Ted Cruz, “Bourbon Dave,” and the Legacy of Border Ruffianism

Ted Cruz, the junior Reublican senator from Texas, likes to smite his political foes by angrily faux-filibustering. Because freedom.

Ted Cruz, the junior Republican senator from Texas, likes to smite his political foes by angrily faux-filibustering. Because freedom.

The two-week long, Tea Party Republican-engineered shutdown of the federal government is finally over. This week the Senate reached a deal that a politically battered House GOP reluctantly endorsed because it kicked the can of U.S. fiscal and political dysfunction down the road until December and February, when they can again wage scorched earth politics against all-things Obama.

Meanwhile, the horse-race junkie American political media has been focusing on the “winners” and “losers” of the shutdown. Most media outlets, save the hand-wringing experts at the Center for American Progress, have declared the Tea Party Republicans the tail between their knees losers: the victims of ideological rot and political miscalculation. Except for Ted Cruz. Indeed, the junior Republican senator from Texas — his term in the Senate barely a year old — was near universally dubbed a political winner even though his party was left with egg on their reactionary white faces.

Cruz was essentially the guy who engineered the shutdown, but he’s seen as a “winner” because he knows how to play politics: his antics of late have been 1 part ideology, 3 parts right-wing populist grifterism, and the political press has lapped it up like a wino at a brewery by declaring Cruz a 2016 presidential contender. Cruz has achieved a relatively short rise to prominence among conservative activists because he consistently tosses meaty political turkey legs to the slobbering ogres of the Tea Party base, who return the favor with generous campaign donations. In September, for example, Cruz’s near 12-hour filibuster-that-wasn’t really-a-filibuster against Obamacare tingled the Tea Party’s collective inner thighs, despite the fact that it was mere political grandstanding that couldn’t stop the implementation of the health care law.

But Cruz’s apparent disdain for the traditional machinations of party governance (how to get stuff done, in layman’s terms) has earned him the ire of senior party colleagues like Tennessee’s Bob Corker and senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell by turning what should have been a tactical Republican fight against Obamacare into a purity test for right-wing ideology. By convincing the bloc of Tea Party Oompa Loompas within the GOP House caucus to reject a plan to keep funding the government — a plan initially backed by Speaker John Boehner and the Senate Republican leadership — Cruz stoked party infighting at a time when the GOP needed unity. While his “more conservative than thou art” shenanigans hasn’t played well with the party big wigs, it has nonetheless given the Texas senator plenty of press coverage, and even earned him the title of de-facto “leader of the Republican Party.”

Cruz’s constant pandering to the hard-line conservative Tea Party wing of the Republican base in the name of self-promotion and hard right ideology is hardly unprecedented in U.S. history. In the 1850s, another conservative southern senator, Democrat David “Bourbon Dave” Atchison of Missouri, embraced Cruz-style, play-to-the-base tactics in the name of keeping the Kansas-Nebraska territory open to slavery. Like Cruz, Atchison became the de-facto political leader and spokesman of a hard-right faction within his party: extreme pro-southern, pro-slavery settlers from Missouri known as “Border Ruffians.” Atchison, nick-named “Bourbon-Dave” due to his preference for booze that was as a strong as his temper, rallied his Border Ruffian followers via his shrewd maneuvering in the Senate and his use of swaggering, right-wing populist rhetoric that would make even Ted Cruz blush.

David "Bourbon Dave" Atchison, a staunch, pro-slavery, booze-whiskey-soaked Missouri senator who pioneered a Ted Cruz style, non-traditional, hard line right-wing approach to politics.

David “Bourbon Dave” Atchison, a staunch, pro-slavery, booze-soaked Missouri senator who pioneered a Ted Cruz style, non-traditional, hard-line right-wing approach to politics.

By the mid-1850s a storm was gathering on the western border of slaveholding Missouri that separated U.S. states from unorganized territory. By 1853, land-hungry settlers were pushing well beyond Missouri’s western border into this swath of land, spurring congress to organize it into the Nebraska territory. This raised the issue of whether that territory would be free soil or slave-holding.

“Bourbon Dave” Atchison represented the conservative, southern rights (read: pro-slavery) faction of the Democratic Party, a position that made him the enemy of his one-time fellow Missouri senator, and fellow Democrat, the anti-slavery Thomas Hart Benton. But Atchison, like Ted Cruz today, wasn’t afraid to alienate fellow party-members to serve conservative interests. The bawdy and profane “Bourbon Dave” vowed to see Nebraska “sink in Hell” before having it become free soil. Using his position as president pro tem of the Senate, Atchison demanded major political concessions in exchange for southern support of a free-soil Nebraska.

“Bourbon Dave” wrestled with fellow Democrat Stephen Douglas, the squat, hard-drinking, pugnacious Illinois senator. To please his caustic southern colleague, Douglas agreed to repeal the old Missouri Compromise of 1820, which barred slavery from the territory above the 36′ 30 line and split the territory into two sections, resulting in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Atchison was Hell-bent on making at least one of those territories into a new slave-state, so he supported Douglas’ concept of “Popular Sovereignty,” in which settlers of the territories would decide for themselves whether slavery would be permitted in their lands. “Bourbon Dave,” representing slave-holding Missouri, hoped that pro-slavery settlers would flood into Kansas, making it a new southern slave state.

He was severely disappointed in that regard: by mid-1854, rifle-armed Free-Soil advocates known as “Jayhawkers” began pouring into Kansas to claim it for freedom. An outraged Atchison responded by calling on all pro-slavery Missourians — the “Border Ruffians” — to invade Kansas and claim it for slavery instead. The resulting outbreak of violence between Border Ruffians and Jayhawks became known as “Bleeding Kansas,” and “Bourbon Dave” helped open its political arteries.

In an apocalyptic 1856 speech to a group of Border Ruffians, Atchison, possibly aided by booze, rebuffed traditional political resolution to the Kansas problem, and instead called on his Ruffian army to wage war against the Free Soil settlers:

Yess, ruffians, draw your revolvers & bowie knives, & cool them in the heart’s blood of all those damned dogs, that dare defend that damned breathing hole of hell. Tear down their boasted Free State Hotel, and if those Hellish lying free-soilers have left no port holes in it, with your unerring cannon make some, Yes, riddle it till it shall fall to the ground.

Yes, I know you will, the South has always proved itself ready for honorable fight, & you, who are noble sons of noble sires, I know you will never fail, but will burn, sack & destroy, until every vistage of these Norther Abolishionists is wiped out.

Rough and ready pro-slavery Border Ruffians invading Kansas at "Bourbon Dave's" urging.

Rough and ready pro-slavery Border Ruffians invading Kansas at “Bourbon Dave’s” urging.

In this speech, “Bourbon Dave” encapsulated the essence of Border Ruffianism: when conservative, southern, pro-slavery forces failed to achieve their goals in Congress or at the ballot box, they resorted to non-traditional, even extra-legal methods in the name of a reactionary right-wing political ideology. These methods included violence, and the resulting violence of Bleeding Kansas raged on for eight years before the bloodshed between pro and anti-slavery forces finally exploded nationally into the Civil War. Atchison’s heir-apparent, fellow modern-day conservative southern senator, Ted Cruz, is not advocating violence. But he is taking up “Bourbon Dave’s” mantle of extreme political obstruction by pandering to a small, but ideologically fanatical right-wing base, and he’s willing to smite his own party in the name of a reactionary stance against Obamacare.

In 1856 “Bourbon Dave” proudly proclaimed, “This is the day I am a border ruffian!” to assume the leadership of slaveholders who felt ignored by a federal government that refused to recognize their human property in the territories. In a similar tone, Cruz claimed in his “filibuster” to be the populist voice of an ignored segment of America whose rights Obamacare violated:

A great many Texans, a great many Americans feel they don’t have a voice. I hope to play some very small part in helping provide that voice for them. I intend to speak in opposition to ObamaCare, I intend to speak in support of defunding ObamaCare, until I am no longer able to stand.

An analogy I have used before is, if your home is on fire, you put out the fire first before building an addition to the house. Likewise, with ObamaCare, I think ObamaCare is such a train wreck, is such a disaster that the first imperative is to stop the damage from ObamaCare.

Just as anti-slavery forces posed a liberal threat to conservative southerners’ right to dominate slaves and, by extension, the federal government, so too does Obamacare threaten modern conservatives and their corporate allies’ right to dictate policy in Washington and dominate low-income and middle class Americans by denying them health insurance. Ted Cruz has brought Ruffianism back to the forefront of American politics by demonstrating a willingness to take his reactionary ideology to the rougher edges of political discourse and maneuvering. Like Atchison and his Border Ruffians, who waged a bloody war for slavery when their cause failed at the federal level, Cruz and his Tea Party followers have waged verbal and procedural war against a federal government that no longer tows their political line. 

It’s perhaps fitting, if not symbolic, that Ted Cruz recently spoke to a Tea Party crowd, among whom was a guy waving the Confederate flag, outside of the World War II memorial in Washington. “Bourbon Dave’s” pro-slavery Border Ruffians eventually became the Confederate soldiers who fought for slavery and southern independence. Old Dave Atchison likely wasn’t on Cruz’s mind that day, but the symbolism was powerful, as a new southern Ruffian stood by the Rebel flag while denouncing the federal government and the Obama presidency. Like Dave Atchison rallying his future Confederate Border Ruffians to wage war against all things Abolitionist, Cruz was rallying the Tea Party faithful, stoking their war against all things liberal. No doubt that “Bourbon Dave” was looking up from his bar stool in Hell, and nodding approvingly. 

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  1. Wow, what a deeply dishonest piece of reasoning. As you say, the essence of the “Border Dave” example is the claiming of popular authority to resort to extra-legal means after failing to achieve his political goals through the regular constitutional legislative process. While Ted Cruz’s means may have been, perhaps, extraordinary, they have all been legal, wholly within the rules and tradition of the Senate and the House, and none has remotely involved the incitement of violence or other extra-legal means for achieving his goals. Essentially, all you are doing here is employing a hand-waving guilt-by-association argument (via a frankly contemptible linkage of opposition to excessive govt intervention in health insurance markets with support for human bondage and Confederate secession, under the guise of both being “right-wing”) to, with a wink and a nod, imply that if Ted Cruz is not a drunken, white-supremacist, inciter of violence, he would have been liked by them.

    And, you wonder why the country is divided?

    • Hey, thanks for the comment. You’re my first critical comment and I appreciate it nonetheless. Take note that I never accused Cruz of inciting violence, in fact, I specifically stated in the post that he wasn’t doing so, nor did I ever accuse him of supporting slavery, as such a notion would be silly. However, the pro-slavery Democrats of the antebellum period were, in fact, the conservatives of their time; they identified as such and described the Confederate experiment as a “conservative revolution.” The linkage between modern conservatives who oppose health care, and antebellum conservatives who supported slavery, lies in the fact that conservatism, at its core, seeks to deny the personal emancipation of the lower orders in society. It is thus an ideology of domination in both public and private spheres. Conservatives feared the emancipation of slaves because it denied them both a valuable labor force (interfering in free markets!) and they did not want to extend civil liberties to blacks.

      Modern conservatives like Cruz oppose universal health care above all else because it provides security and expands the freedoms of average people. Behind the notion of universal health care is the idea of equality; that all people should be given equal access to health care, and conservatism at its core views the idea of equality as hostile to its concept of individual freedom. For the conservative, there are those who do not deserve equality and those who do. Political scientist Corey Robin outlines the ideology of conservatism in his excellent book, The Reactionary Mind. Now, in terms of non-traditional modes of government action: Cruz’s spearheading of a government shutdown was a form of exotortion; a way of achieving what conservatives failed to achieve through the ballot box. This was also the essence of Confederate secession. The secessionists, and the Border Ruffians before them, denied the legitimacy of Abolitionism, and then Abraham Lincoln’s election. Both Abolitionists and the Republican Party in 1860 posed a threat to conservative southerners’s slave system, and when they failed at the ballot box, they simply decided to change the process via the extralegal means of secession. The same essence lies at the heart of Cruz’s shutdown, and that’s why he’s a modern day Border Ruffian. Thanks for the comment. I really do enjoy debate.

  2. Thanks so much for your blog. I have really enjoyed reading them all. You are spot on in simply telling the rich history of this country straight with no chaser. It’s largely forgotten because much of it is not a ‘nice feel good story’ as we have been taught. Really enjoyed your piece: “Slavery’s Legacy: Why Race Matters in America”. Few have the courage to write such a piece. Many kudos to you and please keep them coming! Many of us are waiting on them with keen interest! Continued Success!

    • Hey, thanks so much for the kind words, it means a lot. I kind of just started this blog as a lark, to talk about things that interest me about U.S. history, so its great to hear that someone else is reading. I’ll do my best to keep the posts coming: I sort of just have to wait for an idea to hit me before I write something. Thanks again, and, if I ever write something that sticks in your craw, feel free to let me know about that too. I have pretty thick skin. Cheers.

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