On Wednesday, May 12, 2021, the extreme conservative majority of the Republican Party removed Liz Cheney (WY), who had insisted on the legitimacy of Joe Biden's election and condemned the January 6 Capitol insurrection, from her leadership position in the US House of Representatives. This dramatic act is a harsh warning to partisans who dare to challenge the Trump cult of personality and the far-right agenda. 170 years earlier, Democrats did the exact same thing. In the short term, it split their party; in the long term, it nearly destroyed the Union.
In the antebellum era, the Democratic Party was the conservative partisan vehicle, defending white supremacy, maintaining the reign of elite Southern enslavers, and quashing all reforms, including much-needed infrastructure improvements. Central to the Democratic agenda was the expansion of slavery and the forging of a vast hemispheric pro-slavery empire. By the 1840s, however, opposition to the spread of slavery had grown dramatically in the free states. Democrats in the North began to feel pressure from their constituents to halt the march of the enslavers and challenge King Cotton.
Despite growing opposition from Northern Democrats, the Southern party bosses pursued their aggressive pro-slavery plans. In the 1830s and 40s, they waged war on Indigenous Americans to remove them from fertile cotton lands, passed Congressional "gag rules" to prevent any discussion of the "peculiar institution," and aided the pro-slavery Texas Revolution. In late 1845, they launched an invasion of Mexico. Anti-slavery Northerners, including several Democratic office-holders, balked at the blatant grab for more slavery territory. Led by Pennsylvanian David Wilmot, Northern Democratic moderates made a stand in August 1846, adding a "proviso" to a war appropriations bill stipulating that slavery would not be permitted in any territory stolen from Mexico. Since spreading slavery was the entire point of the war, party leaders were incensed. The motion was defeated. Nevertheless, the damage had been done: a dramatic split occurred in Democratic ranks.
In the 1848 state and national elections, moderate Northern Democrats who opposed the expansion of slavery ran on the new Free Soil Party ticket. The rupture proved fatal. Both the Democratic and Free Soil presidential candidates went down to defeat and the Whigs (who had no formal position on slavery) took the White House.
Needless to say, Democratic leaders wanted blood. Over the course of the next four years, they expunged any anti-slavery sentiment from their ranks, either by outright expulsion of intransigent Northerners or forcing them into submission through party discipline. Votes on the infamous Appeasement of 1850 (a massive pro-slavery victory for enslavers) became the litmus test of party fealty. Democrats who did not vote in favor of various pro-slavery measures, such as the horrific Fugitive Slave Act, were denied campaign funds, attacked in the press, and deprived patronage -- a political death sentence. Contrite Free Soilers who voted as they were told, however, were allowed back and duly rewarded.
Things were even uglier and more chaotic at the state level. In Indiana, Democratic boss (and secret enslaver) Jesse Bright resorted to physical intimidation and illegal wire-pulling to defeat the anti-slavery faction and reward repentant Free Soilers with offices. In the Empire State, a three-way political war erupted between intransigent "Hards," who refused to brook any opposition from anti-slavery moderates, "Softs," who were willing to make deals with former Free Soilers, and the "Barnburner" majority, who bolted the party in 1848 and wanted to expel the Hards. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, pro-slavery conservatives James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce, respectively, seized control of county and district conventions to deny former Free Soilers elective office at any level. "Old Buck" and "Handsome Frank" would later be rewarded with the presidency for their service to the Slave Power.
A united Democratic Party emerged in time for the election of 1852, thoroughly shorn of any anti-slavery elements. "We have got rid of all negroism," chirped Buchanan with pleasure. Though good for enslavers, the victory was pyrrhic. The party was now free to pursue even more aggressive policies without any internal debate or discussion.
In short order, Democrats passed legislation that spread slavery to formerly free territories, nullified the Missouri Compromise, launched illegal invasions of Caribbean and Central American nations, enforced the Fugitive Slave Act with a vengeance, tried to force slavery on the unwilling settlers of the Kansas Territory, and physically assaulted anti-slavery activists in the streets and in the halls of Congress. These actions precipitated the Civil War. By 1856, Northerners had set aside their differences over banks, immigration, and internal improvements to unite against the spread of slavery in a new Republican Party. The election of the first Republican president in 1860 triggered secession and the Union was nearly torn asunder.
The lack of ideological diversity and any meaningful policy debate within the antebellum Democratic Party caused that organization to enact an extreme program that enraged the majority of Americans and caused national disaster. Republicans in 2021 seem to be following that same strategy: punishing dissent, expelling moderates, and favoring conservative purity over practical policy. Moreover, just as Democrats in the 1850s tried to force slavery on anti-slavery populations, Republicans today are forcing their minority agenda on the majority through voter suppression laws, gerrymandering, and illegal activity. If Republicans value the health and future of their party, and the nation, they need to take a look at the past and reconsider their persecution of moderates.
Dr. Michael Landis teaches history at Union College and serves as a trustee of the Saratoga County History Center. He is the author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Cornell, 2014). He tweets @DrMichaelLandis