Jim Read on “Peaceful Ballots” or “Bloody Bullets”: Democracy, Elections, and Violence

Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) famously asserted that war was the continuation of politics by other means. He was undoubtedly correct. But it makes an enormous difference which methods one employs to pursue a political goal.

What principally distinguishes stable democracies from unstable democracies, dictatorships, monarchies, kleptocracies, and other undemocratic and anti-democratic regimes, is the institution of procedurally fair, rule-governed elections whose results are respected as legitimate even by the candidate or party who lost.

This does not mean that unsuccessful candidates and parties must change their minds and renounce their aims. It means instead that unsuccessful candidates and parties do not resort to violence to reverse their political fortunes, but instead limit themselves to peaceful methods aimed at persuading voters to change their minds and perhaps win future elections. The winners of an election must also respect the rules. A regime that jails its opponents, suppresses voting rights, and uses or threatens violence against the opposition, cannot reasonably expect the opposition to continue respecting those rules.

In this sense, an election is a substitute for civil war, precisely because the methods one uses to pursue political aims in electoral competition are systematically different than warfare. We often assume that societies fall into civil war when their social and political divisions become too deep to resolve peacefully – the divide over slavery in the United States, for example. But many societies have descended into murderous civil war over differences much less marked than slavery – Yugoslavia in the 1990s, for instance, where Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims had lived and worked side by side in relative peace for decades.

All societies, including the contemporary United States, are marked by social and political conflicts that could produce civil war under the right (or wrong) conditions. What distinguishes a stable democracy is not that its political divisions are small, but that political elites as well as ordinary citizens are committed to peaceful, rule-governed elections as the principal means by which those differences are resolved, or at least contained.

When citizens with deeply-opposed aims can agree to play by the same set of electoral rules, they tacitly recognize that they share at least some common interests with their political opponents, and therefore are not at war.

Lincoln Portrait February 1861

I am currently writing a book on Abraham Lincoln’s defense of majority rule, and his hope that slavery could be gradually and democratically abolished in the United States through “peaceful ballots” rather than “bloody bullets,” as he phrased it in an 1858 speech. American history did not take that path. Slavery was ultimately abolished in the United States in the course of a horrific civil war. The Civil War began five weeks after Lincoln became president, and ended a week before his assassination.

But the tragic irony is that Lincoln above all believed in elections. He did not want a war. He was convinced that even so divisive a question as the future of slavery could be addressed through “time, discussion, and the ballot box,” as he phrased it in his July 4, 1861 Message to Congress in Special Session. What triggered the Civil War was not the sudden eruption of sharp differences over slavery, for those had existed since the earliest years of the American republic. The immediate cause of the Civil War was a powerful faction’s unwillingness to accept the results of a fair, constitutional election.

I have discovered that, though most Americans know, or think they know, a fair amount about the Civil War, many are surprised when I tell them that the seven states of the Lower South (South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) seceded from the Union before Lincoln had even taken office. Secessionists’ larger purpose was to defend and perpetuate the institution of slavery. But their immediate purpose in seceding before Lincoln took office, rather than waiting to see what he would do once in office, was to deny the legitimacy of his election. They did not dispute that Lincoln had won the 1860 election according to the constitutional rules. Nevertheless, they argued that Lincoln was an illegitimate president because he had been elected almost entirely by Northern votes, and because they believed Lincoln’s aim of stopping the further spread of slavery was unconstitutional.

Most of all, I would argue, the slave states of the Lower South seceded because their leaders recognized that Lincoln’s aim of abolishing slavery peacefully, democratically, and constitutionally stood a good chance of succeeding in the long run. They wanted to prevent his taking even the first step. By seceding from the Union, they signaled their refusal to accept the legitimacy of Lincoln’s election, even at the risk of civil war. Of course, if the slaveholders’ preferred candidate, John Breckinridge, had won the 1860 election, slaveholders would have stayed in the Union and demanded that Northerners respect the election results.

Yet the states that seceded before Lincoln took office (on March 4, 1861) soon discovered that the secession movement had stalled. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas, all of which later joined the Confederacy, had chosen not to secede in response to Lincoln’s election. They decided instead to wait and see what Lincoln would actually do. Lincoln plan was to wait out the crisis peacefully, refusing to recognize secession, but avoiding any military assault upon the states that had declared themselves out of the Union. He made clear that the first shot of the war, if it came, would not come from the Union side.

Fort Sumter

A Confederate States of America consisting only of the seven pre-emptively seceding states would have been weak and vulnerable. “Peaceful ballots,” in short, had not delivered the powerful and confident new proslavery nation the secessionists envisioned. Only “bloody bullets” could do it. The principal reason for the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, was political: to put an end to “time, discussion, and the ballot box” in the slave states of the Upper South. In effect, the Fort Sumter assault sent a message to Virginia, North Carolina, and other fence-sitting slave states: Now that Lincoln will march an army against us, whose side are you on? Will you support the abolitionists marching against us, or will you join us, your fellow slaveholders?

The secessionists calculated correctly that initiating war would bring other slave states to their side. They were radically incorrect, however, in believing that the war would be a short one because Yankees were cowards. Both sides, in fact, tragically underestimated the other side’s willingness to fight. And in the end, the war destroyed the very institution – slavery – that secessionists sought to perpetuate.

Political scientists agree that the United States is more politically polarized today than at any time since 1860. But there is less agreement on what is causing our pathologically deep divisions. It is not difficult to see how disagreements over slavery could trigger civil war in 1860, even if (as Lincoln believed) civil war might have been avoided. In the contemporary United States, our most contentious divisions – over abortion, immigration, health care policy, race, to name a few– have existed for a long time. Objectively considered, none of these would seem as difficult to manage as divisions over slavery. And yet our current politics is characterized by levels of animosity, distrust, and outright fanaticism that, to me, disturbingly mirror American politics of the late 1850s.

I don’t pretend to know the causes. But I can point to the most characteristic symptom: loss of faith in elections as a fair set of rules by which all parties play and whose results all parties respect as legitimate. Instead, we are heading into the 2020 presidential election at a moment when increasing numbers of Americans, on both sides, act and speak as though they cannot and will not tolerate the other side’s victory – even if the opponents’ victory occurs through regular constitutional processes.

First and most obviously, there is the recent upsurge of civil war talk, especially among some of Donald Trump’s most committed supporters, who vow that any attempt to remove Trump from office – either through impeachment, or in the 2020 election (which they claim Trump can lose only if the election is rigged) – will mean civil war. Trump himself has encouraged this violent talk, repeatedly claimed without evidence that tens of millions of illegal aliens have been voting in U.S. elections, retweeted followers who advocate postponing the 2020 elections, and teased about remaining in office for a third term despite the 22nd Amendment’s clear prohibition.

On the domestic front, Trump has successfully persuaded several Republican-governed states to cancel Republican primaries and caucuses in 2020, even though – indeed, precisely because – he now has challengers within the party. Minnesota’s Republican Party just announced that Donald Trump’s name will be the only candidate on Minnesota’s Republican presidential primary ballot, even though three Republican challengers have announced their candidacy. In 2016 Trump announced to cheering supporters that he would respect the results of the 2016 election – “IF I WIN!” His public commitment to respecting election results is likely to be similarly one-sided in 2020, this time expressed from a position of enormous power.


Faith in and commitment to elections has also been eroded on the other end of the political spectrum.  After the 2016 elections, one internet meme among people horrified by Trump’s victory was to demand that members of the Electoral College pledged to Trump cast their vote for Clinton instead. Though this would not have literally violated the Constitution (Electoral College members do occasionally vote contrary to their pledges), in substance it meant calling for a massive rule change in the middle of the game – and moreover, a rule change that its advocates would denounce as corrupt and illegitimate if the tables were turned. This proposal had zero chance of success. It is worth noting, however, because it indicates weakened commitment to shared election rules.

More frequent, and still continuing, is the claim among many of Bernie Sanders’ strong supporters that he lost the 2016 nomination only because the Democratic primaries were rigged, and can only lose the nomination in 2020 if the primaries are rigged again.

This eroding faith in elections occurs against a backdrop of real attempts by Russia, and possibly other foreign governments, to interfere in U.S. elections. These efforts are not limited to opinion-manipulation in the sphere of social media. There have also been efforts to hack into state voting databases. One would expect that the two major parties, whatever else they disagree upon, would readily cooperate on measures to combat this threat. But so far they have been incapable of doing so.

One of the things I find inspiring about Lincoln was that he preserved his faith in elections under circumstances much more difficult than ours – not only in 1860, but also in 1864, when despite a raging civil war, he never considered postponing the 1864 elections. He accepted that he could be voted out of office if the American people lost faith in his leadership.

Our circumstances are very different from Lincoln’s. I don’t regard him as a font of wisdom on every political question we face today. But I do hope we can recommit to the principle of “peaceful ballots” as the legitimate means of resolving deep disagreements. For if we believe only relatively minor disagreements can be resolved democratically, then we really don’t believe in democracy at all.

Jim Read on The Power of the Purse

          jim-read  The political debate about Donald Trump’s proposed border wall has been going on since before the 2016 presidential election. My theme here is how fundamentally the situation changed with Trump’s February 15 Declaration of Emergency, where he declared illegal border crossings to be a national emergency, and asserted the right to spend more than 8 billion dollars on the wall that Congress had specifically refused to authorize for that purpose.

The actual costs of building a wall across the entire length of the U.S. – Mexico border are much higher than 8 billion dollars. Some estimates run as high as 70 billion dollars.

Whatever one thinks of a border wall, there is no question that Congress has the unquestioned authority to spend money on that purpose if it so chooses. Instead, Congress has repeatedly chosen not to do so. This has been the case not only recently, with the Democrats winning a majority in the U.S. House in the 2018 elections. From 2017-2018, even when there were Republican majorities in both U.S. House and U.S. Senate, Congress voted funds for border security, but never for Trump’s proposed wall.

So what changed on February 15, 2019 was that President Trump asserted that he had the power, by declaring an emergency, to spend funds that Congress had not appropriated for that purpose, indeed that Congress had specifically refused. Trump issued his emergency declaration at the very moment in time that Congress was voting on a budget that did not include funds for the wall. The message was clear: he was exercising what he claimed was his independent power, as president, to spend public funds, regardless of whether they have been authorized by Congress, when he considers it necessary.

So this is no longer just about a wall. It is about presidential power. If Trump’s act of spending public funds, on his own authority, that Congress has specifically refused to authorize goes unchallenged, then any president, of any party, can do the same to push through any item of their political agenda. So I want to say this again: the issue here is not whether or not one favors a border wall. The issue is what restraints on the power of the president, if any, will remain if this act goes unchallenged.

The U.S. Constitution is very clear on the point at issue here. Article I, section 9 says that “No money should be drawn from the treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law.” Article I, section 8 makes clear that Congress – and Congress alone – has power to tax and spend. No such power is granted to the executive branch or to the judiciary. This is not some obscure detail of the Constitution. It is absolutely central to the power, indeed to the very existence of Congress as an institution of government. Without what is called “the power of the purse,” Congress’s other powers would be null.

The power of the purse is the oldest and most important check against executive tyranny in the Anglo-American constitutional tradition. It dates from medieval England, at least as far back as the Magna Carta in 1215. During the many centuries when English magna-carta-1215-salisbury-cathedral.jpgkings claimed to be divinely appointed by God to rule the kingdom, kings still had to ask parliament to grant the money. Some kings, such as Charles I, did claim the right to spend funds regardless of parliament. This was one of the causes of the English Civil War (1642-1651). Indeed, King Charles I so to speak “lost his head” over the issue. Protecting parliament’s power of the purse was once again a central issue in England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, when parliament, acting in the name of the English people, bloodlessly pushed out James II, who had claimed absolutist powers over the purse (and in many other domains as well) and replaced him with William III, who acknowledged that his power was limited by parliament. These events formed the background for John Locke’s classic work of political philosophy, Second Treatise of Civil Government, which made an extended case for government by consent – including the people’s consent, through their representatives, to taxes and public expenditures.

The American Revolutionaries took up and radicalized this idea in setting up a fully republican form of government. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that governments derived “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Whatever else “consent of the governed” meant to the American revolutionaries, it included the right of the people, through their elected representatives, to consent to all taxes and public expenditures.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 disagreed with one another on a wide range of matters. But on this point there was no disagreement whatsoever: Congress alone could tax and spend. The President had no power to do so, except by signing bills passed by Congress. Article I of the Constitution begins: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” Notice that all legislative powers are vested in Congress. If a president had his own pool of funds, and could spend it on whatever he chose, that would be exercising legislative power, contrary to the Constitution’s exclusive grant of those powers to Congress.

James Madison, arguably the most influential framer of the U.S. Constitution, in defending and explaining the proposed Constitution wrote in the Federalist Papers, Number 58 (1788) that: “This power of the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon, with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”

There is no question, then, that constitutionally, only Congress can appropriate money. And it does not appropriate that money in one lump sum, but for specified purposes. A president cannot constitutionally transfer funds from the Medicare budget to the military budget, for example. Or from the U.S. military budget to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement budget, which is what Donald Trump is doing.

The big, new question that we have faced since February 15 then is: do illegal border crossings (which have been steadily dropping in numbers since their peak in 1972) constitute a public emergency great enough to justify suspending the regular workings of the U.S. Constitution? I would argue that they do not – indeed, they do not come close to the level of emergency that would justify such as step.

For purposes of historical perspective, I want to describe an unquestioned emergency in U.S. history: the outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861. When the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Congress was not in session, and was not scheduled to meet for a long time. Indeed, early in the war, it would have been difficult and dangerous for Congress to meet at all. Washington, D.C. bordered on Virginia, the largest of the slave states, and some major battles were fought very close to the nation’s capital. Moreover, for several months before and after Abraham Lincoln took office as president, it was not clear who the members of Congress were, since several slave states had already seceded from the union, and more followed immediately after the war began.

This was an undisputed emergency – whether the United States would continue to exist as a nation. Under the circumstances, Lincoln exercised a number of powers in the early months of the war that ordinarily would have required congressional pre-approval. He suspended the privilege of the writ of habeus corpus, i.e., the right of a person, under ordinary circumstances, not to be detained for more than 24 hours without being charged with a specific crime. The Constitution itself indicates that there are circumstances when suspension may be justified. Article I, section 9 of theus-constitution Constitution holds that “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” The phrase indicates with some specificity the conditions under which it may appropriate to suspend it: “rebellion” and “invasion.” The slave state secession and the seizure and firing on federal forts would clearly qualify as a massive act of rebellion. However, because this clause occurs in Article I, which covers the legislative branch of government, it implies that whether and when to suspect habeus corpus is a matter subject to congressional authority. Lincoln himself agreed that it was ordinarily a congressional power, but argued that under the circumstances of the early months of the war, when Congress was not in a position to meet, the president was justified in exercising it temporarily. Lincoln called Congress into special session on July 4, 1861, described what he had done, and asked Congress retroactively to approve his action – which Congress did.

Lincoln also made several military expenditures immediately after the outbreak of the war that had not been specifically authorized in the peacetime military budget. Here too Lincoln acknowledged that this was a power belonging to Congress, and asked the body to retroactively authorize the expenditures he had made, which Congress did.

It is not my purpose here to justify every one of Lincoln’s exercises of emergency power during the Civil War. I believe some were justified, and some went too far. But there was no question that the emergency was a real one. Lincoln also made clear that he respected the authority of Congress, and acted to restore the regular balance of constitutional power as soon as it was practically possible.

In both cases, his exercise of emergency powers differed significantly from that of Donald Trump. No one has made a serious case that illegal border crossings constitute an emergency great enough to suspend the ordinary operations of the Constitution. It is simply something that President Trump wanted to do. He was irritated that Congress did not fund it. (Nor did Mexico choose to pay for the wall, as Trump promised repeatedly during the campaign.) Declaring an emergency was simply a way of getting hold of money that Congress had repeatedly declined to appropriate.

We cannot know at this point whether or how the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on Trump’s emergency power declaration. Historically, the judiciary has been reluctant to get involved in disputes involving what it calls “political questions” – i.e., disputes between branches of government. In effect, the Court’s “political question” doctrine says to Congress: “Stand up for your own power.” And it is true that the framers of the Constitution did assume that office holders in each branch of the federal government would stand up for and protect the powers that the Constitution has granted them.

In the case at hand, however, there are two fundamental problems with the Supreme Court telling the Congress, in effect, to stand up for their own power. First: any argument of this kind presumes that Congress does continue exclusively to hold the power of the purse. If presidents can declare an emergency, and spend potentially unlimited funds anytime Congress chooses not to vote the funds a president wants, then Congress is deprived of the only foundation from which they can possibly stand up for their own power. The president would then hold the lion’s share of legislative as well as executive power, and Congress would be overnight reduced to the level of a not-very-well-behaved debating society.

The second reason why the U.S. Supreme Court cannot in good conscience dodge its responsibility to defend the powers of Congress, is that the Court itself – unintentionally but nevertheless monumentally – undermined the capacity of Congress to stand up for its own power in the case of a presidential emergency declaration. To understand this peculiar part of the story, we need look at the National Emergency Act of 1976, the piece of legislation President Trump relies on as legal justification for his defiance of Congress.

The National Emergency Act was ironically an attempt by Congress to check potential presidential abuse of emergency power declarations, while at the same time recognizing that emergency declarations are sometimes appropriate. In an attempt to fulfill both of these contrary objectives, Congress designed the National Emergency Act to function as a so-called “legislative veto,” whereby Congress authorizes the president to take discretionary action, but at the same time reserves the right to say “No” if it believes the president has used that discretion wrongly. Thus under the National Emergency Act as originally passed by Congress, if Congress judged that a president was wrongly using emergency powers, it could negate those powers – “veto” them, so to speak. The National Emergency Act required that the president report at regular intervals to Congress about what emergency powers have been exercised and why, so that Congress could decide whether to continue to authorize, or to terminate, the presidentially-declared emergency.

In short, under the National Emergency Act as designed and passed by Congress, the act of an out-of-control president declaring a bogus emergency could be overturned by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. This act of disapproval was framed as a congressional resolution, not as a new and separate act of legislation, so that it was not subject to presidential veto. Congress stands up for its own powers: constitutional crisis resolved. And in fact, that is what Congress did in the case of Trump’s emergency power declaration. By a wide margin that included a significant number of Republicans as well as nearly every Democrat, both the House and the Senate voted to terminate president Trump’s state of emergency and to nullify his inappropriate appropriation of unappropriated funds.

But this is where the Supreme Court enters the story, and not exactly as the hero of the drama. In a 1983 court decision, INS v. Chadha (which had nothing to do with border walls), the Court ruled that the so-called legislative veto, whereby Congress provisionally authorizes the president to do something but then reserves the right to reverse it after the fact, was unconstitutional. Congress, the court held, could not exercise executive power, which it arguably did in presuming to “veto” the actions of a president in administering a law. The court’s ruling in effect transformed legislative veto mechanisms, which required only a simple majority of both houses and were not subject to presidential veto, into regular pieces of legislation, which are subject to presidential veto, which in turn requires a two-thirds vote of both houses to overturn it – a nearly impossible bar under our current state of partisanship.

At this point a wise Congress would have thoroughly revised, or if necessary repealed, every single law it passed that relied on a legislative veto mechanism, because in many such cases – and certainly in the case of the National Emergency Act – Congress would not have granted the president so much power in the first place if they did not believe it could be revoked when necessary. But we have not had an especially wise Congress for a long time. One can very well argue that a wise Congress would not have passed the National Emergency Act in the first place.

The upshot of the story, as anyone knows who has been following current events, is that President Trump vetoed Congress’s majority vote to end Trump’s emergency declaration and his claim to spend funds not authorized by Congress. The effort to overturn Trump’s veto failed to get the required two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress.

There is much blame to go around here. One can blame the Supreme Court for unwittingly expanding presidential power in the Chadha ruling. One can blame Congress for passing an unwise law in 1976, and not fixing it after 1983. One can blame Donald Trump for putting the Constitution through a shredding machine without a second thought.

But ultimately the U.S. Constitution belongs to us, the People of the United States. Even if Congress wanted to hand over its constitutional power of the purse to the president, it cannot legitimately do so, because the Constitution belongs to us, not to Congress or the president. Nor can we rely on the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve fundamental constitutional questions like this one. Courts act very slowly, and often rule on narrow, technical grounds – as they are likely to do in this instance, if they take up the case at all.

To me, as a citizen of the United States, the fundamental constitutional question is this: if a president can spend 8 billion dollars, not only that Congress has not specifically authorized, but that Congress has specifically declined to authorize, then why not 80 billion? 800 billion? What possible checks are there on the power of a president to do anything he or she wants, once that president is given a blank check on the power of the purse?

When I was in college studying political philosophy, I read many philosophers who warned about the danger of a people “losing their love of liberty” and willingly subjecting themselves, whether out of fear or greed or some other motive, to the chains of a despot. I remember being puzzled about this notion of a people losing its love of liberty. Why would people do that? I wondered. I had great difficulty forming any mental picture of what a people renouncing its own freedom looked like.

Today I have a much clearer picture, both of what this means and how it is possible. I just hope it doesn’t happen here.



Jim Read on “Wind-powered Log Cabins and Democratic Hope”

When people ask me what I’m doing this summer I reply, “I’m writing a book about Abraham Lincoln, and trying to remove the Creeping Charlie from my yard.” My next door neighbor replied, “The Lincoln book will be easier.”

However, the most common response is, “What can you possibly say about Lincoln that hasn’t already been said?” It is frequently asserted that more books have been written about Lincoln than about any historical figure except Jesus.

I am tempted to reply, “But no one has ever written a book about Abraham Lincoln’s support for wind power.” That is not what my book is about, but someone could write at least an article on the subject. One of Lincoln’s intriguing side projects was a series of public lectures in 1858 on the history of discoveries and inventions. (He also ran for U.S. Senate that year and participated in the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates. I think he needed a break from politics.)

At the close of his First Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, Lincoln speculated about areas in which future inventors might profitably try their hand. “Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power – that is, power to move things…As yet, no very successful mode of controlling, and directing the wind, has been discovered…The wind is an untamed, and unharnessed force; and quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to be made, will be the taming, and harnessing of the wind.”

Wind-powered log cabins, anyone?

But the actual theme of my book is Lincoln’s defense of majority rule; and in particular, how Lincoln hoped to build an enduring national antislavery majority that would abolish slavery peacefully, democratically, gradually, and constitutionally. This was central to his life and thought in a way that wind energy was not. Yet despite the mountains of books and articles written on Lincoln, I have yet to find one specifically devoted to his defense of majority rule.

It is essential here to explain the context. The slave states of the lower South – South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas – seceded from the Union before Lincoln even took office as president on March 4, 1861. So no one could claim at that point that Lincoln had committed any despotic act justifying dissolution of the Union. It was Lincoln’s election itself that those states regarded as just cause for secession.

Even though Lincoln had been elected freely and fairly according to the constitutional rules, the seceding states claimed that Lincoln was an inherently illegitimate president because of his stance on slavery, and because he had not received a single electoral vote from a slave state. If the South’s favored candidate, John Breckinridge, had won the election, the slave states would have remained in the Union.

They seceded, in short, because they did not like the results of a free election. They feared that Lincoln’s (and the Republican party’s) plan of abolishing slavery gradually through a long, slow, majority-supported territorial squeeze stood a realistic chance of success, and they did not want to give him the opportunity to begin.

In his First Inaugural Address (which came before Fort Sumter, when he still hoped for a peaceful resolution of the crisis), Lincoln argued that for members of a powerful, well-armed minority to resort to violence because they do not like the results of a free election threatens democracy at its core. “A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks, and limitations, and always changing easily, with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people…Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy, or despotism in some form, is all that is left.”

Lincoln did not claim that the majority was always wise or just. But in every form of government the final power of decision, the right of sovereignty, had to be placed somewhere. In a democracy, that final power, in his view, had to lie with a deliberate, constitutionally-checked majority – not with a wealthy, powerful slave-owning minority. A deliberate, constitutionally-checked majority was “the only true sovereign of a free people.”

Lincoln hoped to use his election victory as a first step toward building a committed, enduring national majority that would first halt the expansion of slavery to new territories, then eventually abolish it gradually and peacefully, with compensation paid to owners.

That is not of course how it happened. Secession forced Lincoln to choose between going to war, or acquiescing in the creation of a powerful new nation on its borders dedicated to perpetuating the institution of slavery, both on American soil and internationally. He chose war. In the course of that horrific war, slavery was abolished by military force, not by peaceful democratic means.

I suspect this is the reason Lincoln’s defense of majority rule has received so little attention: events took a different course, and appeared to render his peaceful democratic hopes irrelevant. Many people argue that a peaceful end to slavery was impossible in the United States.

They may be right. But I still believe it is worth reconstructing the democratic road not taken. Lincoln had as much reason as anyone to be frustrated with democracy. Yet he believed that democracy, operating through the institution of majority rule, was capable of peacefully resolving even the most difficult problems – like abolishing slavery. In our own age of deeply dysfunctional democracy, I find solace in Lincoln’s unshaken democratic faith.

These are my thoughts this summer, as I creep along, weeding my yard, and listening to the rustle of Minnesota’s unharnessed summer breeze.

Jim Read on “A Tale of Two Inaugural Addresses”

jim-readI read presidential inaugural addresses carefully, and often assign them to my students. Inaugural addresses do not necessarily predict policy specifics, but they typically reveal the fundamental intellectual and emotional frames that determine how presidents filter facts and interpret events. For that reason, they enable us broadly to foresee how presidents will respond to the unpredictable.

It is especially revealing to compare Barack Obama’s First Inaugural Address (January 20, 2009) with Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address (January 20, 2017). Obama’s address expresses a variable-sum view of political life, a belief that all stand to gain by cooperating and all stand to lose if they fail to cooperate. Trump’s address, in contrast, lays out a zero-sum picture: every gain for one person or group (whether of power, wealth, status, or opportunity) necessarily entails a corresponding loss for another.  Continue reading

Jim Read on “Is the Party Over?”

jim-readThe 2016 presidential campaign has been strange and unprecedented in many respects. Donald Trump has promised if he is elected he will put his opponent in jail, crossing the line that separates democracies from dictatorships. His most recent tactic is to claim the entire political system is rigged, and some of his most vocal supporters now call for violent uprising should he lose the election.  (See The Boston Globe, October 15: http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/politics/2016/10/15/donald-trump-warnings-conspiracy-rig-election-are-stoking-anger-among-his-followers/LcCY6e0QOcfH8VdeK9UdsM/story.html?event=event25Continue reading