Historical Incivility as a Foundation of America’s Democracy

It seems like just about every one of these Trumpian days, we hear voices calling nostalgically for the bygone days when Americans were more civil — -when politicians and Americans respected and tolerated differing points of view. When America was America! Yet no one seems to be listening to those honest entreaties. There’s a reason no one is. Who are we kidding? THAT America never existed. Historically, we’ve been warring factions since the beginning — -a tumultuous contradiction. And politics has ALWAYS been a blood sport.

During the 1990s, President Bill Clinton, his surrogates, and liberal commentators lamented bitterly about Republican obstinacy (shutting the government down), obstructionism (making the routine task of confirming judges and administrative officials an onerous process), zealotry (accusing the Clintons of all manner of malfeasance — -up to and including murder and embezzlement), and outright cynicism (impeachment!). Both during his Presidency and in 2012 during President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, Clinton called on the political parties to engage in a more civil discourse in the spirit of bipartisanship… reasoning that the problems of the United States “… are so deep and complex that neither party has the wherewithal to solve them, or for that matter, even effectively address them on their own.”[1] But, as the journalist Peter Baker correctly noted just after Mr. Clinton’s eloquent call “… to say that Mr. Clinton worked together with Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Republicans on welfare, spending, trade and other issues is an exercise in selective amnesia.” [2]

The late 1990s was indeed a time of brutal political warfare. Clinton not only alienated many of his own party by implementing a centrist policy that deeply re-structured the welfare system, uncritically took on one-size-fits-all globalization, embraced de-regulation and other neo-liberal policies as ethos, but, for his trouble, had the government shut down and was impeached by the opposition party. Just after Clinton’s call for bipartisanship in 2012, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a former party chairman, wryly noted of the Clinton Administration’s 1990s wrangle with the opposition party “… It was bipartisan [alright]… it was a little bit like giving someone flowers at the same time you’re taking a scalpel and dissecting them.” [3]

In all, the notion that Clinton’s time in office was some idyllic era of bipartisanship with civility between the two major parties profoundly misrepresents and oversimplifies a much more complicated relationship between the branches of government.[4]

Calls for More Civil Bygone Days at Odds with History

From the exchange of invectives between President John Adams and Alexander Hamilton which culminated in Hamilton’s “Letter … Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams” (which argued Adams was “an inept politician who was a burden to the party he helped create and hope to lead.”[5]) to Hamilton’s famous duel with Aaron Burr (brought on by harsh words and insults) to the infamous brutal war of words between Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson (Adams’ friends inferred Jackson’s wife was a woman of low repute, which Jackson’s supporters accused Adams of causing the death of Jackson’s wife due to such coarse treatment) to the brutal beatdown of Massachusetts abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks after the antislavery Republican explosively addressed the Senate on the contentious issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state, incivility is as old as politics itself.

The Caning of Charles Sumner

In fact, the middle of the 19th century was a time of unstinting incivility as sectional strife generated by slavery began the long march to the Civil War. This intractable conundrum of a half-free and half-slave nation induced tempers to flare regularly and gradually transformed the Congressional chambers into a sort of armed conflagration where both pro-slavery and anti-slavery congressmen carried on their persons a host of weaponry while attending debates. As one senator observed of the times, “…the only congressmen not carrying a knife or a revolver were those carrying two revolvers!” [6]

Representative Preston Brooks
Senator Charles Sumner

Like Brooks‘ whupping of’ Sumner, incivility in 19th century politics could go far beyond bravado and a few well-timed punches. On February 24, 1838, Maine Representative Jonathan Cilley was shot and killed by Kentucky Representative William J. Graves in a duel at the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds near the District of Columbia-Maryland border. This incident prompted Congress to issue and pass a bill that prohibited “…the giving or accepting within the District of Columbia, of a challenge to fight a duel, and for the punishment thereof.” This action was promptly ignored and the practice continued unabated — -albeit at night.[9]

In February 1858, the House of Representatives began debating whether to admit the state of Kansas to the Union as a free state or a slave state. Democratic Congressman from South Carolina Lawrence Massillon Keitt started a brawl with Pennsylvania Congressman Galusha A. Grow by calling Grow “a black Republican puppy” for having ventured over to Keitt’s side of the chamber. Referring to Representative Preston Brooks’ caning of Senator Sumner a few years earlier, Grow retorted that “no slave driver shall crack his whip over me.” A massive melee ensued that involved at least a dozen members of the House with Congressmen beating, wrestling, and punching each other at will. The melee only ceased when one congressman, while throwing a wild and aimless punch bowled off the wig of another shouting “Hooray, boys, I’ve got his scalp!” whereupon the entire body erupted in laughter and fighting quickly petered out. [7] With Congressmen shaking fists at each other, shouting insults, and flourishing knives and pistols, this sectional hatred steadily intensified during the 1850s until a kind of cold war settled over both houses of Congress. The arms race became so pervasive that, on one occasion, a Congressman was sitting at his desk when his revolver accidentally discharged and sent the ball crashing through the desk ahead of him. “In an instant, 30 or 40 pistols were in the air!” Indiana’s William S. Holman observed later that, “…the chamber resembled more a Texas barroom than the Congress of the United States.”[8]

The 20th and 21st Centuries: Unremitting Incivility, a Cornerstone of the American Landscape

The Civil Disobedience of the American Civil Rights Movement

It was first the Democrats, then, the party of Lincoln, who used race as a wedge issue in matters of military and school desegregation, school busing, law enforcement, poverty, and other markers of Whiteness — -all to appeal to the White American voter. Beginning in the late 20th century with Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon and continuing into the 21st century, there continues to be a strong link between the Republican Party and appeals to racism — — most thoroughly exemplified by that party’s implementation of the now infamous Southern Strategy. That effort would include Reagan’s “states’ rights” speech in Philadelphia (Mississippi) and that President’s evocation of the “strapping young buck[s]” and “welfare queens,” the Willie Horton ad” produced by the campaign of President George H.W. Bush during the 1988 Presidential election and used against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis (in this instance, H.W. accused Dukakis, of supporting a weekend pass program that allowed Willie Horton, a Black man convicted of murder, to participate in a weekend pass program — -only to see Horton go on a crime spree while free), Senator Jesse Helms’ “White Hands” campaign against Harvey Gantt, campaign strategist Karl Rove’s “black love child” smear against Senator John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary, Senator Bob Corker’s “Playboy” ad used against Representative Harold Ford Jr. in 2006, and the suppression of voting rights in the 2000, 2004, and 2012, and 2016 presidential elections.

Case Study: A Civil President in a Time of Incivility

Michelle Obama, July 25, 2016, at the 2016 Democratic Party Convention

Amid the rancor of the 2016 election, First Lady Michelle Obama famously pleaded with like-minded Americans to “go high, when they go low.” But it was her husband, President Barack Obama, who truly valorized civility and compromise. That President chided his opponents for failing to embrace compromise and civility in the legislative process — attributes he viewed at odds with the American democratic tradition. On December 7, 2010, after negotiating a compromise with the opposition that extended Bush-era tax cuts for two years, Obama castigated his own party for not only being unrealistic but possessing “…a purist position and no victories at all.” He went on:

And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime, the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of preexisting conditions or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.[13]

After iterating that “…if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done,” Obama went on to say what actions he believed were exemplars of American compromise in action — -FDR’s compromise on Social Security and Lyndon Johnson’s negotiation of Medicare. Following Obama remarked:

This country was founded on compromise…I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding. If we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn’t have had a Union. [14]

For someone who prides himself as a critical student of history, this was a truly astonishing historical comparison for the first African-American President to advance. It certainly invites critique.

So, let us contemplate another set of historical compromises — -those shepherded by 19th century Senators John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster, the so-called Great Triumvirate.

How the Compromise of 1850 simultaneously saved the Union from collapse and set it on the path to the war that would nearly destroy it.

In the 1830s and 1840s, as the Western territories were being considered for admittance into the Union, the precarious balance between free and slaveholding states placed the less than century old Union at risk of dissolution. Over the years, Clay, Calhoun, and Webster have all been lauded by historians and politicians for not only their oratory but for keeping the United States out of civil war for over two decades.

All were perennial Presidential candidates. All were renowned for offering proposals to balance the equilibrium between slaveholding and free states. All negotiated slavery in the District of Columbia and crafted fugitive slave laws. Their efforts, the Missouri Compromise (advocated by Clay) and the Compromise of 1850, were extremely consequential pieces of legislation implemented in the interim between the outlaw of the slave trade and the Civil War.

Clay, like Thomas Jefferson, condemned slavery and advocated gradual emancipation — but inherited, acquired, and kept slaves because of the status it afforded him. He was a proud compromiser and basked in the glow of admiration as the “Great Pacificator” and the “Great Compromiser” (it is difficult to imagine a contemporary president being admiringly labeled in this way, isn’t it).

For his part, Webster, hailing from New England, opposed slavery on moral principle but thought of slavery as an historical reality. He argued that it was futile for the North to insist upon slavery’s eradication in the South but opposed its flowering in the West. Toward the end of his political career, Webster came full circle from decrying slavery as an immoral blight on a civilized country to describing it as a mere difference of opinion “where neither advocate nor opponent could claim absolute wrong or absolute right in his positioning.”[15] Because of Webster’s desire to ingratiate himself to, and gain credibility with, the slave powers, he often attacked his supporters (especially abolitionists) as purists and extremists whose agitations were the root cause of tension between the states. Taking a relativist position in his notable March 7, 1850 speech, Webster advocated strongly for the ratification of the Compromise of 1850 and, piling on, took the opportunity to scold anti-slavery proponents opposed to the Compromise:

In all such disputes, there will sometimes be found men with whom everything is absolute; absolutely wrong, or absolutely right. … They deal with morals as with mathematics; and they think what is right may be distinguished from what is wrong with the precision of an algebraic equation. … They are apt, too, to think that nothing is good but what is perfect, and that there are no compromises or modifications to be made in consideration of difference of opinion or in deference to other men’s judgment.[16]

Webster insisted the country could never separate peacefully, and even went on to urge Northern citizens to take upon themselves the onerous task of returning runaway slaves to their Masters. For this he was ridiculed by both abolitionists and some of his strongest supporters. Each judged Webster’s change of principles as evidence of betrayal — -that the Senator supported the continuance of the South’s “peculiar institution” in return for its support of his presidential candidacy.” [17]

Webster’s counterpart, John C. Calhoun, though not in favor of dissolving the Union for most of his life, was an unrepentant slaveholder who tirelessly advocated to his death day the “positive good thesis” — - the belief that slavery was in the best interest of both Blacks and Whites. To Calhoun, privilege and inequality were natural states of affairs that should be respected as a matter of states’ rights.[18] In a speech to the United States Senate in 1837, he argued slavery:

…to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.[19]

The historian, Irving H. Bartlett, argued that Calhoun was a product of the slaveholding culture and the limitations of that culture.[20] It was because of this that Calhoun advocated vociferously for the Fugitive Slave Act and for the expansion of slavery. For Calhoun and the people who supported him, there was never doubt regarding the assumptions of racial inequality abounding slavery, nor its efficacy or morality.[21] Calhoun opposed all concessions on slavery but compromised because this allowed slavery in the South to continue in perpetuity without dissolving the Union of States and without shedding White blood. Calhoun, who not only believed in Negro enslavement but also enslaving poor Whites, was widely admired for his tenacity, intellectual depth, and civility.

Calhoun defends slavery and tries to intimidate Martin Van Buren. From the film Amistad (1997)

Calhoun, Clay, and Webster were all proud compromisers who basked in the glow of admiration as giants of oratory and foresight. And yet, why were these men so highly considered giants among men for their compromising stances? By most measures, their actions led to the continued enslavement of millions of bondsmen. Mercifully, the Fugitive Slave Act (put forth to placate Calhoun), brought about the Northern outrage and Southern overconfidence that was a crucial element in setting off the long march to the reckoning of the Civil War.

The Great Triumvirate have been lauded for their civil relations with one another — -even when their best efforts exemplified Calhoun’s dedicated attention and passionate advocacy for slavery and Webster and Clay’s malignant compromise and benign neglect denied basic human rights of freedom, justice, and equality to millions. Their passionate defense of, and deference to, the slave power allowed the South to prevail in Congress and continued the tortured enslavement of millions for generations longer.

It is curious, then, that Obama would not perceive the incongruousness of his use of the Missouri Compromise and the 1850 compromise as exemplars of laudatory compromise. As one who reads and understands history, it should have been abundantly obvious to Obama as the first non-White President that the privileged position he holds would not only have been beyond the most vivid imaginings of most 19th century Americans but that had he lived during those days, he most likely would have been subjected to the dehumanizing bondage that such compromises enabled. As the author and journalist, Kai Wright, emotionally put it days after the Obama’s speech:

Mr. President, WTF?! Which one of the “compromises” that allowed a slave republic to endure for more than a century is he celebrating here? Perhaps the one where black people were counted as a fraction of humans in order to preserve a balance of power that allowed Northern and Southern aristocrats alike to get rich off of murderous slave labor? No, we wouldn’t have had a union without that. Or maybe he’s pitching forward to the “compromises” of the post-Reconstruction era, when the white capitalists of the North got too spooked by white laborers’ demands for reasonable wages, and so abandoned the promises of Emancipation. That, too, kept the union plowing forward — into another century of apartheid and state-sanctioned terrorism.[22]

To be fair, before he became the Commander in Chief, Obama took a decidedly more circumspect view of historical civility and compromise. In his second book, The Audacity of Hope, he conceded that there are times when, and matters where, one should not compromise.

The best I can do in the face of our history is remind myself that it has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty. The hard, cold facts remind me that it was unbending idealists like William Lloyd Garrison who first sounded the clarion call for justice; that it was slaves and former slaves, men like Denmark Vesey and Frederick Douglass and women like Harriet Tubman, who recognized power would concede nothing without a fight. It was the wild-eyed prophecies of John Brown, his willingness to spill blood and not just words on behalf of his visions, that helped force the issue of a nation half slave and half free. I’m reminded that deliberation and the constitutional order may sometimes be the luxury of the powerful, and that it has sometimes been the cranks, the zealots, the prophets, the agitators, and the unreasonable — in other words, the absolutists — that have fought for a new order.[23]

Nonetheless, Obama praised the “practicality” of President Lincoln when that President faced the enormous challenge of keeping the United States from Civil War. Obama asserts that Lincoln’s presidency was guided by common sense, realism, and mutual respect for opponents that “…would distress Americans today.”[24] Such practicality, Mr. Obama argued, eventually led Lincoln to “…test various bargains with the South in order to maintain the Union without war.”[25]

By most accounts Lincoln possessed astonishing magnanimity and humility but his detractors were far from such. Not only did the South and Copperheads view Lincoln as a ruthless military invader intent upon the destruction of their society but, because of his perceived conservatism on the issue of slavery, abolitionists cast him as the dithering tool of southern rebels. Even some among his inner cabinet looked upon themselves as more suited and qualified for the Presidency than Lincoln (at least in the beginning — -think of William H. Seward’s ridiculing characterization of Lincoln as that “ little Illinois lawyer”), regularly criticized him, and, on occasion, disobeyed his edicts.

Given Obama’s admiration for Lincoln and Lincoln’s own demonstrated lack of sustained resentment toward his most astringent critics, it would be interesting to study and speculate how events might have progressed during his presidency had Lincoln engaged his opponents in a more confrontational manner. From latter years’ perspective, Lincoln is viewed as a sacrificial lamb amid the violent forces that surrounded him. Indeed, although events turned our fortuitously for the success of the Union and for Lincoln’s posterity, it was far from guaranteed that such an approach as Lincoln utilized to engage his opponents would unilaterally guarantee success under either different or similar circumstances.

Obama’s perspective on civility is not unique. With a few notable exceptions, this perspective is the 2000s Democratic Party guiding principle. Consider Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s prescription for addressing President Trump’s rebuke of his own intelligence agencies in the presence of a smirking Vladimir Putin:

Republicans should increase sanctions on Russia; demand that Mr. Trump’s national security team testify before Congress; defend the Department of Justice and other intelligence agencies; and demand that Mr. Trump press Mr. Putin to extradite the 12 Russian intelligence agents who were indicted on Friday by Mr. Mueller.

There is the assumption that “positive relations with one’s opponents should be maintained less the relationship devolve into a negative, dysfunctional, and less productive engagement. And yet, disagreement lies at the heart of democracy. Indeed, such disagreement holds more truth and legitimacy than an artificial edifice of manners. As noted by John Stuart Mill in his great treatise, On Liberty:

Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners. On any of the great open questions just enumerated, if either of the two opinions has a better claim than the other, not merely to be tolerated, but to be encouraged and countenanced, it is the one which happens at the particular time and place to be in a minority. That is the opinion which, for the time being, represents the neglected interests, the side of human well-being which is in danger of obtaining less than its share. I am aware that there is not, in this country, any intolerance of differences of opinion on most of these topics. They are adduced to show, by admitted and multiplied examples, the universality of the fact, that only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth. When there are persons to be found, who form an exception to the apparent unanimity of the world on any subject, even if the world is in the right, it is always probable that dissentients have something worth hearing to say for themselves, and that truth would lose something by their silence.[26]

Here there is the recognition that opinion gains value when it faces criticism — -that ruth is the political outcome when difference — -what Mill called a “collision of error” — -is allowed to strengthen democratic engagement. Although most people agree that disagreement is endemic to politics, there is the natural human desire to seek commonality and downplay points of contention, but in their neglect of the obvious, Mill and others recognized that in seeking that driven unanimity, we do not appreciate the crucial role that difference plays in democratic engagement.[27] If the goal in a democracy is to seek the greatest contentment for the greatest number of individuals, it is power that benefits when civil discourse is primal because this discourse often eliminates the multitude from decision making. And it may naturally lead elites to incubate power among themselves. In the end, democracy benefits from a multiplicity of worldviews and criticism of the status quo. A less engaged and poorly informed public does not service justice and equanimity.

[1] Gregg, Judd. “Opinion: Bill Clinton’s Call for Bipartisan Cooperation worth Heeding.” The Hill. September 17, 2012. Accessed March 5, 2015.

[2] Baker, Peter. “Clinton Was a Bipartisan President, Except When He Wasn’t.” The New York Times. September 6, 2012. Accessed March 5, 2015.

[3] CBS This Morning, “Former DNC Chairmen Howard Dean and Ed Rendell Share Their Thoughts on Hillary Clinton Running for President in 2016 and the Message of the Democratic Party,” Charlie Rose, CBS Television Network, September 6, 2012, transcript, (accessed April 13, 2011).

[4] Baker 2012.

[5] Editor. “Introductory Note: Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States, [24 October 1800]…” Founders Online. Accessed March 5, 2015.

[6] Fehrenbacher, Don E. The South and Three Sectional Crises. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980, 62; Boller, Paul F. Congressional Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

[7] Gartner, Matthew. “The Cultural Career of Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” In Reconsidering Longfellow, 7. Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield; Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2014; Goodheart, Adam. “Guns, Blood and Congress.” Guns Blood and Congress Comments. March 16, 2011. Accessed March 7, 2015.

[8] Stealey, Orlando O. Twenty Years in the Press Gallery. Baton Rouge, 1906, p 319; Nilsson, Jeff. “Beatings Brawls and Lawmaking Mayhem in Congress.” The Saturday Evening Post, December 4, 2010. Accessed March 7, 2015.

[9] Editor. “A Fatal Duel between Members in 1838 | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives.” House.gov. Accessed March 5, 2015.

[10] Kennedy, Randall. “The Limits of Civility.” Lecture, Civility and Democracy: A National Forum: Civility in American History. UMass Boston, Boston, MA, February 17, 2012.

[11] Ibid

[12] Stuckey, Mary E., and Sean Patrick O’Rourke. “Civility, Democracy, and National Politics.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 17, no. 4 (2014): 711–736.

[13] Obama, Barack. “Press Conference by the President.” The White House

Office of the Press Secretary. December 7, 2010. Accessed March 9, 2015

[14] Ibid

[15] Webster, Daniel. “The Constitution & the Union.” Full Text of “Speech of Hon. Daniel Webster, on Mr. Clay’s Resolutions, in the Senate of the United States,” March 7, 1850. Accessed March 12, 2015.

[16] Ibid

[17] Webster, Daniel. “The Constitution and the Union,” March 7, 1850, Senate, 1789–1989: Classic Speeches, 1830–1993, Volume 3 edited by Wendy Wolf Senate Historical Office (January 17, 1995)

[18] Felgar, Robert. American Slavery: A Historical Exploration of Literature. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing, 2014, 189.

[19] Calhoun, John C. “Slavery a Positive Good.” Columbia American History Online. Accessed March 10, 2015.

[20] Bartlett, Irving H. Calhoun: A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton, P. 393

[21] Ibid

[22] Wright, Kai. “Obama’s Bizarre, Offensive Effort to Equate Tax Cuts and Abolition — Colorlines.” The Nation. December 8, 2010. Accessed March 12, 2015.

[23] Obama, Barack. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006. 97.

[24] Obama, 98.

[25] Ibid

[26] Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863, 92.

[27] Geer, John Gray. In Defense of Negativity Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

A native of of the great state of Mississippi and proud resident of New Jersey. Lecturer and Doctoral candidate in Media, Race, Class, and Politics @Rutgers.

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