Curtis Dahlgren
PRESIDENTS' DAY III: "A few words now to Republicans"
By Curtis Dahlgren
February 24, 2010

"What I do say is, that if we would supplant the opinions and policy of our fathers in any case, we should do so upon evidence so conclusive, and argument so clear, that even their great authority, fairly considered and weighed, cannot stand; and most surely not in a case whereof we ourselves declare they understood the question better than we." — Abraham Lincoln (Cooper Institute, 1860)

AS OF FEBRUARY 1860, THE DEMOCRATS CONTROLLED THE WHITE HOUSE, CONGRESS AND THE COURTS. But they were on the brink of a "great fall," from which the party failed to recover for decades. The basic problem was stubborn ideology. Both of the parties we know now could learn a thing or two from history.

You see, President Buchanan had "gone along with" the plantation owners who wanted to export the institution of slavery to the Territories. To Buchanan it was no big deal; "What's the matter with Kansas and where the hell is it?"

Well, it was a big deal to the Kansans, whether the eastern journalists or southern Democrats realized this! There was this former store keeper-railsplitter who rubbed shoulders with all kinds of people, great and small, who had "divided the country" by debating the Conventional Wisdom of Senator Douglas, but the Democrats weren't a bit worried. After all, the Republican party had never won a single national election. It was a third party. The Supreme Court had said that slaves were "property" and had "settled" all that stuff. And the old Whig party was long gone.

The problem with the Whigs wasn't stubborn ideology, but exuberant pragmatism! As I said in the previous column, the Compromise of 1850 led to the death-warrant of the Whig party. It was a party of "coalition building." And it died.

On February 27, 1860 the frontiersman Abraham Lincoln came to New York City for the first time in his life (personally, I've never been there), and Lincoln explained to a capacity crowd of 1,500 that his research had carefully documented that the majority of the Founders who wrote the Constitution and approved the Bill of Rights agreed with HIM that the Federal government had the Constitutional power to ban slavery in the Territories.

"I defy any man to show that any one of them ever, in his whole life, declared that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control . . slavery in the federal territories. I go a step further. I defy any one to show that any living man in the whole world ever did, prior to the beginning of the present century, (and I might almost say prior to the beginning of the last half of the present century [1850],) declare that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control slavery in the federal territories.

"To those who now so declare, I give, not only 'our fathers who framed the Government under which we live,' but with them all other living men within the century in which it was framed, among whom to search, and they shall not be able to find evidence of
a single man agreeing with them."

Nevertheless, whereas this was like, DUH, the slave-owning Democrats put the pedal to the metal and insisted that Free Soilers who opposed the exporting of slavery to the Northwest were trampling on the South's "constitutional rights" and States' Rights (never mind the rights of the people in the Northwest).

That was "it"; that's all there was to the great issue of 1957. It wasn't hard to "understand," but the political class in the South had its own peculiar world view — a myopic "conventional wisdom" that Lincoln and the Republicans were "extremists" and "radicals" because they agreed with George Washington (who banned slavery in the North West Territories). This political class has offspring who still accuse Lincoln of being anti-constitutional (and they've never read the Cooper Address).

The thing that makes this all relevant to today is that we are once again on the brink of a great precipice. The event-of-the-week is the Friday televised "summit" between the President and GOP congressmen. It's a trap, as useless as a "debate" would have been between Lincoln and Buchanan, who already had his mind made up. Upon Friday's event may rest the future existence of the GOP and the fate of the American Revolution. The GOP can survive if the Republicans have the cojones to get up and walk out if it becomes obvious that they are just being used. Lincoln said:

"But enough! . . . But you say you are conservative — eminently conservative — while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort.

"What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by 'our fathers who framed the Government under which we live,' while you [the Democrats] with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new ['change'] . . . "


"A few words now to Republicans . . . let us determine, if we can, what will satisfy them[? — the slave holders].

"Will they be satisfied if the Territories be unconditionally surrendered to them? We know they will not. . . Will it satisfy them, if, in the future, we have nothing to do with invasions and insurrections? We know it will not. We so know, because we know we never had anything to do with invasions and insurrections; and yet this total abstaining does not exempt us from the charge and the denunciation.

"The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simly this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. . . Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

"These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery
wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly done in acts as well as in words.

"Silence will not be tolerated — we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in presses, in pulpits, or in PRIVATE." [my emphasis]

Sound familiar yet? The South [the Democrats] claimed to be fighting for honor and freedom and "rights," but bottom line, it was a Power grab (long before Lincoln ever got national recognition). History repeats itself. Today's parallels include the abortion issue (and the attempt to nationalize and finalize it) and nationalized "Health" reform — the subject of this Friday's sham meeting between the President and GOP congressmen. Lincoln went on to say:

"I am also aware they have not, as yet, in terms, demanded the overthrow of our Free-State Constitutions. Yet those Constitutions declare the wrong of slavery, with more solemn emphasis, than do all other sayings against it; and when all these other sayings shall have been silenced, the overthrow of these Constitutions will be demanded . . . Holding, as they do, that slavery is morally right, and socially elevating, they cannot cease to demand a full national recognition of it, as a legal right, and a social blessing . . .

"Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right; but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them?

"Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this? Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States?

"If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively."

At this point, Lincoln got down to the nitty-gritty and uttered the words that will stand forever against intellectual dissonance and moral cowardice [GOP, please note]:

"Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored — contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man — such as a policy of 'don't care' on a question about which all true men do care — such as Union appeals beseeching true ['conservative'] Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversingthe divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance — . . .

"Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction . . nor of dungeons to ourselves. [caps in original]


Dear Mr. President, Which part of "no" do you not understand — the "N" or the "O"?

© Curtis Dahlgren


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Curtis Dahlgren

Curtis Dahlgren is semi-retired in southern Wisconsin, and is the author of "Massey-Harris 101." His career has had some rough similarities to one of his favorite writers, Ferrar Fenton... (more)


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