Up Salt River

In the nineteenth century, it was a dreaded destination, a fabled place where presidential candidates found themselves fighting for their lives.  It was Salt River, a tantalizing, semi-mythical waterway whose treacherous shoals were known to be the ruination of great leaders and their parties.

As the election season advances, do we not owe it to history to contemplate the legions who have met with disaster on this journey?

Cartoon showing Zachary Taylor rowing his opponent Lewis Cass up Salt River

Salt River was, to begin with, a real place: a small, winding tributary of the Ohio River originating in the wilds of Kentucky.  Before railroads, the Ohio was the main cross-country route for reaching the eastern cities.  To go up Salt River was to leave a broad waterway, which steamboats plied daily carrying hundreds of passengers, and end up in the middle of nowhere on a dead-end stream.

Add in the fact that the state of Ohio was even then known as a “king-maker,” and you can understand how the Salt River became synonymous with political oblivion.  Judging from these old prints preserved at the Library of Congress, political cartoonists had a field day with this theme.  Salt River became the setting for betrayal and folly of all kinds.  Above, we see Whig presidential candidate Zachary Taylor rowing his Democratic opponent Lewis Cass up Salt River.  The expression on Cass’s face shows that he knows what fate awaits him.  He is resigned.

Political cartoon showing Martin Van Buren and others attempting to cross Salt River

Here, presidential candidates of 1848 attempt to cross Salt River to reach the White House.  Martin Van Buren (who often figures in these Salt River fantasies) is shown piggybacking on the shoulders of his son, John, a popular figure whom many expected to equal his father in fame one day.  And the other men, submerged and in danger of drowning?  These are Van Buren’s rivals, including Horace Greeley.  On the bank sits a Greeley ally, who declines to save him.

Cartoon showing James Polk and his Democratic allies sailing up Salt River

This 1844 cartoon shows candidate James Polk and his Democratic Party allies.  Polk was a dark-horse candidate who many sensed would cause trouble for his party. (They were right.)  Perched on the edge of a dingy that a steamboat is towing, he towers over his party’s elders, who are oblivious to the disaster looming.  They believe that they are still on the Ohio.  Polk, knowing the truth, isn’t worried.  Equipped with the body of a long-legged wading bird, he’s perfectly capable of reaching safety.  Alone.  While Van Buren blithely expresses delight at being near “the headwaters of navigation,” Polk, noting the water growing shallow, prepares to take off.

At times, Salt River could become positively crowded with victims, as in 1854, when the Democrats routed the Whig Party, a defeat that spelled an end to the party for good.  Here, the Democrats drive their Whig opponents into the briny river with malicious glee.

Looks like fun, doesn’t it?  Salt River, anyone?

Cartoon map of Salt River showing its hazards and un-navigability(Courtesy Library of Congress))


All images courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division
of the Library of Congress

(top to bottom):
Rowing Him Up Salt River (1848)
Fording Salt River (1848)
Polk & Co. Going Up Salt River (1844)
Terrible Rout & Total Destruction of the Whig Party in Salt River (1852)
A Correct Chart of Salt River (1848)
Click on any title for more information.

Is the Republican Party Dying?

The question is in the air, so why not ask it?

I think the answer is no.  But the question is out there because the Republican party is badly divided, in a way that many of us have never seen.  As a historian, I think that maybe this is what a party looks like when it’s beginning to go.  Like long ago when the once all-powerful Federalists petered out and ceased to matter nationally (circa 1820); or when the high-minded Whig Party gave up the ghost, startlingly soon after getting Zachary Taylor into the White House (circa 1850).  Or when the Democratic Party split in two on the eve of the Civil War, its members suddenly riven over slavery.

Parties do die, of course; but no major party has died in a very long time.  Our 20th-century parties are much hardier and more redoubtable institutions than were their counterparts 150 years ago.  That, in itself, is an argument against the Republican Party disappearing.

The GOP has a big problem, though.  Its conservative wing is weakening the party, in the sense of compromising its appeal to moderates.  This is something I’ve written about several times.  Over the past five years, the GOP establishment made a couple of costly mistakes, as when John McCain chose his “game-changing” running-mate, or when the Republican leadership decided to embrace the uncompromising Tea Partiers rather than cut them loose.  Had the Tea Party been treated as a distinct third party, the limits of its appeal would have become evident, and by now it would have been dead.  Instead, in the aftermath of the mid-term elections, congressional Republicans like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner proclaimed that there was no difference between themselves and the Tea Party, with the consequence that the Republicans have become the party of ‘No.’

It’s a problem the party itself could solve, and perhaps it will.  It could enforce some kind of ideological discipline through the instrument of the party platform or disavow some of its members who, in their fervor, have assailed some of the country’s most sacred national principles, such as the separation of church and state or the independence of the judiciary.  These are not creations of a particular party; they are features of our Constitution that the Founding Fathers labored to establish and that we have a duty to take seriously, and even revere.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that spatial and social segregation is a factor perpetuating the moderate-conservative divide.  Remember those maps Richard Florida did a few years ago, showing that people of higher education and means were becoming geographically concentrated in particular areas of the US, along the coasts, and near cities?  This type of migration, along with increased social stratification, has produced a country where people of different types no longer live together or interact as they did formerly.  The social relationships so fostered were politically moderating.  Instead, we see the demographic divide being replicated in the results of recent Republican primaries, resulting in a protracted struggle between Mitt Romney and his conservative-backed rivals.

Going forward, this balkanization will assure the conservatives of continued strength in Congressional races, governorships, and state legislatures.  Whether this mix of conditions will serve the Republican Party as a whole well in the years ahead remains to be seen.

RELATED AND NEWER:
Susan Barsy, The Incredible Shrinking GOP, Our Polity, November 2012.
Ryan Lizza, “Can The GOP Save Itself?“, The New Yorker, March 2012.

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