By Amitabh Pal on October 14, 2013

Over the past weekend, I undertook a pilgrimage of sorts: I visited the birthplace of the Republican Party. It's in Ripon, Wisconsin, about 90 minutes northeast of Madison.

There is a night-and-day difference between the Republican Party at its founding in 1854 and the party today.

"The birth of the Republican Party brought a dedicated following of individuals together who pledged to organize and fight against the spread of slavery," states the website of the Little White Schoolhouse, where it all began. "At the time, a young lawyer named Alvan E. Bovay was living in Ripon. ... He urged the formation of a new party that would bring together all the anti-slavery forces in the country." A booklet available at the site adds further context.

The little, white schoolhouse where the Republican Party was born.

Amitabh Pal at the GOP's birthplace.

The schoolhouse is "also a monument to the extremely important public school movement in America, a movement that contributed strongly to the success of democracy in our nation," writes William J. Woolley for the Ripon Historical Society. "The most famous element of the movement was the 'Abolitionist' crusade to end slavery. But reformers were also keenly interested in social issues such as temperance and women's rights as well as religious reform."

What a contrast to today's party members, with their active hostility to concepts such as public education and women's rights.

And speaking of booklets, the one that really surprised me was a kids' pamphlet for sale on Robert La Follette, the founder of The Progressive. (I immediately bought one each for my two daughters.) In addition to that, there was a bust of La Follette prominently on display behind the sales counter. It's hard to imagine, but La Follette was a Republican for a good part of his political life.

The cover of a children's booklet about Robert La Follette, distributed by the schoolhouse where the GOP was founded.

La Follette, Abraham Lincoln, and other early Republican stalwarts would be totally out of place in the party today. (The GOP today would drum out someone with the views of their most famous member, who once said: "Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.")

Instead, the party currently "is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe," in the words of former GOP congressional staffer Mike Lofgren.

The current showdown is a manifestation of this mindset. And for those who have a "pox on both houses" approach for the Washington impasse, this observation by the conservative thinker Norman Ornstein and liberal scholar Thomas Mann in a recent book should be instructive: "The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

Over the same weekend as my visit to Ripon, the rightwing of today's Republican Party participated in an invective-filled and racially charged rally. It was headlined by poseurs like Senator Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin and was organized to protest the closing of World War II monuments that the party itself caused.

What a contrast to the abolitionists who gathered together in 1854 at the Little White Schoolhouse to give birth to a new organization. It's no wonder that the current-day GOP has little use for this historic landmark.

"By the 1970s, the Republican Party began to lose interest in the Schoolhouse," Woolley writes in his history of the monument. "In 2004, Ripon celebrated the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Republican Party, but this time neither the national nor the state Republican Parties took any active role in the celebration."

Perhaps the difference between the party then and its current incarnation was too embarrassing for the leadership.

Photo: Flickr user cometstarmoon, creative commons licensed.

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Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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