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Leahy: Nothing new under the sun

By Tom Leahy
Oct. 14, 2011 at 10 p.m.


The constant refrain of the media and the political class is that in the past our Congress was a place of blissful bipartisanship where everyone compromised for the greater good of the nation. The period of time that is referenced was the period immediately after the second World War. It was a period of a tame Republican Party and a dominant Democratic Party. There was no need for compromise because the Republican Party was toothless.

What is happening now is more representative of our history as a nation. In 1786 and 1787 there was widespread discontent over high taxes, high cost of state government, and a poor economy that resulted in massive foreclosures. The result was Shay's Rebellion. The state of Massachusetts raised an army and put down the rebellion. This rebellion was a major reason for the writing of the Constitution.

In the 1790s we had the Whiskey Rebellion. The proximate cause of this rebellion was the imposition of a federal tax on whiskey. Alexander Hamilton eventually led an army to western Pennsylvania to put down the rebellion. The ability of the federal government to impose taxes and its will with force if necessary established the federal system.

The next major issue to cause problems was slavery. Three years prior to the Kansas-Nebraska Act congress passed the Manhood Suffrage Act. This act gave landless white men their right to vote. These men were offered land in exchange for voting Kansas into the union as a slave state. This led to violence in Kansas with the culmination of the raid on Lawrence, Kan. In Congress, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, in a two-day speech, denounced Sen. Andrew Butler of South Carolina as the cause of the violence in Kansas. As a result, representative Preston Brooks (a cousin of Senator Butler) of South Carolina nearly beat Sumner to death with his cane.

As a response to Shay's Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion, an army was raised and the rebellions were put down. In the case of Shay's Rebellion we scrapped the Articles of Confederation, and in the case of the Whiskey Rebellion, strong federal action was taken to eliminate the threat. In contrast to the issue of slavery, which from the adoption of the Constitution in 1787 until the start of the Civil War in 1860, the issue of slavery was handled with compromises and kicking the issue down the road. The result was that the issue festered until it became so contentious it led to war.

The issues we face now are as contentious as the period before the Civil War. The major issues of our day have been kicked down the road or given to super committees to decide. We are determining the basic contract between the American people and our government. Our elected representatives will not make a decision. Whether we retain our republic or not is what is at stake. The question is will history repeat itself?

- Tom Leahy is a Gilmer resident and regular contributor to the Saturday Forum.

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