How today’s Democratic ‘Squad’ is a direct ideological descendant of the original 1850s Republicans
Nothing is ever really “new.” Today’s ‘Squad’ of young Democrats is the direct ideological descendant of the original 1850s Congressional Republicans. That is one of the important lessons of Joanne Freeman’s “The Fields of Blood,” about the increasing threats of, and actual incidents of, violence in the US Congress between the 1830s and the Civil War.
Just as today, there were differing economic and social divides in America. Economically there was a struggle for power between the merchant class and farmers. Socially the increasingly contentious issue was that of slavery. At least beginning with Andrew Jackson’s 1828 Presidential election victory, the Democratic Party was the voice of farmers. The ex-Federalists and the nascent Whig party became that of commerce.
But there were northern and southern branches of each party, defined in how they stood on slavery. The story of the 1830s through 1850s is how that moral issue moved to the forefront, splitting both parties, and ultimately giving rise to the Republicans. This is very much the same paradigm as the “great sort” that took place between the Democratic Party and the GOP between 1980 and 2016 (if not 2008).
Not only is that, but reminiscent of polls over the past 10 years, in the 1830s and 1840s northerners, especially northern Whigs, wanted to settle disputes civilly, while especially southern Democrats were willing to threaten, and even use, physical force to get their way.
Most importantly, dueling was accepted in the south as a way to defend one’s “honor,” while in the north it was looked upon as unseemly. Southerners used this to their advantage, knowing that northerners would back down in the face of a challenge to a duel. This first came to a head when, in 1838, Maine Representative Jonathan Gilley accepted the challenge of Kentucky Representative Williams Graves. Neither really wanted to duel, and both were poorly served by their seconds, who at crucial moments failed to resolve the situation, but the bottom line is that Graves shot and killed Gilley. Sectional debate on the floor of Congress had finally gone all the way to causing a death.
And just as in our present era, one side was especially willing to break norms in order to get their way on their biggest issues. One analog to Mitch McConnell now was James K. Polk, who promised in 1844 that he would lower tariffs that hurt farmers, acquire California and the Oregon territory, and allow Texas into the Union. Of course, a big reason for the acquisition of southwestern lands was to allow the expansion of slavery to new states, which is why both the venerable John Quincy Adams and a young Abraham Lincoln opposed the Mexican War. A second norm-breaker was Stephen Douglas, who blew up the Missouri Compromise even before the Dred Scot case, advocating that territories themselves should choose whether they would allow slavery or not, which ultimately succeeded in the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Finally the north had had enough, and elected Representatives and Senators who vowed not to be cowed. Here is Freeman’s discussion of the arrival of the first Republicans elected to Congress in 1855:
As inchoate as this new party was, the arrival of an explicitly Northern opposition had an enormous impact on Congress. Not only did the number of fights spike precipitously after 1855, but their dynamics fundamentally changed. Republicans promoted themselves as a new kind of Northerner who was willing to fight back, and they were true to their word. They fought to wrest control of Congress and the Union from the Slave Power.
As an example, Freeman cites the contest for Speaker in 1859. Southerners threatened violence if a Northerner won the post. Pennsylvania Republican Thaddeus Stevens
said that he didn’t blame Southerners for their threats, ‘for they have tried it fifty times, and fifty times they have found weak and recreant tremblers in the North who have been affected by it.’ When Stevens’ quip brought [Georgian] Martin Crawford to his feet uttering threats, Stevens added, ‘That is right. That is the way that they frightened us before.’ At this, Crawford headed toward Stevens …. Within seconds, Republicans and Southern Democrats were rushing down the aisles, several of them reaching for guns.
In addition to the famous caning by Sen. Preston Brooks of Sen. Charles Sumner, there were more than a dozen fights in the Thirty-Sixth Congress. In one incident, Southern Democrat Roger Pryor challenged Republican John Potter to a duel. He was surprised when Potter not only accepted but chose Bowie knives as weapons. Pryor backed down, citing the “vulgarity” of the weapon, and northerners rejoiced.
A political faction entrenched in power for a generation or more being challenged by new generation of implacable opposition sounds exactly like the reaction of the GOP to the ‘Squad’ today.
Just as then, I believe that the new unwavering and determined opposition will ultimately carry the day, although it may be done “one funeral at a time.” But also just as then, I wonder how big a Constitutional rupture may occur along the way.