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In defense of Democrats and FDR's legacy

In defense of Democrats and FDR's legacy
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I find myself morally compelled, with great reluctance, to take issue with commentator Mark Levin. This distresses me because I generally agree with what Levin says about contemporary politics. He is a powerful voice for reason, especially now, as the United States faces a presidency committed to the enactment of the Biden-Sanders program

It is an evil time: A tainted election; a president-elect who may be ethically compromised by his family; a judiciary apparently intimidated by the left; a left-wing national political media; and China extending its influence at will, having just perpetrated what amounts to a devastating bacteriological offensive without it being defined as such by its victims around the world.

In such circumstances, the last thing I would wish is a disagreement with someone who is, in most respects, an eminent member of the “America First” team. But Levin apparently believes the Democratic Party always has been rotten. 

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Levin is right to complain of the hypocrisy of the Jefferson-Madison formula, by which the proposition that “all men are created equal” did not inhibit them as slaveholders; even though Thomas Jefferson saw slavery as a “fire-bell in the night,” it did not cause him to desist from an energetic romantic life with one or more of his female slaves, or to emancipate his slaves in his will as George Washington did. Jefferson, James Madison and Andrew Jackson all sold the South on the theory that Democrats would make the Union work for the South, and sold the North on the theory that only they, the Democrats, could assure that the South did not attempt to secede from the Union.

Levin is right that it was essentially a fraud. But the consequence is that, at its founding, the United States was to some extent a sham. It was outrageous that the new nation proclaimed itself to be the world’s beacon of liberty while implicitly entrenching the rights of slaveholders and granting them the votes of 60 percent of the slave population (who, of course, could not vote) to determine the number of congressmen in slave-holding states, thus making slaveholders the country’s most powerful voters. 

In France, Britain and other countries there already was great agitation against the evident inhumanity of slavery, and partial or total abolition followed in the next 25 years. Civil rights were as far advanced in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Great Britain and most of Scandinavia as they were in the new United States. Yet, as Levin realizes, there was something unique and magical to the founding of the American Republic: It would be the land of opportunity, a republic without a firm class system; a vast, virgin, rich demi-continent beckoning to the world to shed the oppressions and restrictions of the Old World and start life over in a mighty nation that they could help to build.

The Declaration of Independence defamed King George III, arraigning him in virtual Nuremberg Trial terms. He was a decent, if limited, man who had what today would be called “mental health issues.” The British doubled the national debt in the Seven Years (French and Indian) War, and at least half of that debt was incurred expelling the French from Canada at the urgent request of Benjamin Franklin and his countrymen. As the Americans were among the most prosperous British citizens, it was understandable that the British thought the Americans should contribute to the cost of that war. But Britain made the mistake of spending the money before it imposed the tax and then legislating a tax that, as it turned out, was uncollectible. 

It is not quite the righteous idyll presented by American popular history — but it absolutely does not deserve to be reviled as it has been by America’s internal enemies, including in massive “peaceful” protests last summer.

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The Democratic Party of old did swaddle itself in the grandiosity of Jefferson’s prose while truckling to the slaveholding states. But it was a formula that enabled Madison to gain adherence to the Constitution that he largely wrote. This launched the country, which Jackson then kept afloat by threatening violent repression of southern secessionism. His enthusiasm for slavery and his mistreatment of indigenous people, which was condemned by Chief Justice Marshall’s Supreme Court, were odious. Yet, Jackson kept the Union going for another 15 years. As then-Sen. Thomas Hart Benton (D-Mo.) told South Carolina’s incredulous governor: “When Gen. Jackson speaks of hanging, it’s time to look for rope.” 

The compromise of 1850 — cobbled together by the grand old Whigs Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel WebsterDaniel Alan WebsterMellman: A Republican betrayal Bottom line Republican senators and courage MORE of Massachusetts and the era’s leading Democrat, Stephen Douglas of Illinois — kept the Union going for another decade until Abraham Lincoln, in his famous Senate contest with Douglas in 1858, split the Democrats. Starting with Lincoln in 1860, the newly formed Republicans won 11 of the next 13 presidential elections, and 14 of the next 18; Democrat Woodrow Wilson won in 1912 only because William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican Party.

This column was generated by Mark LevinMark Reed LevinDemocrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control Boehner on Bachmann: Right-wing media made 'people who used to be fringe characters into powerful media stars' Boehner says he called Hannity 'a nut' during tense 2015 phone call MORE recently saying, on his Dec. 20 television program, to Sinologist Michael Pillsbury that “FDR was playing footsie with Hitler right up to Pearl Harbor.” Levin ripples with hatred for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Yet, FDR pulled the U.S. ambassador from Berlin after the infamous “Kristallnacht” of 1938; Hitler withdrew his ambassador just before Roosevelt evicted him. Roosevelt loaned Britain 50 destroyers to help cope with German submarines in 1940. He then persuaded Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act — which Winston Churchill called “the most unsordid act in the history of any nation” — giving the British and Canadians anything they needed on relaxed repayment terms and with the U.S. lease of some bases in Newfoundland and the Caribbean. 

On Dec. 29, 1940, Roosevelt famously declared that “no combination of dictators” would prevent America from being “the great arsenal of democracy.” He unilaterally extended American territorial waters from three miles to 1,800 miles, then ordered the U.S. Navy to attack German ships. When FDR and Churchill met in Newfoundland in August 1941, Roosevelt said he would “make war without declaring it” on Germany.

None of this was ”playing footsie” with the Nazis. 

To be a plausible commentator on American politics, Levin should stop defaming the entire history of the Democratic Party and cease his demonization of Roosevelt. Almost alone, FDR and Churchill bore the responsibility for saving Western civilization. There is plenty of room for controversy about the New Deal, which gets a respectable pass as economics but an almost perfect score as catastrophe-avoidance. And FDR was sincere when he told Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, “I am the greatest friend American capitalism has ever had” — because he saved 95 percent of the economic system that collapsed during the Great Depression. 

Mark Levin has piercing insight into the dangers of the present. But he should be more rigorous about America’s past.

Conrad Black is an essayist, former newspaper publisher, and author of ten books, including three on Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine Poll: 30 percent of GOP voters believe Trump will 'likely' be reinstated this year Black Secret Service agent told Trump it was offensive to hold rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth: report MORE. Follow him on Twitter @ConradMBlack.