Barone: Current Health Care Fiasco Resembles 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act

Writing for the Washington Examiner, Michael Barone makes an astute historical observation:

It’s time to blow the whistle on two erroneous statements that opponents and proponents of the health care legislation being jammed through Congress have been making. Republicans have been saying that never before has Congress passed such an unpopular bill with such important ramifications by such a narrow majority. Barack Obama has been saying that passage of the bill will mean that the health care issue will be settled once and for all.

The Republicans and Obama are both wrong. But perhaps they can be forgiven because the precedent for Congress passing an unpopular bill is an old one, and the issue it addressed has long been settled, though not by the legislation in question.

That legislation was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854….

(Forehead slap) Why didn’t I think of that sooner? Read the rest of Barone’s piece to get the gist of the analogy and the immediate fallout from the legislation:

We cannot say with assurance that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was unpopular; Dr. Gallup didn’t start polling until 81 years later. But the results of the next election were pretty convincing. The Republican Party was suddenly created to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the 1854-55 elections transformed the Democrats’ 159-71 majority to a 108-83 Republican margin. Democrats didn’t win a majority of House seats for the next 20 years.

Not to mention, as Barone also points out, the fallout of “Bleeding Kansas” and ultimately the national conflagration known as the Civil War. In any case, as bad as next year looks like it will be for Congressional Democrats, I still have a hard time imagining a shakeup on the order of magnitude of what took place in 1854.

There are some key differences, too — namely, that support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act (on both a partisan and sectional basis) was not nearly so unanimously divided as what we’re witnessing today in Washington. While I also don’t see anything comparable to the downfall of the Whig Party in today’s politics, it is clear that there is some significant re-alignment taking place among coalitions.

For the best read on the subject of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its integral role in pushing America into the secession crisis and the Civil War, I highly recommend David B. Potter’s The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861.


  1. says

    My best read is Lincoln at Peoria by Lewis E. Lehrman. It details how Lincoln made the best case against the K-N Act in speeches while it was being debated and how he used it to build his political career after it passed. Wonderful Lincoln and American history. Very well documented.

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