The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, July 31, 2005

The 1850 Compromise and the polisci profs

Continuing my skim of Nevins (July 30 piece)...

The lesson of the Powell Amendment (umpteen pieces here) was to be extremely wary of polisci profs bearing gizmos.

There is some sort of rule, it seems, that old-fashioned analysis by text is uncool. Quantitative is King and political history serves the primary function of providing raw material for mathematical models.

One such is cyclical voting - to which a killer amendment (which the Powell Amendment was alleged to be) is supposed to give rise.

It's a tempting idea, story-wise: something of the LBJ senatorial shenanigan, but with purer lines, and susceptible of theoretical evaluation.

Trouble is, they don't exist. Or, at least, the Powell Amendment doesn't seem to be one of them. And a polisci guy called Gerry Mackie maintains that all the supposed examples put forward so far rely on a mistaken appreciation of the facts [1].

The 1850 Compromise is in the same neck of the woods. The conventional wisdom (as in Potter's Impending Crisis, for instance - which I have yet to read!) is apparently that the legislation that failed wrapped up in an omnibus bill (promoted by Henry Clay of Kentucky) succeeded when parcelled into a separate bills (stewarded by Stephen Douglas of Illinois). And that the reason for the different result was the packaging, not the content.

This CW is addressed in a 17,000 word article (PDF) Agenda Manipulation, Strategic Voting, and Legislative Details in the Compromise of 1850 by Theriault and Weingast. The upshot is that, according to the piece, it was substance, not procedure, that made the difference:

Douglas redrafted the bills in significant ways (summarised on p65a) so as to make them attractive enough to pass, however they were packaged [2].

From the opening of the session in December 1849, slavery-related issues were obsessing Congress. A glance at Voteview suggests at least 200 slavery-related roll call votes - the raw material for much that is quantitative - in the session. Plus acres of verbiage in the Congressional Globe.

My sense is that there is still goodness to be had from mining this stuff.

(The fact that, 150 years after the event, the very basis on which the legislation was passed is open to debate would seem to support that view.)

The problem may well be that the significance of particular RCVs (many of which are procedural) is not apparent either from the vote itself or the corresponding section of the Globe report of proceedings; and, for all the depth of his coverage (Vol 1 takes 560 pages to cover five years), Nevins's account of the the Compromise in Congress (pp219-345) is sparse relative to the volume of raw material.

  1. He has a short paper (PDF) Is Democracy Impossible?: Riker's Mistaken: Accounts of Antebellum Politics - as well as a book.

  2. Following the argument isn't helped by the fact that the spatial diagrams are not in the draft that's online.

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