Republicans Rediscover the Dangers of Selling Bunk to Their Constituents

Cynical public speech aimed at winning political power has consequences.

An illustration of old congressional members with yellow lines drawn on top
Library of Congress / The Atlantic

Three weeks after the conclusion of the 2020 presidential election, many Republican members of Congress find themselves boxed in. Some have privately congratulated Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for their historic win. But publicly, most Republicans have remained silent, while others have actively encouraged President Donald Trump’s baseless accusations of mass voter fraud.

The situation these Republicans face is one that many southern members of Congress would have recognized during the aftermath of the 1860 election. Southern congressmen had spent years stirring up anger and promoting fear of their opponents, and were so successful that by 1860 they had lost control of their message. Abraham Lincoln’s election caused a mass movement among white southerners to leave the Union. Even though they knew that the claims being embraced by their constituents were conspiratorial and overblown, many southern members of Congress felt they had to get on board or be left behind.

Cynical public speech aimed at winning political power had consequences in 1860, and it surely will have consequences now. In 1861, those consequences included a four-year Civil War that claimed the lives of 750,000 people and nearly destroyed the American democratic experiment. Thankfully, we’re still a long way from that today. But the experience of 1860 should serve as a warning of what can happen when political leaders deliberately inflame their supporters, trading short-term political gain for long-term ruin.

In the years before the Civil War, members of Congress from across the country frequently delivered “buncombe” speeches on the House and the Senate floors. “Speaking for buncombe” meant that a congressman was holding forth in a way designed not to appeal to the other members of the chamber, but to convince his constituents that he was working for their needs and beliefs.

Senators and representatives paid little attention to their colleagues’ buncombe speeches; the chamber could be practically empty and still a member would deliver an impassioned address. The goal was to have their words dutifully copied down for the editors of the Congressional Globe (the precursor to our Congressional Record) and for newspapers back home.

By the 1850s, a significant majority of buncombe speeches were about slavery. This was true of the speeches delivered by both northern and southern members, but such speeches became especially common among senators and representatives from many of the Deep South states, such as Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. These states held millions of enslaved men and women whose forced labor was the backbone of the southern economy. And in these states, two-party competition had begun to die out earlier in the decade. So, to maintain their place in Congress, southern leaders loudly and repeatedly declaimed their pro-slavery bona fides on the floor, in speeches that could be reprinted for their constituents.

Buncombe speeches from these southern Democrats typically featured warnings that the Republican Party sought to destroy slavery in the South by any means possible. Many of these addresses included incendiary claims that northerners wanted to enslave white southerners by depriving them of their right to property, and that northerners had already succeeded in oppressing the South by attempting to restrict slavery in the territories. (No matter that southern Democrats and their allies had controlled all three branches of the federal government for decades and had used that power to institute pro-slavery policies, including the single biggest expansion of the federal government to that point—the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.)

To enliven their speeches, southern members often insulted and threatened Republican members of Congress. Fellow congressmen understood the game; after a particularly fiery speech, a member might walk over to his colleague’s desk and apologize for his choice of words, clearing the air. And, in spite of these harangues, congressional relationships remained mostly friendly. Although southern Democrats and northern Republicans honestly disagreed about the issue of slavery, they typically understood one another to be acting in good faith. Consequently, as I argued in my book Washington Brotherhood, many maintained friendships across the slaveholding divide.

But that was not what their constituents saw. Southerners back home rarely knew of these congressional friendships (sometimes because members purposely kept them secret); they could read only the desperate speeches accusing Republicans of undermining the system of slavery and preaching that the South was fundamentally oppressed by the nonslaveholding states.

When Lincoln won the 1860 election, most southern congressmen were unhappy, but not openly rebellious. After years of buncombe speeches aimed at riling them up, however, many white southerners found the prospect of a Republican capturing the presidency terrifying, even though their political representatives in Washington did not.

While some of these federal politicians had long been in favor of southern separation, a majority were surprised by the mass anger that took hold in the South after Lincoln’s election. In the weeks that followed, such prominent federal politicians as Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens dismissed or opposed talk of secession. Stephens, who knew Lincoln from when the two served in the House of Representatives together in the late 1840s, told Georgia residents, “In my judgment, the election of no man, constitutionally chosen to that high office, is sufficient cause to justify any State to separate from the Union.”

These exhortations were largely ignored. Ordinary white southerners were furious—and trained their ire on their own representatives. They repeatedly blamed Washington politicians for failing to protect them. As a result, when Congress met in December for its new session, these constituents opposed all efforts to compromise with the North. By December 1860, the movement toward secession reflected a widespread belief that the federal government could not protect slavery—a belief that was the opposite of reality, as most federal politicians knew.

Despite southern leaders’ initial reaction to the election, the anger of their constituents won out. Southern senators and representatives soon adopted the fury of the men and women they represented. They withdrew from their positions in Congress and joined their colleagues in supporting secession. By the end of March 1861, Davis and Stephens had become the president and the vice president of the new Confederate government, and many of their colleagues in Congress accepted other key posts.

Secession was a grassroots movement, intensified by the buncombe speeches in Washington. White southerners voted to leave the Union because they had been told they should feel aggrieved. Members of Congress had insisted the South was oppressed, even though they held massive political power in Washington, and their constituents believed them. And once Lincoln was elected, these southern senators and representatives could no longer control the anger and fear that they had unleashed.

Donald Trump’s efforts to subvert the will of the people in the 2020 election are likely to fail. As more states certify their results, we will move closer to the peaceful transfer of power that has been the hallmark of our democracy for more than two centuries. But by spreading misinformation about the electoral process, promoting conspiracy theories, and tacitly endorsing threats against members of the other party, the GOP has created a base that cannot bring itself to believe that Joe Biden won.

The consequences of congressional Republicans’ 21st-century buncombe speeches have yet to be fully felt. What comes next may depend on Republicans’ willingness to do what too many members of Congress were unwilling to do in 1860—tell their constituents the truth, even at the risk of their own electoral defeat.