By Theodore T. Hodge
From Roye to Tolbert
The Rise and Fall of True Whig Party
In his speech delivered on the occasion of the 35th Convention of the True Whig Party, Counselor Tiawan Gongloe writes: "One hundred and forty-six (146) years ago, in 1869, the True Whig Party, was formed against the background of the control of political power by the Republic Party from the time Liberia gain its independence up to that time. The Party was formed on the promise of making Liberia a land of liberty for all and opening the political space for the participation of all Liberians without distinction..."
Scholastic logic, using the realm of deductive reasoning, dictates that if the major premise of an argument is wrong, the entire argument is liable to fail the test of soundness and validity. With that in mind, let us attempt to scrutinize the second of the two premises proffered above: "The party was formed on the promise of making Liberia a land of liberty for all and opening the political space for the participation of all Liberians without distinction."
We can never know conclusively what the "intent" of the founders of the party was at its founding without examining the party's manifesto or its platform; the actual records don't exist. But here is what we do know. The actual political fight in Liberia was between the lighter-skinned (mulattoes) and the darker-skinned Americo-Liberians, and to a certain extent, the recaptured Africans referred to as "Congoes". There was never any fight for inclusiveness in regards to the indigenous Liberians, who by the way were the vast majority of the country. Mr. Gongloe is patently wrong by including the indigenous masses in this narrative for the mere sake of expediency; they were not a part of the political debate of the times; at least not from a popular perspective.
The True Whig Party ran a successful political campaign against the Republican Party in 1869, when its candidate, Edwin James Roye, won the presidency. Though he was deposed for reasons already given by Mr. Gongloe, it was only a temporary setback for the party. The True Whig Party roared back after conceding three terms to their arch rivals, the Republicans. The party never lost another election until it was overthrown by the military in 1980. The party enjoyed an unbroken streak of unitary leadership for a period of over a hundred years; from 1877 to 1980.
Here is the point that debunks the claim made by Mr. Gongloe. The party never introduced the idea of universal suffrage until 1951; at least we know, according to historical records that it was in that year that the Liberian legislature passed it into law granting full suffrage to all the citizens of the country, including women and indigenous people. If "opening the political space for the participation of all Liberians without distinction" was the clarion call for the party, why did it take almost eighty years, almost an entire century, for the party to reluctantly implement this goal? The reason is simple: That claim is at best bogus; a crude example of revisionist history.
Martin Lowenkopf, an American author, writes in his book, "Politics In Liberia: The Conservative Road to Development": Tubman, during his first inaugural address to the nation, "sought to enlarge and strengthen the Americo-Liberian population by the infusion of 'new blood of our own race' --- namely, through immigration of Negroes from the United States, the West Indies, and the British West African colonies. This then was Tubman's first prescription for national unification and the maintenance of Americo-Liberian hegemony over the tribal peoples."
Pause and read it again. The newly elected president of the country and national standard bearer of the True Whig Party was calling for 'new blood of our own race' including American Negroes, blacks from the Caribbean, and even Africans from neighboring countries --- anybody but indigenous Liberians. That is the record we know. Now Mr. Gongloe has allowed his new-found friends to sell him the notion that the True Whig Party in its original creed actually stood for inclusiveness and the imaginary ideal of 'liberty for all.' Nothing could be further from the truth.
The so-called 'founding fathers' set out to deliberately build a nation of classes, unequal. At the top of the rungs sat the formerly free men of color; then followed by the emancipated slaves, freed for the purpose of being repatriated; next came the recaptured Africans (Congoes); then other Africans, who freely emigrated to Liberia; and lastly, the indigenous population, otherwise referred to as the natives, or country people. This class structure was rigidly adhered to by all until a new tidal wave of political agitation and openness swung and tipped, or more rightfully, toppled the balance of power in early 1980.
To its credit, the True Whig Party was indeed moving towards a reconcilable co-existence between the power elite and the indigenous population. After the death of President Tubman, President Tolbert sought some unnatural alliances. Mr. Jackson F. Doe, a man of indigenous descent ascended to the all-powerful party hierarchy; he was named Vice Chairman of the National True Whig Party while E. Jonathan Goodridge was the chairman. Upon Goodrige's death, what should have been a clear path of ascendancy in theory, turned out to be a more complicated matter in practice. The vice chairman should have become the chairman, just like Hon. Goodridge had succeeded Hon. James "Jimmy" Anderson upon his retirement. The president was in favor of Doe's ascendancy, but a more conservative (perhaps hostile is a better choice of words) faction of the party opposed it. Reginald Townsend ascended to the position instead.
Another opportunity to test the system soon presented itself when Vice President James E. Greene died. Jackson Doe was again rumored to be the choice of the president, backed by the reformed wing of the party, to fill the vacancy; but he was again strong-armed into conceding to the rigid conservatives. The nomination and subsequent appointment went to Bishop Bennie D. Warner, instead of Mr. Jackson F. Doe.
That was a high profiled snobbery, but that was the rule rather than the exception. I shall take the liberty to quote Helene Cooper, a Liberian writer and journalist who writes in her book, "The House at Sugar Beach": "At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which my uncle Cecil Dennis headed, a young native Liberian named Joseph Guannu was hired. Uncle Cecil gave him a big title: Director of Training and Development. Mr. Guannu, a graduate of the University of Montana, held two Ph.Ds.
"At first, Mr. Guannu was excited about his new job. But frustration crept in quickly. Uncle Cecil wouldn't let him train anyone; the jobs of actually training future diplomats went to the old Congo guard, while Mr. Guannu, with his two Ph.Ds., was relegated to writing speeches for Uncle Cecil."
Jackson Doe did not rise to the position of party chair because he was of the wrong class; he was country. His country pedigree also killed his chances of rising to the position of VP. As far as the Liberian reality was concerned, he had risen to the highest position his class was allowed, the superficial position of party vice chair; there he hit the glass ceiling. Likewise, Dr. Joseph Guanna, although the writer admits he held two PhDs, was not good enough to actually train anyone at the Foreign Ministry because he was simply not a Congo man. Note further: His actual title was Director of Training and Development; but the title was only cosmetic. Also note that that Helene Cooper tells her readers that Guannu had indeed earned two PhDs from an American university, but she refused to use the customary designation of "Dr." in referring to him. In her mind, the man did not deserve to be referred to in such an honorable way, simply because of his indigenous background. This was not simply an oversight, it was deliberate and it was in accordance to her upbringing in that class society of ours. Please read again what Miss Cooper writes at the beginning of the same book, her memoir:
"Our house at Sugar Beach was a source of pride and of pain. It was a testament to the stature of my family in a country where stature mattered above all else. Liberian society rivaled Victorian England when it came to matters of social correctness. In Liberia, we cared far more about how we looked outside than about how we were inside. It was crucial to be an Honorable. Being "Honorable" --- mostly Congo People, though a smattering of Country People were sometimes pronounced educated enough to get the title --- meant you were deemed eligible to hold important government posts. You could have a PhD from Harvard but if you were a Country man with tribal affiliation you were still outranked in Liberian society by an Honorable with a two-bit degree from some community college in Memphis, Tennessee. Daddy was an Honorable with a proper college Bachelor of Science [degree], but being Hon. John L. Cooper Jr. was a hell of a lot more important than whatever degree he got in America."
Now Helene Cooper is not some 'two-bit' Liberian aimlessly writing about her life. No, she is a trained journalist with diverse interests in politics, sociology and the likes. She has worked at the most prestigious organizations, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times. She has had some fabulous assignments, including the coveted white house correspondent. According to reports, she and other colleagues were jointly awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Reliable sources indicate that she has been commissioned to write the biography (or memoir) of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf upon leaving office. I give this background to stress that Miss Cooper is no ordinary Liberian; she boasts of descending from two Liberian dynasties, the Johnsons and the Coopers. She quotes her mother who was fond of saying, "If there was no Elijah Johnson, there would be no Liberia." These people not only think the "founded” Liberia, they think they owned it. Therefore, what she says about Liberia must be taken seriously; she speaks for many.
Now, Do I blame Helene Cooper or others who were fortunate enough to be born into high society? No. She didn't work for the Liberian government or the True Whig Party. I cannot truthfully blame someone in his or her 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s who never worked for the government or the party (sometimes there is no distinction). I cannot also deny them the right to be proud of their ancestry. I know and respect the offspring of many of these; with many I have had very close affiliations and still do to this day. I do not hold the sins of the father against any of my contemporaries... that would simply be unfair. Liberia, being a democracy or an aspiring democracy must make room for everybody who is a Liberia, no matter their background. Again, these people have a right to respect, admire and honor their ancestry. But they don't have a right to conceal the truth and take us down that path of blatant separation, injustice and inequality. Our people suffered too long and were subject to indignity, many of them losing out on their dreams, with even some losing their lives.
There was a party in Germany referred to as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, aka the Nazi Party. We know its history. The descendants of the founders and members of that party have the right to revere and admire their ancestors, but if there is any occasion for renewal, should the children of Holocaust victims and survivals join them in honoring the party that caused so much damage to other groups because of its racist beliefs? No.
In South Africa, during its destructive era of apartheid, the ruling party was called the National Party of South Africa. It has now fallen on the fringes of history, though not completely dead. But do the children of the victims of apartheid have any obligation to help the party redeem and renew itself? It is an unconscionable proposition that no black South African should even consider.
In conclusion, I do not oppose the True Whig Party making a comeback onto the political stage. Our democracy should be strong and open enough to allow the diversity; at least it must go through the test. But those that are interested in redemption and renewal must face the bitter truth of the party's past. One of my friends is fond of saying, "You may be entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts." Personally, I aspire towards considering neither redemption nor renewal for the party; the party has no redeeming values and renewal may and should be an affront to many of its victims. The only thing left is REFLECTION.
Theodore Hodge may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org