Once, Ky. Republicans were the progressives

Berry Craig
Berry Craig

They were proud members of a liberal minority in the most conservative corner of Kentucky.

Undaunted, the little band quietly gathered in Paducah. They passed resolutions endorsing strong federal civil rights activism. “Universal liberty is indispensable to republican government,” they declared.

They recognized “the supremacy of the national constitution and laws” over state laws. “The States are not absolutely sovereign,” they maintained. Washington was.

These liberals were Republicans — delegates to the May, 1865, First Congressional District party convention.

Paducah is the main town in the Jackson Purchase region, which is as far west as Kentucky goes. Dubbed the “South Carolina of Kentucky,” the Purchase was the state’s only Confederate-majority territory in the Civil War, which began in 1861 and ended in 1865.

Purchase Republicans were a much despised minority. They were about as rare in the region as liberal Democrats are today.

From Paducah to Pikeville, liberals are virtually extinct in the Bluegrass State GOP. But a century and a half ago, Republicans leaned liberal on civil rights. Some of them even had a kind word or two for labor unions and championed the strict separation of church and state.

Though whites ran the party, the postwar GOP was biracial. Many African-Americans supported the party of “Lincoln and Liberty.”

The Democrats of 1865 also went by “Conservatives” or the “Southern Rights Party,” the latter the name of Kentucky’s pro-Confederate party during the war, according to A New History of Kentucky by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter.

The Democrats were the party of white supremacy. Many of them had donned Rebel gray, especially in the Purchase.

“For years after the Civil War, a candidate for political office in our part of Kentucky who had not had at least one limb shot off while fighting for the Confederacy might as well have whistled down a rain barrel,” Graves County-born Vice President Alben Barkley of Paducah declared in That Reminds Me, his 1954 autobiography.

Almost all Democrats hated to see slavery go. Democratic-majority sessions of the General Assembly refused to ratify all three Reconstruction-era constitutional amendments — the 13th, which ended slavery (1865); the 14th, which made African Americans citizens (1868); and the 15th, which enabled African-American men to vote (1870).

Nearly every Bluegrass state Republican backed the GOP-championed amendments. The First District Republican gathering approved other resolutions that reflected the party’s liberal stand for federalism and against “states’ rights,” the old code words whites used in defense of slavery and, later, Jim Crow segregation.

The Western Kentucky Republicans were all in for the 13th Amendment, resolving that Dixie’s peculiar institution should “be utterly and forever destroyed.”

The delegates met again in June and dutifully nominated C.D. Bradley of Cadiz for Congress. The Democrats went with Lawrence Trimble of Paducah, a conservative Union man turned apologist for slavery and secession.

On Aug. 7, Trimble beat Bradley 5,749 to 3,542.

In the 1860s, Democrats like Trimble rebuked Republicans as beyond liberal, reproaching them 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), Harrison and Klotter wrote.

Democrats declared that the Republican ultra-liberals “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.

Duane Bolin and Brian Clardy, history professors at Murray State University, agree that today’s Republican and Democratic parties bear almost no resemblance to their postbellum antecedents.

“The Republicans were the progressives then,” Bolin said. “The Democrats wanted to maintain the status quo.”

The Democrats have evolved 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 and inclusion,” Clardy said.

He said the GOP is largely what the Democrats used to be: the conservative white people’s party. (Republican Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton is African-American, but she is a Tea Party conservative.)

Clardy doesn’t mince words. “The party of Lincoln has become the party of Jefferson Davis and George Wallace,” he said.

Berry Craig, a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah, is the author of “Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase.”