Election Day 1860: Now that’s a contested election

Robert Morrison Senior Fellow, Family Research Council
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A miracle occurred in the United States last week. From sea to shining sea, tens of millions of voters lined up to cast their votes. The results were recorded and respected.

The mail went out before, during, and after the elections. No tanks rumbled through our streets. No voters were killed. Nor, apparently, were they even threatened.

Does this occur in Russia? In China? Even in democratic France, the results of the last elections are being daily contested in the streets as strikes break out, threatening to erupt into widespread violence. There, the red flags of revolution are seen on the barricades, as they are seen in Greece.

Americans were a self-governing people even before our War of Independence. And we had several close calls before the election of 1860. But that election, which took place on November 6, 1860, strained our constitutional republic to the breaking point. And beyond.

One way to look at the American Civil War is to see it as the worst instance of election violence in our history. Jefferson had said it and Lincoln echoed that theme: There must be no recourse from ballots to bullets.

During the campaign just finished, a Tea Party candidate spoke vaguely of “Second Amendment remedies” to an out-of-control federal government. Alarm bells went off, and not just in the salons of the left. Similarly, when a respected governor said he “hoped” his state could stay in the Union, the specter of national dissolution once again arose.

Instead, thanks to our Constitution, we now have a legal check on Mr. Obama’s powers. The new House majority can refuse to fund Obamacare, and it should. The new House majority can dismantle major portions of the liberal agenda that were rammed through so heedlessly by the 111th Congress. The remedy for the errors of the 111th Congress is — the 112th Congress.

As a candidate, Barack Obama pledged to provide a “new foundation” for the American republic. For millions of us who revere the American Founding, these were fighting words. He set off alarm bells throughout the country and sparked a prairie fire of resistance.

New Freedom, New Deal, New Frontier — all of these liberal Democratic administrations proposed vast changes, to be sure. And each one was controversial in its own time.

Only with President Obama did it seem that our chief executive was determined to go beyond the limits of the Constitution itself. He is on record as saying the Constitution provided only for “negative liberties,” and he wants us to embrace “positive liberties.”

These would entail a “right” to publicly financed health care. He also favors a “right” to college student loans (and his administration rushed to nationalize them). He supports a “right” to have same-sex unions accorded the privileges and immunities of civil marriage. He does this in open defiance of the Defense of Marriage Act and the voters in 32 states. He advances a “right” to choose abortion and quite possibly sex changes, too. These choices will be fully funded by the federal government. The rest of us have a positive right to pay for it all.

We will need politicians on all sides who respect the constitutional system of checks and balances bequeathed to us by the founders. One of these, interestingly enough, was Rep. Charlie Rangel.

Mr. Rangel demonstrated his allegiance to the Constitution in at least one instance. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that the Constitution does not require the federal government to fund abortion. Congressman Rangel is totally pro-choice. He votes for federal funding of abortion.

But he rasped to then-Rep. Bob Dornan that if the Supreme Court tried to force Congress to disburse funds — in clear violation of the Constitution’s text — Charlie Rangel would have joined “B-1 Bomber” Bob Dornan in resisting this judicial usurpation of the legislature’s power of the purse.

We need that kind of adherence to principle. (Please don’t ask me to provide an example since 1980 of Mr. Rangel doing the right thing.)

Lincoln’s election in 1860, one hundred fifty years ago, and the refusal of large groups of citizens to accept the verdict of the constitutional election system, led to the Crisis of the House Divided. The Civil War began only later when the Confederate States’ forces fired on the American flag at Fort Sumter. Lincoln’s election lit the fuse.

We never want that to happen again. We must adhere to the Constitution, to its separation of powers, and its checks and balances. President Obama is entitled to propose his new foundation. If he wants to enshrine his positive liberties, however, he should recommend amendments to the Constitution. As conservatives, we have the right to oppose him. But we must do so with respect and always uphold the American constitutional order. President Lincoln called it “this last best hope of earth.”

Robert Morrison is senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council.