THE BLOG
07/01/2013 08:56 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

Gettysburg and Gridlock

Today, exactly 150 years ago, the Battle of Gettysburg began. Seen by most military historians as the turning point of the Civil War, the victory of North over South was indeed a profound moment in time. But I'm going to leave that sort of thing to the military historians who are much more informed about the battle itself, the meaningfulness of the victory, and all the rest of the arrows-on-a-map analysis. There should be plenty of such commentary this week to commemorate the battle, a three-day affair that left roughly 50,000 Americans dead. Instead, today I'm going to go off on a rather large tangent into the history of the American political world, so be warned.

President Lincoln, during a visit to the battlefield at Gettysburg over four months afterward (to dedicate a graveyard of the dead), said pretty much all that needs to be said about the true impact of the battle on the American psyche:

We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

Which is another reason why I'm not going to address the battle itself much, in contemplating the events of 150 (or, perhaps, "seven score and 10" would be more appropriate) years ago. As Lincoln pointed out, it's an almost-impossible task to achieve. Although these lines aren't the most-quoted lines from his speech, they are indeed the essence of it -- the soldiers who fought here paid the ultimate price, and everything we do in commemoration is always going to fall short of that measure.

Lincoln's next sentence is now read with irony, but he certainly wasn't being ironic when he spoke: "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." He was building on his earlier point, but the world (or at least American schoolhouses) did note in a big way, and did remember what Lincoln said in Gettysburg. This is the one speech in all of American history that is still routinely read -- in full -- by students. Many are tasked with actually memorizing the entire thing. Perhaps some of the reason is that the speech is only ten sentences long, and only took about two minutes to deliver (after one previous speaker's oratory that day which topped out at two hours, which has indeed been long forgotten). Maybe modern presidents should consider this, when drafting momentous announcements?

Lincoln's masterful speech aside, however, the sesquicentennial of not just one battle but the entire Civil War should give overheated pundits and other inside-the-Beltway denizens reason to reflect. How often, after all, have we recently heard some version of "America's more political divided now than ever" issuing forth from political commentators or even the politicians themselves? The only proper answer to such historical ignorance should be: "Really? You really think we're more politically divided right now than during the Civil War?" Once again: 50,000 people died over the course of only three days in southern Pennsylvania, a century and a half ago. Tends to put things in perspective, doesn't it?

Even if this point sinks in, most people would dismiss the Civil War as being but one aberration in the American timeline -- one brief moment when brother fought brother, and not indicative of the rest of our history. This, too, is historically false. Merely taking the period between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, the question of slavery was more divisive -- for six or seven decades -- than any of today's political wedge issues you can name: abortion, civil rights, immigration, gay rights... or anything else we argue about today, in fact.

South Carolina, after all, threatened to secede a full three decades before the Civil War was fought. Andrew Jackson began making plans to send federal troops in, but the crisis was defused at the last moment. The Kansas-Nebraska Act caused low-level guerrilla warfare (or low-level civil war, take your choice) on the frontiers -- look up "Bleeding Kansas" if you don't believe it. The first South Carolina crisis was in 1832-33. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854.

But the power struggle actually began in the Constitution itself, which mandated that slavery's legality wouldn't even be discussed until 1808. The first real national legislative fight on the issue took place over the admission of Missouri and Maine to the Union. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was passed specifically to keep the balance of power intact between the Northern free states and the Southern slave states. This balance was more important than even partisan divisions which existed, since national political parties were a lot weaker during this period than regional politics. Each party, whatever their names (Whig, Democrat, Republican), had both a Southern wing and a Northern wing. On questions of slavery, the Northerners would vote together -- across party lines -- and the South would likewise stay cohesive. To put this another way, geography mattered more than party.

Slavery was an issue which permeated all lawmaking for decades leading up to the Civil War. Trade policy, foreign affairs, judicial and other appointments -- even the post office -- all were bitterly fought over because of their relations to the slavery issue (the post office, for instance, because of the question of whether abolitionists could mail their newspapers to the South, where they were considered illegal and seditious writing). Gridlock was common in Washington throughout this period, because no compromise or consensus could be reached on a wide number of issues, because of the underlying disagreement on slavery.

In fact, these compromises were so few and far between, we now capitalize them. This started with the Missouri Compromise in 1820, which allowed one slave state (Missouri) to enter the Union at the same time as one free state (Maine, which had been a district of Massachusetts up to this point). This perfectly balanced the split, at 12 free states and 12 slave states. The balance was maintained as new states joined (Arkansas balanced Michigan, Florida and Texas were balanced by Iowa and Wisconsin). To put dry historical fact into context, however, consider what this meant in the Senate -- an exact balance between two divided ideologies, for three decades. Imagine a 50-50 partisan split in the Senate since 1983 -- which is what would be required for modern times to even come close to how divisive America's politics were from 1820 t0 1850. And that's being charitable, since it really was over six decades that the slavery balance of power situation existed.

In 1850, California joined the Union as a free state (but with one senator who favored slavery, to regain perfect balance). The "Compromise of 1850" which allowed its admission weakened the Missouri Compromise rules. South Carolina once again threatened to secede, but didn't. Four years later, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed and replaced the Missouri Compromise with a new idea: popular opinion in territories striving for statehood would determine their entry status, and not a national political balancing act. Before California joined, the balance was at 15 states apiece. After the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, the voting in the two territories as to their choice of free or slave became a battlefield in itself, with intimidation by roving cross-border gangs, and plenty of ballot-box stuffing.

But the writing was already on the wall. The balance of power could not continue. While California only pushed the split to 16-15 in favor of free states, from 1850 to 1861 three more free states would join (Minnesota, Oregon, and Kansas), and -- even more ominously for the South -- most of the territory in the West which hadn't achieved statehood did not favor slavery. The future was plain to see: the South's national political power would become further and further diminished. Used to being able to obstruct any movement towards ending slavery, they would now become an ever-shrinking minority power in Washington politics. When Kansas joined, the split stood at 19-15, and Nebraska was waiting in the wings to improve the free states' advantage to 20-15.

The Civil War was fought for many reasons, great and small. The overarching reason was slavery, of course, but the motivations were varied as to why that particular point in history is when open warfare began. The concept of nullification was first proposed in 1798, and the drafts of the resolutions calling for such a stance were written by both Thomas Jefferson and the "Father of the Constitution," James Madison -- how's that for the "original intent" of the "Founding Fathers"? New England came very close to not only seceding, but to negotiating a separate peace with Great Britain during wartime, in 1814 -- how's that for treasonous? South Carolina walked right up to the brink of secession in 1832, and then considered it again in 1850. But outright fighting didn't begin until the national balance of political power had tipped decisively towards the free states.

Throughout this period, however, the slave and free states were protected from ever having to deal with the question of slavery politically. At first, the Constitution itself forbade any change in the status quo. When that ended in 1808, the politicians of the day soon engineered built-in gridlock to the political system -- because it all but guaranteed that the question would never be directly addressed politically. This allowed both sides to rant and rave about it to their hearts' content, while at the same time knowing that neither side had the votes to really pass anything which would fundamentally change the situation. What else can you call that than political gridlock?

So, while today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, I'm going to follow Lincoln's advice and not even attempt to laud the lives lost around a small town in southern Pennsylvania. Nothing I can say is going to elevate what they did, so I leave it all for you to contemplate on your own this Independence Day week. Instead, what I will also be remembering -- and which I sincerely urge that today's politicians and media personalities read up on -- is the fact that the Civil War was actually postponed for decades by the most fierce ideological divide in our history. This political chasm separated two sides which would never come around to the other viewpoint, and it lasted over half a century. Even the period between the Missouri Compromise and California's admission was three decades long. And during this time, pretty much any issue of any importance in Washington had to fall along the free/slavery divide at some point in the legislative process. Major things simply did not get done because both sides couldn't agree on how it would impact the slavery issue.

An argument can even be made that the self-designed gridlock was actually a good thing, since it did tend to postpone the Civil War, which could have been fought much earlier in our history if a few things had gone a different way in Congress. But whether it was, on the whole, beneficial to American politics or not, my main point is that it did exist. Which easily puts the lie to anyone trying to push the "we're more divided than ever" nonsense these days.

It's obvious we're not more divided than we were in Gettysburg 150 years ago. That's the easiest example, in fact. But the Civil War didn't just erupt out of nowhere. It wasn't an issue which suddenly appeared on the American scene. Slavery was contentious during our Revolution, it was extremely contentious during the drafting of the Constitution, and it remained the most contentious issue for seventy years afterward. The divisiveness transcended all other issues in Washington. The gridlock was designed in to the political system. The balance of power would be maintained, guaranteeing the problem would not be solved politically. Trying to equate the political power struggles today to this period is just laughable. It's not even the only period of monumental gridlock in our history, in fact, but it is the easiest to spot and understand.

I'm sure there will be memorials and re-enactments for the next few days. I'm sure I'll see something about Gettysburg on the evening news. But remembering battles tends to focus in on what went on during the fighting (or even what Lincoln said about it afterward). This removes a lot of necessary context. For me, the context is that the physical warfare didn't happen for a long time before it erupted, and during that time the issue so divided us that we as a nation agreed to an unnatural balance of political power. This effort avoided solving the problem, by instead postponing it as long as humanly possible -- by extending the political gridlock. Right or wrong though this effort may have been, when you contemplate 50,000 dead in three days, you can begin to understand the motivations for the politicians back then who agreed to engineer such monumental gridlock for such a long period.

The sad thing is that while Gettysburg changed the course of history, and the Civil War as a whole ended slavery, the gridlock itself did not perish in the struggle. The antebellum period is the best example of divisive American politics throughout history, but it is by no means the only one. I'd be willing to bet, in fact, that if you calculated the periods when Congress actually worked smoothly and got major things done against the periods when Congress was mired in the swamp of divisiveness to the point of bringing the legislative process to a screeching halt, that the latter would mark a lot more time on the calendar than the former. Which is sad indeed, but also entirely understandable. It has always, is now, and forevermore shall be easier to kick the political can down the road rather than to tackle the big issues and actually fix the nation's problems.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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