By Matthew Hoh |
For all its current shortcomings, the United States government remains intact, and the issues it faces are not as resistant to compromise as slavery, which means that 2011 was not as bad as 1860, a year that nearly ended the existence of the United States.
In 1860, "the government" failed on four distinct levels: a major political party, the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the electorate. At the Democratic National Convention in April, delegates from 10 states walked out in response to the nomination of a presidential candidate and the adoption of a platform of which they disapproved, and formed a breakaway party. That break severed one of few remaining national institutions, and opened the way for the victory of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. Before Lincoln took office, seven states left the Union.
Neither the legislative nor the executive branches responded well. An incendiary public letter decrying compromise issued by southern congressmen on Dece. 13, 1860, made it obvious that congressional attempts at compromise were exercises in futility. President James Buchanan simply counted days until he could get out of Washington, while members of his Cabinet, most egregiously Secretary of War John Floyd, actively aided secessionists.
Then as now, elected officials in Washington do not have a corner on blame, for if "We the people" in our Constitution's preamble means anything, then government is not a faraway them; it is us. The electorate shares responsibility. Self-government works if and only if all parties abide by election results whether or not they like them. If a dissatisfied part of the electorate decides it need not be bound by election results, then self-government loses all legitimacy, and the American experiment in self-government fails, which was what Lincoln meant when he explained that secession in response to election results presented "to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy--a government of the people, by the same people" could survive.
We may shake our heads in frustration, but we do not face issues as essentially impervious to compromise as slavery, nor do we seriously question the government's survival, which reminds us that things could be worse. But 1860 should also remind us that if we are to look for the sources of our government's problems, then "We the People" cannot exempt ourselves from some of the scrutiny.
About Chandra Manning Professor at Georgetown University
William A. Galston Former Policy Adviser to President Clinton
Judson Phillips Founder of Tea Party Nation