From Bullets to Ballots, and Back to Bullets?

At the beginning of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln summed up the case against partisan impeachment when he reminded his countrymen that, “It is now for [Americans] to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections.”

Rather than taking the constitutional appeal to ballots, the bulk of Democrats (once again) seem intent on opening the way to bullets through partisan impeachment. We’ve seen this movie before, and it starred the same party in the leading role 160 years ago: Lawlessness masqueraded as high principle and it seems set to do so again. The self-righteous party of rebellion retains its core character through different issues, from slavery to this faux impeachment. Why does it always seem to star in the anti-American role?

The answer lies in the nature of American political parties. Of course no political party is a band of angels, but Democratic views have led them to be rebellious or at least indifferent toward the founding principles of the Declaration of Independence, drafted by the party’s founder, Thomas Jefferson. Intent on defending America from a dreaded Federalist takeover, Jefferson wound up advocating for states against federal power, which made him a defender of the slave cause—even though he also regarded slavery as a curse on the nation.

The Civil War could thus be said to be Jefferson arguing with himself: the author of the Declaration against the advocate of states’ authority to defend their peculiar institution of slavery. Jefferson’s inability to forge an anti-slavery consensus led to the creation of a party with at least two faces on slavery before the Civil War, feigned indifference or promotion of it. This split within the Democrats opened the way to Lincoln’s Republican Party, with its opposition to the spread of slavery, to become triumphant in 1860. And that Republican Party framed American politics until Franklin Roosevelt’s domination beginning in 1932. The Democrats have always been a party of groups rather than a coalition of citizens. For example, the Democrats have been the party of immigrants and therefore, until recent years, of Catholics.

The Progressive movement of scientific and administrative reform captured both Republicans and Democrats. But Democrats went further with the Progressive vision of malleable human nature and politics as it competed with socialism, fascism, and Communism. That competition with alien ideologies led the Democrats even further away from Jefferson’s American principles, as it adopted policies of its opponents.

The group progressive Democrats embraced and enhanced for the past hundred years has been the intellectual elite of universities and bureaucrats. The party of slavery and rebellion became the party of what we now know as the administrative state—the leftist intellectuals who dictate policy on government, economics, immigration, war, and political correctness. This group and the party they now control subordinate the American nation to the transnational administrative state system of the United Nations and a global economy.

Ronald Reagan highlighted the anti-democratic arrogance of the administrative state in his first inaugural,

From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

Americans confront the administrative state mentality through the common good as developed by constitutional self-government.

Reagan was reflecting a Republican Party tradition with its origins in the slavery crisis. The Civil War being over and with chattel slavery and the twin evils of Hitler and Stalin gone, who is the enemy, where is the tyranny? The Republican answer must not be limited to tax cuts and tariffs. The enemy is always tyranny, the goal is always the freedom of self-governing citizens. That meant opposing the spread of chattel slavery and for the same reasons it now means opposing the spread of Progressivism and its administrative state.

America’s enemy is always a form of slavery. That evil is not confined to what slavery does to the slave, for it breeds tyrants. Lincoln’s definition of slavery prevails: “You work and I eat.” This standard immediately clarifies political alignments and loyalties today just as it did during the Civil War and at the founding. It presumes freedom and rewards virtue. It elevates the soul, while remembering the body. It rejects privilege and its fake aristocracy, above all the politically correct blather about slavery being fundamentally about race.   

We speak today of a nation divided, of partisan splits, and even civil war. How seriously should we mean this? Should we cool off and calm down? Would Jefferson today tell us to sip some wine? Would Lincoln recommend we chop some wood?

Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 message to Congress, early in the Civil War, articulated the slavery crisis today as it did back then. As the Union crumbled, Lincoln praised the loyalty of the “plain people” of the Army and Navy, as opposed to their officers, who often went South. But this followed the purpose of the war:

On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life….

Lincoln appeals beyond Congress to “the patriotic instinct of plain people. They understand without an argument that destroying the Government which was made by [George] Washington means no good to them.”

The rebellion Lincoln faced would deny the results of a fair election (actually a crooked one that did not permit Lincoln to appear on the ballots of the southern states). Having gone from bullets to ballots in the Revolution, Americans denying the validity of ballots threatened to return the country to bullets.

that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they can not take by an election neither can they take it by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.

The Republican Party today is morally obligated to teach today’s rebellious Democrats the sanctity of the Constitution and its elections. The Democrats’ self-righteous rhetoric of living under the law is in fact rebellion against free government and its consequences. Lacking substantive objections to Trump’s largely successful policies, they need to undermine his legal authority through their confederates in the administrative state.

It is appropriate in a sense that Trump should be confronted with this faux impeachment threat toward the end of his first term. After all, impeachment appears to be the inchoate response to the “America first” challenge he laid down in his inaugural address. Trump’s place in American politics is both revolutionary and conservative at the same time: to revitalize the role of what Lincoln called “the plain people” in the institutions of national government and to return the country to its founding principles. His inaugural address is the locus of his principles. Following an attack on establishment Washington, he declared, “… today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another—but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.” That is, he would battle all the politicians on the inaugural stage with him. It is remarkable he has survived as long as he has, and even flourished. He has kept the love of his voters and survived without flattering his opposition or selling out completely to his party establishment.

We are in the midst of an exciting time—the revolution of 2016, as it may be known in future generations. Once again we see the clash of two ideas of America as presented in its leading political parties.

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About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

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