Michael Barone compares the machinations employed to seek passage of Obamacare by Harry Reid in the Senate to those used by Stephen Douglas to secure the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise limiting the spread of slavery in favor of Douglas’s scheme of “popular sovereignty.” Douglas professed indifference to the prospect of slavery being voted up or down in the territories. Who could oppose a democratic resolution of the controversy over the introduction of slavery into the territories?
Abraham Lincoln, for one. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May 1854 had the immediate effect of prompting Lincoln’s return to politics. In October 1854 Lincoln gave his utterly brilliant Peoria speech in opposition to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Lincoln observed:
This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world–enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites–causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty–criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.
But what about the democratic principle underlying popular sovereignty? Lincoln subjected it to his characteristic analysis:
The doctrine of self government is right–absolutely and eternally right–but it has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such just application depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government–that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal;” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.
Lincoln recurred to the Declaration of Independence: “What I do say is, that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle–the sheet anchor of American republicanism.”
The month following the Peoria speech Lincoln was elected to the Illinois state legislature. He declined to take office in order to seek election by the legislature to Illinois’ open Senate seat. (He narrowly lost.)
Repeal of the Missouri Compromise also had the effect of killing off the Whig Party and inducing the birth of the Republican Party. Barone writes that “the 1854-55 elections transformed the Democrats’ 159-71 majority to a 108-83 Republican margin. Democrats didn’t win a majority of House seats for the next 20 years.” Douglas thought he had resolved the issue of slavery with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, yet the Civil War loomed on the horizon.
Barone writes: “Kansas-Nebraska was an attempt to settle a fundamental issue by legislative legerdemain and political trickery. The Democrats’ health care bills are an attempt to settle a fundamental issue by partisan maneuver and cash-for-cloture. As Stephen Douglas learned, such tactics can work for a while, but the country — and the Democratic Party — can end up paying a heavy price.” For Republicans, I would only add that the example of Lincoln remains to light the way.