Republicans and the Relics of Barbarism

Here are a few excerpts from Robert George’s comments as he was presented the Alliance Defense Fund’s Edwin Meese Award at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, DC, on Oct. 26, 2011:

In the middle of the 19th century, a new political party emerged dedicated to two great moral struggles. The Republican Party pledged in its original platform to fight the “twin relics of barbarism”: slavery and polygamy.

By then, slavery was deeply entrenched in the culture of the American south. What some had regarded as a “necessary evil” that would gradually die out, had been given a new lease on life by technological developments and the emergence of profitable overseas markets for cotton. An entire social and economic system was built on slavery. No longer was it reasonable to hope that the “peculiar institution,” and with it the moral controversy convulsing the nation, would quietly fade away. Powerful interests had a stake, not only in maintaining the slave system, but in extending it into the western territories of the United States.

So the Republicans faced a daunting challenge. Pro-slavery Democrats condemned them as “fanatics” and “zealots” who sought to impose their religious scruples and moral values on others. Slaveholders demanded that they “mind their own business” and stay out of the “domestic” and “private” affairs of others. Defenders of the “right” to own slaves pointedly invited northern abolitionists to redirect their moral outrage towards the “wage slave” system in the industrial north. “If you are against slavery,” they in effect said, “then don’t own a slave.”

By the mid-1850s, polygamy, which had originally been the largely secret practice of the Mormon elite, had come out of the closet. Of course, the LDS Church has long since forbidden the practice of polygamy and is today nobly in the forefront of defending marriage as the permanent and exclusive union of one man and one woman. No religious community deserves higher praise for its defense of marriage and the family. But polygamists of the time, like renegade polygamists of today, claimed that attacks on “plural marriage” were violations of their right to religious freedom. Some would bring lawsuits (as some are doing again today) asking judges to invalidate laws against polygamy as unconstitutional. One of these cases would make it all the way to the Supreme Court. Apologists for polygamy denied that plural marriage was harmful to children, and challenged supporters of the ban on polygamy to prove that the existence of polygamous families in American society harmed their own monogamous marriages. They insisted that they merely wanted the right to be married in their own way and left alone.

But the Republicans stood their ground, refusing to be intimidated by the invective being hurled against them. They knew that polygamy and slavery were morally wrong and socially corrosive. And they were prepared to act on their moral convictions.


In the great moral struggles of the 19th century, the Republicans sought advantage in every morally legitimate and available way. Where appropriate, they would accept strategic compromises on the road to victory; but they resolutely refused to compromise away their principles.


Still, some Republicans will propose abandoning, or at least soft-pedaling, the Party’s commitments to the sanctity of human life and the dignity of marriage and the family. They will say that social issues are “too divisive.” They will suggest that the easy road to Republican electoral success is as the party of low taxes and low morals. They will counsel capitulation to judges who usurp the authority of the American people and their elected representatives.Let Republicans be mindful of their heritage. It was moral conviction—and the courage to act on moral conviction—that gave birth to the Republican Party and made it grand. Now it is old, but need not be any less grand. By summoning the moral courage that enabled the Party to stand proudly against the twin relics of barbarism in the 19th century, Republicans can bring honor upon themselves in the great moral struggles of our own day.

Click here to read his entire remarks.