What a Shutdown Means for America’s Government

Heather Cox Richardson

Pundits are framing the threatened government shutdown as a battle over two different partisan visions. But it is far more than that. It is an attack on the American system of government.
The country went through this very fight in 1879. At that time, deep in the conflicts that redefined the American government after the Civil War, participants articulated well what they were fighting about: should Congress’s responsibility for appropriations allow representatives to dictate national policy?

The answer, Americans insisted then, was no.

The story then developed much like it has today. In the 1870s, during an economic depression on the Republicans’ watch, voters gave Democrats control of Congress for the first time since the Civil War. But the Democrats had a problem. They had no real leaders and no economic program. Their best thinkers had been peeled away by the Confederacy and discredited, and in the 1870s, no one had any idea how to combat economic stagnation.

What the Democrats did have was a vociferous Southern white base that resented federal protection of black rights. Party leaders had stoked that anger since the war. Once in power, the only agenda they had was the removal of the very few government troops that still remained in the South to protect black voters.

In spring 1879, Congress passed an appropriations bill to fund the government for the next fiscal year, beginning July 1. Democrats attached riders to the measure requiring the removal of troops from the South and making it a crime to hold troops at Southern polls, a crime punishable by a $5000 fine and up to five years at hard labor, that is, at the chain gangs that were becoming prevalent across the South. With extremist newspapers egging them on, Democratic Congressmen forced President Rutherford B. Hayes either to accept their demands or to veto the imperative financial bill.

Republicans recognized the Democrats’ stance as revolutionary. A faction was willing to destroy the government to achieve a pet goal. Republicans noted that this was simply a states’ rights argument in new garb. Confederates had tried to get their way with arms and had failed, but now unreconstructed Southern Democrats had figured out how to get their way without firing a shot. They simply had to use the House’s power of appropriation. Attaching policy riders to imperative revenue measures would let them dictate national policy forever, constantly overriding the president and judiciary.

President Hayes did not actually care about keeping troops in the South, but refused to bow to “the dangerous doctrine” that Congress could “absorb all the powers of all the Departments of the Government.” Congress passed five appropriations bills with riders; Hayes vetoed each one. The struggle went on for five months. Finally, with popular opinion running heavily against them, the Democrats backed down.

While policy differences between the parties began the 1879 struggle, Republicans quickly saw it for what it was: a blow at the very heart of the American system of checks and balances. They refused to accept it. The American people backed the Republicans, and the newly ascendant fortunes of the Democratic Party deflated. In 1880, Americans put James A. Garfield, the Republican House leader who had led the fight against the riders, into the White House.

The same governmental principle is at stake today. It remains as crucial now as it was in 1879.