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Will the Civil War speak to America again?

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War kicks off Nov. 6. Dramatic events from Fort Sumter to Lincoln's assassination once again will enthrall Americans. But does 'the second American revolution' also have other things to say in 2010 about the rise of new political forces and race relations today?

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Historians and political scientists are already wrestling with the question of how today’s political climate echoes those times. No one sees states seceding from the union. But are Tea Party activists akin to the Southern secessionists, angry citizens who see an oppressive federal government forcing its will (and taxes) on them? Or are they the next Republican Party, which broke onto a political scene dominated by Whigs and Democrats and elected one of its own as president (Lincoln) in 1860 on only its second try? That election realigned the nations political system into the two major parties, Republicans and Democrats, that remain today.

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Political mud-slinging and hyperbolic name-calling in this year's midterm elections has nothing on the campaign of 1860, though the Internet may let the dirt fly farther and faster than in 1860. Below is a description of how Lincoln was attacked by his opponents, according to his biography at The University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, which studies the history of the US presidency. It's ironic since today Lincoln is more likely to be criticized for moving too slowly, rather than too quickly, toward emancipation of Southern slaves.

His opponents countered by making fun of Lincoln's limited experience as a statesman and his "slang-whanging stump speaker" style, which they said reflected a limited intellect that would be an embarrassment to the nation should he be elected President. The Charleston Mercury ridiculed his looks, depicting him as a "horrid looking wretch . . ." unfit for office. Cartoons showed Lincoln dancing with black women and championing "amalgamation" and "miscegenation" (mixing of the races). One widely distributed picture showed Lincoln steering a ship with a thick-lipped black man embracing a young white girl sitting at his feet on deck. Other pictures were much cruder and even more blatantly racist, of a type never before so prevalent in a national election. One secessionist in Georgia warned that Lincoln planned to force the inter-marriage of black and white children, and that within "ten years or less our children will be the slaves of Negroes."

Exactly what role slavery played in causing and determining the outcome of the War is the source of historical debate. But the war clearly led to the 15th amendment to the Constitution, extending voting rights to all (male) citizens, regardless of race. And it started a debate on the state of race relations that may heat up again as the injustices of those times are recalled.

“The consequences of the Civil War are still with us even today. We’re still talking about race, we’re still talking about inclusivity, we’re still talking about diversity,” notes Hermina Glass-Avery, associate director of the Center for the Study for the Civil War era at Kennesaw (Ga.) State University.

Does race really still matter? In what ways? Perhaps those will be the questions from the 1860s that most resonate today.


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