Has America Ever Been in Such a Crisis Before? Yes, Three TimesRoundup
tags: Civil War, Reconstruction, Heather Cox Richardson, crisis
Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian and Professor of History at Boston College, where she teaches courses on the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the American West, and the Plains Indians. She previously taught at MIT and the University of Massachusetts. Richardson has authored five books.
A lot of folks have been asking me lately if America has ever been in such a crisis before and, if so, what people in the past did to save democracy.
The answer to the first question is yes, it has, three times, although only once was this bad. In the 1850s, the 1890s, and the 1920s, oligarchs took over the nation’s government, controlling the White House, Congress, and the courts.
In the 1850s, elite southern slaveholders took over the Democratic Party and insisted that they should have the right to spread their economic system of large plantations worked by enslaved laborers across the American West. This would mean a whole host of new western slave states which, acting in concert with the southern slave states, would take over Congress and make slavery national.
In 1854, with the help of compliant Democratic President Franklin Pierce, they forced through Congress the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law replaced the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had kept slavery out of the northwestern plains. The Kansas-Nebraska Act would let settlers choose whether or not they would admit enslaved labor but, so long as a single slave was brought into a territory, the government would have to protect slavery there under the Constitution’s promise to protect property (for enslaved workers were, technically, property). This, of course, meant slavery would spread to all the territories.
Three years later, in the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court denied that Congress had any power to legislate in the territories anyway, meaning it could not stop the spread of slavery there. Then pro-slavery men in Kansas cheated to win territorial elections, then passed laws that kept anti-slavery men from ever holding power. Then, when Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner—who had himself been a Democrat until 1854—protested that pro-slavery men were cheating in Kansas to serve the slaveholding oligarchy, a southern Democrat beat him nearly to death on the Senate floor. Then, in the 1860 election, southern slaveholders kept all but Democrats from voting, and refused even to allow ballots with their opponents’ names on them.
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