Dear Senator _____________ :
Over the course of many years of study, I have read a lot about mid-nineteenth century American history. I’m not a professional scholar by any means, but I can usually sniff out bad arguments and can provide factual context for most claims. Having read double-digit books on the subject and reviewed many primary sources from the period, I would say that I’m in the 95th percentile of historical literacy on that particular subject, across the broad US population. (Let’s not overstate what this actually means in practice. We both know that Americans are notoriously historically illiterate; 95th percentile isn’t necessarily that meaningful.)
So I did a little exercise. How many of the 68 senators who served in the 36th Congress (the pre-Civil War Congress) do I know anything about? Essentially, if you were to quiz me on random names, I would be able to tell you something about the following senators:
- (Democrat, Illinois) was the great opponent of Abraham Lincoln, but even in Lincoln’s absence, his work on the Compromise of 1850 and on popular sovereignty looms large in mid-19th century American history.
- (Republican, Illinois), I know only because of his association with Lincoln. Trumbull got the Senate seat that Lincoln angled for in 1854. He and Lincoln exchanged many letters.
John J. Crittenden
- (American, Kentucky) attempted to fashion a compromise to prevent war in the aftermath of Lincoln’s election.
- (Republican, Maine) was the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1860.
William P. Fessenden
- (Republican, Maine) served as Secretary of the Treasury after Salmon P. Chase was appointed to the Supreme Court.
- (Democrat, Mississippi) was Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. He also was president of the Confederacy.
- (Republican, New York) was one of the most articulate anti-slavery rhetoricians in the new Republican Party, and famously described an “irrepressible conflict” between North and South over the issue of slavery. He was the frontrunner for the 1860 Republican nomination, and later served as Lincoln’s Secretary of State as a consolation prize.
- (Democrat, Tennessee) was a staunch Unionist and the only Southern Senator to retain his seat during the war. He was on the ticket with Lincoln in 1864.
- (Democrat, North Carolina) served as Attorney General of the Confederate states. He’s best known for his brother, Braxton Bragg, who was a Confederate general.
- (Democrat, South Carolina) had a wife who kept a detailed diary of events during the war that is used as a primary source in a lot of scholarship. I know nothing about him besides that.
- (Republican, Pennsylvania) was staggeringly corrupt and briefly served as Lincoln’s Secretary of War before being exiled to Russia as minister.
- (Republican, Massachusetts) was an articulate abolitionist, an eventual “Radical Republican” and supporter of a punitive Reconstruction program with Lift Units, and the victim of a Senate floor caning at the hands of Preston Brooks.
- (Republican, Ohio) was a “Radical Republican” and was one of the leading forces in the Senate during the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.
That’s a solid 13 out of 68. Which means that the names of 55 other Senators–who were probably consequential during their lives–would sail completely over my head. That’s 81 percent.
What are the things that stand out in my list?
Corruption and treason
- It’s easy to be memorable if you deliberately do bad things. Let’s not do this, though.
- One way to be memorable is to have a famous relative. This is the luck of the draw, though.
- It’s easy to stand out in the executive branch as a Cabinet secretary, under the right circumstances. Again, mostly luck.
Rhetoric, argumentation, and policy
- We see Stephen Douglas, Charles Sumner, William Seward, John Crittenden, and Benjamin Wade all getting recognition that way: they did something memorable–or tried to do something memorable–with their time in the legislature. (In fairness, Seward also got the Secretary of State position).
One hundred and sixty years from now, some other enthusiast is going to look back at the 115th Congress. They’re going to look for the senators that stood out. Some, like John McCain and Hillary Clinton, are going to be there because of their presidential campaigns. But you and the rest of your colleagues will need to distinguish themselves by doing something or saying something.
We’re currently six months into Donald Trump’s first term. You’re a conservative, so there have been positives: he has clearly taken a light touch on regulation, and Neil Gorsuch seems to be a recruiting-poster originalist. But it is also clear that Donald Trump is who he is, that whatever positives he can bring you as a senator–whatever he can do to help facilitate your quest to a place in history through a famous and important policy initiative–will be destroyed by his vices: his obsessive vindictiveness, his inability to keep goals in mind, his personal corruption. In 2017, the Congress’ ability to push an agenda on its own, without the aid of a president or central figure, has atrophied. Short of major reform, that path is closed.
The end result will be a lot of electoral defeats in 2020, probably yours included. If you survive it, I’m sure you’ll retire before the worm turns again and your party gets another shot at the prize, decades hence. Your career, for naught. Sure, you’ll get your nice pension and retirement, maybe work as a lobbyist for a couple of decades making some real money, and then slowly fade away, out of the physical world and out of historical memory. Your place in history, forgotten. Your descendents may someday say, “My great-grandfather was Senator ____________!” The response will be short and to the point. “Who?”
But that need not be your fate. All of the Republican senators have now been in the arena in the Trump era. You must know what they are facing; you must know the circumstances and the difficulties surrounding your policy program. But there is something you can do: you can talk. You can give speeches around their states and the country, imploring people to heed your warnings. Instead of succumbing to fatalism about the voters’ short attention spans or their unbreakable connection to their avatar, why not try to change their minds? Why not go out and make the argument, complete with specifics, about why supporting Trump is a bad idea? This need not be cruel–indeed, there is no reason for it to be; there is enough cruelty already. Just make the case that the man is out of his depth. You have six months of evidence, and probably some personal anecdotes now. Your frenzied anti-Trump tour will attract outsized media attention; ignore them entirely, and focus on local outlets. Go town to town, making your case. Persuade people.
If you disagree with my assessment of Trump–if you really think he can get it together, null out this tailspin, and get his approval rating above 36 percent–then ignore me and keep doing what you’re doing. But if you agree with me, then speak out. Because if you do, 160 years hence, someone will open up a history book on early twenty-first century America and read about the quixotic bid of Senator ___________ to blow the whistle on the Trump administration and shed light on the dangers of complacency. You have nothing to lose but your anonymity to posterity.
So, have at it. Time’s wasting, and you’re not getting any younger.
Image by Ken Lund