A friend reminds me of this speech about the crisis in the governance of the Republic.
You will break up the Union rather than submit to a denial of your Constitutional rights. That has a somewhat reckless sound; but it would be palliated, if not fully justified, were we proposing, by the mere force of numbers, to deprive you of some right, plainly written down in the Constitution. But we are proposing no such thing. When you make these declarations, you have a specific and well-understood allusion to an assumed Constitutional right of yours .... but no such right is specifically written in the Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such right. We, on the contrary, deny that such a right has any existence in the Constitution, even by implication.
Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events. This, plainly stated, is your language.
In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!” To be sure, what the robber demanded of me — my money — was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle.
The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.
This commentary, so relevant to today, is not new. That comment comes from Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln in his Cooper Union address in 1860. (Hat tip to Digby for introducing me to its importance years ago.) It remains the single most clarifying description of American conservatism's inability to be satisfied that they have been adequately “respected”, their eternal complaint that their opponents refuse to “compromise”.
Picking up where that quotation left off, we Lincoln describing how they can tolerate no disagreement.
These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly — done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated — we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.
I am quite aware they do not state their case precisely in this way. Most of them would probably say to us, “Let us alone, do nothing to us, and say what you please about slavery.” But we do let them alone — have never disturbed them — so that, after all, it is what we say, which dissatisfies them. They will continue to accuse us of doing, until we cease saying.
Obviously the question of slavery is now decided, but on other questions where Americans are deeply divided we see that conservatives cannot abide policy victories which contradict them. They are “losing their country”.
Not our country. Their country. They think they own the whole place.
Recall that when Lincoln was elected, he was proved right in this speech. Before he had time to enact any actual policy, what his opponents imagined he would do moved them to take up arms. This too should sound uncannily familiar.
Our current crisis — a willingness to destroy the US government if they cannot command it — should come as no surprise.