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The Timeless Vitriol of the American Political Process

For the Common Defense

In a speech before the House of Representatives, a Democratic Congressman from Ohio had the following to say about the state of affairs in the United States:

“Sir, the power and rights of the States and the people, and of their Representatives, have been usurped; the sanctity of the private house and of private property has been invaded; and the liberty of the person wantonly and wickedly stricken down; free speech, too, has been repeatedly denied; and all this under the plea of necessity. Sir, the right of petition will follow next—nay, it has already been shaken; the freedom of the press will soon fall after it; and let me whisper in your ear, that there will be few to mourn over its loss, unless, indeed, its ancient high and honorable character shall be rescued and redeemed from its present reckless mendacity and degradation. Freedom of religion will yield too, at last, amid the exultant shouts of millions, who have seen its holy temples defiled and its white robes of a former innocency trampled now under the polluting hoofs of an ambitious and faithless or fanatical clergy. Meantime national banks, bankrupt laws, a vast and permanent public debt, high tariffs, heavy direct taxation, enormous expenditure, gigantic and stupendous peculation, anarchy-first and a strong government afterwards, no more State lines, no more State governments, and a consolidated monarchy or vast centralized military despotism, must all follow in the history of the future, as in the history of the past they have, centuries ago, been written. Sir, I have said nothing, and have time to say nothing now, of the immense indebtedness and the vast expenditures which have already accrued, nor of the folly and mismanagement of the war so far, nor of the atrocious and shameless peculations and frauds which have disgraced it in the State governments and the Federal Government from the beginning. The avenging hour for all these will come hereafter, and I pass them by now.”

The idea of a chief executive usurping the powers rightfully held by the legislature is not a new concept—the three branches of the U.S. government, while coequal, have always jockeyed for position against one another—and served to check that behavior in the other branches in turn. The Congressman’s complaints about the executive branch attempting to restrict the basic freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution are of note—particularly when he discusses the idea that the freedom of the press will not only be lost, but it will be unmourned, due to the partisan nature of much of its behavior.

There is no doubt where this Congressman stands regarding the national debt—which he perceives as a growing threat to the liberty of the republic and all of its citizenry, as well as a mechanism to effectively eliminate the roles of state government—but the implied threat at the very end of this piece, that the people and the states will avenge themselves upon the federal government, might be the most dire warning in the excerpt of this speech.

Was the Congressman denouncing the Trump administration in 2020? Hardly. This speech was delivered by Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham, a staunch anti-war Democrat, on July 10, 1861. The target of his vitriol was none other than Abraham Lincoln, who had assumed the office of the presidency four months earlier, after receiving less than 40 percent of the popular vote in November of 1860. In fact, Lincoln’s percentage of the popular vote was the lowest ever received by a candidate who was directly elected to the office, although he received nearly 60 percent of the electoral votes. Sixteen years later, Rutherford B. Hayes set the record for the closest electoral win in history, defeating Samuel Tilden by a single electoral vote.

Vallandigham’s address in Congress is fascinating, in part, because with just a few small changes in terminology, it is easy to imagine the same speech being delivered in a modern political forum, 160 years later. Does that mean that I am predicting the commencement of a second Civil War? Of course not—it merely demonstrates that the vitriol and outrage of modern political movements is neither new nor unprecedented. For all of the bombast and posturing taken by modern candidates for political office, from both ends of the political spectrum, the Republic continues to not only survive, but to thrive.

This week, we witnessed six of the remaining Democratic contenders vie for support in a televised debate in Las Vegas. Each of those candidates hopes to capture enough support from their party to engage in a general contest for the most powerful office in the world. They present competing visions for how the nation should address its most pressing issues—and often, attack the visions presented by their rivals. The longer the contest continues, the thinner the veneer of polite behavior is likely to become among those candidates—a fact that will undoubtedly excite some of their viewers, and depress others. But, the thing to remember is that the public debating and testing of ideas is how the nation vets its would-be leaders, and is what ultimately makes the republic stronger. Regardless of which candidate the Democratic Party selects to be its standard-bearer in the 2020 election, it is a sure bet that the nation is in for a barrage of negative advertising, ceaseless efforts at fundraising, and continual discussions of politics in every public forum. But, for those who suggest that the race is somehow showing the darkest sides of American politics, or that we have entered into an unprecedently negative political contest, it would be wise to examine some of the political campaign arguments from 1860. Doing so helps the reader understand that vitriol in American politics is nothing new.

As for Vallandigham? He lost his bid for reelection to the House of Representatives in 1862, and was eventually arrested for providing aid and comfort to those in arms against the federal government. In 1863, he was expelled from the Union, and sent through the lines to the Confederacy. From there, he moved to Canada, and attempted to run for governor of Ohio while living in exile—a campaign that never stood a chance. When the Civil War ended, he returned to Ohio, but finding his political future at an end, he resumed an earlier law practice. In 1871, he took a case to defend a man accused of murder, and argued that the victim might have shot himself while attempting to draw a concealed pistol. The argument worked, and his client was set free. However, in demonstrating the mechanics of his defense, Vallandigham accidentally selected a loaded pistol, and when he showed how it might have caught in the victim’s clothing and discharged, he shot himself in the abdomen and died a day later.


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