The Kansas-Nebraska Act: 1854 and 2016

Posted on June 17, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Politics, Slavery | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Our first comparison in our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign goes back a little to an article about the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.

As you recall, the KNA overthrew the Missouri Compromise (1820) that established a line at 36°30′ north of which all states entering the Union would be free, and south of which would be slaveholding states. Stephen Douglas, the Democratic author of the KNA, wanted Nebraska to enter the Union free, but the territory was so large it extended south of the compromise (or, better put, appeasement) line and Southern Congressmen refused to let it enter as free. So Douglas split the territory in two, creating the Kansas Territory to be a potential southern state. Anticipating a howl of outrage from northern members of his party at turning part of a free territory into a slave territory, Douglas then proposed that the people of each territory be allowed to decide for themselves, in a vote, whether to enter the Union free or slave (this was called popular sovereignty).

The legacy of that decision is infamous in U.S. history. People who lived in other states went to Kansas to swing the vote, and violence between proslavery and antislavery interlopers gave the territory the name Bleeding Kansas. Abolitionist John Brown got his start in Kansas as an antislavery interloper who led a small militia that killed proslavery interlopers.

In 1854, when the KNA was passed, the nation was divided once again along sectional lines, and now we come to our comparison with 2016. As we said in our opening post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

When we read one of the many New York Times‘ editorials on the KNA, it rings eerily familiar. Substitute in “gun control” or “immigration”, or “war on Christianity” for “slavery”, or “liberal” for “Northerner” and “conservative” for “Democratic” and it could be an account of Congress in 2016:

Popular indignation at the passage of the Nebraska bill finds vent in various projects, some wise and some otherwise. …Cassius Clay [abolitionist and one of the founders of the Republican Party] proposes that every body who voted for the bill shall be treated to a social as well as a political crucifixion—and seeks to prepare the country for a dissolution of the Union. [Abolitionist William Lloyd] Garrison [seizes] the opportunity to push [a] program of dissolving the Union and breaking down the Constitution. We hear men a good deal more sensible than any of these proclaiming their hatred of all compacts [agreements] which bind us to the Slaveholding interest, and declaring they will keep no faith with them.

…The champions of the [KNA] know perfectly well that they have acted in direct opposition to the popular will. The originators of the iniquitous measure have for months been as clearly persuaded that the great sense of the country is against this outrageous breach of honor and good faith, as they are of their own existence, yet they have accomplished it through recreant Northern votes. These Northern traitors prating Democratic cant have gone deliberately against what they knew to the the mind of the North. The smallest fraction of decent regard to honor and propriety would have led them to put it over till the sense of the country could be tested by another election. They were chosen to vote on no such question. Its coming up was not dreamed of by the people at large. When it was sprung upon the country, there was but one consentaneous cry of indignation throughout all the Northern land, in which honest and honorable men of all parties joined.

…A large portion of the honest and honorable feeling of the South was against it too.The palpable indecency of driving it through under such circumstances, was doubtless as much a matter of distinct consciousness to the majority that perpetrated it, as to the minority that resisted it, as to the country that cried out against it. They did it because it was in their power to do it—they had the Might and that they knew was all the Right they had.

The clear and seemingly accepted sense of the nation being firmly divided into North and South, each with a plan for the nation that is utterly opposed to the other’s, and anyone who dreamt of bridging the gap lacerated as a villain—all these are bitterly familiar to Americans today. So is calling for a “political crucifixion” of anyone outside one’s own faction. And, increasingly, so is the threat of the nation splitting over political ideology.

The KNA truly was a terrible piece of legislation, which justified this kind of outrage and made it understandable to call those who supported it traitors without honor or propriety. The issues we face in 2016 do not match up. 1854 was about enslaving human beings and breeding them for sale. 2016 is about whether to let non-white (Latin American) and increasingly non-Christian (Muslim) immigrants into the country. 2016 is about whether every American should own and carry a gun, and whether transgender citizens possess civil rights. These seem like lesser issues that could be solved politically by drawing on our national legacy of always extending more and more civil rights to our citizens and future citizens.

But that’s what makes 2016 exactly like 1854 or 1860—there is a growing contingent of Americans who want to stop extending civil rights to all U.S. citizens and future citizens. They want to roll back civil rights in this nation and reserve them to the few: the native-born, straight, and Christian. That is a kind of slavery, and that’s why the 21st-century sectionalism of liberal v. conservative is as potent and dangerous as the 19th-century sectionalism over slavery ever was.

Next time: Trump and Brooks

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A voice for justice in Mississippi

Posted on April 15, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

We were pleasantly shocked to hear an NPR interview with a baker in Mississippi who took a stand against the new state law, signed by Governor Phil Bryant, allowing religious organizations, individuals and businesses to refuse service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people if they feel offering such services violates their religious beliefs.

These sexuality laws are identical to the laws that allowed whites to refuse service to blacks in all but one way: the racial laws claimed a biological justification (that black people were biologically inferior to white people), while the sexuality laws claim a religious justification (famously summed up by some anonymous bigot years ago as “God hates fags”).

Somehow the example most commonly used to illustrate the anguish of being a business owner who has to serve someone they don’t approve of is the baker: Christian bakers shouldn’t be forced to bake gay wedding cakes.

This is bogus in all respects, legally and morally. As we said just a few posts ago,

Remember: if you don’t want to serve gay or trans people, don’t open a public business. Once you open a public business, you are obliged to serve the public—no exceptions. There’s no difference between these anti-gay laws and the anti-black laws that kept black people from eating in restaurants with white people, going to movie theaters with white people, and riding city buses with white people. Anti-gay laws are discrimination, and America finally got rid of that curse through the hard work of the civil rights movement in the 1950s-70s. You can’t teach kids in school that Rosa Parks was a hero if you then vote for a law that says you can keep trans people off your bus or out of your bakery.

But why listen to us repeat ourselves when you can listen to Mitchell Moore, a baker in Jackson, MS and an American who understands the civil liberties he has an obligation to uphold as an American:

RENEE MONTAGNE: As a baker, this bill would allow you to refuse service to people you don’t want to bake for. Have you ever felt forced to bake for clients that you didn’t want to serve?

—Right away, Montagne’s question points up the illegitimacy of the sexuality laws. Of course the answer is yes. Bakers, like other people who run public businesses, probably have customers they don’t like, whether it’s because those customers swear, or dress provocatively, have foreign accents, or tattoos, or wear head scarves, smell like marijuana, act rude and condescending, or do any of the other hundred things that can put people off.  But are there laws saying business owners don’t have to serve people whose clothes they don’t like? or smell? or language? No. Only sexuality. So we see immediately that the sexuality laws are singling out one type of potentially problematic customer, which is un-American and illegal under federal law.

MITCHELL MOORE: No, no that is not a problem. I am here to bake cakes and to sell those cakes. I’m not here to decide arbitrarily who deserves my cake and who doesn’t. That’s not what I do. That’s not my job.

MONTAGNE: Have you heard from others that they do have these objections?

MOORE: Not to my knowledge, no. Everyone that I know in the greater, say, wedding-service industry – we’re here to serve. The public’s made up of a lot of people. I don’t have to agree with what they do. I don’t have to support them. I serve them.

—So well-said: “I don’t have to agree with what they do. I don’t have to support them. I serve them.” When did we lose sight of this basic premise?

MONTAGNE: Well, I do gather that you are a Republican. But you oppose this bill. So what are your particular objections, other than it sounds like you don’t think it’s needed?

MOORE: So leaving aside the stupidity of passing it because it decriminalizes discrimination – which, that really is kind of the biggest issue – but I can actually say I think the law of unintended consequences is going to come back to bite the people who signed this bill. If it is my sincerely held religious belief that I shouldn’t serve them, then I can do that. And I can hide behind that language. But that language is so vague it opens a Pandora’s box. And you can’t shut it again.

—Why isn’t Mitchell Moore running for president? Yes, these laws do “decriminalize discrimination”. And yes, claiming religious frailty is just a way of hiding that discrimination and bigotry. And if these sexuality laws are allowed to stand, soon the laws about tattoos and clothing and language will all be crowding the state legislatures, too.

MONTAGNE: Well, do you consider yourself a religious person or would you…

MOORE: Yes.

MONTAGNE: …consider that maybe you don’t understand what it means to have a deeply held religious belief?

MOORE: I don’t think that there is such a thing as a deeply held religious belief that you should not serve people. There is no sincerely held religious belief to think that I am better than other people – to think that my sin is different than other people. And so I am a deeply Christian man, and those go counter to my belief system.

—Precisely: “there is no such thing as a deeply held religious belief that you should not serve people.” The Bible doesn’t say anything about who to sell a cake to. Neither does the Koran, or the Torah. And again, if you don’t want to risk violating your religious principles by opening a public business, don’t open one.

MONTAGNE: Why do you think your state elected officials, who presumably think they’re looking out for the best interests of exactly people like you – why do you think that they passed this bill?

MOORE: The assumption that they think that they’re looking out for us – that’s not what they are doing. A report just came out. We rank number one – our state government is the most dependent on federal money. We are the third most obese state. We rank at the bottom in unemployment, in education. We’ve got crumbling infrastructure. None of them are being tackled. Instead, we are passing, hey-let’s-discriminate bills.

—This is the first time we’ve heard someone state this so clearly: state governments that “protect” their people by passing laws that do nothing to stop poverty, illness, and lack of education are really using people’s religion to keep them down.

MONTAGNE: Coming from Mississippi, do you have concerns that this bill reflects on your state in a way that you wouldn’t like it to be seen?

MOORE: Yeah – Mississippi is an amazing place. And it’s filled with amazing people. But if you aren’t from here, if you don’t know that, you’re going to choose to not come here because of bills like this – because you see the state government as taking no action on hundreds of other priorities and taking action instead on trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. It boggles my mind.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you for sharing this with us.

MOORE: Certainly – you’re welcome.

MONTAGNE: Mitchell Moore is a baker, and he owns Campbell’s Bakery in Jackson, Miss.

Anyone want to build a memorial to this Southern hero? We do.

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