The Filibuster Was Grounded in Slavery and Now Threatens All Life on Earth

Thom plus logo It has to end, and you can help

It's time to end the filibuster and bring democracy to the US Senate.

The filibuster was invented by "the Grandfather of the Confederacy" John C. Calhoun, and its only purpose is to block legislation that otherwise has broad popular support but is opposed by racists and big corporate special interest groups.

It's not even in the Constitution; the Founders were horrified by the thought of such a thing, because it allows a 2/5ths minority of senators to block any action by the senate majority.

Sadly, two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, are blocking the Senate from killing this democracy-crippling anachronism.

The hidden history of the filibuster

The Founding generation were almost universally opposed to anything resembling the filibuster; James Madison fought any such rule right up until his death in 1836.

It is, after all, anti-democratic in that it gives a minority of senators the ability to block any legislation simply by raising their hand or sending a one-sentence note to their colleagues. A single senator can invoke it, and a minority of 41 out of 100 senators can sustain it until legislation dies.

By the 1830s, the institution of slavery was under widespread attack in America. England had outlawed it, northern states were hardening their opinions, and the national debate that erupted a decade earlier with the Missouri Compromise was becoming heated.

Former President John Quincy Adams (1825-1829), after he left the White House, ran for and was elected to the House of Representatives with the main purpose of ending slavery; Congress had passed a law against slavery even being mentioned in debate on the floor and Adams went out of his way to break that law every single day that Congress was in session.

John C. Calhoun had been Adams' Vice President (they were bitter enemies; it was because nobody won a majority in the Electoral College and the election was thrown to the House) and then Andrew Jackson’s Vice President. In 1832, he resigned as VP to be appointed to South Carolina's Senate seat by that state's governor.

Once in the Senate, Calhoun invented the filibuster specifically to increase the power of his plantation-owning colleagues and block any sort of anti-slavery legislation. (Calhoun not only defended the right to keep human beings enslaved; in an infamous 1837 speech he called slavery "a positive good.")

The filibuster delayed Civil Rights laws for a century

And it worked. The filibuster not only kept any anti-slavery legislation from being passed throughout Calhoun's lifetime, but after Reconstruction collapsed with the Hayes election in 1876 it was turned against Civil Rights legislation.

As historian Adam Jentleson notes, "[F]rom the 87 years between when Reconstruction ended until 1964, the only category of legislation against which the filibuster was deployed to actively stop bills in their tracks was civil rights legislation."

In 1964 and 1965 Southern conservatives tried to block LBJ's Civil- and Voting-Rights legislation with a filibuster; President Johnson, however, invoked the death of JFK and mobilized massive nationwide popular support to pressure senators to pull together a successful super-majority and overcome the Southern filibuster. Sadly, such examples are rare.

The filibuster is now used by Big Business to screw Americans

Today the filibuster is used by special interests to protect their own financial interests such as keeping weapons of war on our streets, killing our children in numbers not seen in any other developed country in the world.

For example, after the brutal 2012 slaughter of 20 first-graders and 6 adults at Sandy Hook, Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) put together a modest bill to increase the use of background checks to purchase weapons.

Fully 55 senators supported the legislation, as did 80-90% of the American public, but Republicans beholden to the gun industry launched a filibuster, killing the legislation by requiring 60 votes for passage.

The filibuster was a useful tool - and excuse for racist Senators - to block any sort of Civil Rights legislation for four generations. Today it's a convenient shield for cowardly senators to avoid going on the record about their opposition to popular legislation, instead just shrugging their shoulders and saying, "Hey, it takes sixty votes; what can I do?"

Since the 1960s, the filibuster is the favorite tool of well-funded special interests like the American Petroleum Institute, the US Chamber of Commerce, and Big Banking to prevent any sort of meaningful action on climate change, labor rights and consumer protections (among other things).

Senate Democrats represent 40 million more American voters than do Senate Republicans, but the GOP is today using the filibuster to help out their billionaire donors and the industries that made them rich the same way Southern senators did to keep slavery intact prior to the Civil War.

Call Manchin and Sinema

The filibuster's only open advocates include the entire Republican Party (in the pocket of all the industries listed above, among others) and Democrats Joe Manchin (Big Coal/Oil) and Kyrsten Sinema (Big Banks & Insurance).

If Manchin and Sinema continue to block Democrats' efforts to end the filibuster to protect their biggest donors, large parts of the Biden agenda are in grave danger. Worse, with the near-certainty it'll be used to block effective climate legislation, their obstruction threatens all life on Earth.

The office of every US Senator can be reached by calling 202-224-3121. Now might be a good time to let your two senators, along with Manchin and Sinema, know your opinion.


Originally posted on .


Hephaestus's picture
Hephaestus 2 years 18 weeks ago

First step might be to get out of the school-yard and begin to mature

Sojourner_Lisa's picture
Sojourner_Lisa 2 years 18 weeks ago

This comment doesn't address the issue, which Thom laid out in some detail. Do you disagree that the filibuster is a tool to enable the rule of the minority over the majority?

George King's picture
George King 2 years 18 weeks ago

The real problem being described here is a current one and its called the "iron law of Oliarghcy", the Clinton / Democrats struck the first blows killing the Glass Seagal Act with the Supreme Court then enabeling unlimited amounts of bribery money to seal the deal. Using slavery is a cheap trick which is quite common now days. Some of our ancestors came to the new world (North America) as indentured slaves by the moneied class and their skin color was white as well as black. You may have some concerns here but the presentation and argument undermines credability and does not present a legit reason to undermine law and order.

speesta's picture
speesta 2 years 18 weeks ago

Serious question, have the Democrats been able to use the filibuster with success in the recent 20 or so years? If so, then why now would Thom want to get rid of this available option to stop GOP proposals in the future?

Worn out door knobs's picture
Worn out door knobs 2 years 18 weeks ago

Joe Manchin, likes being a US Senator. He's up for re-election in 2024. He's the only Democrat from West Virginia going to Washington. Plus the Governor an AG in West Virginia are Republican in fact, all executive positions in Weat Virginia are Republican. Republicans control the state Senate 23-11, and the house of delegates by 77-23. Manchin is popular in West Virginia, and will probably be re-elected if he doesn't do any thing stupid like vote to end the filibuster or to pack the Supreme Court. Joe Manchin isn't stupid.

Legend 2 years 18 weeks ago

Manchin may be smart but the voters in West Virginia must not be.

Health Care #48

Education #44

Economy %50

Infrastructure #50

Look at the rest. Supporting the party that only supports the 1% has certainly not helped them.

tanstaafl's picture
tanstaafl 2 years 18 weeks ago

in 64 and 65 voter rights and civil rights bills passed with the philibuster in existence.

It exists to prevent the tyranny of the simple majority.

rostasi 2 years 18 weeks ago

@tanstaafl: What? There's all kinds of wrong with that post.

deepspace's picture
deepspace 2 years 18 weeks ago

It's a right-wing talking point that somehow minority rule is an American principle enshrined in the Constitution.

It is not. Quite the opposite. The Constitution is certainly meant to protect the rights of the minority, within reason, but not give it some magical superpower over the majority to block legitimate legislation just because losers of elections don't like it. That would be anti-democratic.

That's why we hold elections -- which have consequences -- to determine which party gets to set policy and pass legislation. Tough luck, Charlie, if you lost the election. Do better next time to convince voters of your virtues.

Tanstaafl evidently did not absorb, at all, the key lesson today, that in a healthy and simple-common-sense democracy -- everywhere but the good ol' USA, USA, USA!-- it's supposed to be fifty plus one, not fifty plus ten. To paraphrase: The reason is "to prevent the tyranny of the [simpleminded minority]."

Nothing like flipping the problem upside down and backasswards. Alas, decades of false propaganda take a toll.

deepspace's picture
deepspace 2 years 18 weeks ago

@George King. A major point of contention: The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act was primarily a Republican hit job from the get-go. Yeah, Clinton was dumb enough to finally sign it into law, and the rest of the Democratic lemmings were dumb enough to follow Republican sellouts over the cliff.

But that's what happens when our "fearless leaders" listen to pure right-wing bullshit and compromise their principles. It's just one more lost battle in the age-old war between good and evil.

jeffpc's picture
jeffpc 2 years 18 weeks ago

In response to @Speesta, Step 1: get rid of filibuster, Step 2: pass fair voting through HR1 (or similar), so current Republican party platform will never win another federal election (pres, senate or house), Step 3: Republican party (and Dems) reform to become competitive by having a policy platform more responsive to the people rather than just for billionaires, Step 4: much less acrimonious debate and less need for the filibuster. I know. Just dreamin'.

alis volat's picture
alis volat 2 years 18 weeks ago

Ah, the Senate rules! The filibuster is a gift they gave themselves.

Have you ever considered just how powerful these 100 people make themselves by upholding this self-serving rule? Dress it up with rhetoric about protecting the minority all you want, in truth what it does is put each of them on par with the President. That is where veto power is supposed to be according to the Constitution.

McConnell backed off for now; he thinks the rule change won't happen on his watch with the Dem holdouts. But slow and steady hard work wins the race, because in 2022 we may have a crack at a senate seat in WI and one in PA. It could happen! Who is the turtle now?

cuz's picture
cuz 2 years 18 weeks ago

Good morning America!

What are we offended by today?

Legend 2 years 17 weeks ago

Republicans seem to offer no solutions on Trump. They say that he cannot be impeached because he is no longer President. So, can he be arrested as a citizen and Tried in a normal court of law? Or do you just let a criminal go because his crime was too close to the end of his Presidentlal Administration?

Pence is in hiding, staying at friends homes. Couch surfing. He has no home and fears the threats on his life by Trumpsters. He has Secret Service protection for 6 months. Palm Beach is reviewing the agreement with Trump that nobody can stay more than 7 days at the Social Club Mar a Lago. So he may be homeless soon. He just hit 7 days. He owns several other homes.

The Republican Party Coup attempt cover up is alive and well. With witnesses under oath in a Senate Trial more and more connections will be made to the insurrection and members of the Republican Party. At least 2 Senators.

Ni_Hao's picture
Ni_Hao 2 years 17 weeks ago

I suggest replacing the flibuster rule with the following: find the 50% value of the sum total number of voters who elected all the current U.S. senators, replace the 60 senators filibuster rule with any group of senators who represents that calculated 50% (or more) value.

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