Americans are watching, with frustration and resentment, the politics of obstruction convulsing the nation’s capital. Since the inauguration of President Obama in 2009, congressional Republicans have blocked many initiatives, programs, and appointments, with the sequestration crisis the latest act in the drama. The bitterness generated by these tactics has poisoned the wells of politics throughout the United States.
While enduring this politics of obstruction, we have thronged to the nation’s movie theaters to watch Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. This remarkable film portrays the nation’s 16th president, as he struggled to bring the Civil War to a victorious close while seeking approval, by the House of Representatives, of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. Historians disagree about the movie’s treatment of history, but Lincoln does an impressive job of capturing the complicated, contentious political world of 1865.
Lincoln is part of the nation’s oddly quiet commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. We still struggle with how to understand the war, the history that it made, and its consequences for posterity. One question that is not generally addressed, however, has to do with the decision by 11 Southern states to vote to leave the Union in 1860–61. What if those states had pursued a different strategy?
For decades before the Civil War, controversies over slavery roiled American politics. Any issue involving slavery, directly or indirectly, threatened to agitate the Union and its government. Disputes over forming new states and whether they would be free or slave were particularly bitter, as they could shape the future of the Union and of slavery within the Union. Threats of secession and disunion hung over all such disputes. To anxious slave-state politicians, the election in 1860 of Lincoln as president meant a radical shift of federal policy away from protecting slavery to restricting it and even moving against it where constitutionally possible. To them, secession seemed the only answer.
Suppose instead that Southern politicians had decided not to leave the Union but to stay and fight—in the halls of Congress. Suppose that they had pursued a politics of obstruction, a political counterpart of trench warfare—blocking every measure, stalling every policy, jamming the works of government to prevent even appointments of federal postmasters in Southern states. What might have happened?
The result might well have been a cycle of frustration and resistance that would have made today’s brawls look like child’s play. Such tactics might have provoked bitter, even violent disputes between members of Congress, which in turn would have reverberated around the nation, sparking further controversies in their wake. Such tactics also might have sapped the American people’s faith in a constitutional system that throughout the 1850s appeared increasingly unable to contain sectional tensions and rivalries. Containing those rivalries, after all, had been a key purpose of the Congress of the United States devised by the framers of the Constitution of 1787.
How long could this politics of obstruction have continued? How far could the trench warfare flowing from a mid-19th-century version of “the politics of no” have gone? One frightening prospect is that politicians and citizens of the North and West, fed up with a diehard delegation of senators and representatives from the South, might have grown weary of holding the Union together. Instead of resisting secession, they might have welcomed it as the price of ending deadlock. With secession, Southerners would have preserved slavery for the indefinite future. Two wary, suspicious nations would have been involuntary neighbors, with the threat of war between them a haunting specter.
Historians prefer to pursue such what-if questions informally, over a beer or a good single-malt Scotch. Nonetheless, musing on the what-ifs of history can illuminate what might be at stake in modern political conflicts. Although today’s politics of obstruction probably won’t lead to secession, the growing divide between red-staters and blue-staters is eroding the shared commitment to the ideals and principles that hold the American national experiment together. Such erosion also is undermining our constitutional system’s ability to respond to national problems and preserve American liberties. Those who embrace the politics of obstruction will rightly bear the blame for the damage that their approach may do to American constitutional government.
R.B. Bernstein teaches at City College of New York and New York Law School. His books include the bestselling Thomas Jefferson and The Founding Fathers Reconsidered.