By Rachel Shelden / Washington Post Special
This week, Congress Democrats announced they would move from the Build Back Better bill to full voting rights legislation. This transition is undoubtedly prompted by Democrats on the ground, who have called the efforts of Republicans allied to Trump to secure state political positions and pass restrictive election laws “five-alarm bells.” But so far Democratic leaders have struggled to convince moderates of the gravity of the crisis; instead, senators like Joe Manchin, DW.Va., reiterated their view that all voting rights legislation should be bipartisan.
Yet if moderate Democrats do not act to curb these undemocratic measures, they may find themselves in a crisis that resembles the late 1850s; when Washington politicians failed to fully grasp the developing secession movement in the South. Much like today, the Washington Bubble of the 1850s gave longtime federal officials a false confidence that the republic could be saved through a compromise from Congress.
The Washington bubble is not unique to the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1850s, men who served in Congress developed an “inside the Beltway” mentality a century before the Beltway existed. Senators and Representatives have come to feel a sense of brotherhood as they socialize at parties and dinners, bars and gambling dens, and various trade associations in the city. In words echoing the current rhetoric of bipartisan friendship, senators like Stephen Douglas, D-Ill – the architect of many cross-cutting compromises during this period – have boasted of their warm social relationships with “men. of all shades of political opinion “.
Although nineteenth-century parties were more fluid and the idea of two-party politics did not exist, many moderates who served before the Civil War were also concerned with the search for a national compromise; not between parties, per se, but between the slave states of the South and the non-slave states of the North. These moderate members of Congress noted that a compromise on slavery was enshrined in the Constitution and insisted that, in order to keep the Union together, sectoral balance should be maintained.
Above all, Washington’s sociable community convinced these members of Congress that they have a unique ability to save the nation and avoid disunity by making deals. Senators and Representatives hammered out the details of such compromises at dinners hosted by city socialites like banker William Corcoran, or within the confines of their local guesthouses, where they shared rooms during the Congress session.
Yet efforts to balance sectional interests became increasingly difficult in the 1850s, as Southerners pushed for more aggressive protections against slavery; including those who encroached upon the freedom of the North. For example, the compromise of 1850 included a federal law on fugitive slaves – the biggest expansion of federal power before the Civil War – which created the post of federal law enforcement commissioners and forced people living in the Non-slave states to help return escapees.
Even with these new protections, the southerners were not satisfied. The Constitution’s three-fifths clause gave southern states an inordinate level of representation in Congress, but slavers could see that more populous northern states were becoming less willing to accede to pro-slavery demands. Rather than accepting their minority status in the nation, slave states lobbied for even more protections at the expense of northern rights, including insisting on a federal slavery code in the territories and attempting to acquire Cuba to add pro-slavery political power.
And yet the moderate members of Congress remained convinced that they could continue to forge cross-cutting compromises to prevent the dissolution of the Union. Even as the Southern states threatened disunity for any perceived affront to their slave interests, these lawmakers believed their sociable Washington community could keep the nation together. Essentially, in the late 1850s, members of Congress failed to properly understand the extent of the brewing crisis outside of Washington. Within the confines of their Washington community, the moderates believed their Southern colleagues could be reasoned. At the same time, representatives of slave states underestimated the fury of public opinion in their country, despite fiery pro-slavery rhetoric on Capitol Hill that exacerbated the fears of their constituents.
Nothing demonstrated this failure to see disunity come better than the behavior of Washington politicians in the weeks and months following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. As Southern state lawmakers proclaimed loud and clear Their desire to destroy the Union by seceding, senators and representatives in the capital socialized at receptions and dinners, drank at local watering holes, and mingled in the anterooms of the Capitol with their pro-secession colleagues. As in previous years, they hoped to work out the details of a new compromise in the social spaces of the capital.
Even after seven lower-south states declared secession and formed their own governments, members of Congress continued to believe they could jeopardize their way out of the bloodshed. The seceding states had repudiated the popular will of the 1860 election, but many members of Congress from the North – who now held the majority of power in the House and Senate with representatives from the Lower South having left – were always looking for a compromise.
During the last hours of their March 1861 session, they made one last attempt to appease the slave states: both Houses passed an original 13th Amendment, barring Congress from any future “power to abolish or interfere” with the slavery; which would have required a future amendment to repeal slavery. Once signed by President James Buchanan, this 13th Amendment was approved by President-elect Abraham Lincoln and sent to the States for ratification.
As we know, these Congressional compromise efforts have served no purpose. Just six weeks after Congress passed the 13th Amendment, four more states left the Union, further rejection of the majority’s will. Washington’s cross-sectional community, insisting on its ability to find compromises, could not prevent secession and civil war.
At its core, the Civil War was a fight for the future of American democracy; on whether a national majority would rule. If moderate Democrats refuse to see this as a glass-breaking moment and remain committed to the idea that they can come to a compromise on voting rights despite all indications that Republicans will not budge, we might again find our democratic experience in great jeopardy.
Only this time, rather than quitting the union, the anti-democratic forces are trying to thwart the national will from within. And while the United States has spent four bloody years fighting to restore majority rule, the undemocratic “reforms” of the Trump movement may be irreversible.
Rachel Shelden is associate professor of history at Penn State and director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center.