Why this May Be the Most Important Election Since 1860

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Mr. Halpern, professor of history at Henderson State University (Arkansas), is the author of UNIONS, RADICALS AND DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTS: SEEKING CHANGE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (Greenwood Press, 2003).

A number of leading Democrats commented at their convention that this year’s election is the most important one in their lifetime. They’re right. In fact, this is the most significant election since that of 1860. Then, as now, the very survival of a republican form of government is at stake.

We have to look back to James Buchanan, the fifteenth president of the United States, to find a president as reactionary as the current occupant of the White House. Serving on the eve of the greatest crisis in the country’s history, the Civil War, Buchanan sought to stop the noisy debate about slavery by making limits on the slaveholders’ power politically and constitutionally impossible. Bush, arriving in the White House at a time of growing criticism at home and abroad of corporate-dominated globalization, has attempted to tilt the government so far in the direction of the U.S. corporate elite that it will be unassailable in the future.

Buchanan, of course, was a Democrat, but, as students in U.S. history survey classes learn, the Republican party of our day has many similarities to the Democratic party of the pre-Civil War era. The Democratic party then fashioned itself as the “white man’s party” and chastised its opponents for appealing to blacks. The Republican party in recent years has opposed affirmative action and catered to white male racism and sexism. The pre-Civil War Democrats emphasized the ideal of limited government but did not shy away from restricting the civil liberties of those who opposed slavery. Bush’s Republicans likewise employ the rhetoric of limiting the size and intrusiveness of government while increasing spending on the military and simultaneously eroding basic civil liberties of those it deems suspect.

Both Bush and Buchanan rode into office with the electoral votes of all the Southern states. Newspaper readers today know how fond Bush is of his ranch; Buchanan was equally fond of his Pennsylvania estate known as Wheatland.

Each president is closely associated with one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history.

Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian, improperly maneuvered to gain a northern vote from a Pennsylvanian on the Supreme Court to strengthen the impact of the Court’s Southern majority in the infamous Dred Scott case. The Court ruled that Scott had no standing to sue for his freedom since “a black man had no rights that a white man was bound to respect” and that Congress acted unconstitutionally when it barred slavery from a U.S. territory. Buchanan and the Court majority hoped to destroy the Republican party’s political chances by making its platform of eliminating slavery from the territories a legal impossibility.

In Bush vs. Gore, the Supreme Court’s Republican majority intervened to prevent the Florida vote count from proceeding in order to preserve Bush’s slim lead in the popular vote in that state so as to assure his accession to the White House.

While Buchanan’s shenanigans were designed to prevent future victories by his opponents, the Court’s partisanship in Bush vs. Gore immediately determined the results of the election. Both decisions seriously eroded public confidence in the fair-mindedness and independence of the judiciary and led to serious questioning of the degree to which the conservative side adhered to the norms of republican government, or, as Lincoln put it, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Like Buchanan, Bush is fond of waging aggressive and illegal wars. Buchanan was secretary of state when President Polk, with Buchanan’s support, launched a war to grab half of Mexico. Buchanan opposed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo because he wanted even more Mexican land than the half of Mexico the U.S. acquired by the terms of the treaty. While U.S. ambassador to Britain, he joined two other ambassadors in signing the Ostend Manifesto claiming a U.S. right to acquire Cuba.

Bush has thus far waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, hints at additional targets, and declares a continuing and seemingly permanent war against terrorism. In Buchanan’s case, the goal was to preserve the stability of slavery since he was fond of Southern leaders and knew their commitment to preserving their way of life. As a child of today’s corporate elite, Bush is fond of the members of the small group that dominates the U.S. political economy and wishes to extend its reach globally and make its rule more secure.

Bush questions the patriotism of anyone who criticizes his war policies while the Patriot Act adds grave new restrictions on civil liberties today. In the decades before the Civil War, Buchanan blamed abolitionists for all the division in the country, supported the destruction of abolitionist pamphlets by postal office officials, and authored the Senate’s gag rule to reject abolitionist petitions automatically.

The most serious crisis of the Buchanan presidency was the conflict between pro-slavery and free-soil forces in Kansas Territory, while the instability and violence in Iraq is Bush’s most serious crisis. Buchanan sought Kansas’s admission as a slave state even though his own appointed governor, a Mississippi Democrat, said the proposed pro-slavery constitution had the support of only 10 percent of settlers. In a similar fashion, Bush through the Coalition Provisional Authority prevented both municipal and national elections in Iraq and has foisted on the country an unrepresentative “government” while continuing to maintain an occupation army of 140,000 and establishing the world’s largest embassy in the country’s Republican Palace.

Both Bush and Buchanan came into office at times of great national division. Each regarded only their opponents as responsible for that division. By his one-sided, pro-slavery actions, Buchanan helped intensify the division that he recognized was dangerous. He thereby contributed to bringing on the Civil War, an unintended consequence of siding with the extremist Southern rights faction in the Democratic party. His actions with regard to Kansas in particular propelled a split in the Democratic party.

Bush, by his one-sided war mongering and pro-corporate actions, has needlessly sacrificed thousands of lives, harmed the international standing of the United States, and, by providing such huge tax breaks to the rich, jeopardized the federal government’s ability to promote the economic well-being of the nation and lend assistance to ordinary citizens’ health, social, and educational needs in the future.

No Civil War is on the horizon, but Bush’s policies have provoked the unintended consequence of uniting the majority of world public opinion decisively against his foreign policy in Iraq and elsewhere. Although there has been no formal split in the Republican party, a diverse group of Republicans including former administration officials, diplomats, military leaders, and corporate executives have come out in opposition to Bush. Particularly notable are the soldiers who have come back from Iraq and switched from the Republican to the Democratic party. Those soldiers remind one of those non-slaveholding Democratic farmers who went to Kansas in the late 1850s and reacted to the hypocrisy of the Buchanan administration’s anti-democratic policy by switching to the Republican party.

Recent scholarship has supported Lincoln’s warning in the wake of the Dred Scott decision that pro-slavery Democrats were driving for a Supreme Court decision that would nullify a state’s right to forbid slavery and thus make the nation “all slave.” Instead of extending the promise of the Declaration of Independence to ever more groups and moving step by step to include all people under the “we the people” concept of the Constitution, an aristocratic oligarchy would have cemented their oppressive rule and undermined the republican character of the state and federal governments.

The 1860 election gave the nation an opportunity to select a leader who ran on a program designed to serve the interests of all but the slaveholding elite, who was committed to preserving the republican form of government, and who had the moral vision to assert that African Americans “are equal in their right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’" Lincoln won a clear victory in those states where he was able to get his message before the public.

The 2004 election gives the nation an opportunity to select a leader committing to restoring the role of the federal government as a positive factor in the economic life of the country and a caring factor in the lives of those in need. Voters can choose in John Kerry a leader with the moral vision to protect civil liberties and tolerance at home and to establish a foreign policy based on telling truth to the public and working with the United Nations to promote peace and social progress for all. John Kerry deserves a fair hearing in every state of the union. This is the most important election not only in our lifetime but in the life of the republic since the Civil War.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I agree that things will and probably must get worse before they can get better, but defeating for the SECOND time, a one term president who symbolizes much of what has gone wrong -from the arrogance, to the ignorance by design, the cowardice, the hypocrisy, and the myopia- will offer a ray of hope for the coming dark ages. 50 years from now, when much of America resembles something approaching a cross between present day Haiti and the West Bank of the Jordan River, you can at least tell your grandchildren: Well, we did manage to dump the guy who let 19 loonies with box cutters destroy our defense department and two biggest buildings in the deadliest attack ever on U.S. soil, and then horribly botched up the subsequent war of revenge, launched to evade responsibility for the disaster and the lack of a real policy response to it - a war which he lied the country in to and waged on the wrong country.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

If a few more thousand Floridians had voted absentee on a paper ballot in 2000, instead of trusting the hanging chad voting machines

Or, if Kathleen Harris had found God in November, 2000, and had read the 9th commandment in the Bible: "Thou shalt not bear false witness"

Or, if one of any number of other scenarios had resulted in Al Gore becoming president.

And if Gore had done in office what Bush has done.

Then, the challenger in today's presidential election debate would likely point out that:

1. The president is not resolute against terrorism. He ignored the warnings prior to 9-11. He let Osama escape from Tora Bora. He stonewalled to prevent an investigation into 9-11.

2. The president flip-flopped on reasons for attacking Iraq, first claiming we had to in order to disarm Saddam of his great arsenal of chemical weapons, then saying it was in order to bring democracy to Iraq, neither of which has happened. He could probably debate himself for 90 minutes just on Iraq.

3. This draft-dodging president has not supported our troops in action. They are understaffed and underequipped. They have even had to buy their own body armor. They were sent into battle with no plan, no idea of how deal to with the locals, and no exit strategy.

4. The president is weak on defense, pulling troops unilaterally out of Korea, weakening America's position against the most evil dangerous and renegade state in the world.

5. The president is an irresponsible tax and spend liberal. His fiscally disastrous federal deficits mean that taxpayers will either pay much more in taxes in coming years, or lose their social security benefits, or suffer crippling inflation.

6. The president favors foreigners (the ones who buy our government's irresponsible mountain of debt) over Americans.

7. The president is against capitalism and free trade and had raised subsidies and tariffs.

8. The president is a closet socialist. His transportation policy is an outrageous boondoggle. Why should government be in the business of providing roads and highways at great taxpayer expense ? We need competition in transportation, not government welfare.

9. The president's policies corrode family values. The special interests that fund him are the same ones that fill family-room TV sets with endless violence and filth and do so with impunity under his corrupt administration.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

While the Buchanan-Bush analogy is a stretch if not a leap (see comments below by Severance and Chamberlain), to try to reduce it to a manifestation of a "racist left" (whatever that may be, 50% of Trent Lott and Clarence Thomas ?) is unfounded.

Even if all of Stephen Thomas's claims were valid (which they certainly are not) it would still be worth voting Bush out of office in order to redeem America's name in the eyes of the hundreds of millions of people around the world who have changed in recent years, from being pro-America to some variant of Shcherban’s view above. Indeed, the main reason Bush has to go is not his policies (as deceptive, false, corrupt, and hypocritical as they certainly are) but his performance. His administration acting outside of the courts, the Congress, and the attention of the mainstream news media has undermined the rule of law, opened up public lands for plunder by its corporate funders, and (with help from Congress - a more appropriate place for Thomas’s adjective “brain-dead”) ruined public finances and run a blunder-ridden foreign policy that has been a greater asset to Al Qaeda than Bin Laden. It will take more than four years of a successor and billions if not trillions of taxpayer dollars to clean up the mess. If Bush wins, it will because of the traits listed by Shcherban. Voters with above-average IQs are overwhelmingly against four more years of wars on pretzels.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Peter Clarke's whimpering complaint about the gov't opening up lands held by the gov't is more Eastern urban tripe. We, many of us, in the West would like to see gov't lands better utilized. After all, over half, that's 50% for the math challenged, of the U.S. west of Kansas/Nebraska/Oklahoma/Texas is held by federal agencies, such as the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Nat'l Park Service, Nat'l Monuments, & Indian & military reservations. In addition, there are also huge tracts of the West off limits to private citizens because they are held by the various states.

You're darned right we, particularly here out West, need less gov't, less gov't control of land.

If you don't think the federal gov't, whether the Democrats or the Republicans are in power, hasn't gotten out-of-control in the perspective of the private citizen there's this: there were the last I read, probably more by now, 72 federal gov't agencies which arm with semi-automatic &/or automatic firearms, some or all of their personnel.

For the sake of our liberties, as well as our pocketbooks, we need to have the federal gov't brought under control & reduced in size. Since the Republicans captured Congress when Clinton was in the White House, as I recall, the only gov't agency Congress has deprived of funding for it to go out-of-business was the quite small ICC, the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Kerry isn't going to attempt to rein in big gov't, and neither is Bush, but Bush perhaps will restrain its growth more than Kerry would. Reason enough to vote for Bush.

Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

More boilerplate. This guy got in the standard "white men are responsible for all the racism in the world" bit. How many points does he get for that?

Still engaging in hyperventilated lunacy about the 2000 election, despite all evidence to the contrary.

This is the most important election, and I guarantee it, since... well, the last one.

Don't worry, Mr. Halpern, very little will change regardless of the outcome of the election. You'll still be pasting together more boilerplate... racism, blah, blah, blah.

Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

This article has them all, including a scurrilous attempt to imply that Prez Bush secretly wants to return the nation to Jim Crow. This is a favorite of the brain dead left. (In fact, it is the left which is now openly, avowedly and proudly racist. The left insists on dividing all spoils by race. The insistent attack on hetero, white men, which seems to be regarded in these circles as chic, has in fact become the most virulent form of racism extant in the U.S.)

We have the usual trite attack on corporate America, as if Democrats and Republicans didn't both find their funding and backing there. The notion that there is any difference between the parties here is just nonsense.

We have the usual dumb insistence that the Democrats are the party of the "working class" and that the Republicans are the party of the "rich." In fact, this paradigm has reversed in terms of policy over the past 30 years. Blue collar working class people have been deserting the Dems for years. Nixon called it the "Southern strategy." The Democrats are the party of the coastal elites who preach populism and regard working class folks are racist boobs. Working class folks have noted this, and will vote Republican as a result.

And for good measure, we have the usual blockhead insistence that Prez Bush has cost us the goodwill of the world, translated to mean that the French and Germans disapproved of the war in Iraq. Who gives a damn what the French and Germans think? Tens of thousands of American boys are buried in Europe. The U.S. had to bail the French and Germans out of their stupidity twice in the 20th century. They haven't gotten any smarter.

Mr. Bush is no more a tool of corporate American than Mr. Kerry. There is no difference there. Trying to pretend otherwise is just foolish. Mr. Kerry would be the richest president in history, and he is married to the inheritor of the Heinz fortune.

This is not a watershed election. There are, in fact, few discernible differences between Kerry and Bush. Once elected, both will do just about the same things. Hoping that this will be a dramatic election with great issues on the line is just wishful thinking.

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/2/2004

Actually, you may be wrong. There seems to be a sea-change happening. The Republicans are spending wildly, heavily overfunding their pet projects and throwing money at any issue that might be a wedge issue. Think Medicaire. They also love well-armed bureaucrats (except perhaps the EPA)

The Democrats concern about the deficit has gone from posturing (1980s) to relatively sincere (Clinton years). They may not reduce the budget for the agencies you dislike, but their budgetary concerns make them less likely to create new stuff than the Republicans are right now.

Of course, the Democrats might give the EPA semi-automatics.

Arnold Shcherban - 10/1/2004

Stephen is absolutely right (to the extent that anyone
can be right 'absolutely') when he says: "Mr. Bush is no more a tool of corporate American than Mr. Kerry. There is no difference there. Trying to pretend otherwise is just foolish.", and further: "There are, in fact, few discernible differences between Kerry and Bush. Once elected, both will do just about the same things."

However, his realism displays a strong flare of Pan-Americanism when he shoots: "Who gives a damn what the French and Germans think? Tens of thousands of American boys are buried in Europe. The U.S. had to bail the French and Germans out of their stupidity twice in the 20th century. They haven't gotten any smarter."

And more than two millions of Russian boys are buried in Europe too. They had to bail the entire Europe out of their and self stupidity(?) also twice in the 20th century. Although, in Russian case dozens of thousands of them were killed bailing out the British and American boys, when Germans got the latter in big trouble in Ardennes, and Russians were asked to start the advance two weeks before it was initially planned. Mind you, it happened when the Russians already freed their own territory from German troops, and had very difficult time themselves to advance in Europe, so they had pretty good excuse not to rush with the help mentioned above, which they on some reasons did not use.

But let me remind you that neither this country, nor Soviet Russia acted that galantly and nobly out of their
natural gallantry and nobility. On the contrary, one can be sure, and the historical facts confirm this conclusion, that the both acted pretty much out of their
own national interests and necessities of the pertaining
circumstances. The US, eg. declared the war against Germany as late, as in 1941, 2 years after Germany started its war in Europe, and 1 year after Nazis occupied France and bombed England, only after Japan -
Hitler's major Asian ally attacked this country at Perl Harbor. And even that declaration of war was pretty much just on paper, since the US began military operations in Europe only two more years later, in 1943, in Southern Italy. And again even the latter move could not and did not resulted in any important victory leading to Nazis'
defeat in Europe. Only the Normandy operation executed
1 more year later brought the desired results, when coincidentally(?) Soviet Russia practically cleaned its
vast territory from Nazis and their allies, and was about
to enter Europe itself with the consequences that had Western Europeans and, especially the US, scared s*less.
I recall that Soviet-Russian historians had a lot
to say about it, despite acknowledging, through their teeth, huge military equipment and food relief this country provided for Red Russia during WWII. But then
again, the material, financial, and human loss of Russia in WWII (and WWI) is just incomparable to this country's respective one; actually the US became richer as the result of the both wars, only because neither war was taken place on its own territory, and no single bomb
was dropped on it.
I strongly suspect that provided just one state of this country were destroyed by military attacks from abroad
at any point in the 20th century history, the US governments would never be as quick on a draw, and as imperialistically-minded, as they happened to be and still are.
Continue with the alleged nobility of their plans and purposes, like spreading freedom and democracy around the world (by all available means) we have to recall that President Roosevelt together with his close aids
had been provoking Japan for any acts that could have been more or less legitimately interpreted, as agression against this country or its allies, what his own memos
undeniably prove. Of course, they could not foresee or wish for the Pearl Harbor disaster, but provocation tactics was not only planned, but actually employed.

Anyway, according to Stephen's logic, Russians, who played a huge role, as they did in defeating Nazi Germany and freeing, at the least, Eastern Europe from cruel German occupation, had the full right not to care what Poland, Checho-Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Albania, and Serbia, and Baltic republics and half of Germany had to say about their actions, in Afhganistan, not mentioning already post-war anti-Soviet movements in Eastern Europe, right?
Actually they didn't, they did disregard wide international condemnation of their Afghan invasion, but that was exactly part of the accusation forwarded against them by the international community, including by the American one, wasn't it?
This country definitely can afford not to care about the opinion of its allies, or other countries, based on its current military and financial might. However, it doesn't mean that it should.
9/11, if anything else, showed (and more to this country than to any other) that the planet we live on became much smaller than many Americans realized before. The interference into other states internal affairs by the international community and by powerful states on their narrowly defined national interests, created miriads of links and processes, connecting previously mostly independent regions and events to each other, often not with, mildly speaking, positive consequences.

If Bush and his cronies, had just overthrown Saddam and then immediately allowed Iraqis decide their own fate afterwards, the whole "noise and fury" on the issue would have disappeared from German and French, and billions of other minds right away, as the Russian-Afhgan issue would disappear long time ago, if Soviets
pulled out their troops, as soon as the international bodies protested.

Almost all woes of this country have been born out of neglect of the opinion of international majority, or actions taken against the opinion of the real democrats (not Democrats) here, at home.

A couple of words on terrorism issue.
No terrorists are capable to threaten freedom and democracy, or want to destroy them, especially American ones, or the country itself, the totally insane idea that
is preached now by the US govermental institutions and mainstream media. No country in the world (regardless whether it has WMDs or not) is even enternaining the idea to fight the US superpower, not mentioning terrorists, already. On the contrary, all of them wet their panties at just the thought of the possible confrontation with this country, if only economical,
not mentioning military. The US leaders and intelligence know it better than anyone else.
No preventive or offensive wars ever helped and never will help to defeat any terrorism, in general, and Islamic one, in particular. It is enough to look at
France-Algerian conflict, history of the Northern Ireland, Arab-Israeli conflict, India-Pakistan conflict, and others to realize that. On the opposite, the wars just exacerbated the respective situations.
The US leaders and intelligence also know it.
The US corporate elite initiated the search of a new enemy, new evil right after the dissolution of the Soviet empire, since the old "Red scare" had disappeared so quickly and unexpectedly it created threatening vacuum in the strategical arsenal of the ideologues-ala-Pan-Americana.
Saddam, especially after the first Gulf war, could not
serve global purpose like that for long, since it was weakened tremendously then.
Tragedy of 9/11, with its powerful psychological effect onto minds of millions of Americans, however, provided perfect opportunity for the above mentioned designers of a new threat paradigm.
The tragedy of this country was an Eureka for them.
They finally found their enemy for many years to come, the idea they rushed to implant into the minds of their
country men.
I predict that the consequences of the latter for this country, and especially for the world at large, will be devastating, unless by some hook or crook, the top US political managers and financial elite decided to pass
on the "opportunity".

All empires crumble sooner ot later, the rich ones - later... (A.S.)

Hans Vought - 9/30/2004

Let me begin by stating for the record that I am not a member of either political party. It seems to me that neither Democrats nor Republicans covered themselves with glory in Florida in 2000. I understand Democrats' frustration with the outcome of the 2000 election. Only 3 times in our modern political system has the winner of the popular vote failed to win a majority in the electoral college. The circumstances in Florida captured the nation's attention then and since, but there were lots of other irregularities in lots of other places (as there are in every election).

As far as the Supreme Court decision goes, it was certainly political - but then, so is every Supreme Court decision. To equate Bush v. Gore with Dred Scott v. Sanford is ludicrous, however. The only decisions as bad as Dred Scott are Plessy v. Ferguson and Roe v. Wade. The outcomes of elections are certainly important, but nowhere near as important as the denial of civil rights to African Americans and the denial of the right to life to unborn babies. Nor was there any egregious misinterpretation of the Constitution in Bush v. Gore as there was in Plessy and Roe.

It is worth pointing out that the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the variegated recount procedures authorized by the Florida Supreme Court did not meet minimal constitutional standards to ensure all Floridians the equal protection of the law. The Court ruled 5-4 that there wasn't enough time to draft uniform recoutn standards and conduct a statewide recount due to the Dec. 12th deadline in the state election law.

Ironically, the investigation sponsored by the newspaper consortium concluded that the partial recount Gore requested in select counties would not have given him victory - only the statewide recount Bush requested would have offered Gore a chance at victory, and even then it would have depended upon what standards were used.

I realize that harping on the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore makes for good Democratic propaganda; however, it makes for bad history. I think as scholars we should hold to the highest standards of accuracy even in op-ed pieces.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/29/2004

Ben, Thanks for the reply. You are quite correct about the origins of many of the Wisconsin and Michigan farmers. I believe you are also right about the lower midwest /upper midwest division. In fact, there was a considerable push in Illinois to legalize slavery (in the 1820s, I think).

I don't cotton to the Calhoun mindset (I think the rapid movement of goods and people has overwhelmed the antebellum approach to state sovereignty and state responsibility) ). Still, I consider it sad that many good ideas and important insights from men like Calhoun concerning the nature of government got lost because they used them (and sometimes bent them) to support slavery.

That's one of the reasons that it is so hard--though not impossible--to separate the insights from the institution. But I am glad that there are people who do work at separating the two and using the insights to analyze the nation today.

Ben H. Severance - 9/29/2004

Thanks for your comments. Regarding the Free Labor Ideology, I did dismiss it too readily. Many northerners in the 1850s found it genuinely appealing, although I would suspect that the Wisconsin and Michigan farmers you refer to are either Yankee transplants from the Northeast or German-American immigrants. The lower North farmer tended to vote Democratic and in some instances actually liked the race order of slavery. To them, abolition augured far greater competition from free blacks that any extension of slavery into the territories (and to them the Republicans were Abolitionists deep down). But your point is well taken, and I personally think the Free Labor Ideology has a nice ring to it even now (though it was definitely as myth by the Gilded Age).

As for the Missouri Compromise, well, I'm in a Calhoun mindset these days with regard to federalism. The government certainly has the authority to regulate the territories, but the spirit of that regulation is that it will not place unreasonable restrictions on those areas that apply for statehood (except for insisting that any new state have a constitution and a republican form of government). The Missouri line was a more or less acceptable expedient, just as was the Great Compromise of 1850; neither was a foolproof solution. Because the Constitution legimated slavery with its 3/5 Clause and Fugitive Laborer clause, then such devices as the Missouri line and the Wilmot Proviso ran against the grain both of the law and of states rights. Having said this, I agree that Taney engaged in some imaginative legalisms and was certainly motivated by partisan concerns as much as jurisprudence. The difficulty in analyzing the sectional conflict from a political and legal persective is that one comes across as being insensitive to the immoral practice of slavery. But I think if one can hypothetically remove race and slavery from the equation, then the South's position on liberty and power in the republic is the better one. Anyway, thanks again for your insights.

Ken Melvin - 9/27/2004

Is letting things run their course our only option? Maybe things must indeed become so putrid that even the rabid right gag. When you have the republican party telling the idiots of W.V and Arkansas that the dems are going to take their bibles and telling the whole of old testament christendom that they, the dems, intend to also take their guns away and to make them marry gays and the idiots believe, and yet no good republican anywhere gags, what hope? Newt's capture of the house in 1992 with a bunch the likes of which hadn't been seen since reconstruction was not a good omen. Things have only gotten worse. One nation, majority idiot, lead by fools. Who some ever should dare tackle the required correction and clean up will only get the blame. If the nation is to fall, shouldn't it fall on the heads of these asses?

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/27/2004

Some truth here. In particular, the Republicans most assuredly had an eye for the main chance, like their Democratic oponents and in most ways they were no more moral. And most Republicans in the 1870s were willing to give up on Reconstruction.

I have some problems with other parts.

1. The Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because it limited rights of states
The Compromise's impact on states after they entered the union was dubious, but the right of the national government to regulate the territories was on far firmer ground. Part of the claim made by Scott hinged upon his having resided in Wisconsin territory.

When Taney invoked the 5th amendment to deny this, it was a major departure from earlier assumptions concerning the power of the national government. That reach was one reason that some Republicans were concerned that future courts might impose the 5th amendment on the states. However, that was a bit paranoid and/or disingenious.

2. The "Free Labor Ideology" was mostly propaganda designed to arraign northern labor against the South's slave system
The Republican party formed first in Michigan and Wisconsin. The free soil ideology had real impact there, as many farmers did not want their sons moving west to have to compete with slavery. The appearance of escaped slaves in MIchigan and Wisconsin also turned people against slavery, particularly after enforcement of the new fugitive slave act began. AS far as they were concerned the "free soil ideology" was not simply propoganda.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/27/2004

Mr. Thomas, In what sense is Mr. Halpern's article boilerplate that your response is not?

Ben H. Severance - 9/27/2004

While I think finding historical parallels to current events a useful task, and agree with Halpern that the 2004 election will be one of the nation's more important elections, I consider Halpern's present comparison a terrible distortion of Civil War era history.

Mind you, I don't like Bush or his foreign policy, but equating him and the modern day Republicans with James Buchanan and the 1860 Democrats is very misleading for a number of reasons:

1) Halpern wrongly believes that the GOP today is like the Democratic party then, when in fact there is much continuity between the GOP then and now. With the exception of its anti-slavery platform, the 1860s Republicans are very much in line with today's Republican party. Economically, Lincoln and his followers espoused a pro-corporate America policy, one inherited by the defunct Whig party. One has only to look at the non-military legislation that poured out of Congress during the war to realize this. The "Free Labor Ideology" was mostly propaganda designed to arraign northern labor against the South's slave system, but the badly exploited and persecuted Irish immigrants in the urban northeast weren't fooled, nor were the mid-western Butternuts.

Socially, the Republican party of the 1860s exhibited a self-righteous brand of evangelical Protestantism, one that regarded the Irish Catholics as a threat (keep in mind that the Know-Nothings merged with the Republicans) and saw the largely secular-minded South as cultural barbarians. The Abolitionists were about at religiously zealous as one can ever get (something akin to today's Moral Majority).

2)Halpern's assessment of Buchanan is also badly distorted. Buchanan's role in the Mexican-American war was less indicative of slave power warmongering, and more reflective of the prevalent mood of Manifest Destiny, one shared by a great many American (remember the Oregon aquisition and Polk's brinkmanship diplomacy with Britain and many northerners anger that the president really didn't fight for the 54-40 line? And slavery had nothing to do with that land grab).

Buchanan's personal role in the Dred Scott decision was certainly unethical, but the decision itself is "infamous" mostly in hindsight. Republicans at the time denounced it, of course, but from a narrow perspective it was a correct legal decision. The Missouri Compromise line was, indeed, unconstitutional, for it imposed constraints on future states that did not exist for the original states making all future states inherently unequal to their predessesors. And the assertion that the decision made the nation "all slave" is absolutely false. Democrats then agreed that slavery was a state matter; once in the Union a state could decide that issue. Chief Justice Taney, Buchanan, and every other Democrat going back to Calhoun knew that. Buchanan does deserve censure for his role in the Ostend Manifesto and the Lecompton Constitution, but I would never equate Buchanan with Bush. The former was a weakling who let the Union unravel. But then he believed with some validity that it was the sectional Republican party, for whom the South was a mathematical irrelevancy, that most threatened the harmony of the nation.

3) Halpern's portrays the 1860s Republican party as a noble political organization, when it was little different from its Democratic counterpart. Republicans were every bit a White Man's Party as the Democrats, though perhaps less negrophobic. The egalitarian Radical wing was always a minority voice. It was mostly because of the exigencies of war and the complicated issues of Reconstruction that the Republican party extended a liberal hand to blacks. How quickly the commitment to racial equality vanished once the basic issue of emancipation was achieved and the ex-Confederacy readmitted to the Union. But then, the war wasn't about blacks (or slavery) as much as it was about political power. Halpern naively suggests that "the 1860 election gave the nation an opportunity to select a leader who ran on a program designed to serve the interests of all but the slaveholding elite." Tell that to the 45 percent who voted for McClellan in 1864!

A problem with many Civil War era scholars today is that they take it as an article of faith that Lincoln and the Republican party in the 1860s were moral and in pursuit only of freedom. The reality was that Lincoln was a party man, whose party was every bit as venal and self-serving as any political party. This isn't to suggest that the party didn't have its idealistic views, such as preserving the Union and offering blacks a modicum of dignity and qualified citizenship in the wake of the war, but only to emphasize, or rather remind students, that it had its own agenda all along. How quickly scholars forget that the Rebublican party they praise as liberators in the 1860s is the same party they condemn as exploitative Robber Barons in the 1890s, and yet many of the same names crop up in both eras.

So, Dr. Halpern, please find a different point of comparison, for this one doesn't cut it.

Arnold Shcherban - 9/27/2004

Every nation deserves the rulers it elected.
This ignorant, arrogant and belligerent nation deserves Bush.
I predicted more than one year ago that Bush will win
the second term, and I still have no doubts this will