How Democrats Can Learn Hardball From the Republicans of 1861Historians in the News
tags: Republican Party, Civil War
If you’re looking for a historical example of a revanchist political minority that kept its foot on the neck of a growing and restive majority, look no further than antebellum America’s Slave Power. In the interest of keeping Black people in a state of intergenerational servitude, pro-slavery politicians in the antebellum period trampled flagrantly and frequently on the civil liberties not only of Black Americans, but of white people who opposed slavery’s expansion. They shut down the right of abolitionists to use the U.S. Postal Service and the halls of Congress to proselytize against the Peculiar Institution. They deployed violence and voter fraud to rig elections. To maintain property in human beings, they perverted the institutions of American democracy.
It wasn’t until the Civil War, when many of those pro-slavery politicians rebelled to fight for the Confederacy, that the anti-slavery Republicans had their chance to reverse the damage. And they did it by playing hardball.
With Southern Democrats absent from Congress and their northern pro-slavery allies reduced to a shadow of their former power, anti-slavery Republicans pursued a bold, majoritarian agenda that remade the nation in the North’s free-labor image. After decades of violent obstruction from the slaveholding minority, they exhibited little concern for traditions and niceties. From changing the size of the Supreme Court and adding new states to the Union (partly to pad their majorities in Congress and the Electoral College), to their refusal to honor the credentials of Southern congressmen-elect who were chosen in sham midcycle elections in 1865, the Republican Party of the 1860s used hard-knuckle measures to enact a sweeping constitutional revolution that established the foundation for liberties that Americans of all races enjoy today.
These Republicans of the 1860s weren’t angels. Their motives were not uniformly pure. And they didn’t always agree with each other. But in response to decades of anti-democratic incitement by white politicians from slaveholding states, who represented roughly just 25 percent of the country’s population in 1860, Republicans in the age of Lincoln and Grant united to make the rules work for the majority, even when doing so required rewriting the rules wholesale.
It’s the playbook Democrats today should follow if they win the White House and the Congress next week.
For several decades now, modern Republicans have used every tool at their disposal—voter suppression, gerrymandering, court packing at all levels, midnight bills to curb the powers of incoming Democratic governors, parliamentary chicanery that applies different rules to presidents of each party—to ram a minoritarian agenda down the majority’s throat. How else, after all, could a party that has lost the popular vote in six of the past seven elections—and which will likely lose the eighth, already in progress—wield so much power?
If a Biden administration and the Democratic Congress are to have any chance of leveraging the authority that voters may confer on them—if they truly want to enact and protect a popular, majoritarian agenda—they should look to an earlier generation of politicians that understood the uses of power and the ends to which it could be applied. That generation didn’t quiver in the face of established procedure and precedent—and neither should Democrats today.
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