Thursday, February 11, 2021

Which Side Are We On?


As the tweeps were quick to note, McDaniel's Brooksian assumption that Lincoln must have been talking about "bringing our badly divided country together" is stupid. Lincoln's speech, with which he accepted the Republican Party's nomination to run against Senator Stephen Douglas in the 1858 election, was a radical which-side-are-you-on moment of reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (allowing the residents, meaning the white male residents, of each of the newly organized western territories to decide whether or not slavery would be legal) and the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which held that somebody who was a slave in a slave state remained a slave in a state where slavery was illegal, without a right to defend himself against the demands of his "owner".

The Republic, Lincoln maintained, was one decision away from making slavery legal in all states, regardless of the desires of the citizens:

Welcome, or unwelcome, such decision is probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown.

We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and we shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.

To meet and overthrow the power of that dynasty, is the work now before all those who would prevent that consummation.

This is what we have to do.

The choice before the Illinois voters, then, was between the skilled dealmaker Stephen Douglas, who would try to stave off disaster by negotiating some new compromise to replace the failed Missouri one ("How can he oppose the advances of slavery? He don't care anything about it"), and Lincoln insisting that no compromise was possible:

In my opinion, [agitation over slavery] will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing or all the other.

That is, either slavery would become universal throughout the country, as Senator Douglas watched helplessly, a "caged and toothless" lion, or Senator Lincoln would prod until it was eliminated from the country, and choosing Lincoln would be the precise opposite of the kind of calm-down-and-get-over-it mushiness Ronnaromney evokes. 

He lost the election, too—a number of Republican colleagues blamed the speech for that, as too radical and, you know, too divisive for the moment—but won the presidency, again against Douglas (whose moderation now left him also struggling with a third party of unregenerately conservative Southern Democrats), two years later, as the crisis Lincoln forecast came into existence and the war became inevitable.

Thinking about the history as we follow the impeachment news, I wonder if this might seriously be another 1858 moment, when crisis looms and compromise can only prolong the pain. I mean in a contest between small-d democracy, the ideal of majority rule in a polity where everybody is a stakeholder engaged in governing, and a corrupted kind of small-r "general will" republicanism in a nation-state in which a theater of democracy, or game of democracy, is used to ceremonially ratify the permanent power of a (white, propertied, homogenous) minority engaged in evading government even when they're running it.

(That's putting it pretty tendentiously—I've been musing about the democratic-republican dichotomy and its odd rhyming with our modern party names since the earliest days of the blog if you want to see a more open discussion, or a more fun one). 

Because it seems to me that's kind of where we are at this moment, approaching a crisis where we're going to have to decide where we stand and go one way or the other, all one thing or all its opposite, in the huge passions that occupy us on both sides, and what we're debating when we talk across the chasm of incomprehension (right now I feel as if I don't even want to understand our opponents, the better I understand them the worse it makes me feel) about Trump and how to deal with what he and his party did.

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