What’s the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate?
The explanation, says labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan, possesses amazing properties: he can, the one-time congressional candidate says, “use it to explain everything … because it seems to work on any issue.” But before trotting out what that explanation is, let me select an issue that might appear difficult to explain: gun control, and more specifically just why, as Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post wrote in July, “it’s never the right time to discuss gun control.” “In recent years,” as Ingraham says, “politicians and commentators from across the political spectrum have responded to mass shootings with an invocation of the phrase ‘now is not the time,’ or a close variant.” That inability even to discuss gun control is a tremendously depressing fact, at least insofar as you have sympathy for the needless waste of lives gun deaths are—until you realize that we Americans have been here before. And that demonstrates, just maybe, that Thomas Geoghegan has a point.
Over a century and a half ago, Americans were facing another issue that, in the words of one commentator, “must not be discussed at all.” It was so grave an issue, in fact, that very many Americans found “fault with those who denounce it”—a position that this commenter found odd: “You say that you think [it] is wrong,” he observed, “but you denounce all attempts to restrain it.” That’s a pretty strange position, because who thinks something is wrong, but yet is “not willing to deal with [it] as a wrong?” What other subject could be called a wrong, but should not be called “wrong in politics because that is bringing morality into politics,” and conversely should not be called “wrong in the pulpit because that is bringing politics into religion.” To sum up, this commenter said, “there is no single place, according to you, where this wrong thing can properly be called wrong!”
The place where this was said was New Haven, Connecticut; the time, March of 1860; the speaker, a failed senatorial candidate now running for president for a brand-new political party. His name was Abraham Lincoln.
He was talking about slavery.
* * *
To many historians these days, much about American history can be explained by the fact that, as historian Leonard Richards of the University of Massachusetts put it in his 2000 book, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860, so “long as there was an equal number of slave and free states”—which was more or less official American policy until the Civil War—“the South needed just one Northern vote to be an effective majority in the Senate.” That meant that controlling “the Senate, therefore, was child’s play for southern leaders,” and so “time and again a bill threatening the South [i.e., slavery above all else] made its way through the House only to be blocked in the Senate.” It’s a stunningly obvious point, at least in retrospect—at least for this reader—but I’d wager that few, if any, Americans have really thought through the consequences of this fact.
Geoghegan for example has noted that—as he put it in 1998’s The Secret Lives of Citizens: Pursuing the Promise of American Life—even today the Senate makes it exceedingly difficult to pass legislation: as he wrote, at present only “two-fifths of the Senate, or forty-one senators, can block any bill.” That is, it takes at least sixty senatorial votes to overcome the threat known as the “filibuster,” the invocation of which requires a supermajority to overcome. The filibuster however is not the only anti-majoritarian feature of the Senate, which is also equipped with such quaint customs as the “secret hold” and the quorum call and so forth, each of which can be used to delay a bill’s hearing—and so buy time to squelch potential legislation. Yet, these radically disproportionate senatorial powers merely mask the basic proportionate inequality at the heart of the Senate as an institution itself.
As political scientists Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer point out in their Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation, the Senate is, because it makes small states the equal of large ones, “the most malapportioned legislature in the democratic world.” As Geoghegan has put the point, “the Senate depart[s] too much from one person, one vote,” because (as of the late 1990s) “90 percent of the population base as represented in the Senate could vote yes, and the bill would still lose.” Although Geoghegan wrote that nearly two decades ago, that is still largely true today: in 2013, Dylan Matthews of The Washington Post observed that while the “smallest 20 states amount to 11.27 percent of the U.S. population,” their senators “can successfully filibuster [i.e., block] legislation.” Thus, although the Senate is merely one antidemocratic feature of the U.S. Constitution, it’s an especially egregious one that, by itself, largely prevented a serious discussion of slavery in the years before the Civil War—and today prevents the serious discussion of gun control.
The headline of John Bresnahan’s 2013 article in Politico about the response to the Sandy Hook massacre, for example, was “Gun control hits brick wall in Senate.” Bresnahan quoted Nevadan Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader at the time, as saying that “the overwhelming number of Senate Republicans—and that is a gross understatement—are ignoring the voices of 90 percent of the American people.” The final vote was 54-46: in other words, the majority of the Senate was in favor of controls, but because the pro-control senators did not have a supermajority, the measure failed. In short, the measure was a near-perfect illustration of how the Senate can kill a measure that 90 percent of Americans favor.
And you know? Whatever you think about gun control, as an issue, if 90 percent of Americans want something, and what prevents them is not just a silly rule—but the same rule that protected slavery—well then, as Abraham Lincoln might tell us, that’s a problem.
It’s a problem because far from the Senate being—as George Washington supposedly said to Thomas Jefferson—the saucer that cools off politics, it’s actually a pressure cooker that exacerbates issues, rather than working them out. Imagine, say, had the South not had the Senate to protect its “peculiar institution” in the years leading to the Civil War: gradually, immigration to the North would have slowly turned the tide in Congress, which may have led to a series of small pieces of legislation that, eventually, would have abolished slavery.
Perhaps that may not have been a good thing: Ta Nehisi Coates, of The Atlantic, has written that every time he thinks of the 600,000-plus deaths that occurred as a result of the Civil War, he feels “positively fucking giddy.” That may sound horrible to some, of course, but there is something to the notion of “redemptive violence” when it comes to that war; Coates for instance cites the contemporary remarks of Private Thomas Strother, United States Colored Troops, in the Christian Recorder, the 19th century paper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church:
To suppose that slavery, the accursed thing, could be abolished peacefully and laid aside innocently, after having plundered cradles, separated husbands and wives, parents and children; and after having starved to death, worked to death, whipped to death, run to death, burned to death, lied to death, kicked and cuffed to death, and grieved to death; and worst of all, after having made prostitutes of a majority of the best women of a whole nation of people … would be the greatest ignorance under the sun.
“Were I not the descendant of slaves, if I did not owe the invention of my modern self to a bloody war,” Coates continues, “perhaps I’d write differently.” Maybe in some cosmic sense Coates is wrong, and violence is always wrong—but I don’t think I’m in a position to judge, particularly since I, as in part the descendant of Irish men and women in America, am aware that the Irish themselves may have codified that sort of “blood sacrifice theory” in the General Post Office of Dublin during Easter Week of 1916.
Whatever you think of that, there is certainly something to the idea that, because slaves were the single biggest asset in the entire United States in 1860, there was little chance the South would have agreed to end slavery without a fight. As historian Steven Deyle has noted in his Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life, the value of American slaves in 1860 was “equal to about seven times the total value of all currency in circulation in the country, three times the value of the entire livestock population, twelve times the value of the entire U.S. cotton crop and forty-eight times the total expenditure of the federal government”—certainly a value much more than it takes to start a war. But then had slavery not had, in effect, government protection during those antebellum years, it’s questionable whether slaves ever might have become such valuable commodities in the first place.
Far from “cooling” things off, in other words, it’s entirely likely that the U.S. Senate, and other anti-majoritarian features of the U.S. Constitution, actually act to enflame controversy. By ensuring that one side does not need to come to the bargaining table, in fact, all such oddities merely postpone—they do not prevent—the day of reckoning. They build up fuel, ensuring that when the day finally arrives, it is all the more terrible. Or, to put it in the words of an old American song: these American constitutional idiosyncrasies merely trample “out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”
That truth, it seems, marches on.