PITTSBURGH — In December 1833, a young man from Chester, N.H., moved to Washington to take up a position as a clerk in the House of Representatives, spending his first day touring the city with Rep. Franklin Pierce, who later would become president and a profoundly divisive figure in the country.
Benjamin Brown French saw many of Washington’s sights that day, but it was the Capitol that attracted his attention and spurred his awe. “Will it always be the capitol [cq] of my happy country?” he wrote in his diary, which in time would become one of the most insightful resources for students of 19th-century America. “I fear the seeds are already sown whose fruit will be disunion, but God forbid it!”
Mr. French, who later would oversee the funeral of Abraham Lincoln, was reacting to one of the harbingers of disunion, the tensions of the Nullification Crisis, when South Carolina threatened the survival of the Union by declaring that the tariffs passed by the Congress were void within the state.
Now, some 188 years later, another political crisis is being played out in the venue where Mr. French would hear “the great men of the land debate.”
This time the debaters include Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, two lawmakers who, along with President Joe Biden, are involved in one of the great political tests of the age. This time the Union is not in jeopardy, though national unity surely is.
Some commentators believe the domestic tensions of our time — played out most recently in the stalemate over the debt limit and the wrangle over the size of both the infrastructure bill and the Biden spending program that leans heavily toward the priorities of the Democrats’ progressive wing, all coming in the wake of the disruptive Trump presidency — are matched only by those that grew out of the debates on states’ rights and slavery. Some use the locution “civil war” — no capitals, though contention throughout the capital and Capitol — to describe the warring factions in Washington and in the country beyond and the alienation that led to the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021.
For days turning into weeks, the task of raising the debt ceiling has been the talk of Washington, though in truth there has not been much talk between the Republicans who refused to join the Democrats in an otherwise prosaic and routine legislative procedure required to keep the government operating. Both sides have contributed to the debt. Both sides saw the imbroglio as a way to score points against the other. Even Mr. McConnell’s gesture to permit the Democrats to boost the debt limit temporarily was shrouded in an attempt to throw his rivals off kilter.
The lawmakers still must sort out the competing political forces that are at play and move toward resolving two parallel struggles.
One of those struggles is the usual fight between Republicans (who extended the debt ceiling when a Republican, Donald Trump, was in the White House) and Democrats (who were in the embarrassing position of being unable to do so when they control both the executive and legislative branches of government). The other is the struggle between two very different visions of being a modern Democrat.
In the Nullification Crisis, as in the Civil War that followed, the Union occupied the moral high ground, though eventually the slavery issue tarnished the reputation of the North’s greatest advocate for Union, Daniel Webster, whose support of a fugitive slave law as part of the Compromise of 1850 put him on the wrong side of history.
In today’s struggle, hardly anyone holds the high ground, though it is possible that supporters of aggressive action to battle climate change may acquire it when this period is examined by historians in future decades.
The latest Quinnipiac Poll, released Tuesday, only muddies things. The survey showed the congressional Republicans (28% approval ratings) and the congressional Democrats (30%) with basically the same low ratings from the public.
But the movement is away from the congressional Democrats, themselves split between their two warring wings. Their ratings dropped 7 percentage points in the last month, when the divisions between the two groups widened and their bitterness deepened. This occurred as the Republicans’ ratings grew by 5 percentage points. None of the four party leaders in the two chambers of Congress recorded an approval rating above 33% — and the ratings for Mr. Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California plummeted.
Meanwhile, Mr. Biden’s approval ratings put him below 50% — at a time when poll results show general public approval for both the infrastructure bill and the broader social spending measure.
What could all this mean?
It suggests that, while the public doesn’t think much of its leaders, it generally supports the Biden spending priorities — not the verdict that the Republicans expected, and one that suggests the GOP strategy of obstruction may not reap public rewards.
That dichotomy is the reverse of the situation that prevailed when Mr. French went to Washington. There were, of course, no polls in the first third of the 19th century, but it is clear that Mr. Webster of Massachusetts had robust support in the North at the time (though he would lose 17 years later) while John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina nullification theorist, had strong support in his state and in other pockets in the South.
Neither side in the contemporary struggle gained public respect by fighting over the debt limit when everyone outside their isolated circles knew that eventually Congress would have to extend it.
Mr. Biden called the Republicans “reckless.” Mr. McConnell indicated that since the Democrats want to govern without Republican input, they could have raised the debt limit without Republican support, though under current rules, and with the current party breakdown in the Senate, he knew that was difficult. His semi-capitulation merely kicked the issue down the road to December, when the struggle will begin anew, and against the hard deadline of the holiday recess. The veteran Kentucky lawmaker is a wise old owl.
The whole spectacle is doing no one much good, and it prompted a country of 330 million needlessly to share the peril Benjamin Brown French felt when the country’s population was under 13 million, and when he wrote of his fears that the seeds of contention had been sown. They are germinating once again.
(David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)