The similarities between the current era and the age just before the American Civil War are frightening.
Unfortunately, many people are ignoring those similarities. I don’t think the current crisis in America will lead to Civil War level violence. However, few Americans in the 1850s, saw Civil War coming or prepared for it.
Some Frightening similarities between our era and the buildup to Civil War in the 1850s include:
By the late 1850s, a fatally divided Congress was incapable of passing any meaningful legislation.
In detail, Northern Republicans controlled the U.S. House of Representatives and Southern Democrats controlled the U.S. Senate. In the late 1850s, the House passed a variety of creative laws designed to transform America including a Homestead Act, a law authorizing a transcontinental railroad, state universities, and more. Yet, wealthy slave-owning Democrats in the Senate blocked all that legislation.
The Gridlock made it impossible for the federal government to do anything or respond to the growing crisis over slavery. By 1860, the federal government was so dysfunctional it was incapable of responding to the seccession of Southern States and the formation of the Confederacy.
Concentrations of Wealth and Power
Before the Civil War, America’s wealth became concentrated in a small slave-owning elite.
In fact, 50% of the wealth in the South took the form of slaves, The Economist estimates. Moreover, the incomes of southern slaveholders were 14 times greater than those of ordinary white Southerners.
Had the South been an independent country in 1860, it could have been the fourth richest nation on Earth. The South’s wealth came from cotton, “the Oil of the 19th Century.” In fact, cotton made up 57% of America’s exports in the 1850s. Slavery made cotton profitable because slaves picked the cotton.
Slavery and cotton gave the South vast economic power and ability to dominate the economy and buy political power. Northern politicians such as President James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania), and U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas (D-Illinois) served the slave power’s political interests while ignoring ordinary northerners.
Similarly to today, 1850s Americans complained that government ignored their interests and trampled ordinary people’s rights while serving the rich. Congress ignored political issues important to the North, such as the tariff, railroad construction, public universities, and homestead legislation while pushing slavery expansion.
Today, Americans charge that Congress refuses to consider popular policies such as Medicare for All, a $15 an hour minimum wage, trade policy, immigration, and Social Security Increases. However, Congress acts fast on measures that help the rich including tax cuts and corporate bailouts.
Likewise, President Donald J. Trump Sr. (R-Florida) slashes business regulations while failing to discuss the border wall or his $1 trillion infrastructure proposal. Yet infrastructure and the Border Wall were centerpieces of Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Popular anger against corrupt politicians led voters to revolt against both major political parties in the 1850s. As a result, the conservative Whig Party collapsed while many voters fled the populist Democratic Party.
Consequently, a new political party the Republicans arose and replaced the Whigs but attracted many disgruntled Democrats. Republican leaders such as Seward and Lincoln were former Whigs. By 1860, the Republicans controlled Congress and the Presidency.
Conspiracy theories ran wild in the mid-19th Century as they run wild in our age. Predictably, most 1850s and 1860s conspiracy theories blamed the Slave Power for the nation’s problems.
Books such as The Adder’s Den or Secrets of the Great Conspiracy to Overthrow Liberty in Americaby John Smith Dye blamed all the country’s problems on the Slave Power. Dye even alleged that the Slave Power tried to assassinate slave-owning President Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee).
A popular charge was that the Slave Power assassinated President Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana); who blocked slavery’s expansion to California in 1850, with poison in 1850. In 1991, modern medical testing debunked this theory by showing Taylor died of natural causes not arsenic.
By 1857, even Abraham Lincoln was spreading conspiracy theories in the wake of the Dred Scott decision (see below). Lincoln’s theory was that President James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania) conspired with U.S. Supreme Court justices to remove all barriers to slavery’s expansion.*
Other popular conspiracy theories included charges that northern political leaders, such as Seward, bankrolled John Brown’s terrorist attack on a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. In 1860, Congress even held hearings trying to uncover the source of Brown’s funding. However, the identities of Brown’s backers the Secret Six, a group of wealthy Northern Leftists were already well known.*
Today such absurd conspiracy theories as Qnon and Russiagate warp the American political mind. A major TV network MSNBC seems devoted to spreading Russiagate while even President Trump spreads Qnon.
Another high profile conspiracy theorist is U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) who is constantly discussing the dangers of the billionaire class. Meanwhile, Trump tries to link rioters and violent leftists with Democrats such as Joe Biden (D-Delaware).
Politicians who refused to Deal with Reality
By 1858, a majority of voters in the Northern states supported candidates and parties opposed to the expansion of slavery.
Yet, President James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania) kept promoting slavery’s expansion. In fact, Buchanan was negotiating with Spain for the purchase of Cuba. To explain, Buchanan wanted to make Cuba into several new slave states.
Ordinary Americans were frightened of the expansion of slavery, yet Buchanan wanted to expand it. The problem was that Buchanan’s real constituents were wealthy slave owners and businessmen who got rich selling to them not ordinary people.
Today, we have a similar situation where politicians such as Joe Biden (D-Delaware) and President Donald J. Trump (R-New York) only talk to wealthy businesspeople. Similarly, Trump keeps promoting tax cuts at a time when 31 million Americans could be on unemployment benefits.
One result of the growing disconnect between the political leaders and a frustrating reality in the 1850s was a growing recourse to violence. Many Americans began to think that violence was the only way to get leaders attention, or change the national conversation.
One of the biggest American political issues of our age is court packing. In fact, Republicans such as President Donald J. Trump Sr (Florida) and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) brag about packing the courts with conservative ideologues from the Federalist Society.
Frighteningly, a similar court-packing effort by pro-slavery Democrats in the 1850s helped spark the Civil War. In 1857, a Southern-dominated U.S. Supreme Court overrode long-stand political precedent and political compromises over slavery with the notorious Dred Scott decision.
In Dred Scott vs. Sandford, Scott, a slave claimed he was free because of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.The Ordinance; written by Thomas Jefferson, banned slavery in the territories of the Old Northwest; the modern Midwest. Scott claimed he was free because he had lived in Minnesota for a few years.
The Supremes overturned the Northwest Ordinance by ruling that Congress had no power to ban slavery anywhere in the Union. In addition, the court ruled that African Americans could not become US Citizens because their ancestors were slaves.
Finally, Chief Roger B. Taney wrote that the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution protected slavery. Taney’s sick reasoning was that slaves were property protected by the Fifth Amendment. Consequently, no state could ban slavery or keep slaves out.
Essentially, the U.S. Supreme Court made the Southern Slaveocracy’s entire political program law against the will of most voters and the US Congress. The result was anger, frustration, and charges that the Supreme Court was conspiring with the Slave Power to destroy the North.
In fact, two of the nation’s most prominent politicians Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) and U.S. Senator William H. Seward (R-New York) began making such charges. Seward and Lincoln were probable Republican presidential candidates for 1860 and Lincoln became President.*
A Culture of Violence
After slavery, the significant story of the 1850s was a growing acceptance of political violence in America. Moreover, more and more Americans viewed violence as a legitimate tool for political change.
For example, abolitionist Frederick Douglass began his career as a pacifist. By the early 1850s Douglass said, “slave holders, tyrants, and despots have no right to live.”
Likewise, Gerrit Smith, a former Vice President of the American Peace Society became a member of the Secret Six and a financier of John Brown’s activities.*
Escalating violence in 1850s America included urban riots, guerrilla warfare between pro and antislavery forces in Bleeding Kansas, attacks on federal officials trying to enforce fugitive slave laws, and violence in Congress itself.
There were two disturbing violent attacks by U.S Representatives in the 1850s. First on 22 May 1856, U.S. Representative Preston Brooks (R-South Carolina) savagely beat U.S. Senator Charles Sumner (R-Massachusetts) into unconsciousness with a cane on the floor of the US Senate. Another Representative held a gun on other Senators to prevent them from interfering.
Brooks was angry at Sumner, who had been leveling conspiracy theory charges against his relative U.S. Senator Andrew Butler (D-South Carolina) and other Democrats on the Senate Floor. Frighteningly, Southerners hailed Brooks as a hero and began sending the Representative canes as presents.
Three years later in 1859 U.S. Representative Daniel E. Sickles (D-New York) shot and killed his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key in broad daylight on a Washington DC street. A jury acquitted Sickles on grounds of “temporary insanity.” Sickles went onto become a Union General and a hero in the Civil War. Thus, violence was now acceptable behavior among America’s political leaders.
The climate of violence reached its apex on 16 October 1859 when abolitionist, religious fanatic, farmer, and failed businessman John Brown led his private army in an attack on a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Brown’s plan was to seize U.S. Army weapons and munitions and distribute to them to revolting slaves.
Predictably, Brown’s force was no match for U.S. Marines, ironically commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee. Frightened Virginia authorities; they did not form West Virginia until the Civil War, gave Brown a speedy trial and hanging. The damage, however, was done, Brown became a celebrity, an abolitionist hero, a villain to the South, and lightning rod for controversy.
Radical abolitionists held public meetings and church services to mark Brown’s hanging. Meanwhile, Southerners began organizing “militia companies” to defend themselves from Northern aggression. Thus by 1859, America had adopted a culture of violence.
There are frightening parallels to that culture of violence today. Many leftists praise looting, desecration and destruction, and the burning of police stations. Likewise Trump praises right-wing extremist Kyle Rittenhouse whom police accuse of shooting two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Another probable hero is Michael Forest Reinoehl, a leftist accused of shooting a right-wing protesters. US Marshals killed Reinoehl in Washington State on 4 September 2020.
Fear and Polarization
The culture of violence bred fear which led to extreme political polarization.
In 1860, neither of the Northern presidential candidates Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) and Stephen Douglas (D-Illinois) carried a single Southern State. Likewise, neither of the two presidential candidates John C. Breckinridge (D-Kentucky) or John Bell (W-Kentucky) carried a Northern State.
In detail, there were two Democratic candidates in 1860 because Southern Democrats refused to support the northerner Douglas. Meanwhile, Southern Whigs; refusing to support Lincoln, rebranded themselves as the Constitutional Unionists and nominated Bell. Several Southern states kept Lincoln’s name off their ballot.
Thus, America ended up with a President a large percentage of Americans feared. Lincoln, was a moderate who had no plans to interfere with slavery but Southerners were so afraid of him they left the Union.
Nor was it just Lincoln, Southerners hated. Jefferson Davis, a few months from becoming the first Confederate President, described a Northern presidential candidate as a traitor who needed hanging in a letter. The candidate Davis was writing about was U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas, the pro-slavery Democrat, not Lincoln.
Fear had killed compromise and reason in America. Americans were so frightened of their political opponents they refused to accept them in national office.
A similar situation could adjust today. Axios reports Josh Mendelsohn the CEO of Hawkfish; Michael Bloomberg’s political data analytics firm, thinks many Americans could see the results of the 2020 presidential election as illegitimate.
“You in fact yourself in this deeply polarized situation where a real portion of the American electorate feels that injustice was done,” Mendelsohn says of a possible outcome of the 2020 presidential election. In the 1860s, Southerners viewed the presidential election as unjust, which gave them an excuse to secceed.
Hence there are disturbing parallels between the Civil War era and today. Only history will show if tragedy repeats itself.
*See the Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era By James M. McPherson, Pages 176-180 for details of the Dred Scott case.
*See the Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War EraBy James M. McPherson Pages 202-213.