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They were a powerless liberal minority in western Kentucky, the state’s most conservative section.
Shunned by friends and even by some family members, they were scorned as “reds” and “radicals.”
Undaunted, they gathered in Paducah and passed resolutions endorsing their national party’s support for racial equality under the federal constitution. “Universal liberty is indispensable to republican government,” they declared, according to the unsympathetic Paducah Herald.
The little band of liberals also rejected the notion of “states’ rights,” arguing instead for “the supremacy of the national constitution and laws.” These liberals were Republicans — delegates to the May 8, 1865, First Congressional District party convention.
Today’s Republican and Democratic parties in Kentucky and elsewhere bear no resemblance to their postbellum antecedents, according to Murray State University historian Brian Clardy. “It’s a complete reversal. The Democratic party was the party of slavery and segregation. The Republican party has become the party of white grievance politics. Abraham Lincoln would be ashamed of what’s become of his party.”
The anti-slavery Abraham Lincoln, a native of slave-state Kentucky, was the first Republican president. When he sought the White House in 1860, he got just 17 votes in the First District and only 1,364 votes statewide, according to Presidential Politics in Kentucky 1824-1948 by Jasper B. Shannon and Ruth McQuown. Donald Trump, the last Republican president, won the district and the rest of the state in blowouts both times he ran.
Conservative white Democrats ruled the post-Civil War roost in western Kentucky and most other parts of the state. Kentucky was part of the white supremacist Democratic “Solid South.”
In 1865, the First District took in the state’s 14 westernmost counties. The Civil War had just ended when the Republicans gathered in erstwhile Confederate Paducah, dubbed “the Charleston of Kentucky.”
The Herald explained that “owing to the disturbed condition of the country,” only delegates from Ballard, Calloway, Graves, Lyon and McCracken counties were present.
The conclave passed a resolution praising Rep. Lucian Anderson of Mayfield—one of only four Kentucky congressmen who voted for the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery. First District Unionists elected Anderson in 1863; known Confederate soldiers, guerrillas and rebel sympathizers were disenfranchised as traitors.
Knowing he couldn’t be reelected when voting restrictions were lifted, he opted against another term. The convention nominated C.D. Bradley of Cadiz, who lost to white supremacist Democrat Lawrence Trimble of Paducah in the Aug. 7 election, 5,749 to 3,542. Enemy soldiers, guerrillas and supporters still couldn't legally cast ballots. (When they could vote in 1867, Trimble routed Republican G.G. Symes, also of Paducah, 9,787 to 1,780.)
These days, Confederate flags fly often in tandem with Trump flags. The GOP often calls itself the party of “states’ rights;” some Republicans talk like outright Confederate apologists. But the Paducah convention-goers endorsed “the suppression of the rebellion" and the punishment of treason, the Herald reported.
The Confederacy had been founded on the twin pillars of slavery and white supremacy. The First District's Republicans agreed that human bondage should “be utterly and forever destroyed,” declaring “it becomes us as wise men to provide for the removal of the remains of the institution from our midst, so that its place may be filled by compensated labor.”
In the 1860s, Democrats often rebuked Republicans as “Red Republicans, Radicals, Radical Abolitionists or Jacobins” (the latter the name of the French revolutionaries who ushered in the guillotine and the Reign of Terror), Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter wrote in their book, “A New History of Kentucky.” (Currently, Republicans commonly slam Democrats as "radical, left-wing socialists" and even "communists.")
Late nineteenth-century Democrats said that Republicans leaned toward anarchy and “wanted black suffrage, even racial equality, and would support any actions, constitutional or otherwise, to destroy the rights of white southerners and to promote black privilege,” the authors added.
The modern GOP is overwhelmingly white. Though whites ran the Kentucky GOP in the decades after the Civil War, the party was biracial. Many African Americans supported that party of “Lincoln and Liberty.” The postwar Democrats never missed a chance to play the race card, pandering to white voters who hated to see slavery go.
Kentucky and Delaware were the last states to give up slavery. The Democratic majority legislatures of both states refused to ratify the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery; the 14th Amendment, which made African Americans citizens; and the 15th Amendment, which extended the vote to Black men. (The two states symbolically ratified the amendments in the 20th century.)
“The Democrats have gone from a party that stood for states’ rights and believed in the political and legal inferiority of people of color to the party of Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, diversity and inclusion,” Clardy said. “The Republicans have become the party of Donald Trump and bigotry. The GOP looks more like the party of Jefferson Davis than of Abraham Lincoln.”
Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of several books on Kentucky history including Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2020.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Why Republicans were once rare and reviled as 'radicals' in western KY