Why We Have to Wave the ‘Bloody Shirt’ of Jan. 6
Policy is rational. Politics are not. It takes a story to move voters, an emotional connection that tells them something about themselves and the world in which they live or, alternately, the world in which they would like to live.
Without a story to tell — without a way to make the issues of an election speak to the values of an electorate — even strong candidates with popular policies can fall flat. And the reverse is also true: A divisive figure with unpopular beliefs can go far if he or she can tell the right kind of story to the right number of people.
It’s tempting to treat this reality as evidence of decline, as a sign that in the 21st century we are much less sophisticated than our forebears in democracy and self-government. Somehow, we imagine that the politics of the past were more civil, more genteel, more rational. But they weren’t. Politics have always been about passion, and the most successful parties in our history have always used that to their advantage.
The Republican Party, in the wake of the Civil War, was not as politically secure as one might think. It won, in 1860, with a minority of the popular vote and needed a unity ticket — with the Tennessee Democratic unionist and slaveholder Andrew Johnson as vice president — to win in 1864. Republicans did win a majority in Congress that year, but only because the South did not take part in the election.
For the first two elections after Appomattox, Republicans held their majorities, winning comfortable margins in 1866 and 1868 (and also excluding former rebels from Congress). But Democrats would soon begin to catch up. Although still in the minority, the party ultimately gained 37 seats in the House of Representatives in the 1870 midterm elections (when the House was just over half the size it is today).
Anxious to retain power in Washington, Republicans took every opportunity to pin the late rebellion on their Democratic opponents, north and south. None of it was subtle.
Supporters of Ulysses S. Grant in the 1868 presidential election, for example, urged Unionists to “Vote as you shot.” Likewise, in a speech for Grant, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, referring to violence against Republicans and freed Blacks in the states of the former Confederacy, attacked the Democratic nominee, Horatio Seymour, a former governor of New York, as “emphatically the leader of the new rebellion as Robert E. Lee was of the old.”
Throughout that race, which ended in a modest victory for Grant as far as the popular vote went, Republicans invoked the memory of the war as a cudgel against their Democratic opponents. They did it again, in 1870, to repel the Democratic advance I mentioned, but also to help resolve emerging tensions within the party. Republicans might disagree on questions of patronage and economic policy; they could still agree, at this point at least, that the South must stay defeated.
Democrats, and conservative white Southerners in particular, would come to call this the “bloody shirt” strategy, after an apocryphal story in which Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts used the bloodied shirt of a wounded soldier in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. “The phrase was used over and over during the Reconstruction era,” writes Stephen Budiansky in “The Bloody Shirt: Terror after Appomattox”: “It was a staple of the furious and sarcastic editorials that filled Southern newspapers in those days, of the indignant orations by Southern white political leaders who protested that no people had suffered more, been humiliated more, been punished more than they had.”
If the “bloody shirt” enraged Democratic partisans — if the term itself became, as Budiansky writes, “a synonym for any rabble-rousing demagoguery” aimed at “stirring old enmities” — it was because it worked.
The “bloody shirt” helped President Grant win his 1872 race for re-election, as his supporters and surrogates hammered Democrats as recalcitrant rebels. One cartoon, by the great Thomas Nast, depicts the Democratic presidential nominee, Horace Greeley, reaching across a barren field labeled “Andersonville Prison” — the notoriously deadly Confederate prisoner of war camp — while he makes a plea for sectional unity: “Let us clasp hands over the bloody chasm.” The message was clear: A vote for Greeley was a vote for the rebels who starved their captives to death.
The “bloody shirt” shaped the 1876 campaign as well. The Republican nominee, Rutherford B. Hayes, counseled his supporter and surrogate James G. Blaine, then a senator from Maine, to use the tactic as much as possible. “Our strong ground is the dread of a solid South, rebel rule, etc., etc.,” he wrote. “I hope you will make these topics prominent in your speeches. It leads people away from ‘hard times’ which is our deadliest foe.”
For a typical expression of this way of campaigning, look to Benjamin Harrison of Indiana (then a candidate for governor, soon to be president of the United States), speaking on behalf of Hayes and the Republican Party. “For one, I accept the banner of the bloody shirt,” he said to a small crowd of veterans, responding to Democratic complaints that he refused to talk substance. “I am willing to take as our ensign the tattered, worn out old gray shirt, worn by some gallant Union hero; stained with his blood as he gave up his life for his country.”
Hayes’s running mate, Representative William A. Wheeler of New York, even went as far as to urge an audience to “Let your ballots protect the work so effectually done by your bayonets at Gettysburg.”
Republicans kept on “waving the bloody shirt,” kept on tying their candidates to patriotic feeling and memories of the war. It was part of the 1880 campaign on behalf of James Garfield (which he won by a small margin of the popular vote), part of the 1884 race on behalf of Blaine (lost by a small margin), and part of the 1888 effort on behalf of Harrison (who lost the popular vote but won a narrow victory in the Electoral College).
There were, of course, limits to the use of the “bloody shirt” — no rhetorical flourish could overcome, for example, the electoral headwinds from the panic of 1873, which swept Democrats into a House majority the following year — but that is just to say that there are limits to what any form of rhetoric can do in the face of a poor economy and the pendulum swing of American politics.
What is important is that the Republican Party never took for granted that voters would blame the Democratic Party for its role in the rebellion and vote accordingly. Republican politicians had to make salient the public’s memory of, and anger over, the war. And, I should say, they were right to do so. It was right to “wave the bloody shirt” in the wake of a brutal, catastrophic war that according to recent estimates claimed close to a million lives. That we, as modern Americans, learn the phrase as a negative is an astounding coup of postwar Southern propaganda.
The lesson here, for the present, is straightforward. Democrats who want the Republican Party to pay for the events of Jan. 6 — to suffer at the ballot box for their allegiance to Donald Trump — have to tie those events to a language and a narrative that speaks to the fear, anger and anxiety of the public at large. They have to tell a story. And not just once, or twice — they have to do it constantly. It must become a fixture of the party’s rhetorical landscape.
And yet, while emotional appeals can move voters, they cannot work miracles. Even the strongest message can’t turn lead into gold. And there’s no rhetoric that can make up for poor performance on the job. A “bloody shirt” won’t save a party that can’t govern.
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