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.

Lincoln wrote back that the failure of the minority party to abide by majority rule – not slavery itself – was at the core of the secession crisis. He wrote:

“We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union …”

Lincoln was still hopeful of avoiding bloodshed when he took the oath of office on March 4, 1861. In his inaugural address, Lincoln said:

A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Five weeks later, on April 12, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter, beginning the bloodiest war in American history.

In July 1864, Jefferson Davis told visitors: “We seceded to rid ourselves of the rule of the majority ...”

Professor Gienapp of Harvard concluded that the two-party system failed in 1861, with southerners willing to break the government to defend their minority interests, and northerners equally willing to defend the law and majority rule. Gienapp laid the blame on the leaders of the two major political parties for failing to control their radical minority factions, and for failing to encourage moderate voters, which, he contended, would keep a national two-party system functioning. But the crazies took control over weak leadership, and the entire country paid a terrible price.

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  Sonoma resident Peter Lewis is a former senior writer and columnist for The New York Times.