Tag Archives: kansas-nebraska act

Silence in the Face Of Evil is Evil Itself

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the words “silence in the face of evil is evil itself.”

Today I blocked and deleted a former friend from a church I went to decades ago because of his attitude towards me and what I post on Facebook. I get tired of the hypocrisy of people who pretend to be patriotic when in fact they openly support a President who openly denies his oath when he said today that he would accept “dirt” on his political opponents from foreign sources.

This is a very difficult article to write because truthfully I believe that civility and mutual respect should be an ideal that we as Americans should not retreat from, as John F. Kennedy noted:

“So let us begin a new remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” 

I have written about that subject a number of times, the last being on November 22nd 2016 shortly after President Trump’s election and on the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. However, since that time I have seen the President lead a descent into depravity that I fully comprehended then, although I hoped for a different outcome. Trust me, as an American with a profound respect for the office of the President that is what I wanted, but it didn’t happen.

The fact is that the President has in his words, deeds, and tweets destroyed any hope of our political divide being healed, or of Americans of different viewpoints being able to reconcile their differences anytime in the foreseeable future. He stokes the hatred and division almost on an hourly basis, and of course his opponents having become wise to him are rolling up their sleeves and fighting back.

Too me that is an unfortunate situation that might become a tragedy for the United States and the world, as Abraham Lincoln noted “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” To GOP Congressman Steve King of Iowa the sight and sound of Trump’s opponents is like “Harpers Ferry” and what comes next will be “Fort Sumter.” Since King proudly displays the Confederate Battle Flag in his office I know exactly what side of this fight that he is on.

The fact is that he and many like him want bloodshed, they want Civil War, they want to remake the Union in a way that Jefferson Davis and his band of traitors failed to do. As a historian of the period with a book awaiting publication the fact is that in the end it comes down to the fact that King, many of the President’s supporters and quite probably the President himself are all White Supremacists. They want a full and complete return to White Man’s Rule and the subservience of all non-white races and non-Christian religions to it. They are the Know Nothings of the North and Slave Power Secessionists of the South rolled into one package of ignorance, incivility, and hatred.

I write often about comparisons of the attitudes and actions administration and its supporters to Nazi Germany, but truth be told there is a lot of dirty laundry in our own history that sheds light on Trump and his supporters.

The fact is that for nearly three decades the vast majority of Northerners were too polite to criticize the egregious actions of the Know Nothings in their midst or the Southern Slave Power Block that dominated the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court for the three decades prior to the War of the Rebellion, also known as the American Civil War, or the War Between the States. Honestly, I think that the term ascribed to it by many Union Veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic after the war, the “War of the Rebellion” is the best.

Those opposed to the Know Nothings and Slave Power Block were condemned as being rude, impolite, and worse. Some were physical assaulted. In 1856 Senator Charles Sumner was attacked by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina on the floor of the Senate for his speech against the Kansas Nebraska Act. Sumner was beaten until he was unconscious and Brooks’ heavy cane which he used to conduct the attack broke. Brooks continued to beat Sumner aided by Representative Lawrence Keitt also of South Carolina who brandishing a pistol threatened Senators coming to his aid. Sumner has proclaimed no threats of violence but only spoken the truth about the Act and those that supported it. So much for civility and now.

The scurrilous and overtly violent threats against minorities and civil rights advocates by conservatives, especially White Christian conservatives have continued unabated since from the ante-Bellum South and the Know Nothing North, through the War of the Rebellion, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, to the modern day. Whole political campaigns including that of George H.W. Bush run by Lee Atwater turned on the demonization of African Americans. The same is true regarding the Republican revolution led by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, and again even more so from the time that Candidate Donald Trump descended to the lobby of Trump Tower in 2015 until now. The President proclaims that White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis are “very fine people.” 

The President and many of his followers including administration officials like Stephen Miller set the tone while Presidential spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies and denies the President’s words and vilifies anyone that dares to question her. So when she is asked to leave a restaurant, or when Miller or DHS Secretary Nielsen are shamed when trying to enter Mexican restaurants it makes makes my heart bleed. People who have no compassion, no sense of empathy and behave as sociopaths and then act the victim when the tables are turned only deserve scorn.

Their anti-immigrant and often blatantly racist tropes of the President, his administration, and his supporters on the Fox Propaganda Network, the Right Wing media, the Putrid Princes of the Captive Conservative Church, and his assorted sordid supporters should be condemned and opposed around the clock. If they are not then any of us who remain silent knowing the evil of these policies is as guilty as anyone that turned their backs on the Jews in Nazi Germany. The higher the office the greater the guilt and culpability.

That being said if had the chance to see any one of them in a public setting I would not resort to public shaming. I do not own a restaurant or business so I could not ask them to leave. However, that being said if any of them the President himself presented themselves to me at my chapel or any civilian church that I might be celebrating the Eucharist I would deny them communion which from a Christian point of view is “a fate worse than a fate worse than death.”

Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.” 

As for me I must tell the truth and protest against the violence and the arbitrary pride of power exhibited by the Trump administration and its supporters. I could not live with myself if I didn’t do so. Some might think this political and in some sense it is, but it is entirely based on my understanding of the Christian faith and the very premise of the founders of this country, that phrase in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

If need be I would die for that faith and that proposition and I will not be silent in the face of evil. I will live and die as a Christian who believes those sacred words of secular scripture found in the Declaration.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, ethics, faith, History, News and current events, Political Commentary

Wanted, One Senator Of Courage: Will Any Republican Make a Principled Stand Against Trump?

Stephen A. Douglas

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I wrote this in June of last year and as we go into the fourth week of a pointless partial government shutdown, the effects of which are now beginning to be felt, I thought it pertinent. So I did a few edits The shutdown and the President’s determination to find a way to build his wall, even publicly musing about declaring an imaginary national emergency to get his way, would be enough by themselves without all the charges that will be proven against him will certainly will enshrine his place as the worst President in American history. As such, James Buchanan is probably rejoicing in his grave that he has competition.

Likewise, it has become apparent that it is very unlikely anyone in his Trumpified Republican Party will rise to the occasion to lead a principled opposition against him, as Senator Stephen Douglas did against Buchanan. But then, Douglas was willing to stake his political career on defending the country and Constitution against the unconstitutional actions of a President of his own political party.

As I watch President Trump’s administration attack the law, the Constitution, and violate the civil rights and human rights of citizens as well as people who have come to the United States to flee oppression and danger at home; to threaten freedom of speech and freedom of the press; to categorize political opponents inside and outside of his party as traitors; to legitimize the most repressive dictatorial regimes while attacking longstanding allies; even as he works to destroy the work of American Presidents and diplomats to build a world order that has brought great benefit to the United States and the world by defeating the Nazis, Imperial Japan, and eventually the Soviet Union. He has chosen the choice of being a rogue superpower rather than being the moderating and stabilizing force in the world that it has played since World War Two. Robert Kagan wrote in the Washington Post on June 14th:

“The United States’ adversaries will do well in this world, for Trump’s America does not want war. It will accommodate powers that can harm it. It will pay them the respect they crave and grant them their spheres of interest. Those that depend on the United States, meanwhile, will be treated with disdain, pushed around and used as pawns. At times, they will be hostages to be traded for U.S. gain. The United States and the postwar liberal order protected them and helped them prosper, but it also left them vulnerable to any American leader willing to offer them up as sacrifices to appease aggressors. That is a kind of realism, too… It recognizes no moral, political or strategic commitments. It feels free to pursue objectives without regard to the effect on allies or, for that matter, the world. It has no sense of responsibility to anything beyond itself.”

The President and his administration show little regard for the Constitution and established law in this country and our treaties and agreements with other nations. He appoints men and women who had they been Germans after the Second World War would have been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity to high office. He defends White Nationalists and Neo-Nazis. He confounds loyalty to himself with patriotism and loyalty to the country. His threat of declaring a national emergency if he doesn’t get his Wall demonstrates that fact to a tee.

He uses propaganda to demonize those who seek law and justice. In any normal time a cry would arise from his own party saying “no more,” but his party does nothing, and even those leaders who occasionally speak out against his policies take no actions because they are afraid of retribution. That happened to long time conservative Congressman Mark Sanford in South Carolina this week when the President tweeted his support for his primary opponent. During the primary season White Nationalists, self-proclaimed Nazis, and other Trump supporters advocating the most extreme, unconstitutional and abhorrent positions often swept the field against conservatives who themselves would have been considered extremists just a few years ago. The GOP is on the Party if Trump and it took less than two years to become so.

Barbara Tuchman wrote in her book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam something that we are observing up close and personal as President Trump and his administration flounder in a sea of make believe, a cloud cuckoo land of alternative facts, alternative truth, and alternative history:

“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”

To be true, the Trump administration is not the first in history, in fact not even in our own country to ignore facts when making decisions. However, it is remarkable in its ability not only to shun facts but to make up its own narrative that depends on denying reality while impugning the character, honesty, and decency of those who present facts and truth that is verifiable. To be sure, competence and prudence are not and probably will never be marks of President Trump, his closest advisors, or his enablers in Congress. My hope is that some Republican in either the House or Senate rises up to confront the ineptitude and folly being demonstrated on a daily basis.

President James Buchanan

In some ways the incompetence and refusal to deal with reality by the Trump administration reminds me of the administration of James Buchanan during the years before the American Civil War. Buchanan’s collusion with Chief Justice Roger Taney regarding the Dred Scott decision before his inauguration stained him from the beginning and poisoned his relationship with Congress by declaring that the Congress never had the right to limit slavery as it had in the Missouri Compromise. Buchanan’s presidency is considered by most historians to be the worst in American history, incompetent, arrogant, and ineffective.

Likewise, Buchanan’s attempt to jam the Lecompton Constitution through Congress as a reward to Southern Democrats blew up in his face. The Lecompton Constitution was a gerrymandered bill which ignored the will of the vast majority of Kansas’s settlers who were anti-slavery. The work of the pro-slavery element in Kansas was so onerous that it brought Republicans and Northern Democrats together for the first time as Southern Democrats threatened secession if Kansas was not admitted as a Slave State. Ignoring warnings that supporting a measure that would open the door to slavery in all the western territories would split his party, Buchanan pushed on. His intransigence on the matter brought Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois to the fore in opposing it. Nicknamed “the Little Giant,” Douglas was the odds on favorite to be the Democratic nominee for the Presidency. Douglas was not against the institution of slavery, and he was a racist, but he had no tolerance for those who would upend carefully crafted compromises to expand it through the whole country. Thus he  took his case to the floor of the Senate and to the President himself.

The Confrontation between the Senator and the President was unparalleled. Douglas recalled:

The Lecompton constitution, I told Buchannan bluntly, was a blatant fraud on the people of Kansas and the process of democracy, I warned him not to recommend acceptance of it. With his head titled forward in that bizarre habit of his, he said that he intended to endorse the constitution and send it to Congress. “If you do,” I thundered, “I’ll denounce it the moment that it is read.” His face turned red with anger. “I’ll make Lecompton a party test,” he said. “I expect every democratic Senator to support it.” I will not, sir!

Angry and offended by the confrontation of Douglas, Buchanan cut the senator off and issued his own threat to Douglas and his political career saying:

“But I desire you to remember that no Democrat ever yet differed from an administration of his own choice without being crushed….Beware of the fate of Tallmadge and Rives,” two senators who had gone into political oblivion after crossing Andrew Jackson.” The redoubtable Senator from Illinois was undeterred by the President’s threat and fought back, “Douglas riposted: “Mr. President, I wish to remind you that General Jackson is dead, sir.”  

Douglas,s action was unprecedented. Never before had a sitting Senator, to confront a President of his own party and threatened to oppose him in Congress. It was simply not done, but now Douglas was doing it, but doing so to his President’s face, and the consequences for him, his party, and the country would be immense.

Undeterred by facts, Buchanan and Southern Democrats fought for the bill’s passage. When Buchanan’s supporters pushed for Lecompton’s approval and the admission of Kansas as a Slave State, Douglas fired back, warning:

 “You do,” I said, “and it will lead directly to civil war!” I warned the anti-Lecompton Democrats of the North that the President intended to put the knife to the throat of every man who dared to think for himself on this question and carry out principles in good faith. “God forbid,” I said “that I ever surrender my right to differ from a President of the United States for my own choice. I am not a tool of any President!”

Under Douglas the Northern Democrats joined with Republicans for the first time to defeat the admission of Kansas as a Slave State. Douglas recalled the battle:

“After the Christmas recess, the Administration unleashed its heavy horsemen: Davis, Slidell, Hunter, Toombs, and Hammond, all southerners. They damned me as a traitor and demanded that I be stripped of my chairmanship of the Committee on Territories and read out of the Democratic party. Let the fucking bastards threaten, proscribe, and do their worst, I told my followers; it would not cause any honest man to falter. If my course divided the Democratic party, it would not be my fault. We were engaged in a great struggle for principle, I said, and we would defy the Administration to the bitter end.”

Douglas and his supporters did just that, Buchanan and his supporters were outfought and outmaneuvered by Douglas’s Democrats and their Republican allies. The bill was sent back to Kansas where in a new election the people of Kansas voted solidly against the Lecompton Constitution. In the following Congressional elections the thoroughly discredited Democrats lost their majority, their party now hopelessly divided with Southerners determined to destroy Douglas at any cost, even if it meant losing the presidency, the conflict opened the door for the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

I wonder if there will be a Republican in the Congress with the courage that Stephen A. Douglas displayed in confronting the incompetent and vindictive President Buchanan during the Lecompton Crisis. Will there be a Republican with enough courage to stop the insanity of the Trump administration even if it means in the short term to divide the party and doom their political future? Honestly I doubt it as does conservative Republican political strategist Rick Wilson. Wilson wrote:

“Nothing you do matters to this Congress. No matter what damage you inflict on our economy, our alliances, trade, our stature in the world, our role as an exemplar of democratic values, our ability to serve as an honest broker in the international community, and our security, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will lay supine before you.” 

But if Trump’s march of folly is to be stopped, someone in the Republican Senate or House will have to have the courage to stand up and defend the necessity of thinking for themselves, and doing what is right, sadly there is no Stephen Douglas in today’s GOP.

Have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, History, laws and legislation, News and current events, Political Commentary

“Silence in the Face of Evil is Evil Itself” A Critique of Politeness and Civility When Confronting Injustice and Evil

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the words “silence in the face of evil is evil itself.”

This is a very difficult article to write because truthfully I believe that civility and mutual respect should be an ideal that we as Americans should not retreat from, as John F. Kennedy noted:

“So let us begin a new remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

I have written about that a number of times, the last being on November 22nd 2016 shortly after President Trump’s election and on the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. However, since that time I have seen the President lead a descent into depravity that I fully comprehended then, though I hoped for a different outcome.

The fact is that the President has in his words, deeds, and tweets destroyed any hope of our political divide being healed, or of Americans of different viewpoints being able to reconcile their differences anytime in the foreseeable future. He stokes the hatred and division almost on an hourly basis, and of course his opponents having become wise to him are rolling up their sleeves and fighting back.

Too me that is an unfortunate situation that might become a tragedy for the United States and the world, as Abraham Lincoln noted “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” To GOP Congressman Steve King of Iowa the sight and sound of Trump’s opponents is like “Harpers Ferry” and what comes next will be “Fort Sumter.” Since King proudly displays the Confederate Battle Flag in his office I know exactly what side of this fight that he is on.

The fact is that he and many like him want bloodshed, they want Civil War, they want to remake the Union in a way that Jefferson Davis and his band of traitors failed to do. As a historian of the period with a book awaiting publication the fact is that in the end it comes down to the fact that King, many of the President’s supporters and quite probably the President himself are all White Supremacists. They want a full and complete return to White Man’s Rule and the subservience of all non-white races and non-Christian religions to it. They are the Know Nothings of the North and Slave Power Secessionists of the South rolled into one package of ignorance, incivility, and hatred.

I write often about comparisons of the attitudes and actions administration and its supporters to Nazi Germany, but truth be told there is a lot of dirty laundry in our own history that sheds light on Trump and his supporters.

The fact is that for nearly three decades the vast majority of Northerners were too polite to criticize the egregious actions of the Know Nothings in their midst or the Southern Slave Power Block that dominated the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court for the three decades prior to the War of the Rebellion, also known as the American Civil War, or the War Between the States. Honestly, I think that the term ascribed to it by many Union Veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic after the war, the “War of the Rebellion” is the best.

Those opposed to the Know Nothings and Slave Power Block were condemned as being rude, impolite, and worse. Some were physical assaulted. In 1856 Senator Charles Sumner was attacked by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina on the floor of the Senate for his speech against the Kansas Nebraska Act. Sumner was beaten until he was unconscious and Brooks’ heavy cane which he used to conduct the attack broke. Brooks continued to beat Sumner aided by Representative Lawrence Keitt also of South Carolina who brandishing a pistol threatened Senators coming to his aid. Sumner has proclaimed no threats of violence but only spoken the truth about the Act and those that supported it. So much for civility and now.

The scurrilous and overtly violent threats against minorities and civil rights advocates by conservatives, especially White Christian conservatives have continued unabated since from the ante-Bellum South and the Know Nothing North, through the War of the Rebellion, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, to the modern day. Whole political campaigns including that of George H.W. Bush run by Lee Atwater turned on the demonization of African Americans. The same is true regarding the Republican revolution led by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, and again even more so from the time that Candidate Donald Trump descended to the lobby of Trump Tower in 2015 until now. The President proclaims that White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis are “very fine people.”

The President and many of his followers including administration officials like Stephen Miller set the tone while Presidential spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies and denies the President’s words and vilifies anyone that dares to question her. So when she is asked to leave a restaurant, or when Miller or DHS Secretary Nielsen are shamed when trying to enter Mexican restaurants it makes makes my heart bleed. People who have no compassion, no sense of empathy and behave as sociopaths and then act the victim when the tables are turned only deserve scorn.

Their anti-immigrant and often blatantly racist tropes of the President, his administration, and his supporters on the Fox Propaganda Network, the Right Wing media, the Putrid Princes of the Captive Conservative Church, and his assorted sordid supporters should be condemned and opposed around the clock. If they are not then any of us who remain silent knowing the evil of these policies is as guilty as anyone that turned their backs on the Jews in Nazi Germany. The higher the office the greater the guilt and culpability.

That being said if had the chance to see any one of them in a public setting I would not resort to public shaming. I do not own a restaurant or business so I could not ask them to leave. However, that being said if any of them the President himself presented themselves to me at my chapel or any civilian church that I might be celebrating the Eucharist I would deny them communion which from a Christian point of view is “a fate worse than a fate worse than death.”

Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

As for me I must tell the truth and protest against the violence and the arbitrary pride of power exhibited by the Trump administration and its supporters. I could not live with myself if I didn’t do so. Some might think this political and in some sense it is, but it is entirely based on my understanding of the Christian faith and the very premise of the founders of this country, that phrase in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

If need be I would die for that faith and that proposition and I will not be silent in the face of evil.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil rights, ethics, faith, History, laws and legislation, News and current events, Political Commentary, Religion

We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In a few days we as Americans will be celebrating the 241st anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As the day approaches I’ll be writing more reflections on what it means even as I intersperse some articles on the Battle of Gettysburg, a victory that helped ensure that the Union would survive and that helped to pave the way for the understanding that the Declaration must be understood in its universal sense. In a day like ours where many localities, states, and even the Federal government appear to be working to limit those rights, often based on the religious beliefs of a powerful, well-funded and militant minority of conservative Christians, this all the more important.

For me it is the truth both of a concept of Liberty which must continuously be advanced or expanded, and the still imperfect embodiment of that concept in the land that it was born. The authors of the declaration wrote, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”  Eighty-seven years later while dedicating the Soldier’s Cemetery at Gettysburg noted that the new nation was “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” 

Lincoln understood from the reality of war, and the statements of European leaders that the whole concept of a country being founded on a proposition like this, not race, not class, not religion, not station in life, was bound to be opposed, and was incredibly fragile. He confronted a rebellion which based itself on the belief that African Americans were less than equal, in fact subhuman and deserving of being enslaved by a superior race. Likewise, there were those in Europe who cheered the rebellion and believed that it proved that such experiments were doomed to failure, a belief that is still widely held, but more often by American elites than others.

But like it or not, the proposition that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights; a concept so imperfectly practiced by the very men who drafted it and those who followed them, still is right. That proposition was universalized as a political philosophy by Abraham Lincoln, is the basis of all hope for humanity. Tyrants, despots, dictators, terrorists, religious zealots of every sect filled with messianic visions, as well as madmen all desire to trample this proposition. Some desire to believe that those rights can simply be maintained by the power of a Constitution, but unless the people who swear to uphold that Constitution are dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal that very Constitution can be perverted and used to enslave people, as it was by the men who drafted the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Fugitive Slave Laws, and the Supreme Court decisions in Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson cases ruled that African Americans were less than equal as human beings, and therefore not entitled to the same rights and liberties as were white people. It is the same constitution and laws that were used to deny citizenship and rights to Chinese immigrants until 1942, that were used by the government to interment native born Japanese American citizens in concentration camps during the Second World War, which drove Native Americans off their ancestral homelands, massacred them by the tens of millions, and placed them on reservations without any rights of American citizens until 1924; and which denied suffrage to women until 1919, and denied basic civil rights to LGBTQ people until recently; rights that in many states are still denied by state legislatures. But without equality, freedom is an illusion.

Judge Learned Hand, perhaps the best qualified man ever to not serve on the Supreme Court wrote,

“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. The spirit of Liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of Liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of othe men and women; the spirit of Liberty is that which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.” 

That is why the proposition in the Declaration which was universalized by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address is still of the utmost importance. It is why it must be fought for, especially when politicians like Donald Trump and others threaten its very existence, and whose followers see it as only as Liberty for themselves and their interests. That proposition is under duress today, there are millions of followers of Trump and the demagogues who would deny Liberty to others based on race, religion, ethnicity, economic status, gender, or by them being LGBTQ. But, Liberty is a perilous thing, but once that proposition of Liberty dies in our hearts, there is nothing that can save it, no constitution, no law, no court; and those who place their trust in it the demagogues will find that they will eventually lose their Liberty as well.

In 1858 Lincoln spoke in Chicago, and in that speech he linked the common connection of all Americans share, even recent immigrants, through the Declaration. It was an era of intense anti-immigrant passions, the American Party, which sprang from the Know Nothing movement which founded upon extreme hatred of immigrants, and Roman Catholics, and violence against them, had run former President Millard Fillmore for election as at their candidate in 1856 following the collapse of the Whig Party.

In opposition to this party and movement  Lincoln proclaimed that immigrants, “cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel a part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence, they find those old men say that “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,… That is the father of all moral principle to them, and they have a right to claim it as if they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in the Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and Liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.” 

Lincoln was absolutely correct, it is that love of freedom, liberty, and equality that echoes in the Declaration, and it is still a revolutionary idea. We hold these truths to be self evident…

As a historian I cannot get away from this. Whether it is in my study of European history, particularly the Weimar Republic and the Nazi takeover, or the American Civil War, especially the times I visit the Soldier’s Cemetery at Gettysburg and talk about the Gettysburg Address with my students. The breadth of my experience, having visited Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, having watched the unadulterated adulation of crowds of Germans chanting Sieg Heil!,  having grown up in this country at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and having walked so many battlegrounds where American men have died fighting such tyranny makes me all too sensitive to why this proposition is so important.

That is why the quest for the fulfillment of that proposition is something that cannot be given up, it is in the words of Lincoln, “it is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who have fought for have thus far so nobly advanced. That it is for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead should not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” 

For me it is this proposition, the proposition mocked by the elites of Europe, the proposition that any republic founded on such a proposition was doomed to fail, this proposition that says “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal” is what Independence Day is about. That is why in my remaining service to this country I will rededicate myself to seeing that “new birth of freedom” is fulfilled for every American.

That may seem a pipe dream to some people, and even impossible to others; but it is what far too many of the men and women who served before me gave the last full measure of devotion to duty to bring to fulfillment. Learned Hand was right, if Liberty dies in our hearts, no law, no constitution, no court, can save us.

Have a great Independence Day and please remember it is not about the day off, the picnics, or displays of military might, it is about that proposition; the one that is so easy to forget, the proposition that all men are created equal.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, Gettysburg, History, laws and legislation, News and current events, Political Commentary

When Political Parties Implode: “Mr. President I Wish to Remind You that General Jackson is Dead”

lecompton-2

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been writing about the coming collapse of the Republican Party and have decided to republish some of my writings dealing with what happened to the Whig and Democratic Parties between 1854 and 1860. Today an article about the epic battle between President James Buchanan and Senator Stephen A. Douglas from draft text “Mine Eyes have seen the Glory” Race, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Kansas was politically divided between two competing legislatures, each which claimed to be the voice of the people. The population of Kansas was heavily anti-slavery, in fact slaveholders and their supporters were a minuscule minority in the territory, but they were both load, and often used violence and intimidation to achieve power. As such many citizens felt disenfranchised by the official legislature, which was “a pro-slavery body elected by fraud in 1855.” [1] This body met in the city of Lecompton. In 1857 the Lecompton legislature sensed the opportunity to have Kansas admitted to the Union as a Slave State. To ease the way for this to happen over the will of the majority this legislature elected slavery supporters to be members of a constitutional convention, the goal of which was to draft a constitution which would be submitted to Congress for the admission of the Kansas Territory to the Union as a Slave State.

Free State partisans in Kansas feared that that if they participated in the election that they would be “gerrymandered, and simply counted out by stuffed ballots,” and most decided to sit out of the election. As a result it was “a quiet election, with many proslavery candidates unopposed and only 2,200 out of 9,000 registered voters going to the polls, a large majority of extreme proslavery men won election as delegates to the constitutional convention in September.” [2] But the result of the election was untenable, for “Two thousand voters in a territory with 24,000 eligible for the franchise had elected a body of delegates whom no one seriously regarded as representative of the majority opinion in Kansas.” [3]

The Lecompton legislature passed the proslavery constitution, but it was vetoed by the outgoing governor, John W. Geary. Geary accused “the pro-slavery legislature of attempting to stampede a rush to statehood on pro-slavery terms,” but his veto was overridden. The constitution had several provisions that most of the population found unacceptable. It protected owners of “the 200 slaves in Kansas, banned free blacks from the state, and prohibited any amendments to the constitution for seven years.” [4] In response the pro-Free State legislature in Topeka issued a referendum in which people voted “10,226 votes to 162 votes” [5] against the pro-slavery measures contained in the Lecompton Constitution. The newly appointed governor of the territory, Robert J. Walker opposed the measure and denounced it “as a vile fraud, a bare counterfeit.” [6] Walker demanded a new, fair, referendum, which the newly elected president James Buchanan, also backed. In response many Southerners in Congress “threatened to secede unless the administration fired Walker and backed down on the referendum issue.” [7] The threat of secession by Southerners in support of the radical minority in Lecompton led to chaos in the Democratic Party which controlled the House, the Senate and held the Presidency.

james-buchanan

James Buchanan

James Buchanan was a pro-slavery Pennsylvania Democrat who had rode into office on the votes of the South. He was now pressured by Southern legislators to change his position on the Lecompton Constitution. Buchanan’s cabinet, which was heavily Southern, and pro-slavery expansion also used its influence to pressure the president into supporting the plan to admit Kansas as a Slave State. In response to the pressure, Buchanan reversed his previous stance in regard to Kansas and endorsed the bill, and he “called on Congress admit Kansas as a slave state with a constitution (drafted by the proslavery territorial government at Lecompton) that was never approved by Kansas voters and obviously opposed by a majority of them.” [8] The decision by Buchanan tossed aside the doctrine of popular sovereignty which had been key to engineering earlier compromises and in response some Northern Democrats opposed Buchanan.

Buchanan’s patently obvious move to placate the slave states and overturn the restrictions on the expansion of slavery contained in the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, provoked a new outcry, this time from Northern members of the Democratic Party. Many Northern Democrats were outraged by Buchanan’s flip-flop and the threats of secession emanating from the South if the measure was not approved. Most of the Northern Democrats were willing to accept and even defend slavery where it existed, but they were opposed to the expansion of slavery. His announcement to the House of Representatives “touched off a twelve-hour donnybrook in February 1858” and “about 50 congressmen in various states of inebriation tangled with each other on the House floor… The rumble subsided only when Mississippi congressman William Barksdale tackled an unidentified assailant as the latter snatched his toupee and waved it about like a captured flag. Barksdale finally retrieved his scalp and plopped it on his head wrong side out, the absurdity of the scene giving the combatant’s pause.” [9] Many Northern Democrats felt betrayed by their president’s actions and rose in opposition to the bill that would admit Kansas as a Slave State. Even so Buchanan was a “skilled political infighter swung a remarkable percentage of Northern Democratic members of the House of Representatives, fully 60 percent, behind the Lecompton Constitution,” [10] but he did not contend with the charismatic power of Stephen Douglas in the Senate.

These Democrats were led by the formidable Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Known as the Little Giant Douglas had skillfully crafted the Compromise of 1850 using the principle of popular sovereignty, led these Democrats in their fight against Buchanan’s acceptance and endorsement of Lecompton. Douglas’s previous actions to support the rights of Slave States had made him a hero in much of the South and his stature in both the North and the South made him the frontrunner to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1860.

But Douglas, who had worked so hard to build compromises that would hold the Union together could not countenance the actions and tactics of the Southern members of his party. Douglas was a political realist and not an ideologue. He was very sympathetic to slave holders and was certainly no supporter of emancipation, in fact the Little Giant was an avowed racist. He was completely convinced “of the inferiority of the Negro, and he had a habit of stating it with brutal bluntness, “I do not believe that the Negro is any kin of mine at all…. I believe that this government of ours was founded, and wisely founded upon white basis. It was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity, to be executed and managed by white men.” [11] But despite his own racist beliefs Douglas understood the danger that the pro-slavery extremists supporting Lecompton were to the Democratic Party and the nation. Douglas understood that if the bill to admit Kansas as a slave state was passed that it would destroy the unity of the Democratic Party and quite possibly the Union itself.

Stephen-Douglas-in-1858

Stephen Douglas

The Illinois Senator found out about the President Buchanan’s new support of the measure when he read the newspaper. He was outraged when he saw the news in the Washington Union that Buchanan had decided to support Lecompton. He was infuriated and the fury showed when he wrote with characteristic honesty:

“This left no doubt were the old bastard stood. “Can you believe his Goddamned arrogance?” I told a friend. “I run the Committee on Territories. He should have consulted me before approving the Lecompton fraud. He’ll pay for that. By God, sir, I made Mr. James Buchanan, and by God, sir, I’ll unmake him.” [12]

As such, the Little Giant threw caution to the wind and stormed to the White House “to confront Buchanan on the “trickery and juggling of the Lecompton constitution.” He warned the president of that his actions in support of the Lecompton party would “destroy the Democratic party in the North,” and we warned that “if Buchanan insisted on going through with it, Douglas swore to oppose him in Congress.” [13]

It was an epic confrontation. Douglas recalled, “The Lecompton constitution, I told Buchannan bluntly, was a blatant fraud on the people of Kansas and the process of democracy, I warned him not to recommend acceptance of it. With his head titled forward in that bizarre habit of his, he said that he intended to endorse the constitution and send it to Congress. “If you do,” I thundered, “I’ll denounce it the moment that it is read.” His face turned red with anger. “I’ll make Lecompton a party test,” he said. “I expect every democratic Senator to support it.” I will not, sir![14]

Angry and offended by the confrontation of Douglas, Buchanan cut the senator off and issued his own threat to Douglas and his political career saying, “I desire you to remember that no Democrat ever yet differed from an administration of his own choice without being crushed….Beware of the fate of Tallmadge and Rives,” two senators who had gone into political oblivion after crossing Andrew Jackson.” The redoubtable Senator from Illinois was undeterred by the President’s threat and fought back, “Douglas riposted: “Mr. President, I wish to remind you that General Jackson is dead, sir.” [15] It was an unprecedented action by a sitting Senator, to confront a President of one’s own party and threaten to oppose him in Congress was simply not done, but now Douglas was doing it, but doing so to his President’s face, and the consequences for him, his party, and the country would be immense.

Following his confrontation with Buchanan, Douglas was even more determined to defeat the Lecompton party and their brazen attempt to admit Kansas as a slave state over the will of the non-slave majority. In a display of righteous anger Douglas did what few politicians would consider doing in our day and age and “took his political life into his own hands and assailed the Lecompton Constitution on the floor of the Senate as a mockery of the popular sovereignty principle.” [16] President Buchanan and his allies in Congress fought back viciously, so much so that the two sides sometimes came into physical confrontation with each other in the chambers of Congress.

When Buchanan’s supporters pushed for Lecompton’s approval and the admission of Kansas as a Slave State, Douglas fired back, warning “You do,” I said, “and it will lead directly to civil war!” I warned the anti-Lecompton Democrats of the North that the President intended to put the knife to the throat of every man who dared to think for himself on this question and carry out principles in good faith. “God forbid,” I said “that I ever surrender my right to differ from a President of the United States for my own choice. I am not a tool of any President!” [17]

Under Douglas the Northern Democrats joined with Republicans for the first time to defeat the admission of Kansas as a Slave State. Douglas recalled the battle:

“After the Christmas recess, the Administration unleashed its heavy horsemen: Davis, Slidell, Hunter, Toombs, and Hammond, all southerners. They damned me as a traitor and demanded that I be stripped of my chairmanship of the Committee on Territories and read out of the Democratic party. Let the fucking bastards threaten, proscribe, and do their worst, I told my followers; it would not cause any honest man to falter. If my course divided the Democratic party, it would not be my fault. We were engaged in a great struggle for principle, I said, and we would defy the Administration to the bitter end.” [18]

Southern Democrats in Congress fought back furiously. As the battle continued their acrimony towards Douglas grew into apocalyptic proportions and their rhetoric against the Little Giant became more heated. According to his opponents Douglas was “at the head of the Black column…stained with the dishonor of treachery without parallel…patent double dealing…detestable heresies…filth of his defiant recreancy…a Dead Cock in the Pit…away with him to the tomb which he is digging for his political corpse.” [19]

But Douglas was undeterred by the threats to his career made by Buchanan, his congressional opponents and the press. He believed that he was in the right, and though he was in agreement with the philosophy of his opponents regarding slavery as an institution to be protected in the South, he realized that appeasing the South was not an option in regard to Lecompton, since that measure undermined the entire concept of popular sovereignty. He wrote:

“My forces in the House fought a brilliant delaying action while I worked to win over wavering Democrats. When we introduced a substitute bill, Buchannan called a dozen congressmen to the White House and exhorted them not to forsake the administration. He was cursing and in tears. He had reason to be: on April first, a coalition of ninety-two Republicans, twenty-two anti-Lecompton Democrats, and six Know-Nothings sent Lecompton down to defeat by passing the substitute bill. This bill provided for a popular vote on the Lecompton constitution and for a new convention if the people rejected that document, as they surely would.” [20]

The substitute bill was passed by the Senate as well and sent back to Kansas for a popular vote. When the Lecompton Constitution was resubmitted to the people of Kansas for a vote, the results of the referendum were devastating to the pro-slave faction, and  “to the hideous embarrassment of Buchanan, the voters of Kansas turned on August 30th and rejected Lecompton by a vote of 11,812 to 1,926.” [21] The ever colorful and blunt Little Giant wroteThe agony is over,” cried one of my aides, “and thank God that the right has triumphed. Poor old Buck! Poor old Buck had just had his face rubbed in shit. By our “indomitable courage, “ as another aide put it, we’d whipped this “powerful and proscriptive” Administration and forced the Black Republicans to support a substitute measure which fully embodied the great principles of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.” [22] The victory of Douglas and his faction over the Buchanan faction in the Lecompton fight “ended a political battle which had convulsed the country and virtually destroyed two administrations, but the full consequences of the prolonged struggle had yet to become evident.” [23]

Pro-slavery Southerners were outraged and Buchanan used every measure that he could to crush the anti-Lecompton Democrats, but he had lost “one of the most vicious struggles in the history of Congress, Southern Democrats had seriously damaged the patience of their Northern counterparts, and Buchanan loyalists in the North were unseated wholesale by upstart Republicans in the 1858 congressional elections.” [24] Buchanan’s Presidency was discredited, his party divided, its majority in congress lost, and the South moving closer to secession. Southerners considered Douglas a traitor and accused him of betraying them. “A South Carolinian lamented that “this defection of Douglas has done more than all else to shake my confidence in Northern men on the slavery issue, for I have long regarded him as one of our safest and most reliable friends.” [25]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.81

[2] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.300

[3] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.314

[4] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.115

[5] Ibid. Freehling, The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 p.138

[6] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.165

[7] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.164

[8] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.211

[9] Ibid. Goldfield  America Aflame p.144

[10] Ibid. Freehling, The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 p.138

[11] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.340

[12] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury p.208

[13] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.166

[14] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury p.208

[15] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.166

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.115

[17] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury p.210

[18] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury pp.212-213

[19] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.168

[20] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury pp.215-216

[21] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.116

[22] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury p.216

[23] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.325

[24] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.116

[25] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.167

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When Political Parties Implode: “A Gross Violation of a Sacred Pledge”

whig-split

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been writing about the coming collapse of the Republican Party and have decided to republish some of my writings dealing with what happened to the Whig and Democratic Parties between 1854 and 1860. Today an article about how that process started from my draft text “Mine Eyes have seen the Glory” Race, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The Compromise of 1850 was followed by another congressional act dealing with the status of the Kansas, Nebraska Territory. Both territories lay north of the line barring slavery set by the Missouri Compromise. While that act had been gutted and for all practical sense made meaningless by the Compromise of 1850, it still remained on the books and applied to the establishment of new territories.

The new legislation was sparked by those who in the interest of Manifest Destiny were committed to organizing the territories of the nation to the Pacific, and in some cases to Central America and Cuba. The man at the heart of this legislation was Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois. Douglas saw the need for the organization of the territories and recognized that he needed Southern support for its passage. In response to pressure from Democrat Senators James Mason and Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia, Andrew Butler of South Carolina and David Atchison of Missouri, Douglas crafted the measure and included an “explicit repeal of the ban on slavery north of 36° 30’.” [1]

The explicit use of this measure in the legislation to organize these territories created a storm in both in Washington D.C. and throughout the country. Northern opponents, including Salmon Chase condemned the bill as being “an atrocious plot” of slave power to “convert free territory” into a “dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.” [2] Chase and his allies published the “Appeal of the Independent Democrats” who “condemned this “gross violation of a sacred pledge” and promised to “call the people to come to the rescue of the country from the domination of slavery.” [3] Chase closed the appeal by warning that “the dearest interests of freedom and the Union are in imminent peril” and called for religious and political organization to defeat the bill.” [4]

Horace Greeley, the publisher of the New York Tribune, transformed his paper into an instrument that he used to fight against the act. In an editorial Greeley charged that the Southern slave owners and politicians were:

“not content within its own proper limits,…it now proposed to invade and overrun the soil of freedom, and to unroll the pall of its darkness over virgin territory whereon slave has never stood. Freedom is to be elbowed out of its own home to make room for the leprous intruder. The free laborer is to be expelled that the slave may be brought in.” [5]

After months of wrangling the bill was passed. Historian William Freehling described it as “the latest and most notorious pro-southern law.” [6] The last hope of those who opposed the bill was a veto by Democrat President Franklin Pierce, However, Pierce buckled to the pressure put on him by the supporters of the bill, including many Northern Democrats who supported businesses, banks, and industries that benefited from slavery. The bill for the approval of the measure by the Southern delegations of both parties was nearly unanimous. However, the bill only passed the House of Representatives only due to the support of forty-two Northern Democrats who decided to support their Southern colleagues and antagonize their own constituents and did not get the majority support of any Northern delegation other than Douglas’s own state of Illinois.

To further humiliate their Northern colleague’s Southern senators blocked a measure passed in the House that would have provided 160 acres of land from public property to new settles in the territories. The Southerners opposed that measure because they believed that the passage of such a law “would prove a most efficient ally for Abolition by encouraging and stimulating the settlement of free farms with Yankees and foreigners pre-committed to resist the participancy of slave owners in the public domain.” [7] In other words, they wanted every incentive for slaveholders to move to the new territories while making it more difficult for people who might oppose slavery to do so.

Frederick Douglass condemned the legislation and understood that the “shame of slavery was not just the South’s, that the whole nation was complicit in it.” [8]  In his 1852 Independence Day address the powerful voice of Freemen and abolitionists everywhere spoke of the hypocrisy that the new laws for bolstering the support and spread of slavery. To do so he condemned them from the words of the Declaration of Independence itself:

“Fellow citizens: Pardon me, and allow me to ask, why I am called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessing resulting from independence to us?…

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals him to be more than all the days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up the crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than the people of these United States at this very hour.

Go where you may, search out where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival…” [9]

As the pressure mounted, the established political parties began to fray at the as those most committed to perpetuating slavery became more extreme in their views. Thus, the war was preceded by the fracturing of political parties and alliances that had worked for compromise in the previous decades to preserve the Union even at the cost of maintaining slavery. The outrage in the North over the Kansas-Nebraska Act combined with the previous Compromise of 1850 provoked a political and social firestorm.

The result of this increased tension shattered the Whig and the Democratic parties along sectional lines. The Whigs in the south collapsed into insignificance and in the North had disintegrated by 1856. The election of 1854 had shattered the Whigs precarious unity, and the bitter division destroyed the party as a national party. Senator Truman Smith resigned from the Senate in disgust and noted “The Whig party has been killed off by that miserable Nebraska business.” [10]  As a result many Northern Whigs gravitated to new political parties, including the nascent Republican Party, which gained Abraham Lincoln, who like many others left the Whigs.

The Democrats now were split between Northern and Southern factions but managed to keep their outward unity for a few more years. While the Democrats were still nominally a national party the losses in 64 of 88 Northern districts in the 1854 election ensured that the party was now for most part a regional party, a party dominated by its pro-slavery Southern wing. The 1854 election had cost the Democrats seventy-four of one hundred and fifty seven seats in the House. In New England only one of thirteen Democrats retained their seats, and in many other areas of the North. Many Northern Democrats too would find homes in the new Republican Party, including William Seward, Salmon Chase, Thaddeus Stevens and Schuyler Colfax. [11]

The national Whig and Democratic Parties that had dominated American life for decades were collapsing and as they did so, the fabric of the Union itself began to fray. The Whigs and the Democrats were national parties, and as such they were an important part of the bonds that held the country together, in them leaders of the North and the South mingled, became friends and worked together, but slavery destroyed that bond. When they splinted into sectional parties, with the Whigs collapsing and the Democrats splitting into hostile Northern and Southern factions it boded ill for the country at large.

Notes

[1] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.123

[2] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.124

[3] Ibid. Egnal  Clash of Extremes p.208

[4] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.94

[5] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.99

[6] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One p.559

[7] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.126

[8] Zinn, Howard The Other Civil War: Slavery and Struggle in Civil War America Harper Perennial, Harper and Row, New York 2011 p.20

[9] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War pp.20-21

[10] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.125

[11] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.215

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When Political Parties Implode: The Battle over the Lecompton Constitution and its Relevance Today

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been watching the implosion of the Republican Party with some concern, not because I am a Republican or support that party, but because I am a historian and understand that the effects of these kinds of crack ups are not just bad for the party concerned, but often for the country, because they reveal deeper social and political issues. As I watch this I am reminded of the crisis and battle regarding the Lecompton Constitution in 1858. Since the article deals with this in some detail I will cut to the bottom line. In 1858 the Democratic Party held majorities in both houses of Congress and the Presidency. It had been aided by the collapse of the Whig Party and the new republican Party was still in its infancy. But extremists Democrats sought to push through a measure to bring Kansas into the Union as a Slave State, though the measure was rife with fraud. It split the Democratic Party and for a time destroyed it as a national party and helped bring about the Civil War. The battle over the Lecompton constitution is an epic event in our history. 

The issues today are not the same by any means, but the rhetoric and the intransigence of the most zealous ideologues is destroying the Republican Party in much the same way other ideologues destroyed the Democratic Party in 1858.  I admit that I could be wrong, but everything that I see happening is pointing to the implosion and possible breakup of the Republican Party. This may be good for Democrats in the short term, but seldom is it good for the country. But whatever your political views are, I do hope that you read this article and think about the implications of it, and of what is happening in our country today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Stephen-Douglas-in-1858

Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858

Kansas was politically divided between two competing legislatures, each which claimed to be the voice of the people. The population of Kansas was heavily anti-slavery and many citizens felt disenfranchised by the official legislature, which was “a pro-slavery body elected by fraud in 1855.” [1] This body met in the city of Lecompton. In 1857 the Lecompton legislature sensed the opportunity to have Kansas admitted to the Union as a Slave State. It elected slavery supporters as members of a constitutional convention to draft a constitution which would be submitted to Congress for admission to the Union as a Slave State.

Free State partisans feared that that if they participated in the election that they would be “gerrymandered, and simply counted out by stuffed ballots,” and sat out the election. As a result it was “a quiet election, with many proslavery candidates unopposed and only 2,200 out of 9,000 registered voters going to the polls, a large majority of extreme proslavery men won election as delegates to the constitutional convention in September.” [2] But the result of the election was untenable, for “Two thousand voters in a territory with 24,000 eligible for the franchise had elected a body of delegates whom no one seriously regarded as representative of the majority opinion in Kansas.” [3]

The Lecompton legislature passed the proslavery constitution, but it was vetoed by the outgoing governor, John W. Geary. Geary accused “the pro-slavery legislature of attempting to stampede a rush to statehood on pro-slavery terms,” but his veto was overridden. The constitution had several provisions that most of the population found unacceptable. It protected owners of “the 200 slaves in Kansas, banned free blacks from the state, and prohibited any amendments to the constitution for seven years.” [4] The newly appointed governor of the territory, Robert J. Walker opposed the measure and denounced it “as a vile fraud, a bare counterfeit.” [5] Walker demanded a new, fair, referendum, which the newly elected president James Buchanan, also backed. In response many Southerners in Congress “threatened to secede unless the administration fired Walker and backed down on the referendum issue.” [6] The threat of secession by Southerners in support of the radical minority in Lecompton led to chaos in the Democratic Party which controlled the House, the Senate and held the Presidency.

james-buchanan

President James Buchanan

James Buchanan, who had rode into office on the votes of the South was now pressured by Southern legislators to change his position on the Lecompton Constitution. Buchannan’s cabinet, which was heavily Southern, and pro-slavery expansion also used its influence to pressure the president. In response to the pressure, Buchanan reversed his previous stance in regard to Kansas and endorsed the bill. This provoked a new outcry, this time from members of the Democratic Party. Many Northern Democrats were outraged by the reversal and the threats of secession. Most of the Northern Democrats were willing to accept and even defend slavery where it existed, but they were opposed to the expansion of slavery. They felt betrayed by their president’s actions and rose in opposition to the bill that would admit Kansas as a Slave State.

The formidable Stephen A. Douglas, the Little Giant who had so skillfully crafted the Compromise of 1850 using the principle of popular sovereignty, led these Democrats in their fight against Buchanan’s acceptance and endorsement of Lecompton. Douglas’s previous actions to support the rights of Slave States had made him a hero in much of the South and his stature in both the North and the South made him the front runner to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1860.

But Douglas, who had worked so hard to build compromises that would hold the Union together could not countenance the actions and tactics of the Southern members of his party. Douglas was a political realist and not an ideologue. He was very sympathetic to slave holders and no supporter of emancipation, in fact Douglas was a racist, and was convinced “of the inferiority of the Negro, and he had a habit of stating it with brutal bluntness, “I do not believe that the Negro is any kin of mine at all…. I believe that this government of ours was founded, and wisely founded upon white basis. It was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity, to be executed and managed by white men.” [7] But despite his own beliefs Douglas understood the danger that the pro-slavery extremists supporting Lecompton were to the party, and he knew that if the bill was passed that it would destroy the unity of the Democratic Party and possibly the Union itself.

Douglas was outraged and when he saw the news that in the Washington Union that Buchanan had decided to support Lecompton he wrote:

“This left no doubt were the old bastard stood. “Can you believe his Goddamned arrogance?” I told a friend. “I run the Committee on Territories. He should have consulted me before approving the Lecompton fraud. He’ll pay for that. By God, sir, I made Mr. James Buchanan, and by God, sir, I’ll unmake him.” [8]

As such, the Little Giant threw caution to the wind and stormed to the White House “to confront Buchanan on the “trickery and juggling of the Lecompton constitution.” He warned the president of that his actions in support of the Lecompton party would “destroy the Democratic party in the North,” and we warned that “if Buchanan insisted on going through with it, Douglas swore to oppose him in Congress.” [9]

It was an epic confrontation. Douglas recalled, “The Lecompton constitution, I told Buchanan bluntly, was a blatant fraud on the people of Kansas and the process of democracy, I warned him not to recommend acceptance of it. With his head titled forward in that bizarre habit of his, he said that he intended to endorse the constitution and send it to Congress. “If you do,” I thundered, “I’ll denounce it the moment that it is read.” His face turned red with anger. “I’ll make Lecompton a party test,” he said. “I expect every democratic Senator to support it.” I will not, sir![10] Buchanan then cut Douglas off.

Angry and offended by Douglas Buchanan issued his own threat to Douglas saying, “I desire you to remember that no Democrat ever yet differed from an administration of his own choice without being crushed….Beware of the fate of Tallmadge and Rives,” two senators who had gone into political oblivion after crossing Andrew Jackson.” Douglas was undeterred and fought back, Douglas riposted: “Mr. President, I wish to remind you that General Jackson is dead, sir.” [11] It was an unprecedented action by a sitting Senator, to confront a President of one’s own party and threaten to oppose him in Congress was not done.

Following the confrontation with Buchanan Douglas was even more determined to defeat the Lecompton party. In righteous anger Douglas “took his political life into his own hands and assailed the Lecompton Constitution on the floor of the Senate as a mockery of the popular sovereignty principle.” [12] Buchanan’s allies in Congress fought back, and the two sides sometimes came into physical confrontation with each other in the chambers of Congress. When Buchanan’s supporters pushed for Lecompton’s approval and the admission of Kansas as a Slave State, Douglas fired back, warning “You do,” I said, “and it will lead directly to civil war!” I warned the anti-Lecompton Democrats of the North that the President intended to put the knife to the throat of every man who dared to think for himself on this question and carry out principles in good faith. “God forbid,” I said “that I ever surrender my right to differ from a President of the United States for my own choice. I am not a tool of any President!” [13]

Under Douglas the Northern Democrats joined with Republicans for the first time to defeat the admission of Kansas as a Slave State. Douglas recalled the battle:

“After the Christmas recess, the Administration unleashed its heavy horsemen: Davis, Slidell, Hunter, Toombs, and Hammond, all southerners. They damned me as a traitor and demanded that I be stripped of my chairmanship of the Committee on Territories and read out of the Democratic party. Let the fucking bastards threaten, proscribe, and do their worst, I told my followers; it would not cause any honest man to falter. If my course divided the Democratic party, it would not be my fault. We were engaged in a great struggle for principle, I said, and we would defy the Administration to the bitter end.” [14]

Southern members of Congress fought back and as the battle continued their acrimony towards Douglas grew and their rhetoric against the Little Giant became more heated. He was “at the head of the Black column…stained with the dishonor of treachery without parallel…patent double dealing…detestable heresies…filth of his defiant recreancy…a Dead Cock in the Pit…away with him to the tomb which he is digging for his political corpse.” [15]

But Douglas was undeterred by the threats to his career, he saw that he was in the right, and though he was in agreement with the philosophy of his opponents regarding slavery as an institution he realized that appeasing the South was not an option in regard to Lecompton. He wrote:

“My forces in the House fought a brilliant delaying action while I worked to win over wavering Democrats. When we introduced a substitute bill, Buchanan called a dozen congressmen to the White House and exhorted them not to forsake the administration. He was cursing and in tears. He had reason to be: on April first, a coalition of ninety-two Republicans, twenty-two anti-Lecompton Democrats, and six Know-Nothings sent Lecompton down to defeat by passing the substitute bill. This bill provided for a popular vote on the Lecompton constitution and for a new convention if the people rejected that document, as they surely would.” [16]

The substitute bill was passed by the Senate as well and sent back to Kansas for a popular vote. When the Lecompton Constitution was resubmitted to the people of Kansas, “to the hideous embarrassment of Buchanan, the voters of Kansas turned on August 30th and rejected Lecompton by a vote of 11,812 to 1,926.” [17] Douglas wroteThe agony is over,” cried one of my aides, “and thank God that the right has triumphed. Poor old Buck! Poor old Buck had just had his face rubbed in shit. By our “indomitable courage, “ as another aide put it, we’d whipped this “powerful and proscriptive” Administration and forced the Black Republicans to support a substitute measure which fully embodied the great principles of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.” [18]

Pro-slavery Southerners were outraged and Buchanan used every measure that he could to crush the anti-Lecompton Democrats, but he had lost “one of the most vicious struggles in the history of Congress, Southern Democrats had seriously damaged the patience of their Northern counterparts, and Buchannan loyalists in the North were unseated wholesale by upstart Republicans in the 1858 congressional elections.” [19] Buchanan’s Presidency was discredited, his party divided, its majority in congress lost, and the South moving closer to secession. Southerners considered Douglas a traitor and accused him of betraying them. “A South Carolinian lamented that “this defection of Douglas has done more than all else to shake my confidence in Northern men on the slavery issue, for I have long regarded him as one of our safest and most reliable friends.” [20]

The fight over Lecompton was a watershed. It served to illuminate how “minuscule minorities’ initial concerns ballooned into unmanageable majoritarian crises. The tiny fraction of Missouri slaveholders who lived near the Kansas border, comprising a tinier fraction of the South and a still tinier fraction of the Union, had demanded their chance to protect the southern hinterlands.” [21] The crisis that they provoked drew in the majority of Southern Democrats who came to their aid in Congress and provoked Northerners to condemn the Southern minority, which they believed was disenfranchising the majority in order to expand slavery to new territories.

The issue of Lecompton galvanized the political parties of the North and split the Democratic Party into Northern and Southern factions, dooming it as a national party for the foreseeable future. It was also the first time that a coalition Northern Democrats sided with anti-slavery forces. Through the efforts of “Republicans and anti-Lecompton Douglas Democrats, Congress had barely turned back a gigantic Slave Power Conspiracy to bend white men’s majoritarianism to slavemaster’s dictatorial needs, first in Kansas, then in Congress.” [22]

The political impact of the Lecompton crisis on the Democratic Party was an unmitigated disaster. The party suffered a major election defeat in the 1858 mid-term elections and lost its majorities, and in a sense fulfilling Lincoln’s words “became increasingly a house divided against itself.” [23] Douglas’s courageous opposition to Lecompton would be chief among the 1860 split in the Democratic Party, Southern Democrats turned with a vengeance on the man who had been their favorite in the 1856 democratic primary. This doomed his candidacy for President and ensured the election of Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, a man that he had defeated for Senate in that critical summer of 1858.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.81

[2] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.300

[3] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.314

[4] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.115

[5] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.165

[6] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.164

[7] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.340

[8] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury p.208

[9] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.166

[10] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury p.208

[11] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.166

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.115

[13] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury p.210

[14] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury pp.212-213

[15] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.168

[16] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury pp.215-216

[17] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.116

[18] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury p.216

[19] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.116

[20] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.167

[21] Ibid. Freehling, The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 p.140

[22] Ibid. Freehling, The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 p.142

[23] Fehrenbacher, Don E. Kansas, Republicanism, and the Crisis of the Union in The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.94

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