Tuesday, November 6, 2018
November 6, 2018: Major Midterms: 1858 (and 1859)
[To say that this year’s midterm elections are significant is, I believe, to significantly understate the case. But crucial as they are, they won’t be the first such significant midterms, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy five other major midterms, leading up to a special weekend post on this year’s results. And oh yeah: vote!]
On how Congressional elections can reflect and even amplify societal collapse.
I know that’s a really bleak lead for an Election Day post, and I promise I didn’t intend for that to be the case; the posts in this series are chronological, and I also didn’t know what I wanted to say about each midterm election when I picked them as post topics. But in truth, I do believe (and full disclosure, I’m writing this post in early September, exactly two months prior to Election Day, but I can’t imagine this perspective changing much and certainly not for the better between now and then) that the 2018 midterm elections do have the potential to contribute significantly (well beyond normal midterm elections, that is) to whether the country moves in a better or worse direction going forward. Am I saying that the country might devolve into civil war in the next few years if the midterms go badly? Not necessarily—but it’s worth noting that a few years before the Civil War, a series of regular and special midterm elections between August 1858 and November 1859 did in fact contribute to the gathering momentum toward and even causes of that most divisive and tragic period in American history.
What makes the historical comparisons tricky, though, is that the most straightforward way to describe the results of those elections would be to say that a progressive party opposed to a historically awful President gained partial control of Congress. Former Senator and Secretary of State James Buchanan had been elected president in 1856, and had spent the next two years doing everything he could to support a Southern, slaveholding, and white supremacist agenda (including, perhaps most egregiously, lobbying the Supreme Court to rule in Dred Scott v. Sanford  that slaves were legally property and not human beings). Buchanan’s extremism alienated fellow Democrats (especially Northern ones like his primary opponent Stephen Douglas), and those tensions, along with the vote-splitting presence of small but influential political parties like the anti-immigrant Know Nothings (renamed the American Party for the 1856 election) and the anti-Buchanan Southern Opposition Party, allowed the very new, anti-slavery Republican Party to gain its largest number of Congressional seats yet across these two years of midterm elections. The Republicans didn’t win quite enough seats to have a majority in the House of Representatives, but the presence of those smaller parties nonetheless gave the Republicans a plurality and a chance to exercise significant Congressional power in opposition to Buchanan’s agenda.
While that sounds like a good thing, the Civil War arrived less than two years after the last of those special elections in November 1859. I’m not suggesting that these Congressional Republicans did anything in particular to hasten the war, or even that they necessarily could have prevented it; the die might well have been cast by 1858 (or perhaps even as early as the “Bleeding Kansas” conflicts of 1854-1856). Instead, I would argue that the extremely divided and fractured nature of these Congressional results reflected those deepening sectional and national divisions—but also, perhaps, exacerbated them. More exactly, I think a greater sense of solidarity and coalition among the various opposition parties—certainly between the Republicans and the Southern Opposition Party, for example, which could have better supported the nascent and vital Southern Unionism that continued throughout the Civil War—might have allowed for more effective resistance to Buchanan and his pro-slavery and white supremacist efforts. Which is to say, on Election Day 2018 I hope we resisters remember not only what we’re fighting against, but that we’re all in it together.
Next midterm tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other elections or contexts you’d highlight?