Risk of a new civil war? Today 'us and them' differs from 1850s.

Why We Wrote This

Parallels to the 1850s abound, but America is not heading for a second Civil War, historians say. However, “then” was an extreme version of “now,” and the results of its extremity may hold lessons for today. Fourth in the Democracy Under Strain series.

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Demonstrators lock hands during a protest outside of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Political polarization is at an all-time high, but it is not a phenomenon triggered by the last presidential election. It has been slowly building for decades.

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Resentment and anger. Racial, religious, and cultural animosity. Neat party division. Those things existed in America in abundance in 1850 as well as 2018. There has been lots of apocalyptic second Civil War punditry in recent months – enough to spark a backlash, with articles like “Stop Making Second American Civil War Clickbait.” But in the 1850s, provocative action begat more provocative action, creating and feeding a whirlwind that ended in fighting. National politics became so dysfunctional that it broke down the public consensus that underlay republican governance. Modern America is not in danger of falling into a second Civil War, says Jason Phillips, author of the new book “Looming Civil War.” That said, one of the lessons of the past might be that the polarized factions of politics should pay more careful attention to what the other has to say. Many Northerners didn’t believe Southern threats of secession if Abraham Lincoln were elected president. Southerners scoffed at Northern vows to fight for the Union. “We are better off if we just try to listen to each other and take each other seriously,” Professor Phillips says.

A nation divided into groups of angry, polarized voters.

Political parties splintering under the stress of social and ideological disagreements.

Distrust in institutions. Constant partisan accusations. Widespread conspiracy theories about the perfidy of the other side.

Powerful new communication networks that spread news of all this throughout the United States.

Is this a staccato description of the state of America today? Yes it is. But just as much, it’s a sketch portrait of the 1840s and 1850s, the era of national upheaval prior to the explosion of the Civil War.

These two periods aren’t exact analogies, of course. Chattel slavery was an evil and a means of division rarely matched in history. Nineteenth century America was steeped in personal and political violence; national democratic government then was relatively young and unformed, trying to find its way.

But “then” was an extreme version of “now,” and the results of its extremity may hold lessons for today. In the 1850s provocative action begat more provocative action, creating and then feeding a whirlwind that ended in fighting. National politics became so dysfunctional it broke down the public consensus that underlay republican governance.

Modern America is not in danger of falling into a second Civil War, says Jason Phillips, Eberly Family Distinguished Professor of Civil War Studies at West Virginia University, and author of the new book “Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future.”

It’s too simplistic to overlay 2018 on 1858 and say that the patterns of today’s events predict a similar outcome, Dr. Phillips says.

That said, one of the lessons of that past conflict might be that the polarized factions of politics should take each other’s words more seriously. Many Northerners didn’t believe Southern threats of secession if Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Southerners scoffed at Northern vows to fight for Union.

“We are better off if we just try to listen to each other and take each other seriously,” Phillips says.

Once again, an ‘us’ and ‘them’

Before turning the clock back 170 years to examine similarities and differences between modern America and the antebellum era, it might be useful to look at the nature of the current division in the US electorate. That’ll give a baseline from which to proceed and compare citizens now and citizens then.

America today is not split neatly into Northern and Southern factions. There are Democrats in the cities of Texas, Florida, and Georgia. There are Republicans in the hardscrabble areas of rural New England and Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

But there is, increasingly, an “us” and “them.” The election of President Trump did not start this pattern of polarization. It’s been slowly developing for decades. But the Trump era has electrified the barrier of party division. His supporters love what they consider his blunt talk about gender, ethnicity, and racial conflict. His opponents hate it. The result is a spiral of angry words.

Political polarization is at an all-time high. Ironically, it is only partly about politics in the traditional sense. There are issues that still divide Republicans and Democrats – abortion, guns – but policy outcomes aren’t always the main point.

Even when the parties agree on what to do about a particular national problem, they view each other suspiciously and put winning as a group over all else, writes Lilliana Mason, an assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, in her recently published book “Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity.”

In large part this is due to the fact that the parties have become increasingly socially homogeneous, according to Dr. Mason. More and more, Republicans are white, often Christian, and in the Trump era, predominantly male. Democrats are the party of minorities and many whites with higher levels of education.

The parties are more ideologically homogeneous as well. Conservative Southern whites used to be Democrats. As their party became more liberal and pushed major civil rights legislation in the 1960s, those voters drifted toward the Republicans. That switch is now largely complete. Liberal Republicans aren’t extinct, but can see extinction from where they’re standing. Like a rare species of woodpecker, they are now mostly limited to habitat found in small areas in the Northeast.

The bottom line: Social identity is now at the heart of the two big parties that govern America. They’re split along racial, religious, and cultural lines. The crosscutting social ties that once promoted partisan understanding have withered. Democrats and Republicans live in different neighborhoods, send their kids to different schools, attend different churches, and increasingly inhabit their own news and information bubbles.

Social identity is powerful. It can prize winning for “us” above specific policy results. In that sense, candidate Donald Trump was a good fit for a new age in 2016. He vowed to win until his supporters were sick of winning – without many specifics of how, or in what.

“In this political environment, a candidate who picks up the banner of ‘us versus them’ and ‘winning versus losing’ is almost guaranteed to tap into a current of resentment and anger across racial, religious, and cultural lines, which have recently divided neatly by party,” according to Professor Mason.

Civil War, the sequel?

Resentment and anger. Racial, religious, and cultural animosity. Neat party division. Those things existed in America in abundance in 1850 as well as 2018.

It’s a comparison that’s occurred to lots of political writers. There has been lots of apocalyptic Second Civil War punditry in recent months. Among the most notable: columnist Thomas Friedman in The New York Times (“The American Civil War, Part II”), veteran defense writer and author Thomas Ricks in Foreign Policy (“Will We Have a 2nd Civil War? You Tell Me”), and longtime foreign correspondent Robin Wright in The New Yorker (“Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?”).

Such stories have been numerous enough to spark a backlash. “Stop Making Second American Civil War Clickbait” wrote Dylan Matthews in Vox in June.

Indeed, worries about America coming undone in some new kind of armed and dangerous civil conflict are unfounded, says Phillips, author of “Looming Civil War.” He bases his belief on one big difference between the eras: the way in which people imagine their future.

In the late 1850s, as conflict over slavery increased and the nation’s political atmosphere darkened, Americans began to expect armed conflict, says Phillips. Some dreaded it. Many others, on both sides, embraced it as inevitable and thought war might cleanse and shape the nation to desired ends. They rushed toward combat, physically and metaphorically. Author Louisa May Alcott expressed this view in an 1861 letter, writing that she “yearned for a battle like a warhorse when he smells powder.”

Today we know better. War is a terrible inferno that builds on itself. The anticipatory feeling of the years before Fort Sumter seems naïve.

“We don’t have the same view they had, that the war was something you could control,” says Phillips. “Nowadays you can start wars but they’re not easy to stop. Wars don’t end problems.”

Still, there are political parallels between the eras, Phillips says. The first and most obvious is that the emotional partisanship visible in Washington today (see “division of electorate,” above) was also evident in the 1850s.

The division then was largely between North and South, and the divisive element was slavery. The North feared a despotic “Slave Power” – a sectional conspiracy they felt controlled the national government and was plotting to expand slavery into new territories. The South feared the North wanted to flex its industrial might and larger population to destroy its economic system and way of life.

When one side did something to defend its position, the other saw it as a provocation, and made a defensive move viewed as a provocation in turn. The result was a spiral of outrage, not unlike the situation in Washington today, where partisanship produces legislative gridlock.

“These are the places our politics can go if we get to a point where it is no longer possible to compromise,” says Julie Novkov, professor of political science and women’s studies at the State University of New York at Albany, and contributor to the political history blog “A House Divided.”

Clashes in Congress

In the 1850s, this stress ripped the national political parties apart. Whigs, defined by their opposition to Andrew Jackson’s populist Democrats, fell apart. Democrats split between Northern and Southern factions. These elements recombined, with Democrats on one side and the new Republican Party on the other. The South called the new organization “Black Republicans.” Partisan anger became so intense that physical combat broke out repeatedly in congressional chambers.

The new book “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War,” by Yale historian Joanne Freeman, is a fascinating look at the details of this conflict and its obvious echoes today. Dr. Freeman documents more than 70 violent clashes between lawmakers in the House or Senate, or nearby, in the years between 1830 and 1860.

Southern lawmakers were at first the drivers of the violence. Dueling was still accepted and even common in the South, and in Washington Southern “bullies” – a word they used themselves – taunted and called out Northern counterparts. Such tactics helped enforce gag rules prohibiting floor discussion of antislavery petitions.

Most Northerners were “noncombatants.” That meant they rejected dueling and the logic of the so-called code of honor that lay behind it as illegal and immoral. At least, they were noncombatants at first. Years of abuse and humiliation pushed many into becoming fighters. They armed themselves against attacks in chambers or on the street. And their constituents approved. Some even sent guns for self-defense to their elected representatives.

Meanwhile, the press heightened the tension. Newspapers in both North and South pushed conspiracy theories about alleged nefarious plots to grab power on the other side. And the new technology of the telegraph gave editors added power. Accusations could quickly blanket the nation. No longer could politicians muddle through with ambiguous positions: The telegraph ended the practice of lawmakers saying one thing to one type of audience, and another thing to another group, secure in the knowledge that neither would hear what had been said to the other.

Things came to a head in February 1858. A hothead Southern congressman and a Northern colleague got into a fistfight during a nighttime debate on the incendiary issue of the slavery status of Kansas. Southerners raced in a group to defend their man – and Northerners, some armed, leaped over desks and vaulted down the aisles to return blow for blow. It was a true melee in front of the Speaker’s platform, a sectional conflict that presaged the war to come.

History does not repeat but it does teach, to steal a phrase. Dr. Freeman’s “Field of Blood” shows what can happen when extremely polarized leaders fight over what kind of nation the United States will become in an atmosphere of distrust, threatened violence, and press manipulation. Voters may now hold Congress in low esteem, but what it does, or doesn’t do, matters.

“The lessons of their time ring true today: when trust in the People’s Branch shatters, part of the national ‘we’ falls away,” Freeman concludes.

How to get back to ‘We the people’?

On the scale of possible futures for the United States, a second Civil War seems an extreme outlier, of course. But there are many other possible outcomes on the conflict spectrum, from scattered fights at political rallies and demonstrations to lone wolf attacks to the organization of quasi-official guard or militia groups. The problem is that discourse has broken down and furor is rushing in to take its place.

Making politics less about social identity and more about self-interested policy choice could go a long way toward lowering the national temperature. Can that be done? Yes, writes the University of Maryland’s Mason, in the sense that social science shows there are some methods that appear to be effective in lessening group conflicts.

One such method is simply increasing contacts. That can reduce prejudice between groups. Nongovernmental organizations could organize occasions for overt cross-partisan socializing. Entertainment media could help by adding more sympathetic partisans of both sides to popular shows.

Political leaders could set and enforce norms for more civil behavior. If they truly want to reduce partisanship, they could simply talk about their opponents in a consistently respectful and unprejudiced way.

The parties could also unite to solve an overarching national goal. The problem here is, what? Absent an alien invasion requiring Americans to pull together, what goal would suffice? Some experts suggest climate change, but that would require Republicans to change position and favor more active intervention on the issue.

Finally, there’s always the possibility of a natural unsorting. Politics is not forever. In the future, demographic groups could switch allegiances for some reason, or rise and fall in power, or mix themselves between the two parties in some way. After all, it hasn’t been long since white unionized factory workers were reliable Democrats. That kind of change could happen again.

Absent that, the current homogenization of the parties might be hard to surmount. “As long as a social divide is maintained between the parties, the electorate will behave more like a pair of warring tribes than like the people of a single nation, caring for their shared future,” concludes Mason in “Uncivil Agreement.”

Check out previous installments of the Democracy Under Strain series.

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