“If we do not defend ourselves none will defend us; if we yield we will be more and more pressed as we recede; and if we submit we will be trampled under foot. I hold concession or compromise to be fatal. If we concede an inch, concession would follow compromise, until our ranks would be so broken that effectual resistance would be impossible.” – Senator John C. Calhoun, South Carolina
The American Civil War was, following Clauswitz’s adage, politics by other means. And those politics revolved around the conflict among great moral, economic and geographic forces – the immorality of human slavery, brought to fore by the growing abolitionist movement in the Northern manufacturing states; the dominance of slavery in the American economy, concentrated in the Southern agricultural states; and the ambition for western territorial expansion of the new political union.
The “Three-Fifths Compromise” broke a political deadlock in the drafting of the American Constitution, providing an accommodation to the Southern states, allowing them to count three-fifths of their slave population for purposes of allocating Congressional seats intended to be proportionate to population; a schizoid solution providing over-representation of Southern property owners in the House of Representatives based on population considered property. The “Great Compromise” in the Constitution’s negotiation extended this political sleight-of-hand to the Electoral College, increasing the influence of Southern states in the election of the President under the new system of government. From this, the nation’s underlying political forces, predating its founding, were embedded in its governing structure.
The steady westward expansion of the political union threatened the Southern states due to abolitionist efforts to restrict slavery in new states. The “Missouri Compromise of 1820” admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state, while banning slavery from the remaining Louisiana Purchase lands north of the 36º 30’ parallel (the Tennessee/Kentucky border extended west). More complex, the “Compromise of 1850” admitted California as a free state, but required it to elect one of two Senators to support slavery; created territories of Utah and New Mexico from ceded Texas lands; banned the slave trade, but not slavery, in the District of Columbia; and incorporated a new Fugitive Slave Act making capture and return of escaped slaves a Federal responsibility. Next, the “Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854” superseded the Missouri Compromise, admitting these territories to the Union with slavery to be decided by future plebiscite in those states. Heated debate over the act incited pro-slavery Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina to attack anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, beating him with his cane to the Senate floor; and its passage sparked violence between pro- and anti-slavery settlers in the new states. Opposition to the act led to formation of the Republican Party, and the emergence to national prominence of an obscure lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional in the Dredd Scott case, declaring that slaves could never become citizens, and setting the stage for the nation’s final path to the Civil War.
John C. Calhoun of South Carolina (1782-1850) was one of the most prominent American politicians in the generation following the founding fathers, serving as Congressman, Secretary of War, Vice President, Secretary of State, and Senator. Calhoun graduated from Yale College with distinction, completed a year of law school, then abandoned his law practice to pursue his political ambitions. Calhoun was elected to South Carolina’s state legislature (1808); then to the U.S. House of Representatives (1811); was appointed Secretary of War by James Monroe (1812); was elected vice president under John Quincy Adams (1824); was re-elected vice-president under Andrew Jackson (1828); resigned to enter the Senate (1832); served as Secretary of State under John Tyler (1844-45); then returned to the Senate until his death (1850). Calhoun was a member of the Senate’s “Great Triumvirate” including himself, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, their oratory dominating the body through the nation’s formative decades of the 1830’s and 1840’s. All three advocated strong Federal powers – sponsoring a central bank; westward expansion; road and port infrastructure; permanent army and naval forces; and protective tariffs to support the nation’s burgeoning manufacturing base.
As the abolitionist movement became increasingly influential, limitation of slavery in new states began to diminish the advantaged political position of the Southern states in Congress and the Electoral College, and their ability to preserve slavery, so essential to their economies, became threatened. As this happened, Calhoun’s view of the Federal government’s powers under the Constitution evolved from strong advocacy to the opposite extreme – subordination of the Federal government’s authority to that of the States, oratorically disguised by Calhoun as protection of “minority rights”. In 1831 Calhoun publicly asserted his “Nullification” doctrine, a theory that the Constitution was a voluntary compact among sovereign states, so that any one State, and, in defiance of recognized authority of the United States Supreme Court, only a state, could declare an act of Congress unconstitutional. Under Calhoun’s doctrine, proponents of a Federal law could overcome nullified legislation by amending the Constitution. But this would require a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress, and ratification by three-fourths of the states, a bar so high as to utterly destabilize the Federal government’s legislative authority, making the central government relatively powerless. Calhoun was not fighting for some high-minded theory of the Constitution, or for “minority rights”, but for protection of the institution of slavery, critical to the wealthy landed aristocracy of the South, which was already over-represented in Congress and in Presidential elections. The problem came to a head with the “Nullification Crisis” in 1832, when South Carolina refused to collect tariffs on imported manufactured goods, and President Jackson prepared to send Federal troops to the state to do so; the conflict was resolved when South Carolina conceded the issue.
There is better scholarship, more thorough accounting of the American Civil War, but none more poignant than Bruce Catton’s trilogy – Mr. Lincoln’s Army; Glory Road; and A Stillness at Appamatox; the latter, winning a Pulitzer Prize, the story of the last stage of the Virginia war. From March to July, 1862, the Union Army, under the conservative command of George McClellan, who had trained it, and backed by the dominant industrial base in the North, had grown to a leviathan. Irish immigrants, fleeing famine, were pulled by the thousands off the docks in New York, installed on ships with uniforms and weapons, sailed south to the peninsula framed by the James and York Rivers, and engaged in the effort to seize the prize, Richmond, the Confederate capital, its political and military command center, and its primary port and manufacturing base; its capture sure to bring defeat of the rebellion. The Union force, numbers and equipment overwhelming Confederate forces defending the path to the capital, fought its way to positions just six miles from the city; but then a new commander, Robert E. Lee, while greatly outnumbered, used aggressive tactics to push the Union force back down the peninsula, where they boarded ships, and, ordered by Lincoln, returned north to protect the Union capital of Washington.
The failed Peninsula Campaign (90,000 casualties over three months) was followed by increasingly destructive engagements at Antietam (23,000 casualties in one day); Shiloh (24,000 casualties in two days); Stones River (25,000 casualties in three days); Chancellorsville (31,000 casualties in three days); Chickamauga (35,000 casualties in two days); Gettysburg (51,000 casualties in three days). The public – American and European – were shocked by massive causalities from this newly industrialized warfare. Lincoln finally found an aggressive commander, Ulysses Grant, fit to the task of ruthlessly running the Confederate army to ground and destroying it. Grant’s Overland Campaign finally surrounded Richmond which was evacuated; Lee ordered supply warehouses burned, the fires spread uncontrolled, and destroyed the center of the city. The Confederate capital, its political center, its manufacturing base and primary inland port, was abandoned and destroyed prior to falling into the Union Army’s control; the end of the Confederacy was near.
By the closing months of the war, newly constructed railroads were carrying equipment and forces from northern ports and factories, to the shifting battlefront through Virginia; army engineers with teams of axmen felling and milling timber, bridging ravines in a day. Lee’s army was steadily, gradually decimated; halved during their retreat from Richmond; halved again with the disaster at Petersburg; then halved again on the long road to Appamatox; numbers reduced by death, wounds, disease and desertion; wounded soldiers walking or abandoned; troops starved and diseased; uniforms filthy and ragged, boots worn through and tossed aside; equipment and weapons worn, damaged, failing and abandoned; starved and wounded horses slaughtered for food; and then, finally, trapped, exhausted, unable to retreat, Lee’s force willing but incapable of fighting. Union forces, supplies and equipment growing steadily, arriving continually by newly constructed rail and wagon train to the final confrontation; new personnel and uniforms; new rifles, bayonets and cannon; new steel glinting in the sun, now rising high on this last day; opposing forces aligned across a broad field by a small village, prepared for final battle. And then, after a long silence, a lone rider from Lee’s lines riding out, fast, with a white flag, escorted immediately by Union cavalry to Grant, who, wearing an unadorned, mud-spattered private’s uniform, rode off to a short meeting with Lee in the front parlor of a farmhouse on the edge of town, owned, with poetic irony, by the man who had sold his farm at Manassas, after it was destroyed in the first battle of the war. Grant, at Lincoln’s direction, provided generous terms, every surrendered man would keep his horse and rifle, promise to cease hostilities against the Union, and return to his home. Lee signed a simple surrender document, and was jeered as he departed; Grant ordered his men to parade formation along his path back to the Confederate line, then sharing of Union food and medical supplies with the defeated army, as they stacked arms and straggled in small groups from the field.
The war, fought to resolve an economic and moral conflict that proved resistant to the political process, became the “other means” of resolving the problem, and left three-quarters of a million Americans dead, more than all other American wars fought in its entire history. No one contributed more to the onset of the American Civil War than John Calhoun, who devoted his enormous influence to obstruction of efforts to resolve the slavery problem peacefully, through political compromise, while working tirelessly to undermine the authority of the Federal government, and to making the powers of the States supreme under the Constitutional system. Shortly before his death in 1850, Calhoun told a friend that the Union was doomed to dissolution – “I fix its probable occurrence within twelve years or three Presidential terms.” While Calhoun’s doctrine of Nullification was never fully accepted, neither was it fully rejected. Calhoun’s fame, oratory and influence laid the groundwork for the populist belief in “states’ rights” that so undermined perception of the legitimacy of Federal authority, that it led just a decade later to the Secession Crisis, during which newly elected President Lincoln requested a legal review of the issue, which proved inconclusive under the Constitution, and so dissolution of the Union led to civil war. So prominent was Calhoun’s role in this great schism, that shortly after the surrender of Confederate forces at Appomattox, the poet Walt Whitman heard a Union soldier comment that the true monuments to Calhoun were the wasted farms and gaunt chimneys scattered over the South.
More than a century and a half later, forty-six state legislatures have proposed more than 360 new “election security” laws intended to prevent what happened in the 2020 election, that is, major cities, with large, concentrated vote results tallied and reported last, heavily populated by people of color, swinging early suburban and rural election results in key states, and thus swinging the final vote tally to Joe Biden. This dynamic became the basis for the premeditated lie that Biden’s election was somehow illegitimate; the lie trumpeted loudly by the losing candidate; the lie echoed and granted the veneer of legitimacy by the nation’s Republican Party leadership; the lie amplified by the panoply of right wing broadcast, cable and internet media outlets, all combining to inundate the country with their propaganda; the lie providing the false basis for several Republican U.S. Senators and most of their counterparts in the House of Representatives to disrupt the final, formal count of electoral votes with illegitimate objections on January 6; this lie about the election result inciting the first insurrection against the Federal government since the American Civil War; this lie now metastasizing in the minds of the losing portion of the electorate.
To address the threat to voting rights, so fundamental to our democracy, those rights achieved after a century and a half of tortuous debate in America’s drawing rooms and legislative bodies; preached in our churches; fought on our own battlefields in the most destructive war in our history; the effort sustained through the extended reign of terror and intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan after Reconstruction; then on the streets through the long, bloody struggle of the post-war generation; all leading to major executive and legislative action through the 1950’s, the 1960’s and the 1970’s to break Jim Crow; to integrate our society; to allow people of color to participate fully in our society and in our political system as equals; to live up to the ideals of our founding documents. Now, our national cancer is rising again, and the Senate’s Democrats have brought forth a discussion of changes to or elimination of the filibuster as a means of passing HR#1, a proposed Federal law creating a unified national system of voting procedures that will guarantee voting access by all citizens, across all states and territories.
After all of this history, after the debauchery of the Trump administration, after the obscene invasion of the Capitol disrupted the electoral college vote; now, like a scene from the end of a horror movie, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has come out of the dark, to the floor of the United States Senate, not to express his desire to achieve election procedures that are both secure and guarantee access to the ballot – not a word attributed to this goal. Not with the well worn myths of the Senate’s “ancien regime“, virtually draped in Spanish moss, regarding the merits of the filibuster in encouraging legislative compromise and comity of the Senate. Instead, McConnell has issued a blunt and grotesque threat to the Democrats – and the country – that the Republicans will respond to any proposal to alter or eliminate the filibuster with obstructive parliamentary procedure to turn the Senate into a legislative wasteland; to make the Federal government dysfunctional in the face of substantial problems urgently needing to be addressed; and to exact revenge with radical right policies when the Republicans are back in power:
“Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like . . . none of us have served one minute in the Senate that was completely drained of comity and consent . . . this is an institution that requires unanimous consent to turn the lights on before noon . . . everything the Republican Senate did to President Obama would be child’s play compared with the disaster that Democrats would create for their own priorities if they broke the Senate . . . this would create an entirely new form of government . . . this chaos wouldn’t open up an express lane for the Biden presidency to speed into the history books . . . the Senate would be more like a 100-car pileup – nothing moving as gawkers watch . . . the pendulum would swing both ways . . . and it would swing hard.” – Senator Mitch McConnell, Kentucky
McConnell’s threats are the opposite of what he states the purpose of the filibuster to be – preserving compromise and comity of the Senate; if these are what he desires to maintain, why not respond with a compromise and express a desire to achieve a balanced and sensible voting rights bill? If McConnell brings to bear his threats to use parliamentary arcana to stifle Senate action entirely, keeping the lights off, won’t these same tools be replicated by the Democrats to stymie any Republican initiatives when they are in power? Threats of radical right wing legislation ring hollow in light of the Republicans’ failure, after a decade of oft-repeated loud promises, to eliminate or replace the Obama health care plan; this serves as political precedent for other legislation with strong support of the public.
McConnell’s phony claims about the sanctity of the Senate’s procedural rules are belied by two decades of obstructionism through his own abuse of the Senate’s rules, most notably his refusal to even schedule a hearing, let alone a vote, to prevent a sitting President (Obama) from appointing a nominee to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, a blatant usurpation of a clear and distinct Presidential power under the Constitution. This was followed just five years later by his own elimination of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in order to complete a last minute confirmation of a poorly qualified nominee with just three years judicial experience and holding bizarre, extremist judicial beliefs, in the waning days of the lame-duck Trump administration; McConnell’s justification exactly the opposite of the one he had articulated five years earlier. It seems clear that the Senate’s rules, even direct Constitutional powers, are sacrosanct when McConnell is protecting Republican political and corporate interests; and are quickly set aside when they interfere with Republican policy objectives.
McConnell’s fatuous threats serve as a confession of the motivation and goals of the Republican Party under his two decades of leadership in the Senate – to prevent the Democrats from governing the country when they are in power, and to prevent the government from functioning when the Republicans are in power – passing increasingly drastic tax cuts that starve the government of funds while enhancing the wealth of the country’s most privileged class; legislating increasingly ruthless policies that reduce the cost to American industry of wages, pensions and health care for their workforces, forcing many into increasingly marginal and desperate financial circumstances; deregulating the financial industry that, after a half-century of stability, collapsed like a a house of cards, coming dangerously close to destruction of the nation’s economy, its massive cleanup costs forced upon the working and middle classes; dismantling of environmental regulation of the extraction industry that threaten the environment critical to the health of all Americans; promotion of trade policies that take advantage of cheap foreign labor without reciprocal protection of America’s labor and environmental standards; and installing judges throughout the Federal judiciary to support those libertarian policies.
The current debate over the filibuster is again centered around the basic issue of rights of African-Americans to enjoy the rights and freedoms associated with American citizenship. And now Senator McConnell has resolved to use “scorched earth” tactics to prevent the Federal government from ensuring these basic rights, or to function at all. This truly is a “scorched earth” approach to politics in the context of a system of government that relies on compromise. There is precedent in our history for our system failing due to the intransigence of a primary political faction to compromise based on extreme and distorted views of Constitutional function. Senator McConnell would do well to re-consider the proposed voting reforms, the misuse of the filibuster, and the underlying Republican election lie that his party has popularized, a lie now metastasizing into a long term, and potentially irresolvable division of the country’s electorate. If not, McConnell risks having his “other means” to resolution of political conflict result in his long, inglorious career sharing the historical ignominy of John Calhoun.