Historical Parallels: From Kansas-Nebraska to Obamacare

One must be careful not to draw exact parallels between a historical event and a current situation, at least not without sufficient evidence. I want to be cautious. However, as I was teaching a class on the Civil War era last week, I noticed what appeared to be a rather striking similarity in the fate of the Democrat party in the 1850s and that same party today.

Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas

Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas

Here’s the history: In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois made an all-out push for a bill he sponsored called the Kansas-Nebraska Act. On the surface, it sounded good—let settlers moving into those areas decide for themselves whether or not slavery should be allowed. Douglas referred to his plan as popular sovereignty, and he saw no problem with it because for him slavery was not a moral issue. Whatever the people decided was fine.

Yet for many others, it was a moral issue, and an increasingly contentious one. The ideological divide between North and South was growing. Further, what Sen. Douglas’s bill did was to alter the agreement the Congress had reached back in 1820 with the Missouri Compromise. At that time, Congress decided to draw a line extending west from the southern border of Missouri that forbade slavery in any territory north of that line.

Missouri Compromise

Douglas’s proposed law would erase that line and provide those who promoted slavery the opportunity to spread it further north. Most Americans were content with the former compromise; they were not content with Douglas’s scuttling of that earlier agreement.

One of the books I’m using in my course, Nicole Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas, explains the ensuing problems cogently:

Political observers at the time openly speculated that Douglas had backed Kansas-Nebraska to build southern support for future presidential bids. Instead, Douglas found himself rebuilding his political base in Illinois. … The Illinois legislature pushed through resolutions supporting Douglas. Intended as a vote of confidence, the resolutions succeeded only because of heavy political pressure. Without such pressure, support for Douglas and his bill faltered. On his return to the west, Douglas was unable to make himself heard among his own constituents. For two hours, hecklers in a Chicago crowd shouted him down as he attempted to speak. He finally gave up. Douglas himself noted, “I could travel from Boston to Chicago by the light of my own effigy.”

The groundswell of protest against the bill threatened the Democratic party’s integrity. Reports of Anti-Nebraska meetings testified that citizens had signed petitions without respect to party differences. Among the petitioners were Democrats in opposition to their own party. Kansas-Nebraska was indeed a major blow to the party. In 1852, Democrats had won all but two of the northern states, but just two years later, they lost all but two northern states and the Whigs gained control of the House. Indeed, only seven of the forty-four northern Democrats who had voted for Kansas-Nebraska were reelected in 1854.

What are the salient facts? First, we have a bill being pushed that most people opposed; they were happy with the status quo.Yet it gets through Congress due purely to political pressure. Meetings are organized that include citizens from all parties, people who are drawn together in opposition to a bill they loathe. The author of the bill, Douglas, is despised by those who once supported him. The outcry against a bill that was rammed down the throats of the populace led to a major electoral revolution. Democrats who had voted in favor of this bill went down to defeat—and not just a few of them, but the vast majority.

Forcing Slavery

Is it really that hard to see a parallel with the current Democrat agenda? While the reasons for opposing the Obama administration’s policies take into account more than one piece of legislation, the healthcare fiasco certainly has taken center stage over the past two years. It was a bill that most of the people opposed, as evidenced by the townhall meetings before it passed and the opinion polls ever since.

The Tea Party, which is comprised of Republicans, distressed independents, and disgusted Democrats, has led a groundswell of protest against an Obamacare bill that was rammed down the nation’s throat. The political primary season produced an unprecedented number of victories for this protest movement. Only two years after winning solid electoral support nationwide, the Democrats now face a possible repudiation of historic proportions.

The parallels seem clear to me; only the last part remains to be manifested. A few weeks from now, we’ll know if the comparison will be valid on every point. Let this short history lesson provide some measure of encouragement—what happened before can very well happen again.