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Sandra M. Gustafson: A Civil and Deliberate Politics

On the heels of last night’s State of the Union speech, which saw President Obama addressing a newly divided Congress, and amid the varied responses, rebuttals, and interpretations that have emerged, we asked Sandra M. Gustafson, author of the forthcoming Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic to weigh in on how deliberation was shaping the current political climate. Gustafson digs deep into Obama’s rhetoric, connecting it to several speeches written during his presidential tenure, as well as early Congressional debates that shaped our civic discourse, nineteenth-century American literature, and the recent events in Tucson. Read Gustafson’s compelling take below:

In a recent op-ed published by the New York Times, Joanne B. Freeman provides a chilling background for reports that, in the wake of the Tucson shootings earlier this month, several lawmakers planned to begin carrying guns. Freeman’s article relates the little-known story of the violence that disrupted Congressional debates in the years leading up to the Civil War. In those years legislators threatened and sometimes attacked one another with guns, knives, and canes. But there is another and more hopeful side to this history.
James Madison championed deliberation as a central feature of the government created by the United States Constitution, and in the years after the nation’s founding many writers and public figures worked to make the ideal of deliberation into a reality. No public figure contributed more to this effort than Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, who in his speeches to Congress repeatedly returned to the ideals of republican self-governance that Americans of his day associated with Cicero. These efforts became more urgent following the election of Andrew Jackson, who for the first time brought frontier culture into the White House. Best known for embodying a particular version of American democracy (one identified with giving white men the vote regardless of property qualifications), Jackson also contributed to a political climate of conflict and violence that was most apparent in the removal of Native Americans from their homeland and the escalating tensions over slavery.
Webster’s effort to make American civic discourse increasingly deliberative is nowhere more apparent than in an 1830 speech known as the Second Reply to Hayne—an address that continued to be widely taught in American schools well into the twentieth century and that has long been celebrated for its ringing proclamation, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” The Webster-Hayne debates in the Senate involved competing regional alliances, economic programs, and interpretations of the federal system. Both sides of the debate claimed to be perpetuating the values of the nation’s founders. As a proponent of Henry Clay’s American System, Webster argued that public lands should be administered for the good of the nation. He criticized Hayne and by implication, Hayne’s fellow South Carolinian, Vice President John Calhoun, the major exponent of nullification, for putting local interests over national ones. Like Calhoun, Hayne argued for a loose and soluble federal system which gave priority to discrete local needs, such as the protection and expansion of slavery, and did not attempt to manufacture a vision of the good of the whole.
Webster put particular emphasis in his address on the deteriorating conditions of debate generated by the nullification movement. He charged that over the previous two days, Hayne had touched on a wide array of topics with the single exception of the public lands—to which he had “not paid even the cold respect of a passing glance.” Not only had Hayne been disrespectful to the Senate by ignoring the subject of the resolution, he had been rude to Webster personally, refusing his northern colleague’s request to delay the debate because Hayne had “something rankling” in his heart and because “he had a shot . . . to return, and he wished to discharge it.” Webster mocked Hayne’s rhetorical violence, observing that “if nobody is found, after all, either killed or wounded, it is not the first time, in the history of human affairs, that the vigor and success of the war have not quite come up to the lofty and sounding phrase of the manifesto.” He then contrasted Hayne’s anger toward him with his own even temper and respectful treatment of his colleague. The Senate, Webster continued with a rising emphasis, is “a Senate of equals, of men of individual honor and personal character, and of absolute independence. We know no masters, we acknowledge no dictators.” The floor of the Senate was not the arena for rhetorical contests but “a hall for mutual consultation and discussion.” Throughout his lengthy address Webster repeatedly criticized Hayne for fostering “party abuse and frothy violence” and for claiming that the Democratic Party to which he belonged was “the true Pure, the only honest, patriotic party.”
Webster further contested Hayne’s interpretation of the Constitution, which held that state legislatures could declare federal laws unconstitutional. In this view, the federal government was based upon a compact and thus was not a national state in the full sense of the term. Webster insisted that the sovereign people, and not the states, authorize the federal government. In a famous passage that Abraham Lincoln later echoed in the Gettysburg Address, Webster insisted that “It is, Sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.” Nullification theory destroyed the Constitution, undermining the government until it became merely “a collection of topics for everlasting controversy; heads of debate for a disputatious people.” Webster explained the nullifiers’ capacity to reduce the federal government to powerlessness as a function of the way the human mind is constituted. In a controversy, Webster suggested, both sides of the argument appear “very clear, and very palpable, to those who respectively espouse them; and both sides usually grow clearer as the controversy advances.” Webster warned that extreme polarization of the sort fostered by Hayne’s militarist rhetoric would lead to the real violence that Freeman describes.
Webster was not the only voice calling for more mutually respectful public debates. Such appeals occurred in unexpected places, such as the frontier novels of James Fenimore Cooper. The Last of the Mohicans, which appeared just four years before Webster’s speech, contains plenty of violence, but it also includes a great many scenes of respectful consultation and thoughtful decision making, notably between Natty Bumppo and his Delaware companions. Cooper bluntly observes of one such scene that “the most decorous christian [sic] assembly,” even a collection of “reverend ministers,” “might have learned a wholesome lesson of moderation from the forbearance and courtesy of the disputants.” Another frontier voice, that of David Crockett, used humor rather than violence as a means to challenge opponents, showing how it could be used to create strong social bonds that foster the common good. When Crockett served as Representative from Tennessee, he publicly broke with Jackson over his land and Indian policies and allied himself with Daniel Webster and his associates. The words of Webster, Cooper, and Crockett offer a striking reflection on the road not taken in the political struggle over national expansion and slavery.
The State of the Union speech last night moved the United States further down the road toward the civil and deliberate politics that Webster and others envisioned. Recoiling from the violence in Tucson, rather than brandishing guns at one another, many legislators chose to sit with members of the other party in an effort to foster greater comity in what has been an unusually polarized Congress. Observers noted the change that this seating arrangement made in the tone of the event, which was less boisterous and partisan, more thoughtful and deliberate than in years past. President Obama contributed to that tone by stressing the themes of civility and consensus-building which have characterized his political message since he rose to national attention with his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, where he memorably said “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America.” The proposals in his speech last night drew from both liberal and conservative agendas in a pragmatist effort to elicit the best ideas from both sides to most effectively address national concerns.
It was in this spirit that he opened his speech with an echo of the 2004 address that launched his national career, as well as with an acknowledgment of his moving tribute to Christina Taylor Green, the nine-year-old victim of the Tucson shootings, whose family sat in the gallery next to Michelle Obama:
“We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.”
This description of a national family, and the subtle reference to a young girl’s untimely death, allude to another classic work from the antebellum United States: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), in which Little Eva dies because of her deep attunement to the sufferings of the slaves, which, she says, sink into her heart.
This is not the first time that the president’s rhetoric has evoked Stowe’s novel. In the conclusion to “A More Perfect Union,” his speech on race in America delivered in March 2008, Obama told the story of a young campaign worker named Ashley whose commitment attracted an elderly black man. The story of this unlikely pair resonates with the powerful connection between Little Eva and Uncle Tom. As Obama noted then, “that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.” The civil and deliberate tone that Congress and the President set at the State of the Union address will not by itself solve the national problems that he outlined. But the moment of recognition of a shared set of goals can help foster the spirit of cooperation and compromise with which it is necessary to begin.
Sandra M. Gustafson is a professor of English and American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her book Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic will appear this spring from the University of Chicago Press.