Minority rule and the Civil War

By Peter Lewis

The roots of the Republican Party’s efforts to nullify the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) go deep into American history. Once again, as in the events leading up to the American Civil War, the proponents of nullification are primarily from southern states. Lawmakers representing affluent business owners – most Southern businesses were agricultural and depended on slave labor – objected to laws passed by Congress (and upheld by the courts) that they said threatened their interests. Led by John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the southern “states’ rights” advocates argued that states had the authority to “nullify” federal laws with which they disagreed.

The Southern lawmakers, according to the Harvard historian William E. Gienapp, “increasingly ... engaged in a dangerous game of brinkmanship, steadily escalating their demands on the North, heedless of the consequences.”

Having lost the 1860 election, the South refused to accept the results. South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and Alabama had already voted to secede even before president-elect Abraham Lincoln left Illinois for Washington, D.C.

In January 1861, a moderate lawmaker wrote to Lincoln, urging him, for the good of the country, to compromise with the Southern minority. The compromise: The southern states might agree temporarily to stay in the Union, but only if the Union allowed the South to extend slavery all the way to the Pacific Ocean, into territories that today include Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California.

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