In 1860, something in the USA had broken. When a contentious, 4-way election produced Abraham Lincoln as the president, states began to make good on their threats to leave the nation. Even more ominously, the states that had once done everything possible to cater to the whims of those departing states were now resolved to wage war, if needed, to re-establish the Union, no longer on the terms demanded by those departing states. What led to that situation and are those conditions leading to a similar situation in 2020?
In her work, The Field of Blood, Joanne B. Freeman explores that very topic. I strongly recommend it as a book for any historian or person interested in current events. And I equally strongly recommend close attention to the story of miscalculation on the part of the Southern Congressmen who trusted in threats of violence and secession to get their way while still preserving the benefits of the political union.
Is 2020 the same as 1860? No. We are not again at that most final of crossroads in history. But we are close. While the divisions are not truly regional in this current period of tension, we are nevertheless watching as resistance to threats of violence stiffens and attitudes towards a domineering minority change from attempted accommodation to exhausted, active animosity.
Before 1860, supporters of slavery would threaten beatings, duels, and street fights against their opponents. Their opponents would refuse to engage, which played well to both sides of the slavery conflict. Anti-slavery supporters applauded how their champions refused to stoop to the level of the slavery supporters. Slavery supporters mocked the lack of manhood and dignity among the anti-slavery faction, seen as too weak-willed to stand up and fight for what they believed in.
In 1838, Congressman Cilley of New Hampshire finally accepted a duel challenge from Congressman Graves of Kentucky. Graves killed Cilley in that duel. After that, things changed. Anti-slavery attitudes hardened against that act of violence: Cilley was seen as a martyr for the cause. Slavery supporters could not claim anymore that their opponents lacked valor, which had the result of forcing their own position to take an even harder line on the issue.
When Brooks of South Carolina nearly killed Sumner of Massachusetts in an attack in the Senate in 1856, it pretty much killed off any hope of reconciliation between the two sides of the slavery debate. The slavery proponents claimed that they had no recourse but to defend their honor with violence. The slavery opponents no longer called for the preservation of the Union at any cost as a slogan of appeasement, but of eventual military conflict. Those who wanted a peaceful resolution no longer saw a path of resolution together, but as a matter of “our side is better off without the other side.” Slave state politicians threatened secession: their counterparts were ready to let them go and be done with it.
Starting with the election of Ronald Reagan, the Republican position publicly hardened around the issues of a strong anti-abortion position and an equally unyielding, highly permissive interpretation of the Second Amendment. Other issues were associated with the Republican Party, but those were the most salient. Less well-pronounced was the full meaning of their “law and order” platform, which didn’t directly state a hostility towards minorities, but which did serve to further policies that had race-negative outcomes in terms of higher rates of arrest, conviction, and incarceration of minorities vs whites for similar offenses. In time, the conflation of racist imagery with Republican Party political ads became more and more overt, leading up to the events during the Trump presidency in which party leadership failed to offer up meaningful criticism of racially-motivated violence, even as perpetrators of that violence evoked Republican leaders and talking points as justification for their violent acts.
Meanwhile, Republican Party opposition to Democratic policy initiatives and appointments hardened to the point of refusal to cooperate at all. This was perhaps most starkly illustrated in their refusal to entertain the nomination of a Supreme Court justice in 2016, claiming that such a nomination must be made to wait until after the election and then turning fully around in 2020 to rush through a Supreme Court nomination in the days just prior to the election that year.
Domestically, this inability of Republicans to offer up meaningful compromises with the Democratic Party itself led to questions within the Democratic Party on whether or not they should continue to attempt to compromise. Progressives within the Democratic Party drew more political support, particularly in the wake of the MeToo movement and a string of cases involving police brutality or other abuses in the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Monterrosa, Rayshard Brooks, Andres Guardado, Dijon Kizzee, Daniel Prude, Deon Kay, Ricardo Munoz, Deja Stallings, Jonathan Price, Alvin Cole, Marcellis Stinnette, Walter Wallace Jr, and Kevin Peterson Jr, among others. As Republican leadership rallied around defending its own members involved in sexual harassment cases or who had made racist statements, questions of compromise evaporated further.
At the same time, hardening attitudes in Democratic Party were also accompanied by a rise in anti-fascist violence. While such antifa violence was only a fraction of fascist and racist violence, Republicans seized upon the very fact of antifa violence as a sign of the existential nature of the conflict they now found themselves in. Democratic Party leaders did condemn antifa violence, but Republican leadership rejected such condemnations or denied that they had happened outright. Ironically, voices within the Republican Party that called for a second civil war to “cleanse” the nation were not condemned within the party.
While 2016 still saw most of the Democratic Party leadership calling for unity and compromise, the events of the 2020 election in which Trump refused to acknowledge the election of Biden left the Democratic president-elect in the uncomfortable position of finding Republican leadership unwilling to participate in the normal bipartisan cooperation that follows a change of party in an election.
Such refusal from the Republican Party has left many Democratic commentators asking openly if the nation would simply be better off without the Republicans. While not advocating openly for civil war as radicals within the Republican Party advocate, they are also not refusing to consider such a scenario. While not yet a scenario like in 1860, or even 1856, current tensions do lie on a path that leads to a similar situation.
In this, the Republicans are exercising a similar miscalculation as did the pro-slavery faction. They have spoken loudly and bullied their way around the political landscape, but are outnumbered. Now that their opposition has itself hardened its position, they are at a point in their existence that demands reconciliation and backing down from their hardline position before they are destroyed in a violent conflict that they have no hope of winning.
The Republic of South Africa faced a similar watershed in its history, when the whites-only apartheid government came to a realization that it could not maintain its control. Faced with the options of peacefully coming to terms with the African National Congress or the possibility of war in which they would detonate the nuclear weapons within their cities and key economic areas as part of a Samson act to deny their opponents what they could not themselves keep, the National Party chose to take the peaceful path, resulting in massive constitutional and organizational reform. Humanity has an example of stepping away from the brink: is the Republican Party leadership able to make the same moves as its right-wing counterpart in South Africa, or will it choose to maintain its hard line and autogolpe methods to subvert democratic institutions in America and take the nation down a path of bloodshed?
Freeman’s book shows us the parallels between the antebellum period and our own day. Our nation needs a Republican Party leadership to come to terms with reality and to come back to the table of compromise before they go too far and find that they have placed the nation into a period that parallels the years from 1860-1865.