Scott Walker

Gov. Scott Walker's cowardice in refusing to call out President Donald Trump for his support of white supremacists is an embarrassment to Wisconsin. At the time of the Civil War, Wisconsin's Republican governors made it crystal clear that they stood against the sin of slavery and against the apologists for human bondage. PHOTO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS

Donald Trump sees "many sides" in the clashes between those who worship symbols of the Confederacy and those who are repulsed by them. And Scott Walker thinks he can explain it all away with tepid statements that are designed to avoid offending his president.

But it doesn't work that way in Wisconsin.

When the governor places loyalty to an off-the-rails presidency (and to the advancement of their own careers) ahead of principles and ideals, he break faith with Wisconsin values and Wisconsin history.

That history is bound up with the Republican Party, which was founded in Ripon in 1854. Wisconsin's first Republican governors abandoned other parties as a matter of principle. Such was the intensity of their objection to slavery — and to the warping of American politics by those who were willing to compromise on the most basic premises of liberty and justice — that they had to create a new party to express their passions.

The Wisconsinites who governed the state during the Civil War understood that opposition to the Confederacy — and to the sin of human bondage it represented — was a matter of far more importance than any partisan allegiance. Their moral commitment to the struggle against slavery was righteous in character and epic in scope.

The state's Republican governor in the years leading up to the Civil War, Alexander Randall, entertained the prospect of Wisconsin seceding from the Union if slavery was not abolished. When the war began, Randall raised 18 regiments, 10 artillery batteries, and three cavalry units to join the fight — calling so many Wisconsinites into action that the Union Army's mustering grounds in Madison are to this day known as "Camp Randall."

Randall's Republican successor as governor, Louis Harvey, served as the fighting intensified. In April of 1862, he shared in the shock at reports from the Battle of Shiloh. One of the bloodiest clashes of the Civil War, the Shiloh fighting left 20,000 dead or wounded. Members of the 14th, 16th, and 18th Wisconsin Infantry regiments took some of the hardest hits — one soldier who survived the battle counted 12 bullet holes through his uniform.

Such was Harvey's fierce commitment to the cause that he could not simply issue edicts from the state Capitol. The governor called on the citizens of Wisconsin to donate hospital supplies to care for the wounded. With 90 crates of medicines and bandages from Janesville, Madison and Milwaukee, he headed south to engage in what The New York Times described as "the humane object of ministering to the wounded."

Gov. Harvey's remarkable journey took him to the makeshift hospitals where the Wisconsin troops were being treated. Accounts from the time explained: "It would have moved a heart of stone to witness the interviews between the governor and our wounded heroes. There was something more than formality about these visits, and the men knew it by sure instinct."

When Harvey reached the regions that had seen the bloodiest fighting, it was reported: "The news of the Governor's arrival spread as if by magic, and at every house those who could stand clustered around him, and those who had not raised their heads for days, sat up, their faces aglow with gratitude for the kind looks, and words and acts, which showed the Governor's tender care of them. At times these scenes were so affecting, that even the Governor's self-control failed him, and he could not trust himself to talk."

But Harvey did speak, often, of how the young men from farmsteads and crossroads towns across Wisconsin had not sacrificed in vain. These soldiers from Wisconsin, many of them still in their teens, had bound their lives to the righteous cause of human freedom.

Their governor did the same.

Harvey's mission caught the attention of the nation because it so powerfully illustrated Wisconsin's commitment to defeating the "desperate wicked rebellion" by Confederate defenders of the indefensible. When he drowned crossing from one boat to another on the Tennessee River, The New York Times reported on the "startling announcement of the death of Governor Louis P. Harvey."

Newspaper headlines reported the story of Harvey's death as a "sad loss," not just for Wisconsin but for a nation that might one day have seen the charismatic governor appear on the national political stage.

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Harvey's Republican successor, Edward Salomon, was a Prussian immigrant who had come to Wisconsin as a "Forty-Eighter" — one of the remarkable group of radicals who fled from Germany to Wisconsin following the failed revolutions of 1848. Salomon, who had quit the Democratic Party over the slavery issue, answered President Lincoln's call for additional forces by raising 14 regiments as his brother Frederick served as a brigadier general in the Union Army and another brother, Charles, rose to the rank of colonel with the 9th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

This is the history of how Wisconsin Republicans responded to the sin of slavery and to the civil war that erupted when apologists for human bondage revolted against the republic.

Wisconsin's Republican governors did not equivocate. They did not play political games.

It is the memory of their courageous service that makes the failure of Walker to renounce Trump's defenses of those who today march beneath Confederate banners so shameful. The governor's response has been appalling. He has refused to join the better of his fellow Republicans in rejecting the president's hideous suggestion that there is some sort of moral equivalence between white supremacists who celebrate the Confederacy and those who confront racism.

Wisconsin's first Republican governors understood that in the great struggle to advance humankind, it would often be necessary to choose principles over partisanship. That Scott Walker does not share their understanding makes him a tragic figure. His cowardice is an embarrassment to Wisconsin — and an affront to all that was ever good or honorable about the Republican Party he claims to cherish.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times