WaPo’s Richard Cohen: Antebellum Republicans Should’ve Compromised On Slavery, Or Something

In a column about American Exceptionalism, a newspaper columnist makes a bizarre historical analogy.

In a column devoted to the idea of the need for compromise in American politics, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen makes this bizarre statement:

The huge role of religion in American politics is nothing new but always a matter for concern nonetheless. In the years preceding the Civil War, both sides of the slavery issue claimed the endorsement of God. The 1856 Republican convention concluded with a song that ended like this: “We’ve truth on our side/ We’ve God for our guide.” Within five years, Americans were slaughtering one another on the battlefield.

Therein lies the danger of American exceptionalism. It discourages compromise, for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter. And yet clearly America must change fundamentally or continue to decline. It could begin by junking a phase that reeks of arrogance and discourages compromise. American exceptionalism ought to be called American narcissism. We look perfect only to ourselves.

The only word I can use to describe this portion of Cohen’s argument is incoherent mess, which is somewhat surprising coming from a Columbia graduate and a former winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

As Cohen should well know, while the Republican Party was founded on opposition to slavery, and abolitionists were a large segment of the party’s base in that first election, the real motivation behind the formation of the GOP was opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and would have permitted expansion of slavery into the Kansas Territory if the settlers voted in favor of it. Four years later, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln campaigned not on abolition of slavery, but on opposition to the expansion of slavery into the territories. So, Cohen’s suggestion that it was the GOP’s failure to  “compromise” that led to Civil War is, quite simply, absurd.

More fundamentally, though, there’s the central point of Cohen’s argument, which is truly bizarre:

Does Cohen really want to maintain that the Republicans of the 1850s should have been more willing to compromise on slavery? Is this what liberalism has come to?

I think it’s more likely that Cohen wasn’t thinking through his argument when he made it. The majority of his column is an attack on the idea of “American exceptionialism,” and he advances the hypothesis that it is primarily based in religion:

As Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz reminds me, American exceptionalism once applied to the hostility that the American worker — virtually alone in the industrialized world — had toward socialism. Now, though, it is infused with religious meaning, which makes it impervious to analysis. Once you say God likes something, who can quibble?

As Ed Morrissey notes, though, religion plays only a tangential role in the idea of American Exceptionalism:

American exceptionalism springs from the removal of Old World aristocracy and firm class barriers to success.  It involves the forces that made upward mobility in America much easier than in other nations.  It’s primarily an economic, not religious, distinction, based on private property rights and free markets.  The lack of a ruling class made it easier for those of modest means to create their own markets and find wealth and success in the US.  Until recently, it also involved government with a light touch, rather than a recreation of Old World aristocracy that arbitrarily picked winners and losers by exerting their influence on property and markets.

Some may see religious nuances in the idea of American exceptionalism, but it rests on actually divorcing God from the ruling class.  Aristocracies existed for millenia on the basis of divine right — divine right to property, and divine right to rule.  The mechanism of American exceptionalism opposes this notion rather than adopts it.  It argues that free people have individual, natural rights to determine their own government and control their own property.  The concept of natural rights has its roots in religion, but American exceptionalism is the rejection of rule by divine right, not its embrace.  And the pro-slavery religious argument was its opposite.

Which leads to the final point about Cohen’s argument. As flawed as it is, he would have actually had a point if, instead of bizarrely attacking the 1856 Republicans, he had turned his attention to those in the South, including Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, who believed that slavery, and the superiority of whites over blacks, were ordained by God. They’re the ones who were perverting religion toward political ends, and they were the ones who refused to compromise. If the blood of the Civil War is on anyone’s hands, it is theirs.

UPDATE (James Joyner): Matt Vallone observes that, “Cohen has been named world’s worst columnist by both Reason AND Salon, which is quite a feat.”

FILED UNDER: Religion, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    Richard Cohen’s an idiot. He’s been an idiot for quite a while now. It’s not a left-right thing, he’s just an idiot. The WaPo runs this fossil and then can’t understand why no one cares about the WaPo’s columns?

  2. Rob in CT says:

    What a joke. Is this the Broderism to end all Broderisms?

  3. PD Shaw says:

    I think you miss half the story if you focus solely on religion, and ignore the economics (or vice versa). The Republican party was formed partly of free soil democrats (including many Germans), who were concerned about the threat a slave-based economy would pose to free farmers in the West. The economic interest of slave-owners (including in the sale of slaves to new territories and the ability to recapture fugitives slaves) also clearly has a non-religious basis.

    OTOH, the religious component of abolitionism that arose from the Second Great Awakening also fostered values of racial equality, women’s suffrage, public education, prison reform, and the temperence movement. Preparing for Christ’s return compelled broad swaths of American church-goers to seek to improve society and set an example for other countries to follow. Indeed, Lincoln’s primary goal of saving the union, was often expressed in religious terminology, as important to the world. The Gettysburg Address is a foundational document in the realm of American Exceptionalism.

  4. c.red says:

    He seems to have missed the fact that the 3/5 Compromise in the Constitution, the Missouri Compromise (1820), The Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) [not to mention numerous smaller bills/compromise measures] failed to resolve the situation. When reps are physically beating each other in congress I think it is safe to say you are on the verge of a break.

    Some people need to study more before putting pen to paper.

  5. Barry says:

    Adding onto c.red’s comment – the decades before the Civil War saw compromise after compromise after f*cking compromise with the slavers. What really happened in 1860 is the that free state populations were growing large enough that the slavers felt that they couldn’t get their way in the future, and at that point wanted to destroy the system which they had so happily exploited.

    As for Cohen being a Pulitzer Prize winner, the list of winnners includes such luminaries as the Wall Street Journal Insane Asylum editorial page, Thomas ‘Friedman Unit’ Friedman, and a whole list of – well, scum.

    As for Cohen being a liberal, that’s something that he ‘outgrew’ (as the elites would put it) long, long ago. I gave up on him during the Plame affair, where he criticized the press for poking into Rove’s dirty tricks, saying that the job of the media wasn’t to investigate the dirty underbelly of politics (not his exact phrasing).

    The man’s be a wh*re for decades now.