why Irish, Italians, Jews and other are historically Democrat? It was because the Republicans had a strong nativist wing that opposed not only immigrants, such as those mentioned, but also had a lot of hostility toward Catholics and other non-Protestant groups. And, though the KKK is most famous for racism, there were also a number of smaller, less famous groups in the northeast and west opposed to the integration of newly freed blacks, and in the northeast, of necessity, they were predominantly Republican.
I could go on and explain the party shift, how the Democrats went from small government to populism to liberalism and so on, or how the Republicans stopped being the party of protectionism, nativism and big government (until recently, anyway)***, but that does not address the question of race. A point I think I have explained well enough. Yes, by being small government, Democrats appealed to slave owners, on the other hand, by being willing to force states to "do the right thing", the Republicans became abolitionists (and also prohibitionist, moral reformers and trust busters later). But that does not make the Democrats the "party of racism" any more than the nativist, anti-Catholic history makes Republicans the "party of intolerance".
And, in the long run, none of it should matter anyway. I offered up all the preceding as I cannot stand bad history, but the truth is, even if the Democrats had an unbroken history of racism, it says nothing of modern Democrats. Does the current Republican party represent the protectionist view of the 19th century? Or the Democrat the free market views of the same period? No, what matters are the actions and beliefs of the present party, and calling them "historically racist", referring to past actions, but not the present members, is largely meaningless. History can sometimes help understand where ideas originated, but they do not prove the present party will inevitably act in certain ways.
Well, I have done my good deed for the day, debunking a myth of a party with which I disagree. But, since I can't stand bad history or absurd claims, I could not do otherwise.
* I discussed this to some extent in "Noble Goals".
** Recall there were draft riots in New York City , Boston and elsewhere, so obviously there were a fair number of northerners who felt freeing slaves was not worth the cost of the war. (I would include Baltimore, which earned the nickname "mobtown" in this era, but Maryland was a slave state, and Democrat, so it does not prove much.)
*** See "The Trump Plan", "The Problem With the Big Tent", "What Does Not Kill You..." and "Trump, Obama, Cults and Authoritarianism".
For those curious about my view on the history of the parties in the US, see "A Timeline Part One" ,"A Timeline Part Two", "A Timeline Part Three", "The Political Spectrum", "Mistaken Perceptions of the Industrial Age", "Four Elections", "A Passing Thought", "The Best Historical Example", "Ordered Liberty and Our Modern Mindset", "Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution" and "Rethinking the Scopes Trial".