When our 16th president was inaugurated, seven of the 11 Confederate states had already walked. South Carolina’s secession resolution, like those of other rebellious states, was unambiguous that slavery was the cause:
A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
With the departure of Southern Democrats, the Republican majority implemented an agenda that had been building for a decade. The 37th Congress was among the most productive of any, before or since, and laid the foundation for the United States as we know it. Among its many achievements, I note four that resonate today:
- The first income tax, passed to fund the war
- Authorization of the first transcontinental railroad, facilitated by giving railroad companies millions of acres of federal land
- The Morrill Act and the Department of Agriculture, which together fostered the world’s greatest system of higher education and a revolution in farming technology, paving the way for leaps in productivity and the development of modern urban life
- Abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia (followed by passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments within the decade)
On this Presidents Day (honoring the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington – but not others, such as Pierce’s and Buchanan’s), I’m pondering whether a little secession is just the ticket to break the stalemate in Congress. Suppose the former Confederate states again took a walk. What corresponding achievements might a 78-member Senate pass?
- A reformed Internal Revenue Code that taxes a greater percentage of Warren Buffet’s income than that of his secretary?
- A well funded infrastructure program that expands highways and public transportation, replaces water and sewer systems, and gives regulators the authority to ensure public safety?
- Expanded federal aid to higher education, to ensure that graduates enter the labor market without career-determining debt?
- A modernized voting system that puts the onus on government to ensure that citizens are registered and free to exercise the franchise?
Then those 11 Southern states (including my own, Virginia) could go on with their dream of minimal government (in some respects) reliant on regressive taxation.
Of course, the challenge is that our national disputes do not conform to neat geography, as recent results of the Electoral College show. A swath of the Plains glows as red as the Deep South, and the West Coast is as blue as the Northeast. All over the country, the red/blue maps are inaccurate, as most counties have varying purple hues, according to illustrator Chris Howard, who created an image of the 2012 presidential vote by county.
Besides, as Lincoln understood, the logic of secession could be replicated in Oregon as well as Alabama. The United States, after only 70 years, was still an experiment in government, a collection of disparate states uneasily balanced between state and federal powers. It (or “they,” at the time) also had an original sin. The sin has been expunged, but the tendency of powerful minorities to suppress majorities remains, as the history of malapportionment, gerrymandering and voter ID laws shows.
We approach a divide nearly as great as Lincoln faced, though now it’s not a single, overarching issue but a range of values about the government’s reach into our personal, social and economic lives, from abortion to the minimum wage. Still, one value seems to be retarding a more perfect union: tolerance and respect for differences, embodied in the Constitution’s tension between majority rule and the protection of individual rights guaranteed by the amendments, particularly the 14th. In Congress and in the land, situational ethics has taken hold, as seen in the brewing dispute over whether the president should receive a Senate vote on his Supreme Court nominee.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed to capture this missing spirit of tolerance, inquiry, and rigor in her tribute to Antonin Scalia:
We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots . . . and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion.
That sets me thinking about what makes the high court different: Its majorities are assembled by persuasion. The justices must listen to each other and then, with each vote counted, decide difficult questions.
It’s a practice our political bodies could emulate. As President Obama remarked last week about his time in the Illinois Senate, “We didn’t call each other idiots or fascists who were trying to destroy America. Because then we’d have to explain why we were playing poker or having a drink with an idiot or a fascist who was trying to destroy America.”