Jim Wheeler’s Slavery Comments: Is the Will of the People Always Right?

Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, left, with Sen. Dean Heller.

Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, left, with Sen. Dean Heller.

Assemblyman Jim Wheeler is a northern Nevada Republican who should be a Democrat … in the 1850s.

Wheeler shocked his fellow Republicans this week when a video surfaced of an August appearance in which he said that he would support anything voters in his district overwhelmingly backed, including slavery.

“I’d have to bite my tongue. They’d have to hold a gun to my head. But, yeah. It’s what the citizens want. It’s what the constituents want that elected me,” Wheeler said in the video posted to YouTube.

Governor Brian Sandoval and Senator Dean Heller distanced themselves from their fellow Republican, with Sandoval calling his comments “deeply offensive,” and Wheeler has since has said, “I don’t care if every constituent in District 39 wanted slavery, I wouldn’t vote for it. That’s ridiculous.” He said he was exaggerating to make a point.

But Wheeler’s not the only Nevada Republican to use the will of the people as an excuse to shirk moral responsibility.

Take Congressman Mark Amodei, who represents Wheeler’s area—parts of Douglas, Lyon, and Storey Counties—in the House of Representatives. On New Year’s night, 2013, he was the only member of Congress from Nevada to vote against the deal the House and Senate reached to avoid going over the “fiscal cliff.” Amodei told the Las Vegas Sun: “For the people that I represent, for these folks in a district where Sharron Angle beat Harry Reid by 19,000 votes? To go back to them and say ‘we have not taken this opportunity to do anything on spending or debt’—that is just at odds with what I represented to people I would try to do.”

Amodei also voted against the recent agreement Congress reached to avoid blasting through the debt ceiling and causing what most reputable economists predicted would be a disaster. He announced—get ready—“This has been quite an education serving Nevada for the past 25 months. We have turned over every rock and undertaken this latest effort against the Senate, the Administration, the national media, and the other side of the aisle in the House. My conscience is clear with respect to an all-out effort in a four against one fight. I now know how those folks at the Alamo felt.”

Wheeler’s comments, and Amodei’s more politically correct but equally addled arguments, recall a philosophical debate that raged in the 1850s, when slavery was still legal. In the 1858 Senate race in Illinois, Democrat Stephen Douglas, the incumbent claimed that the concept of popular sovereignty—the people’s will, or votes—should decide whether slavery should be allowed to enter new territories. Republican Abraham Lincoln, his opponent, argued for the basic difference between right and wrong: “He is blowing out the moral lights around us when he contends that whoever wants slaves has a right to hold them.”

A century later, Claremont philosophy professor Harry Jaffa wrote a brilliant book, Crisis of the House Divided, that revived scholarly and popular interest in those debates. Jaffa argued that in the context of the history of philosophy, Lincoln took the classical position while Douglas represented the decline of moral and political philosophy by encouraging the majority will even when it was wrong. Jaffa believed that negotiating a settlement of the slavery issue in the 1850s was impossible because Douglas and other slavery apologists had taken an immoral stance in conflict with the Declaration of Independence.

(Another modern echo of the Douglas position can be found among politicians who punt on gay marriage, contending that the voters should decide.)

Republicans would benefit from reading Jaffa. Indeed, some already have: He wrote speeches for Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964, including the convention acceptance speech in which he famously declared, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is not a virtue.”

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