Comment: 1850s Congress shows the dangers of compomise

Attempts to appease slave states were in vain, just as pleas for bipartisanship on voting rights may be.

By Rachel Shelden / Special To The Washington Post

This week, congressional Democrats announced that they would shift their focus from the Build Back Better bill to comprehensive legislation on voting rights. This transition is no doubt prompted by Democrats on the ground, who have called Trump-allied Republicans’ efforts to obtain state political positions and pass restrictive voting laws a “five alarm fire.” But so far Democratic leaders have struggled to convince moderates of the severity of the crisis; instead, senators like Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have reiterated their view that any legislation on voting rights should be bipartisan.

Yet, if moderate Democrats don’t act to curb these antidemocratic 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 1850s Washington bubble gave long-serving federal officials a false confidence that the republic could be saved through congressional compromise.

The Washington bubble is not unique to the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1850s, the men who served in Congress developed an “inside the Beltway” mentality a century before the Beltway existed. Senators and representatives came to feel a sense of fraternity as they socialized at parties and dinners, bars and gambling dens and in a variety of professional associations in the city. In words echoing today’s rhetoric of bipartisan friendship, senators like Stephen Douglas, D-Ill — the architect of many cross-sectional compromises in this period — bragged of their warm social relationships with “men of all shades of political opinion.”

Although 19th-century parties were more fluid and the idea of bipartisanship did not exist, many moderates who served in the period before the Civil War were similarly concerned with forging national compromise; not among parties, per se, but between the slave states of the South and the nonslaveholding states of the North. These moderate congressmen noted that compromise over slavery was baked into the Constitution and insisted that, to keep the Union together, sectional balance should be maintained.

Importantly, the sociable Washington community convinced these congressmen that they had a unique ability to save the nation and ward off disunion through cutting deals. Senators and representatives hammered out the details of such compromises at dinners hosted by city socialites like the banker William Corcoran, or in the confines of their local boardinghouses, where they shared rooms during the congressional session.

Still, efforts to balance sectional interests became increasingly challenging in the 1850s, as Southerners pushed for more aggressive protections for slavery; including those that impinged on Northern liberty. For example, the Compromise of 1850 included a federal Fugitive Slave Act — the single greatest expansion of federal power before the Civil War — that created the position of federal commissioners charged with enforcing the law and forced people living in the nonslaveholding states to assist in the return of escapees.

Even with these new protections, Southerners were not satisfied. The three-fifths clause of the Constitution gave Southern states an outsize level of representation in Congress, but enslavers could see that the more-populous Northern states were becoming less willing to accede to proslavery demands. Rather than accept their minority status in the nation, slave states pushed for even more protections at the expense of Northern rights, including insisting on a federal slave code in the territories and attempting to acquire Cuba to add proslavery political power.

And yet, moderate congressmen remained convinced that they could continue to forge cross-sectional compromise to prevent the dissolution of the Union. Even as the Southern states threatened disunion at any perceived slight against their slaveholding interests, these lawmakers believed that their sociable Washington community could keep the nation together. In essence, during the late 1850s, congressmen failed to adequately understand the extent of the brewing crisis outside of Washington. In the confines of their Washington community, moderates believed their Southern colleagues could be reasoned with. At the same time, representatives from the slave states underestimated the fury of public opinion back home, despite delivering fiery proslavery speeches in the Capitol that exacerbated their constituents’ fears.

Nothing demonstrated this failure to see disunion coming better than the behavior of Washington politicians during the weeks and months following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860. As state legislators across the South loudly proclaimed 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 Capitol antechambers with their pro-secession colleagues. As in previous years, they expected to hammer out the details of a new compromise in the social spaces of the capital.

Even after seven Lower South states had declared secession and formed their own government, congressmen continued to believe they could compromise their way out of bloodshed. The seceded states had repudiated the popular will of the Election of 1860, but many Northern congressmen — who now held a majority of power in the House and Senate with representatives from the Lower South having departed — were still grasping for compromise.

During the late hours of their March 1861 session they made one last attempt at appeasing slave states: Both Houses passed an original 13th Amendment, prohibiting Congress from any future “power to abolish or interfere” with slavery; which would have necessitated a future amendment to abrogate slavery. Once signed by President James Buchanan, this 13th Amendment was endorsed by President-elect Abraham Lincoln and sent to the states for ratification.

As we know, these congressional compromise efforts were for naught. Just six weeks after the original 13th Amendment passed Congress, four more states left the Union, solidifying the rejection of majority will. The cross-sectional Washington community, insistent on its ability to fashion compromise, could not prevent secession and civil war.

At its core, the Civil War was a fight over the future of American democracy; over whether a national majority would rule. If moderate Democrats refuse to see this as a break-the-glass moment and remain wedded to the idea that they can reach a compromise on voting rights despite all indications Republicans will not budge, we may once again find our democratic experiment in great peril.

Only this time, rather than leaving the union, antidemocratic forces are attempting to thwart the national will from within. And while the United States spent four bloody years fighting to restore majority rule, there may be no undoing the antidemocratic “reforms” of the Trump movement.

Rachel Shelden is an associate professor of history at Penn State and director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center.

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