Democracy Cannot Thrive Amid Violence: A Lesson from Kansas

bleeding-kansasMichael Woods, a history professor at Marshall University and the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border, reminds us that Americans must “reaffirm our dedication to democracy as a process” in the midst of this current election campaign.

Here is a taste of his Journal of the Civil War Era piece on “Bleeding Kansas.”

In our own superheated political climate, Bleeding Kansas might seem disturbingly familiar. Born out of disillusionment and desperation, the struggle in Kansas Territory bred a self-righteous refusal to accept the legitimacy of political rivals – and ultimately released a wave of violence. Whether they fought to protect property, preserve racial privilege, or promote an ideology, participants justified fraud, intimidation, and murder by demonizing their foes. History offers few clear-cut lessons, but it is apparent that democracy cannot thrive amid violence, hectoring, and intolerance. It is precisely when our confidence in “politics as usual” has been shaken that we must shun the temptation to take shortcuts to victory. It is precisely in the high-stakes elections, the ones we are most loath to lose, that we must reaffirm our dedication to democracy as a process. When the process breaks down, everyone loses.

Read the entire post here.

And see our Author’s Corner interview with Woods on his earlier book Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States.

And You Thought This Battle for the Speaker of the House Was Bad

Nathaniel Banks: Speaker of the House

This morning I pointed out that only one Speaker of the House ever became President of the United States.

Over at Politico Magazine Josh Zeitz offer some more historical context to the selection of the next Speaker of the House of Representatives.  In 1855 it took two months for the House to select a new Speaker.  

Here is a taste of Zeitz’s piece:

We’re a far cry from 1855, when an incoming congressional majority—the nascent Republican Party—came to Washington determined to stop the spread of chattel slavery. At the time, this anti-slavery coalition was still provisional and ad hoc; the chief impediment to electing a speaker was reconciling its many factions. And yet today, 160 years later, the now-seasoned Republican Party seems similarly fractured—hostage to a strident minority whom even Eric Cantor, the former GOP majority leader, scores for their unbending refusal to embrace the hard work of “incremental progress, winning hearts and minds before winning the vote—the kind of governance Ronald Reagan perfected.” Which begs the question: Is the Grand Old Party unified enough to lead, or is it reverting to the schismatic and disunited state of its earliest days?…

The Kansas-Nebraska Act snapped the cords that bound many Northern voters to the two political parties and threw the American political system into months of extreme confusion and turmoil. At hundreds of political meetings around the country, anti-slavery activists abandoned their political bases for new “fusion” tickets. These activists cut a wide swath across the American political spectrum. Some were members of the moribund Free Soil party, which formed in 1848 to oppose the extension of slavery into the western territories. Others were “Conscience Whigs” who were committed to the Whig party’s economic platform but shared the Free Soilers’ distaste for slavery. Still others were “anti-Nebraska” Democrats, who opposed the Whigs on most policy questions but thought slavery was a dangerous social and political system. Finally, to confuse matters even more, there was considerable overlap between the various anti-Nebraska factions and the nativist American Party, commonly remembered as the “Know Nothing Party.” In some states, these fusion tickets were called Anti-Nebraska, Democrat-Republican or Free Soil. In Ripon, Wisconsin, on February 28, 1854, several dozen residents of the surrounding county converged on the town’s simple, one-room, wood-frame schoolhouse to forge a new political party. They called themselves Republicans, and the name eventually stuck.

That fall, anti-Nebraska candidates unseated dozens of Northern Democrats, leaving many political professionals to wonder who would control the next Congress. Douglas and his associates did a preliminary nose count and estimated that even if Democrats coalesced with what remained of the Whig Party’s representation—now mostly concentrated in the Southern and border states—the anti-Nebraska forces would enjoy a majority of at least 10 votes in the House. Seasoned observers understood, however, that the anti-Nebraska forces were a shaky coalition at best. Erstwhile Whigs and Democrats remained bitterly at odds over economic issues like banking, the tariff and funding for internal improvements—questions that had defined the nation’s political fault lines since the early 1820s and which couldn’t easily be papered over. Adding to the confusion, the new, anti-immigrant American Party—popularly called the Know-Nothings—also won scores of state legislative and congressional seats in the fall elections. Most Know-Nothings opposed the extension of slavery and therefore fell under the banner of the anti-Nebraska fusion coalition, but many ex-Whigs and ex-Democrats were loath to consort with nativists and were steadfastly opposed to placing one in the Speaker’s chair.
Read the rest here.