Aaron Astor: The Spirit of 1861 - and 2011
Aaron Astor teaches history at Maryville College, Tennessee. He has this article in The Moderate Voice (an Internet hub for moderates, centrists, and independents, with domestic and international news, analysis, original reporting, and popular features from the left, center, and right):
From the moment John Brown led his failed raid on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia on October 16, 1859 the American South went into battle mode. Decades of economic rivalry, mutual cultural denigration, tragicomic assaults on the honor of politicians, and tense negotiations over Western expansion had now reached a point of genuine crisis. To the slaveholding South, the election of a President whose party contained elements approving a large-scale, murderous slave insurrection meant the virtual dissolution of the Union.
Or so the argument went among the so-called fire-eaters in 1860.
The reality, however, was that most white Southerners had not yet come to the conclusion that the Union could no longer protect the vital social and economic institution unique to the South. Throughout 1860 a debate circulated back and forth in the Cotton States over whether or not the Southern states should secede immediately upon the likely election to the Presidency of Republican Abraham Lincoln, or whether or not the slave states should demand a series of Constitutional protections against the potential assault against the system of slavery.
But this debate was not one carried on by rational politicians. Instead, it was hijacked by fire-eaters like William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama, Robert Toombs of Georgia, and Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina, who stormed out of the Democratic Presidential convention in Charleston and nominated their own candidate, Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.
When the inevitable happened, and Lincoln won election with less than 40% of the popular vote – sweeping the North while not even appearing on most Southern ballots – the fire-eaters jumped into action. They had little trouble convincing South Carolina to take the lead on December 20, 1860. Georgia and five other Deep South states quickly followed suit. Alexander Stephens, a well-respected conservative Georgian, counseled repeatedly against secession as folly. While the South’s position was morally and ideologically right, according to Stephens, it was unwise and dangerous to blow apart the Union over principle. As legions of other conservative Southern Unionists argued, secession may be defensible in theory, but it would lead inevitably to Civil War and the likely destruction of the very social order that Southerners seceded to protect.
The conservatives lost that battle and most, like Stephens, threw in their lot with the new Confederate States of America. Four years later, the Revolution of 1861 ended in total catastrophe for the slaveholding South. The slaves were emancipated and the owners uncompensated; the land was physically ruined; much of the white male population was dead or maimed; and the dreaded industrial wage labor system began its march into the South.
Never before or since has a wealthy and powerful subset of America risked so much for ideological purity and honor – and lost it all in a fit of hubris.
Never, that is, until now.
The issues are obviously completely different. And I certainly do not mean to imply that the explosive issues of race and slavery are somehow at play again today. But the region leading the intransigence today – South Carolina, Georgia and the rest of the South – was the same that led the great disaster of 1861. I can’t explain why it is that the GOP delegations from the Deep South are the most opposed to the debt ceiling increase. But I can say that the folly these politicians are expressing rivals that of their ancestors.
The cost of failing to raise the debt ceiling is either catastrophic, confusing or some combination therein. What is certain, however, is that interest rates will spike as the US government will have effectively refused to pay its minimum balance on a credit card debt already accrued before today. Not only will this raise the likelihood of falling deeper into recession, it will make the Republican Party look completely amateurish and will hand full and complete power back to a Democratic Party committed to more of the same spending that infuriates the Tea Party right.
The saner conservatives – Fred Thompson and Charles Krauthammer, for example – loathe the large-scale spending. But they understand that the GOP has already gotten the best deal it could possibly get – a deficit cutting bill with no tax increases! Why throw that away in a pique of ideological purity? How could the Tea Party and the right wing of the GOP not see the benefit of compromise here today and fighting the larger fight tomorrow – and on ground that the Democrats have already conceded?
At the Andrew Johnson Historic Site in Greeneville, Tennessee, it is Fred Thompson who plays the voice of the great East Tennessee Unionist Senator in the museum’s orientation video. One can imagine Johnson – as Fred Thompson today – issuing the same warning against the folly of refusing to raise the debt ceiling just as he admonished Tennesseans in 1861 to eschew disunion.
Instead, we’ve entered the surreal phase where the Tea Party right demands even more delusional provisions, like linking a second round of debt ceiling increase to PASSAGE of a Balanced Budget Amendment by both houses of Congress. I would suggest that this is even more obscene than the pathetic Crittenden Compromise of early 1861, where the North was asked to agree to an unamendable Constitutional amendment recognizing the permanent right of states to maintain chattel slavery. Nobody expected the North to agree with that provision – and the South had already concluded the gig was up anyway. Does anybody really think a Balanced Budget Amendment is going to pass THIS Congress (or any Congress, for that matter)? The unseriousness of this proposal shows just how far off the deep end the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party has gone.
But it may be too late. The Tea Party has finally re-awoken the maverick John McCain and exposed huge rifts within the GOP. It has completely alienated Independents from the GOP. And it may have thrown the entire economy into a catastrophic death spiral. It will be up to the remaining adults in the room to clean up the mess, and leave today’s fire-eaters in the dustbin of history.
Well, here is a last-minute info:
In a last-minute stab at compromise, Republican congressional leaders and the White House made significant progress Saturday night toward a deal to avert a government default threatened for early next week, according to officials familiar with the talks.
Under the plan, the nation's debt limit would rise in two steps by a total of about $2.4 trillion and spending would be cut by a slightly larger amount, these officials said. The first stage — about $1 trillion — would take place immediately and the second later in the year.
What to say? We are living interesting times. And I am very cautious when it comes to interesting times.
Labels: Aaron Astor