The popular notion that a second American Civil War is brewing is more credible than you might think. There are ominous parallels between the 1850s (the decade before the Civil War) and today.
The most bothersome parallel is a rising level of incivility in Congress. In the first place, “mob rule” was how U.S. Senator Jim Cornyn (R-Texas) described the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh.
The New York Times likewise describes Democrats as turning the hearing openings into a brawl. Even President Donald J. Trump (R-New York); hardly a paradigm of civility, tweeted that Democratic behavior was “mean, angry, and despicable.”
Protestors reportedly drowned out U.S. Senator Orin Hatch (R-Utah); and interrupted U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) before he could open the proceedings. Grassley; the chairman of the judiciary committee and a veteran of 15 Supreme Court nominations, admits he has never seen such behavior at the Senate.
Is Congressional Turmoil a Prelude to Civil War?
Unfortunately, America has seen such behavior before in Congress during the build up to the Civil War during the 1850s.
For example, nearly 150 acts of violence reportedly occurred in Congress before 1861, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt claim in How Democracies Die. The most blatant assault was that on U.S. Senator Charles Sumner (R-Massachusetts) on 22 May 1856.
U.S. Representative Preston Brooks (D-South Carolina) savagely beat Sumner in the Senate chamber. Attacks Sumner made on his kinsman, U.S. Senator Andrew Butler (D-South Carolina) apparently provoked Brooks to violence. In response, Brooks beat Sumner unconscious on the Senate floor with a cane.
Thankfully, things have not gotten that bad yet, but the chaotic Kavanaugh hearings indicate they are deteriorating fast. As an illustration, Democrats dramatically demanded 100,000 documents from the White House in what sounds like an attempt to build an impeachment case.
Kavanaugh Hearings; Threats, Impeachment, Clown Cars and Spartacus
US Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) is adding to this impression by blatantly calling Kavanaugh’s appointment “illegitimate and tainted.” With that intention, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) calls Kavanaugh a puppet of President of Trump.
U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) compared himself to legendary gladiator and anti-Roman rebel Spartacus. The implication being that the Senate is the arena and Booker is Spartacus. Booker’s performance was so infantile that The American Conservative’s Daniel R. Depetris dubbed the event “The Clown Car Kavanaugh Hearings.”
“You are the nominee of President Donald John Trump,” Durbin said. “This is a President who has shown us consistently that he is contemptuous of the rule of law. It’s that President who has decided you are his man.”
I thought Durbin designed his remarks to scare Kavanaugh out of seeking the nomination. In hindsight, Durbin sounds more like a Mafiosi threatening an enemy than a member of the world’s “greatest deliberative body.”
What the 1850s can Teach Us about Modern American Politics
There are important lessons that 1850s politics can teach us about modern America. Learning those lessons might help us prevent a second Civil War.
Some things we can learn from 1850s politics include:
- Beware Moderate Compromises. Historians list the moderate efforts to end the conflicts of the 1850 as some of the main causes of the Civil War. Every such effort, the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act made things worse.
- Radicalism intensifies. The extremists of the 1850s; the Radical Abolitionists and the Southern Fire Eaters, became bolder, increasingly rabid, and more aggressive as the decade went on.
- Today’s moderates are tomorrow’s radicals. For example, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass started as a pacifist but ended up promoting John Brown’s guerrilla war against the South.
- In particular, future Confederate President Jefferson Davis began the 1850s as a moderate Democratic US Senator. By 1860, Davis was publicly calling for the hanging of both Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln and Northern Democratic presidential contender Stephen Douglas. Douglas and Lincoln’s crime; in Davis’s eyes, was trying to preserve the Union via compromise.
- Compromise only emboldens radicals. The more the moderates of the 1850s compromised, the more aggressive radicals became. When U.S. Senator Daniel Webster (W-Massachusetts) stuck his neck out to support the Compromise of 1850 he found himself attacked as a traitor.
- By 1860 nobody was willing to stick his neck out to offer a moderate compromise. In that year, Jefferson Davis; formerly a moderate U.S. Senator, became President of the Confederacy.
- Do not underestimate the influence of money. In his excellent account of the Crisis of 1850, Prologue to Conflict, historian Holman Hamilton fingers investment bankers as the real architects of the disastrous compromise.
- The Crisis of 1850 was basically a debate over Texas and California’s admission to the Union. Hamilton’s thesis is that bankers lobbied to end the conflict to get the U.S. Government to take over the Republic of Texas’s debts.
- Texas’s bonds were apparently worthless but would gain value if Uncle Sam underwrote them. The federal government could only underwrite the bonds if Texas joined the union.
- They will accomplish little or nothing. The 1850s started as a decade of great promise with plans for a transcontinental railroad, settlement for slavery, and the creation of several new states in the West. None of that occurred, just three new states joined the union, the dispute over slavery got worse, and the transcontinental railroad was still a pipedream in 1860.
- Do not underestimate the power or influence of extremist minorities. The abolitionists and the Fire Eaters were tiny minorities. Yet they disrupted the nation’s political system and triggered the Civil War.
- For example, the extreme abolitionist Liberty Party apparently received no electoral votes in the 1856 Presidential Election. Yet by 1865 abolition was the law of the land.
- For instance, the secessionist Nashville Convention flopped in 1850 because it attracted few delegates. However, in 1860 and 1861 every Southern State succeeded from the Union.
- Only decisive action based on a firm political agenda will end the dispute. The crisis of the 1850s only ended when a decisive President Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) was willing to take firm ideologically motivated political action. Tellingly Lincoln; like Davis and Frederick Douglass, was a moderate in 1850.
Hopefully, today’s political crisis will not lead to a second Civil War but the chaos and bad behavior seems to portend one. Americans need to learn from history not repeat it.