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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama, Lincoln and Obstructionism

I was about to sit down and write about the sudden denouement of the bizarre Mark Sanford saga, when Matt Yglesias gave me a welcome excuse to deal with a very different question involving South Carolina. Here’s Matt’s question:

I find myself continually compelled to think about the political situation in late 1860 through the ahistorical lens of today’s political controversies. After all, if Barack Obama with a popular majority and 59 Democratic Senators can’t get a climate change bill through the Senate, then what kind of anti-slavery legislative agenda would Abraham Lincoln have been able to drive through congress had the South not seceded? The Republicans were committed to excluding slavery from the territories, but perhaps slave state Senators could have just dealt with this through ceaseless filibustering. It was only the withdrawal of the Confederate members from Congress that gave the GOP the majorities it needed to pass its agenda.

Well, not exactly, in my admittedly non-expert but reasonably informed opinion.
What panicked many southerners most about Lincoln’s election wasn’t so much anything he’d promised to do, or was capable of doing, on slavery in the short term. The real disaster was the successful emergence of a sectional northern party that was hostile to slavery and the South’s interests (as white southerners saw them), and the final collapse of the Second Party System in which southern Whigs and Democrats were able to largely neutralize or at least contain anti-slavery sentiment in both parties. Southerners knew they’d always be outgunned in a purely sectional party alignment. Moreover, since the Planter Interests were largely Old Whigs who were more pro-union than most southern Democrats, the death of the Whigs vitiated resistance to the ever-present secession idea at a crucial juncture. Even so, secession was a dicey proposition. In Georgia, for example, only apocalyptic storms on the day of the vote for delegates to a secession convention decided the result (future Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, once a warm friend of Lincoln’s in the Whig Caucus in Congress, was the leader of those fighting immediate secession).
It’s also important to remember that it was not at all clear initially that the federal government would oppose secession militarily–and it indeed didn’t until South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter.
Could the South have defended slavery and their other regional interests successfully without secession, as Matt suggests? That’s hard to say, since “defending slavery” didn’t, from the point of view of the protagonists of the time, just depend on defeating or stalling anti-slavery measures in Congress, but on proactively opening up territories to slavery, for both economic and political reasons. One of the factors in northern sentiment that helped create the Republican Party was the belief that the federal government was and would ever be controlled by the “Slave Power,” through the South’s leverage over both parties. The Republican victory in 1860 definitely meant that Power would never be the same, even if Lincoln had done nothing on the policy front.
Matt might be hinting that the self-destructive Obama-hatred and extremism of today’s Republicans is “folly,” insofar as they are finding it relatively easy to thwart or compromise him in Congress on key issues like climate change. That could well be true. But like secession ultras in 1860, today’s conservative activists don’t seem that interested in tactical victories. They feel robbed of a mandate for fundamental changes in public policies, from outlawing abortion to decimating “entitlements,” that once seemed tantalizingly close. And even if they only believe half of their own rhetoric, they also think a moderately successful Obama administration would be disastrous to their cause. Like those who fought Lincoln in 1860, many of those who fight Obama today do not believe time is on their side.

3 comments on “Obama, Lincoln and Obstructionism

  1. Barry A. on

    I enjoyed your post. There’s another – and often little-noted – reason why the Southern Ultras could not abide a Lincoln Presidency. Control of the White House gave the Republicans the right to appoint postmasters across the country, including the South. For some time, Democratic postmasters had helped to suppress anti-slavery literature in the Southern states. The idea of freedom of speech regarding anything relating to slavery was abhorrent to the Southern leadership hierarchy. Lincoln threatened to bring free speech to the South via the U.S. Mails. This conjured up visions of new Nat Turners rising up after reading anti-slavery tracts – or, at the very least, white men questioning the idea of slavery. This was a clear and present danger to the Slaver Power.

  2. edkilgore on

    Thanks for your very informative comment. The critical point you make is that all the southern appeals to “states’ rights” obscured a desire for, and a reliance on, federal power to enforce state and individual “property” rights. And most definitely, the Fugitive Slave Act was a galvanizing issue in the North, threatening the ability of northern states to control their own affairs. I think we’d agree that with the destruction of the Whigs, the failure of the “Know-Nothings,” and the defection of many northern Democrats either to the Douglas faction or to the Republicans, southerners thought they were not longer getting their due from the Union. But this represented a admission of failure of the old regional strategy, not some despairing defensive reaction to northern or Republican “fanaticism,” as apologists of the Confederacy often assume.

  3. David in Nashville on

    I’ve already posted on this at Yglesias’s site, but as a historian of the South I think your historical analysis is more or less right on [as we old sixties people say]. I’d mention, though, that what really strikes me about the secession debates is the centrality of the Fugitive Slave issue, not the territorial question. For all the “states’ rights” blather, southern slaveholders had long depended on the federal government to protect their “peculiar institution”–and, indeed, the Republicans had a strong case that the “slave power” had basically used its political power, bolstered by its northern Democratic allies, to run roughshod over the interests of the majority of white Americans as well as the slaves. The fugitive slave issue was a major sectional flashpoint in that regard. White southerners insisted that the northern states were constitutionally obligated to surrender anyone southerners deemed to be a fugitive from slavery; white northerners saw this, reasonably, as a demand that they give up their “states’ rights” and allow the federal government to enforce legalized kidnapping. Repeated efforts to ram fugitive-slave enforcement down northerners’ throats came to naught. It was thus the alleged passivity of the federal government in the face of northern resistance that riled the secessionists–that, and the abundant evidence that northerners were going to subvert the institution, even by supporting “terrorists” like John Brown, as long as the South had to live in the same country with them.


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