There is no shortage of op-eds warning us outright or questioning the likelihood of another civil war. The American Civil War looms large in our current public discourse, perhaps too much so.
Here are a few of my favorite headlines:
- “Imagine Another American Civil War, But This Time in Every State”
- “Is the US Really Heading For a Second Civil War?”
- “Can America Avoid a New Civil War?”
- “A New Civil War in America?”
- “I Don’t Want to Fight About It But This Talk of US Civil War is Overblown”
- “Is America Headed to Civil War or Secession?”
- “How Civil Wars Start and Why It Can Happen Again in America”
- “Was the Capitol Riot Really the Opening Battle of a Civil War?”
And on and on and on…
On the face of it, a comparison with the American Civil War of the 1860s seems incredibly unhelpful. How does the growing regional divide over slavery, the creation of a new nation-state in the Confederacy and four years of war, fought overwhelmingly by organized armies, help us to understand the present political divide?
Surely, there must be other moments in American history, including the violence and growing class divide during the Gilded Age, that might serve as a more helpful guidepost for people looking for historical context.
That’s just my two cents. What do you think?
I wouldn’t compare this sorry state we’ve found ourselves into the Civil War. I think comparing it to the Years of Lead in Italy (1968-1988) probably is a bit more fitting.
This whole idea of another Civil War is certainly not limited to today’s times. In 1929 Ida M. Tarbell wrote an article for Liberty Magazine asking “Is Prohibition Forcing Civil War.” In the article, Tarbell wrote “There must be moderation, frankness, fewer accusations, and more understanding . Unless we have them nothing is more certain than that the present guerilla warfare will go on , carrying with it an increasing danger of organized war.”
Of course, hindsight tells us that Tarbell’s fears never materialized, given that the Prohibition amendment was eventually repealed. While I look at the situation today with a great deal of apprehension, I also think American society can be self-correcting, provided that enough rational voices can still be heard. Of course, Prohibition didn’t have a demagogue as dangerous as Donald Trump using the division for his own purpose.
Thanks for the historical perspective. Great to hear from you.
Certainly comparing our present situation to the clash of armies of two nation states is misguided and unhelpful. The politics, economies, physical geographies etc. of the loyal and the secessionist states are different enough that a comparison doesn’t really add up.
What would be a helpful comparison, though?
I’m working on a couple of projects that track what was essentially the “culture war” of the late 1850s and the assumptions that partisans made about their opponents and how those assumptions built into narratives that drove their understanding of the sectional crisis. It’s in focusing on this cultural world that I see chilling similarities. Just one of many examples is that proslavery people constantly referred to anti-slavery activists as “philanthropists,” or “one-idea philanthropists” with such a sneer that you can feel it through the page. They meant to condemn abolitionists as being so emotional and irrational that they’d be willing to destroy a sound government and impose tyranny in order to satisfy a misguided notion. In my younger days, people complained of “bleeding heart liberals,” and now they call it “the woke mob” and it means the exact same thing: conservative rationality and moral order versus capricious disorder; orthodoxy versus innovation, etc.
But I guess the thing is that culture war battles (that always seem to boil down to conservative versus liberal) can be found throughout history (U.S. and world). Probably find the same resonances in the 1800 presidential campaign, the populist movement during the 1894 depression, the Great Depression, the 1950s Civil Rights and 1960s student protest movements–all of which saw shocking violence but none of which led to the creation of a separatist nation and open warfare.
I don’t know what I’m getting at except for perhaps that using the Civil War as a prognostication tool for our own national climate is dumb and is intended to be sensational (would anyone click on a link comparing BLM protestors to Coxey’s Army?) However, there are enough resonances in the Civil War era that looking at them can promote thoughtful reflection if done right. I don’t know…
Sounds like an interesting project and one worth pursuing in light of recent events, but I think you are right that we can find similar language throughout American history. I completely agree with you that it is possible to frame the late antebellum period and even the war itself in ways that can bring context to the present, but it tends to be done haphazardly and in a sensational manner. Great to hear from you.
I guess we should all be waiting for a caning in the Senate.
Congratulations on the release of your Ellsworth biography. Hope it does well.
I agree. I do wonder if people understand, however, that the insurrectionists of 2021 have the same goals as the confederate insurrectionists of 1861?
Same goals? I am not sure I follow.
Destruction of the American nation and White Supremacy, no?
IMO all the people breathing heavy about a civil war and guns are people certain they will never win a popular vote.
OK, but these warnings are coming from across the political divide.
I agree our Civil War is not a good model for what is happening. It is more like the paramilitary Klan insurgency and retaking of power in state governments, the Senate, and Electoral College by the authoritarian racist minority that ended Reconstruction and established Jim Crow laws supported by most state governments and all three branches of the federal government. It is also similar to the collaboration of the Klan, the White Citizen’s Council, and state and federal governments that allowed the same elements to support militarism and fight civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s. The present is not exactly the same, but as the saying goes, it rhymes. I’m not sure there are any foreign analogies, due to our history, cultural mix, and the unique and archaic complexity of our only partially representative democratic republican government. “American Exceptionalism” is real and ongoing in that sense.
Demographics, and the nature of our ideological divides today, render Civil War a useless solution. But I also don’t think people in general understand what that could possibly mean by ruling out its meaning from the 19th century. The real issue is there are rising perceptions of civil war – not because it is pragmatic or appropriate, but because it is a term which evokes desperation in the minds of right wingers who seek nothing less than a white dominated autocratic establishment. And also, justifies whatever methods they believe are necessary to make it so. I think we won’t see Grant and Lee, but more underage teenagers in tactical vests effectively illegally deputized by conservative groups, indoctrinated by fox news. It may be business as usual much in the same way that the KKK was an insurgency of vigilantes within the south during reconstruction. But what does make this unchartered territory is if another OKC incident occurs over or during an election, which would truly be unprecedented. Perhaps what is erroneously referred to as a civil war would be, at worst, nothing more than “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland; a horrific smear on American democracy, however fragile and imperfect it has historically been.
Thanks for this comment. Your reference to Northern Ireland is a reminder that perhaps our search for historical context is better served by looking overseas.
In the late fifties thru the early seventies, when I was in school in Virginia, history classes rarely got past the end of WW2. Most of the time, because it was Virginia (I believe), was spent on the Civil War, so perhaps that’s the only internal conflict many people can reference. They weren’t taught very much about unionization during the Gilded Age, and the battles fought for control of industry. Their teachers had to hurry along.
Let’s face it, most people don’t know much about American history and if you think the sky is falling it’s easy to jump to a flashpoint even like the Civil War.
Hang on, I don’t own any guns. A shooting war seems highly unlikely but I certainly expect more political maneuvering in state legislatures to nullify actions by the administration. I am starting to see some cracks in the Republicans support of Donald Trump – hope that isn’t just wishful thinking on my part. I do appreciate your reference to the Gilded Age as I believe that income, and opportunity, disparities are the underlying cause of our current situation.
This alone is business as usual when it comes to the back and forth between individual states and the federal government.