Free People Mark Their Betrayers

The recent vote of the House of Representatives, 246-182, that reproves the conduct of the commander in chief in Iraq is said not to be binding and therefore to be immaterial to the future. This is not the whole truth of it. When the Congress votes its will on matters of profound significance, it is a representative judgment that will weigh heavily long after the 110th Congress is closed. When a Congress reverses the policy of America, there is dark precedent to argue that Congress launches America into an odyssey that will still batter and bedevil it when every citizen alive now is gone and memory is in the minds of unknown partisans.

How dark can the future be? Consider that we live in Horace Greeley’s future. Greeley and his Abolitionist comrades comprehended on May 30, 1854, that the vote of the 33rd Congress to make the Kansas-Nebraska Act the law of the land was not only a repeal of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 but also an abandonment of what security the country possessed against the bullying of the slave states, the Slaveocracy. Greeley, on May 31 in his New York Tribune, was blunt when he published a black box entitled "Be It Remembered," listing the names of the representatives and senators from the North who had joined with the slave states to open the territories to human bondage.

"By the votes of these men, representing Free Labor constituencies," Greeley wrote, "One Million squares miles of Territory . . . has been opened to slave-holding immigrants and settlement, and so exposed to be brought into the Union as Slave States."

Greeley pounded his point with a question so prescient and adamant that you can hear in it the drumbeats from Bull Run to Appomatox Courthouse: "Shall not Free People mark their betrayers?"

Twenty-three years later, 1877, with Greeley buried, with the nation recovering from the battlefield massacres of a generation, the same editorial words still obtained. America was still not safe from the placaters and ingrates in Congress who, by their vote, would undo victory and disinter tyranny.

The 44th Congress was tempted to fail when the presidential election of 1876 stalemated between the Republican Rutherford Hayes of Ohio and the Democrat Sam Tilden of New York. The actual problem was that the electoral votes of four states, Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Oregon, were rotten because of gargantuan fraud. However, Congress shoved this evidence aside and declaimed that the problem in the four states was instability caused by the Union troops who had been garrisoned there to protect the former slaves and their allies from the routine depredations of villains who were then called "the White League."

The devil’s deal struck by the Congress, its obeisant Electoral Commission, and the malodorous administrations of the four states, put the "moderate" Republican Hayes into the White House in exchange for the withdrawal of all troops from civil affairs and the guarantee of Democratic domination in the South. Within a month of Hayes’s inauguration, the ex-slave states were back under the boots of bullies, where they would remain at least until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"Through all the South, for two days past, great guns have been firing and church bells ringing to celebrate the victory of the White League," read the April 26th, 1877, report from New Orleans in the New York Times, "to give notice to the world that by the practice of revolting cruelties . . . the Republican majorities of all the Cotton States have been overcome, and perhaps forever placed under the control of a desperate, lawless minority."

What all this calamity means today is that the Bush Administration’s refusal to placate the rogue states of the Middle East is decried by the 110th Congress as radical in the same way the Abolitionists of Bloody Kansas were once decried by the 33rd Congress as radical.

Similarly it means that the American commitment to the rescued Iraqi people is faulted by the 110th Congress for the troubles in Iraq in the same way a Union commitment to the rescued people of the South was once faulted by the 44th Congress for the troubles in the South.

If it is posed that a House resolution now is not the Kansas-Nebraska Act then, consider that their respective advocates regarded them equally as opening salvoes in a campaign. If it is posed that Iraq now is not the South then, consider that, relative to the ages, Florida and Oregon were exactly the same faraway mysteries as are Basra and Kirkuk. And if it is asked, What are the Iraqis to an American taxpayer? then consider the same question under Jim Crow, What’s a landless ex-slave to a white mill-worker?

Once upon a time, Congress voted to hand over free land to slavery and then, three decades on, voted to hand over free people to the White League. America burned for a century. Now, Congress declares by its vote that it wants Iraq handed over to anarchists. Three decades from now, what will Congress vote to hand over? And what will burn for a century?