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.


  • Tom Sokolowski

    Thanks for the history lesson Peter. Fascinating how history seems to repeat itself; just change Confederate States to Tea Party Express and you have yourself an uncanny historical similarity.

    • Phineas Worthington

      Funny how it was the Republicans who freed the slaves and it was the Democrats who kept blacks separate but equal.

  • Phineas Worthington

    Key difference is that the ACA was passed only a few years ago and slavery was the legal/economic norm in the whole world for all of history up to that time. The ACA is not the status quo now whereas slavery was the status quo at that time.

    More importantly, the open contradiction of establishing a system of law based upon individual rights while maintaining the legal institution of slavery is what led to conflict. Contradictions lead to conflict. We cannot value freedom and slavery simultaneously.

    • Tom Sokolowski

      Phineas, you said: “Proponents of the ACA must ask themselves, ” Will this law make us more enslaved? Or Will this law make us more free?”

      Sorry, but the premise of your comment is irrelevant. What folks could ask themselves though, will the ACA improve their lives? And the answer is yes because thanks to Obamacare sick people won’t be forced into bankruptcy because of their medical bills, people with pre-existing conditions will get an affordable healthcare plan and not be turned down by insurance companies, young adults will be insured on their parent’s policies up to the age of 26, and tens of millions of Americans will be able to afford healthcare insurance for the first time. 45,000 people have died each year due to their inability to get access to health care insurance. Under Obamacare, those people will be saved.

      Your argument of freedom and slavery has nothing to do with Obamacare. Besides, the history of Republicans’ talk about “freedom” usually means their freedom to oppress others
      and to take away people’s rights.

      • Phineas Worthington

        This law protects not one individual right. This law will encourage further dependence upon government and it will increase government debt. I call dependence a form of slavery. I call debt a form of slavery too. And this view is not unprecedented.

        I would agree the Republicans are failing miserably at the politics of it though. Sen. Nunez described it well. The ACA is a new entitlement program. As such, itemized budgeting, though used a lot in past budgeting, will not address the problem effectively. The law needs to be addressed legislatively. And as Sen. Nunez said, even if the ACA is fully de-funded, we would still go broke if nothing changes.

        • Tom Sokolowski

          You’ve got to be kidding, right? ACA gives us a regular modern healthcare insurance program where prevention is the key to health, not a visit to the ER after the fact, when in many cases it’s just too late. ACA will save lives and save money, and will bring us, along with Tea Partiers kicking and screaming, into the 21st century of modern healthcare. It’s not dependence; it’s simply health insurance, giving us healthier outcomes and healthier lives.

          I agree with you that the Republicans are failing miserably; not just the politics of it, but in everything they do. Republicans have introduced no new laws, no new ideas, nothing. They tried to defund ACA over 40 times, and failed at that too. The result will be evidenced in the 2014 election cycle where many Tea Partiers will be thrown out of office in disgust, along with their ridiculous tri-corner hats.

          • Robert Piazza

            The ACA will gradually transit into a single payer plan which is what the progressive left wanted all along.

            The quality and availability of health care will deteriorate along with it.
            For confirmation of this claim, just look at those counties with single payer health insurance!

          • Tom Sokolowski

            The ACA is a compromise that gives the insurance industry millions of new customers. It’s here to stay, and to say the ACA will transition into a single payer plan would be incorrect.

            In the last ten years our health care has doubled in cost, making it the most expensive in the industrialized world. Without ACA, it would have doubled again in the next ten years and we can’t afford that. I think the private health care plans of the ACA may be a good way to tackle those problems. I agree with you on about progressives wanting single payer. Couldn’t get it because that Socialist Obama didn’t want to touch the existing multi-billion dollar insurance industry.

            Regarding your comment about the quality of health care being degraded by single payer, all you have to do is look at the countries
            that currently have it; 32 of the 33 developed nations, with us being the lone exception. According to the World Health Organization, we’re 1st in health care spending per capita but 39th in infant mortality, 43rd in adult female mortality, 42nd in adult male mortality, and 36th in life expectancy. In general outcomes, we rank 37th. Single payer countries all rank far above us in the same categories, but with much less cost.

            A single payer healthcare program spreads the cost thus lowers the price. Further, businesses are disadvantaged in the global market because they have to factor in health care coverage costs that single
            payer countries don’t. A single payer health care would reduce costs to them also.

  • Fred Allebach

    It’s felt like civil war for a while now and I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar doesn’t happen soon to touch it off. People are steamed enough, situations are impossible enough, government has been made unworkable enough. Red and blue find it impossible to even talk the same language, we’re in different worlds. Maybe as the shut down and debt ceiling are negotiated, we can just give the reds Texas, Kansas, the South et al and blue will stay on all the coasts, in all the big cities, university towns, the North, New England etc.

    • Phineas Worthington

      So just end slavery like they should have.

  • Phineas Worthington

    I think the premise of a tyrannical minority would be a more apt description of how the slave trade was reestablished after the Articles of Confederation with passage of the Constitution. That happened at the insistence of two out of thirteen states that would not join otherwise due to the requirement of unanimity to approve the document.