As Republicans in Washington struggle over who will assume the duties of the Speaker of the House, pundits plot the rise and fall of the candidates with blow-by-blow doggedness. But behind the story of political jockeying within the Republican Party is a much larger issue. The Movement Conservatives now calling the shots in the Republican Party are forcing the nation toward a Constitutional crisis. A very small number of extremists are trying to bend the federal government to their will. They want to force the president to abandon his own policies and adopt theirs. If he refuses to cave in to their demands to kill Planned Parenthood, they will refuse to fund the government. They will force it to shut down. The thirty or forty people in the secretive “House Freedom Caucus,” elected by voters only from their own deeply Republican districts, want to erase the constitutional role of the president. They want to impose their will on the American people.
They have deliberately set out to destroy the American constitutional system.
This is not the first time the America government has seen such an assault. The nation faced a similar crisis after the Civil War. Then, Americans saw the threat for what it was. That the revolutionaries were attempting a political coup was obvious. Only twenty years before the very same men had tried to dismember the United States government using cannons and rifles. The crisis of 1879 looks much the same as today’s, although the Republicans and Democrats have traded positions.
In 1879, Democrats took control of Congress for the first time since the 1850s. Voters had backed Democratic candidates primarily because of a deep recession that they blamed on the Republicans in power. A small cabal of former Confederates within the party, though, insisted they had a mandate to reverse the course the country had taken since they had seceded in 1861. They set out to return the South to white control once and for all. “The great blunder of our section was in abandoning our seats in Congress in 1861,” one Democratic representative told the New York Times. The better plan was to seize control of Congress and run the entire United States.
To that end, the 1879 revolutionaries had a simple plan. They would refuse to fund the government unless the Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes took the few remaining the U.S. Army troops out of the South (that the troops were removed in 1877 as part of a corrupt bargain is a myth). These men forced a weak Speaker of the House, the long-forgotten Pennsylvania Democrat Samuel J. Randall, to attach riders to a series of routine appropriations bills, one after the other. These riders ended military protection in the South for African American voting. They made holding federal troops at the polls punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and imprisonment at hard labor for three months to five years; that is, an express ride into the Southern convict labor system that by then was brutalizing freedmen. Essentially, the riders reestablished the Democratic white supremacist policies Republicans had spent almost twenty years uprooting. Democrats planned to force Republican President Hayes to choose between caving to their demands or to leaving government obligations unpaid. They gambled that he would sign the bills to keep the government afloat.
But he didn’t.
President Hayes had fought to protect the U.S. government on the battlefields of the Civil War. So had the minority leader in the House, Ohio’s James A. Garfield, who had been at both Shiloh and Chickamauga, which together claimed the lives of almost 30,000 Union soldiers. Neither man was going to let his former enemies destroy the government he had fought to protect. If the president did not agree to the terms set out by the Democratic caucus, Garfield explained to a friend, “They will let the government perish for want of supplies.” He continued: “If this is not revolution … which if persisted in will destroy the government, [then] I am wholly wrong in my conception of both the word and the thing.”
Republicans and moderate Democrats — even those who weren’t big proponents of black voting — recoiled from this attempted coup. They recognized that what was at stake was bigger than black rights alone. The issues of troop placement and voting rights were cover for the larger question of the structure of the American government. An extremist faction in Congress was trying to destroy the nation’s constitutional system. Its members were holding government finances hostage in order to force their will on the president. They wanted to destroy the independent power of that office, making it subservient to their will by virtue of the fact they could always cut off government funds.
Moderate Democrats joined the Republicans to oppose this radical reworking of the Constitution’s separation of powers. If the extremists’ tactics worked in the case of the troops and black voting, people noted, the revolutionaries would feel empowered to make more and more extreme demands. The country would fall, one Democrat said, under “the absolute despotism of an irresponsible and unrestrained partisan majority” in Congress.
Hayes vetoed five appropriations bills with the riders. He insisted that the “dangerous doctrine that a bare majority in the two houses can absorb all the powers of all the Departments of the Government, cannot be under any conceivable circumstances approved when embodied in legislation.” At the end of April, in the first of his five veto messages, he attacked the rider policy as “radical, dangerous, and unconstitutional,” for it would enable the House to dictate its terms to the Senate and the president, thus destroying the balance of power in the American government.
The ex-Confederates had overplayed their hand. As the stalemate dragged on, popular opinion turned against the Democrats carrying water for the extremist former Confederates. After four months, the Confederate cabal backed down. But they had inflicted irreparable damage on their cause. Americans who believed in the country and the Constitution shunned the Democrats and rallied to the Republicans. In 1880, voters put James A. Garfield into the White House and Republicans back in charge of Congress. The extremists were cooked. Control of the Democratic Party moved away from the South to the northern cities, where reformers like Grover Cleveland, who would lead the party in 1884, accepted the Republicans’ southern policies and focused on urban issues instead.
The crisis of 1879 holds lessons for today, as an extremist cabal of Movement Conservatives searches for a House Speaker who will promise to make raising the debt ceiling contingent on defunding Planned Parenthood. Now, as in 1879, these extremists ran roughshod over a weak House Speaker, claiming a mandate to overturn the policies endorsed by the majority of Americans. Now, as in 1879, those extremists seek to bend a president of the opposite party to their will by holding government finances hostage until they get their way. Now, as in 1879, they threaten the structure of American democracy.
It is worth hoping that now, as in 1879, Americans will recognize this revolution for what it is, and that today, as they did then, voters will expel the extremists from power.