American conservatives are feeling neglected by the people they elected to Congress. The latest evidence: Congress did not use the “power of the purse” to foil Pres. Obama’s intention to quit enforcing parts of US immigration law. In the days leading to the GOP’s cave-in, members of Congress acted as if they were almost embarrassed to have conservatives as supporters.
Are conservative people and conservative causes outdated and soon to be tossed in America’s rubbish bin? Or … Is it possible that our present crop of GOP politicians is caught in a self-defeating mindset?
One hint that the latter may be true is a poll showing that 70% of the public support efforts to enforce immigration law — in agreement with conservatives and against the trend in Congress.
Before conservatives accuse GOP politicians of following a hidden agenda, they could consider that Congress members are acting as most politicians do most of the time — they search for compromises.
A decade before the Civil War, Congress developed a lulu of a compromise: the “Compromise of 1850.” A study of this deal, which was the last major attempt to settle differences between slave states and free states before conflict broke out in Missouri and Kansas, shows politicians’ love of compromise and its failings.
By 1850, the slavery issue was tearing at Congress. The Compromise basically gave the South a stronger law to force the return of runaway slaves in exchange for giving up most of its hope of expanding slavery into the Southwest. It bought about three years of peace before things heated up again.
The Compromise of 1850 was wrangled through Congress against opposition from both Northern abolitionists and supporters of Southern rights as espoused by Sen. John C. Calhoun. Fervent believers on both sides felt ignored and betrayed by leading men such as Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts.
Sen. Calhoun was shocked that his plea for “a full and final settlement, on the principle of justice, of all questions at issue” between the North and South had appeared to have been dismissed with impatience by Sen. Benton.
The plea was less about slavery than about the South’s standing in the nation. The South had been of critical importance in the development of colonial America and in the founding of the republic. But its wealth, power and reputation had been outstripped by the North with its expanding industry and western farms. Southerners, most of whom owned no slaves, were furious that they should be painted as brutes and scoundrels in the eyes of Americans. They worried that the slaves, if freed all at once, would have no way of supporting themselves. A crime wave or even revolution might follow.
Sen. Benton had his eye on western expansion, progress and prosperity — items dear to the heart of a virtuous politician. And the west owes much to Sen. Benton. But he thought the debate over slavery and the South’s predicament was preventing action on “the real business of the country, the pressing, urgent, crying business of the country”.
Sen. Webster had been faithful to the abolitionist cause, but he could see that events were running ahead of the South’s ability to adapt. He said, “instead of speaking of the possibility or utility of secession, instead of dwelling in these caverns of darkness, instead of groping with all that is horrid and horrible, let us come out into the light of day; let us enjoy the fresh air of liberty and union …”
Sen. Webster’s support for the Compromise won little praise from abolitionists. They were aghast that their states would be forced to prosecute individuals for an act of decency: helping an escaped slave find freedom. John Greenleaf Whittier issued a scathing poem against Sen. Webster:

Of all we loved and honored, naught
Save power remains —
A fallen angel’s pride of thought,
Still strong in chains.

All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!

Historian Avery Craven’s account of this era illustrates that the US Congress in 1850 was admirably suited to make compromises that traded in power or money but helpless to settle disputes involving moral principles. Certainly we can honor Senators Benton and Webster, who tried to avert a¬†bloody conflict and who both suffered a steep drop in popularity for their efforts. But principle wins out in the end.
The abolitionists were right: the time had come for America to stop treating people as property. And the values that Southerners fought for: family and honor, rights of the folk to build community; made a strong foundation for recovery from war and the South’s present status as a preferred location for businesses.
Perhaps Senators Benton and Webster, as well as some among our current collection of GOP Congress-people, were and are the wrong sort of politician for their time. When differences in the country are sharp and fundamental, it may be better to express each side’s position with honesty and vigor. It would require representatives to stop making deals long enough to face sobering questions. If trouble comes, at least we could say that the issues at stake were understood and confronted.

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