COLUMN: History echoes through our modern democracy

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, July 24, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

History echoes through our modern democracy
By Aaron J. Brown

Maybe you’ve got a book like this in your house, a big one: heavier than most new computers, too big to hide. For me this book was “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln” by Sean Wilentz, and I’m happy to announce that I not only finished it, but learned something (and built some arm strength in the process).

“The Rise of American Democracy” is compelling and well-written – the topic deeply relevant to our times. With a state budget battle that raged too long and increasingly dangerous federal budget shenanigans, I’d advise our leaders to read it as well while they apparently have time on their hands.

Wilentz endeavors in thousands of thoughtful observations to show that the democracy that formed in our country after the ratification of the Constitution was highly complex, vulnerable to collapse, and indeed wasn’t even just one democracy. Two democracies – one northern, populous and industrial; another southern, slave-holding, and disproportionately powerful – formed simultaneously and battled politically until those divisions turned to outright war.

Make no mistake, the Civil War was about slavery. Though the north and south had many differences including states’ rights concerns, constitutional interpretations and voting rights, slavery was the underlying issue that spurred the other differences.

However, it should not be presumed that the North was universally “good,” while the South was “bad.” Most northerners who opposed the spread of slavery to new territories simply didn’t want black people to move West with them. Racism, tensions between immigrants and former slaves, and the always-powerful machinations of Eastern capitalists forged an American history that was so deeply inhumane at times that it’s no wonder that scars remain in today’s American race relations. Only a small minority of abolitionists and forward thinkers advanced the ideas of liberty and universal suffrage that we take for granted today, and they were mostly hated and mocked in their time.

Slavery and Civil War are the parts you might remember from school. The specifics of the events and the churning nature of political coalitions that rose and fell during this time would surprise many modern Americans. President Andrew Jackson was such a critical force in preserving the union, despite his racist anti-Indian policies. The lesser known one-term President James K. Polk played a big role in the acquisition of California and other western territories, despite his mediocre handling of national divisions.

The divide in early America wasn’t just between slave and free states. Those supporting the idea of true democracy ran the constant risk of mob rule and propagated the aforementioned racism. The once-federalist ideals of wise government and economic maneuvering were then, as they are now, often co-opted by powerful moneyed interests. Both of these ideals were crucial to the development of our early democracy, and each had to serve as a check and balance on the other. Today, all legal citizens can vote and hold their money in stock portfolios that yield compounding interest. These bounties were hard-fought.

What’s interesting are the ways different political groups shifted within the slave/free, democracy/federalism camps. Both the Democratic Party (which bears only passing resemblance to today’s version) and the Whigs of that era had liberal and conservative wings. Coalitions on various issues, such as slavery, would form outside of party label or even create new parties.
You might not see the Free Soil Party on the ballot next year, but it was crucial in breaking up the Whigs and putting anti-slavery politics in starker terms in its time. After the collapse of the Whigs over the slavery issue, the Republican Party (also unrecognizable by today’s metrics) formed a wider coalition of anti-slavery groups to win the 1860 election.

After snapping shut Wilentz’s thick volume, I recall other political realignments.

There was 1912, when many progressive fled the Republicans for Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” party.

The Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal brought the rest of the progressives over to the Democrats, leaving Republicans squarely in the camp of big business interests.

Eisenhower brought many genteel post-war conservatives back to the GOP while Kennedy won a new generation for the Democrats. The Civil Rights Act sent Southern conservatives to the Republicans while earning liberal loyalty for the Democrats that continues today.

Do you really think the plasticized, inflexible brand-name political parties of today represent the rich diversity of American thought and progress? You shouldn’t. Most likely the Red vs. Blue divide is a cultural mask for real policy divisions that Americans have always faced down, often though not always wisely. If you don’t like what you see, vote Free Soil. Or Anti-Mason. Or Liberty. Or Know-Nothing. American political factions might be better served casting off their tethers to major parties and advocating for what the people want and need.

The events that transpired between the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln seem today distant but distinctly-heard echoes across the 150 years of history that’s elapsed since. Divisions in American society today are different, indeed would be utterly unrecognizable to the founders of this democracy. But the central questions of our time are similar to theirs and represent the driving questions that defined America.
Who will have the power? For whom will government policies benefit? What are the rights of people in this republic that Jefferson so earnestly hoped we could keep?

Aaron J. Brown is the author of the blog and the book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range. He lives north of Nashwauk.

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