The following column by Joe Wilkins appeared July 18, 2016 in The Gazette of Middle Township (NJ). It is reprinted here with his permission.
Philadelphia Republican Congressman William D. Kelley has been dead these last 126 years. Burial services will be held this week in Cleveland. Not, you understand, of his mortal remains, but of the impassioned ideals that led him to help found the Republican Party in Ripon, Wisconsin In 1856.
Congressman Kelley won the incongruous nickname "Pig Iron" for his single-minded dedication to high import duties on imported pig iron, thus protecting the manufacturers of pig iron in his Philadelphia district who jacked up their prices until they bumped up against the prices of their foreign competition. Kelley's long seniority in the House gave him the clout to deliver high enough tariffs on pig iron to assure his regular reelection — a pro-business constituent service that would do a modern day Republican congressman proud.
What made Kelley so memorable, aside from his colorful nickname and his sublime confidence that the best treatment for his throat cancer was opium washed down by champagne, was his passionate objection to slavery. A lifelong abolitionist, he hated slavery and its effects. Although nominally a Democrat at the time, he journeyed to Ripon to join with the many northern Congressmen who decided the time had come to form a new political party in opposition to the expansion of slavery. It was, in fact, Kelley who headed the delegation sent from the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago to Springfield to officially inform Lincoln of his nomination for the Presidency. "At last we'll have a President with whom I can see eye to eye," the 6'4" Kelley joked, prompting a chuckle from the equally tall Lincoln.
Kelley was no fair-weather abolitionist. Acting with the courage of his convictions he traveled the South long before the Civil War, risking assassination by giving speech after speech opposing slavery. During the War he argued strongly and successfully for permitting freed slaves to fight for the Union. After Appomattox and throughout the years of Reconstruction he returned to speaking throughout the old Confederacy, pushing for equal civil rights for the freed slaves.
He was a brave man who lived a political life of strong Republican beliefs. When he died in January of 1890 his colleagues granted him the honor of lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
I am sorry to report the Republican Party no longer honors the Republican values championed by Congressman Kelley. Nor those of President Lincoln. Nor even those of President Theodore Roosevelt. The Party they founded and maintained on the highest moral ground is meeting in Cleveland this week, determined to drive a stake through their heritage and bury what's left of their Party's founding and sustaining passion for social progress and justice. They will bury that spirit as deep as their shovels can dig.
For nearly seventy years after the Civil War ended, advocates for social justice counted on the moral authority of the Republican Party to advance the cause of social justice and progress.
When the horrendous damage slavery had done to millions of black people was realized in the aftermath of the Civil War, it was a Republican Congress that established the Freedman's Bureau and Howard University. When the unrestrained greed of great corporations threatened the economic health of the nation during the Gilded Age it was a Republican Congress that granted Teddy Roosevelt the Trust-Busting laws and powers he needed to chain those monsters. When the brutal conditions of child labor had children as young as six working long days in dangerous factories it was the Progressive Republicans who took up their cause. When Republican President Theodore Roosevelt set up our great systems of National Parks and National Forests and set aside millions of acres to be protected from ruinous exploitation by mindless profiteers it was Progressive Republicans that backed him
But no more. This week amid thundering cheers the Republican Party will nominate Donald Trump as today's successor to President Lincoln. They will approve a platform expressly disapproving the leading efforts to eliminate social injustice. They are calling for the elimination of our national parks and national forests system; they will oppose all efforts to provide freedom of choice to American women. They will fight to the last bullet any attempt at reasonable gun control. Where once young men could wear their Republican aspirations as a badge of honor, today's young men and women will come in future years to see them as a badge of shame. Neither "Old Pig Iron" Kelley nor his friend Abraham Lincoln, nor even Teddy Roosevelt, would want to know them.
Too few of us trace the roots or understand the consequences of political causes these days. For those well-intentioned Republicans wanting to know what happened to their party, there are three good books worth reading. I recommend Professor Lewis Gould's classic "The Republicans: A History of the Grand Old Party," " The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy," by Mike Lofgren, and "Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right" by Jane Mayer.
Reading them won't bring Kelley's GOP back, but at least you will learn what killed it.
Editor's Note: Joe Wilkins is the author of three books, including "Kennedy's Recruit," "The Speaker Who Locked Up The House" and "The Skin Game And Other Atlantic City Capers." All are available on Amazon's Kindle.