Written by Luis Martínez-Fernández, Professor of History at the University of Central Florida
The historical discipline depends on a continuous conversation between past and present, a dialogue—not a monologue—between historians and those about whom we write. Playing with the ambiguity of the word “contemporary,” Italian philosopher of history Benedetto Croce once wrote “All history is contemporary history,” meaning that the weight of present day needs and situations inescapably shapes the way we look at the past, no matter how remote. This cuts both ways, however, as put by Annales School French historian Lucien Febvre, we study “the present so as to reach a profounder understanding of the past.”
In the last couple of years, I have read numerous scholarly books and articles on the last two decades of the Antebellum and subsequent Civil War, which by the way, less than half of Americans know the years when that war took place. It dawned on me that at night I was watching news that mirrored what I was reading in the morning and afternoon.
Read the New York Times or Washington Post or turn on CNN or MSNBC any given day and you will read and hear eerie echoes of most of the factors that led to the US Civil War seven score and nine years ago. The parallels are manifold, among them profound political and partisan polarization, the passing or marginalization of political compromisers, a rise in political extremism, the public’s loss of confidence in government institutions, including the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court, intensified nationalism, and escalating political vitriol and racial violence.
The past decade or so has witnessed a resurgence of southern nationalism, a widespread revival of Confederate symbols such as the Confederacy’s Battle Flag and an increased veneration of Confederate leaders. This is, in part, a response to successful efforts to remove Confederate flags from public buildings, to knock Confederate Generals like Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson down from their bronze horses and to uproot generic statues of Confederate foot soldiers as was the case in Durham, North Carolina in the summer of 2017.
Weeks later, to protest plans to bring down the statue of confederate General Robert E. Lee, militants belonging to various extreme right and white supremacist organizations, including neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, members of the KKK, and even nationalist militiamen congregated for a Unite-the-Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The city, the Nation, and the World witnessed footage and images of violent—and ultimately deadly—confrontations between such hate groups and counter-protestors of different political and ideological persuasions.
The next paragraphs are a synthetic reading of the Antebellum and the US Civil War through Crocean and Febvreian lenses.
Historians recognize that the main cause of the Civil War was slavery (essentially a race matter); more specifically that institution’s expansion into new territories and states. While that was the Antebellum Era’s most divisive political issue, it was braided into a thicker noose of contentions that included balance between slave and free states (concomitantly, political balance in Congress); states’ rights vs. strong federal authority; low tariffs vs. protectionism; and commercial or territorial expansionism.
Among the multitude of other causes was the passing (or marginalization) of a generation of compromisers in Congress the likes of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster (Whig Party leaders both of whom died in 1852), Democratic Senator William R. King of Alabama (who died in 1853), and Democratic Senator from Illinois Stephen A. Douglas, among others; and the parallel rise of extremists on both sides of every divisive issue: northern anti-slavery radicals such as William Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Thaddeus Stevens, and fire-eating pro-slavery secessionists the likes of John Quitman, John C. Breckinridge and Jefferson Davis.
Other contributing factors included polarization between political parties; escalation of nationalist sentiments (unionism in the North and nationalist secessionism in the South); increased bitter rhetoric and political violence as in the case of Harpers Ferry, guerrilla warfare in Bleeding Kansas, and even inside the walls of the Capitol building and duel ranges in the nation’s capital as chronicled by historian Joanne Freeman in her 2019 book Field of Blood.
Even bloodier and more vicious was the violence perpetrated against southern free and enslaved blacks, manifested through increased and harsher physical punishments, new repressive legislation, anti-black riots and illegal re-enslavement. In some Northern cities, meanwhile, Irish and German working-class immigrants feared that emancipation would result in fewer work opportunities and lower salaries and on occasion unleashed violent rhetoric and attacks against blacks. The infamous New York City anti-draft racial riots of 1863 were the period’s bloodiest manifestations of immigrant violence against blacks. When all was said and done, around 120 individuals, most of them black (including women and children) lay dead.
Irish and German Catholic immigrants themselves had been the targets of ethnic hatred nationwide, sentiments that led to the formation of Know-Nothing organizations and the founding of the nativist, anti-Catholic American Party in 1855, with its headquarters in New York City.
The years leading to the Civil War also saw an erosion of faith in political institutions, the national electoral system and Congress among many southerners; and the Supreme Court among some northerners.
The composition of Congress and the Senate were intimately tied to the number of free states and slave states. Whereas in 1837 there was a balance of thirteen free states and thirteen slave states, by 1858 the ratio was 17 to 15 in favor of the North’s and Far West’s free states. In the 1858 elections, Democrats lost four Senate seats while Republicans gained five; Democrats won only 98 seats and lost control of the House of Representatives to the Republican Party that won a plurality of 116 seats. Republicans, however, had failed to elect congressmen in any of the slave states.
These shifts largely responded to demographic changes, including faster westward expansion north of the Mason-Dixon line and a disproportionate growth of the electorate of the North. For an increasing number of Democrats, representative democracy seemed to no longer work in their favor.
Meanwhile, in the Supreme Court Democrats enjoyed a 7 to 2 majority that overlapped with a southern majority of 6 to 3. Southern Democratic dominance became disturbingly evident to many northerners and Republicans when the court reached the Dred Scott decision in 1857, that annulled the compromise of 1820, which could potentially expand the number of slave states and declared that blacks were inferior and therefore not deserving of US citizenship nor the protections inherent to that status. If southern voters saw the federal legislative system as an obstacle to their sectional interests, their northern counterparts, viewed the Supreme Court as incapable of representing theirs.
In light of that, control of the White House became, arguably, more critical than ever. Illinois Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 but few people are aware that he won by a margin of only one electoral vote, won with less than 40 percent of the popular vote, and without getting a single ballot in ten southern states.
The results of the 1860 elections validated southern politicians’ apprehensions that they would not regain control of Congress nor send a southerner (nor for that matter a doughface) to the White House in the foreseeable future. Just three days after the elections, on November 9, the South Carolina General Assembly declared Lincoln’s election a “hostile act,” seceded from the Union in December and was joined by ten other southern states in 1860 and 1861.
The Civil War interrupted the expansion of slavery and led to its abolition but did not end the North-South divide and short of reducing discrimination, exploitation and violence against blacks, resulted in long decades of exploitative sharecropping arrangements, Jim Crow, segregation, disenfranchisement and lynching.
By the way, to the fifty percent of the population that does not know when the Civil War was fought; it started in 1861 and ended in 1865. Between 600,000 and 700,000 Americans died.