In the spring of 1858, after an epic fight in the U.S. Congress, Kansas was denied entry into the Union as a new state. (It was eventually admitted in January 1861.) It’s a complicated story, unknown to most Americans today. But for some reason I have thought of this episode several times since last week’s election.
The shortest version of the story is this. As a territory caught up in the struggle over slavery, Kansas was at the center of national politics for the second half of the 1850s. In 1857, a pro-slavery state constitution popularly known as the “Lecompton constitution” (for the town of its origin) was sent to Washington as an application for Kansas statehood. But the Lecompton constitution, the product of many electoral frauds, was not a genuine expression of the will of the territory’s people, and so Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, breaking with most of his fellow Democrats including Pres. James Buchanan, fought alongside Republicans in Congress to defeat the acceptance of it. For his great exertions, Douglas was lionized by anti-slavery journalists like Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, who wanted to install the Illinois Democrat at the head of a grand new coalition, absorbing the fledgling Republican Party, that could face down the pro-slavery South.
But as Lincoln and other Republicans knew, Douglas did not care a fig about opposing slavery, and that any grand coalition he led would reflect his views, not theirs. His opposition to the Lecompton constitution was purely procedural: that it hadn’t accurately expressed the people’s will. For years both before and after the Lecompton fight, Douglas consistently treated the slavery issue as having no moral weight whatsoever. It should simply be settled on whatever terms suited the interests of people in each state or territory. What Lincoln referred to as Douglas’s “don’t care” policy on slavery was in fact a profound betrayal of the Declaration of Independence, and would most likely lead over the long haul to the spread of slavery rather than its inhibition, and to its perpetuation rather than its end. So the “Lecompton moment” for Lincoln and the Republicans was a critical one, when they had to reject Douglas and what he stood for, even as many anti-slavery voters felt some gratitude toward him. Thus Lincoln set out to destroy Douglas’s credibility with the friends of freedom in the 1858 Illinois Senate campaign, an objective he achieved even though he lost the election itself. The soul of the Republican Party, and with it the soul of the country, was at stake.
We have our own kind of Lecompton moment upon us in the struggle over same-sex marriage. The editors of the Wall Street Journal are playing the role of Greeley, writing on Friday in “Democracy and Gay Marriage” that the courts should stay out of the question of same-sex marriage, that “Americans don’t need or want court orders. They’ve shown themselves more than capable of changing their views and the laws on gay marriage the democratic way.” The Journal’s editors appear to be quite content with the defeats suffered by the defenders of marriage as our civilization has always known it, so long as the defeat comes through the right procedure. It would not have been a strain, if the editors had been capable of enunciating a substantive principle, for them to note that while the right procedure was used, the result was deplorable, and that conservatives must remain devoted to victory in this cause.
Except that perhaps, to many on the Journal editorial board, the result was not deplorable. Yesterday the paper gave op-ed space to a college freshman, Sarah Westwood, to lecture her elders in the Republican Party: “Republicans don’t have a future unless they break up with the religious right and the gay-bashing, Bible-thumping fringe that gives the party such a bad rap with every young voter.” This essay was so poorly reasoned, and so ill-mannered, that the only explanation for the editorial lapse of judgment in publishing it is that it did not run against the grain of the editors’ prejudices.
But I was not going to comment on Miss Westwood’s essay—for decades of teaching such students, and sometimes advising College Republicans, have made me forgiving of youthful folly—until an even more immature piece appeared in the Journal today, by the all-grown-up staff columnist Bret Stephens, whose writing on many subjects I enjoy. Here is Stephens today:
Fellow conservatives, please stop obsessing about what other adults might be doing in their bedrooms, so long as it’s lawful and consensual and doesn’t impinge in some obvious way on you. This obsession is socially uncouth, politically counterproductive and, too often, unwittingly revealing.
Also, if gay people wish to lead conventionally bourgeois lives by getting married, that may be lunacy on their part but it’s a credit to our values. Channeling passions that cannot be repressed toward socially productive ends is the genius of the American way. The alternative is the tapped foot and the wide stance.
Also, please tone down the abortion extremism. Supporting so-called partial-birth abortions, as too many liberals do, is abortion extremism. But so is opposing abortion in cases of rape and incest, to say nothing of the life of the mother. Democrats did better with a president who wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare”; Republicans would have done better by adopting former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’s call for a “truce” on social issues.
These lines could only have been penned by someone who has not spent an hour of his life considering the moral dimensions of either the marriage issue or the abortion issue. They are embarrassingly vapid reflections, reminiscent of nothing so much as Stephen Douglas’s “don’t care” policy on slavery.
Some other occasion would be better for explaining to Mr. Stephens, Miss Westwood, and the Journal editors that abortion and same-sex marriage, like slavery, are founded in falsehoods about the human person, and why same-sex marriage is as much an assault on liberty and limited government as abortion is on life itself.
For now we may stick to the more practical question of electoral politics, and ask of these writers why they want the Republican Party to become at once less principled, more like the Democrats, and smaller and weaker than it is now. In last week’s election, as Ryan Anderson and Andrew Walker have shown, the defense of marriage ran more strongly in the blue states of Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington than the Romney-Ryan ticket did. A Romney campaign with a better ability to speak persuasively on these issues might have produced victory for him nationally, and for marriage in these states. Or maybe not. But one thing is sure. Surrendering the principles that animate the social-conservative base of the Republican Party—after the fashion of the “truce” once proposed by Mitch Daniels—would be to make the error that the Republicans led by Lincoln avoided 154 years ago. It would purchase nothing but the diminution of the party, and of conservatism in America. And this without even a Stephen Douglas to recruit as a heroic new leader.
UPDATE: Only after posting the above did I see what my friend Joe Knippenberg posted about Miss Westwood’s piece earlier today. I recommend Joe’s reflections, with which I happily associate myself.