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In all likelihood, this post does not pertain because the bill is dead, but is draws some nice parallels between what might have been and another bill–The Kansas-Nebraska Act.  It also offers the opportunity for us to draw some comparisons and think abut Statesmanship.

Michael Barone has a nice post about the health care bill/debate, but draws from an interesting moment in history–The Kansas-Nebraska Act.  What happens when an unpopular bill is passed?

That legislation was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Its lead sponsor was Stephen A. Douglas, at 41 in his eighth year as senator from Illinois, the most dynamic leader of a Democratic Party that had won the previous presidential election by 254 electoral votes to 42.

Douglas’ legislative prowess far exceeded that of current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. To hold together his 60 Senate Democrats, Reid simply dispensed favors — eternal Medicaid financing for Ben Nelson’s Nebraska, a hospital grant for Chris Dodd’s Connecticut, more rural health money for Byron Dorgan’s North Dakota and Montana’s Max Baucus.

Douglas did something far more difficult. He got the Senate to pass a bill some of whose provisions were supported by half of the Senate plus Douglas and some of which were supported by the other half plus Douglas. After passage, Douglas spent a day getting drunk — a consolation unavailable to the teetotaling Reid.

The issue that Douglas said the Kansas-Nebraska Act would settle forever was slavery in the territories. His bill repealed the 34-year-old Missouri Compromise prohibiting slavery in territories north of Arkansas and substituted popular sovereignty — territory residents could vote slavery up or down.

We cannot say with assurance that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was unpopular; Dr. Gallup didn’t start polling until 81 years later. But the results of the next election were pretty convincing. The Republican Party was suddenly created to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the 1854-55 elections transformed the Democrats’ 159-71 majority to a 108-83 Republican margin. Democrats didn’t win a majority of House seats for the next 20 years.  Read more at the Washington Examiner: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/politics/When-legerdemain-is-used-to-pass-an-unpopular-bill-8675305-79940422.html#ixzz0dxGFt9tb

It is an interesting question:  does legislation “solve” issues? In 1854 it did not.  We can see in the last few high profile off-year or special elections, that the Health Care Bill (proposed) solved nothing as well.  And, we have some gauge as to the public’s thought of what Washington is thinking of passing with the NJ, Va, and Mass elections.  The Kansas-Neb Act helped to create the Republican Party and also assisted their success.

In the Humanities Magazine, Lewis Lehrman was interviewed about his new book on Lincoln, at Peoria.  In politics there are few constants in terms of predicting what definitely will or will not occur, but one things is for sure:  you never know what issue will change things, or more precisely, what crisis will cause a statesman to be revealed:

LEHRMAN: The Kansas-Nebraska Act shifts the political ground, because, Lincoln argues, it breaks with the established tradition of the Founders, from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 all the way through the Missouri Compromise of 1820, both of which prohibited the extension of slavery into certain U.S. territories.

COLE: The Founders meant to contain slavery.

  An 1860 cartoon lampoons the presidential race between Abraham  Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. The axe Lincoln holds symbolizes his  youthful occupation as a fence-rail splitter, while a feather in  Douglas's cap displays his affinity for Kansas.  -The Granger Collection, New York
An 1860 cartoon lampoons the presidential race between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. The axe Lincoln holds symbolizes his youthful occupation as a fence-rail splitter, while a feather in Douglas’s cap displays his affinity for Kansas.

—The Granger Collection, New York

LEHRMAN: Yes. And Lincoln takes the position, as his research had proved to him, that most of the Founders had accepted slavery at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, in order to get the Union. They did not have the power to eliminate slavery at that time. But the Founders had the intention, Lincoln argued, to put slavery on a course to ultimate extinction.

They demonstrated this intention by passing the Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery in the old Northwest Territory, and with the Compromise of 1820, prohibiting the extension of slavery into the northern portion of the Louisiana Purchase. They abolished the external slave trade in 1808—the first opportunity they could under the Constitution.

Lincoln revives the idea of slavery’s ultimate extinction just as the attitudes of Americans in the South had changed toward making slavery a permanent part of the republic. Lincoln believed such a backward shift would be a revolutionary, a radical departure.

COLE: Lincoln was incredibly ambitious, wasn’t he?

LEHRMAN: William Herndon, his law partner, said his ambition was a little engine that knew no rest. But in Lincoln we find it constantly linked to principles: principles of economics, for example, free labor; or to the idea that America was meant to be a free republic; and that the anchor of the American Republic, as he called it, was the equality principle of the Declaration of Independence.

COLE: He is taking a certain view of history. But he’s right.

LEHRMAN: General Washington, when answering criticisms about Alexander Hamilton, said something like, “His was a laudable ambition, aimed at excellence.” That’s a paraphrase. Of Lincoln, much the same thing can be said: His was a laudable ambition, aimed at excellence, but also at the fulfillment of the promise of the Declaration of Independence. And that, of course, is the theme of the book: Lincoln himself getting right with the Declaration of Independence, and through persuasion, and an 11-year campaign, as a private citizen and then as president, getting the American people right with the Declaration of Independence.

COLE: What was the reaction to this speech? Did people realize this was sort of a hinge speech?

LEHRMAN: Yes, many did. But many disagreed. The people of Central Illinois had a considerable period of time, months even, to hear and read Lincoln’s arguments of 1854, his rendition of American history, and his logic in repudiating Senator Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act and the more general doctrine of popular sovereignty, which could open all of the territories of the United States to slavery.

Lincoln gave a speech similar to Peoria at Winchester, and another at Bloomington, both mentioned briefly in press reports. On October 4, 1854, he gives almost the same full speech in Springfield, in the state capitol, again, directly in response to Senator Douglas’s speech the previous day in defense of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But this Springfield speech is not printed in full—only brief excerpts appeared in the press.

COLE: So, one could see Lincoln’s new cause taking shape?

LEHRMAN: Yes. In the full span of history, it was the blink of an eye, but for those who were living at the moment, there was time to see Mr. Lincoln trade in his litigator hat for that of the antislavery campaigner.

COLE: Did the Peoria speech get much national coverage?

LEHRMAN: It got some national coverage. Colleagues and friends write to him, saying the political elites have taken notice of this obscure lawyer and his Peoria speech.

Harry V. Jaffa reviewed Lehrman’s book Lincoln on Peoria in the latest CRB. The political art–the statesman’s art–is not as simple as it might seem.  The statesman has to, at once it seems, do justice in light of what the people will accept.  Jaffa explicates this difficulty beautifully near the end of his review:

Immediately after asserting that all the governed must have an equal voice in government, Lincoln denies that he is “contending for the establishment of political and social equality between the whites and blacks.” Earlier in the Peoria speech, he had denied any intention to bring about such equality, saying that the feeling of “the great mass of white people” was against it. “Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded.”

Later in the speech Lincoln says that

the great mass of mankind…consider slavery a great moral wrong; and their feelings against it, is not evanescent, but eternal. It lies at the very foundation of their sense of justice; and it cannot be trifled with. It is a great and durable element of popular action, and, I think, no statesman can safely disregard it.

We see that he says in one place that a statesman cannot safely disregard the feeling against equality and in another that he cannot safely disregard the feeling for it. We must realize that both assertions are founded in the proposition that the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed. The consent of the governed however means the opinion of the governed. But what if—as in this case—the opinion of the governed is itself self-contradictory?

As the Declaration notes, the consent of the governed does not authorize governmental powers that are not just powers. These powers cannot be just powers if governors and governed do not recognize their reciprocal humanity. Lincoln warned time and again that those who would deny the rights of others to life and liberty could not long retain their own. Clearly however the full recognition of the right of equal participation in government of all who are to be governed, is an aspiration, not to be achieved at any or every time and place. By the standards of 2009, and in the wake of the 1964 and 1965 civil rights acts—the citizens of Illinois in 1858 were rabid racists. There was virtually no “consent of the governed” possible to laws that would allow black people to enjoy anything that today would be called civil rights. It is part of Lehrman’s achievement to make us aware of the extent of what Lincoln accomplished at Peoria, initiating the path that would lead ultimately to consent to rights to which no consent was then possible. Garry Wills to the contrary notwithstanding, it was at Peoria that Lincoln set the pathway leading to the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, the Civil War Amendments, and beyond to the civil rights laws of today. Without Lincoln clearing this pathway, Martin Luther King, Jr., would not have been possible.

There are many who argue that Lincoln was not really committed to the cause of emancipation, or that he was not really all that dedicated to the equality of blacks cf. whites.  It is pretty clear that he was, and consistently so.  People get lost in the politics of it all–but nothing can be achieved without the consent of others in republics.  The task is to try to convince them there is a betters way, a more just way, to achieve, or secure, safety and Happiness.  If Lincoln would have pursued the policy of no compromise, then all would be lost. However, he did not compromise on principle–and that is one significant thing about statesmanship; it is doing what is right here and now in light of what is just everywhere and always.