A Past Slice For Today

1854 dollar

This is a 20 dollar gold piece from, you guessed it, 1854. You were doing one if you had these in your pocket. Let’s take a slice from it for our use today, in 2016.

In trying to sort through the confusion and strangeness of the 2106 presidential campaign, I’ve been thinking about an earlier time when the American political party system exploded. That was in 1854, the same year that freshly minted coin landed in more than a few pockets and purses.

1854 marks the earliest conception and birth of the Republican Party. From the ashes of one-half of the political party system operative then (the Whigs), the Republican Party emerged and within less than 24 months, fielded a national presidential candidate and quite a few state and local-level candidates north of the Ohio and Potomac River valleys. It wasn’t 1861 and the first shots of the Civil War that made the Republican Party. It was a particular piece of legislation written and enacted in 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska Act produced the Republican Party seven years before Fort Sumter fell to Southern rebels and plunged the nation into war.

I don’t want you to bog down in the details of 1854. Instead, I’d like you to consider a result of two points from 1854 and apply it–the result–to what is headed your way in 2016.

Point One: since its declaration as a nation in 1776 (or 1774, as Lincoln dated its beginning), the United States had proven unable to resolve the massive inner tension and pressure from having slaves and slavery in an amazingly dynamic, raucous as well as increasingly liberty-based and freedom-loving environment. A nation had been founded. A solution had not. It resembled building a house on a volcano.

Point Two: the outcome of the Mexican War of 1846-1848 brought vast new land into the claimed domain of the United States. That land started in a territorial status with the aim of entering statehood, becoming full-fledged member-states in the American Union, the American Nation, the newest stars on the flag. The process of moving from acquired land to territory to state meant, among other things, how to deal with the issue of slavery. Would it be present or not? And on what basis would its presence or absence be established?

in 1854 a US senator attempted to answer the questions in Point Two. That was the Kansas-Nebraska Act (Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, a Democrat designed and sponsored it).

Here’s the kicker–the effect of addressing Point Two collided with the reality of Point One. The result was an explosion in American politics, American political systems, and American civic and communal life. The clearest casualty was the Whig Party. It died. The Republican Party burst forth, the first sign of new life on a landscape burning from the blast.

An immediate policy or action (Point Two) struck a long-standing nerve (Point One). Both devastation and creation followed (Result).

Bear this in mind. Bear this firmly in your mind as the summer of 2016 becomes the fall of 2016. Remember that things can grow in all types of weather and conditions.



  1. Dr. John Woods says

    If I read you correctly, you are alluding to a political re-alignment, or the emergence of a new Party. I’m not sure we are quite there yet, though the parallels with the Election of 1860 are intriguing.

    Indeed, the political economy of slavery did lead to the demise of the Whig Party, but those voters did not simply morph into the Republican Party. It was a largely disaffected, non-slave holding, yet business friendly electorate that broke from the Whigs to form the Republican Party. This electorate still wanted the country to grow, both territorially and economically, but not in competition with an economy driven by slave labor,(which many blamed for their low wages). In essence, the Republican Party of 1854 emerged as a protest against a legally rigged system that allowed a small group – slaveholders typically were large operations (plantations) run as a family business – to reap big benefits from the economy. The similarity with today, in my mind, is that the current disaffected electorate – what some refer to as the 99%- once again see a rigged system where the economy only stands to benefit a small group – the 1% – who once again have a structural advantage. Those who would argue that history repeats itself could make the case that the United States of 2016 was ripe for the emergence of a new Party, one that would align itself to the interests of this disaffected electorate.

    That said, the differences between the two factions, in my opinion, is too great for this to happen. If anything, we might see a future election on par with that of 1856, where there is a modern-day Know-Nothing (American) Party that appeals to the nativist streak among Trump supporters. But, the kind of split which occurred in 1860 within the Democratic Party, that many political observers seemed to think might lead to a siphoning off of Clinton votes, does not seem to be happening.

    Nevertheless, the present political climate does make for some interesting comparisons.

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