Why Today Is Not Like the 1850s
May 16, 2023 4:15 am (EST)
- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
American politics turned hyper toxic several years ago, and ever since commentators have raised the specter of a second civil war. No other historical parallel, it seems, captures so viscerally today’s national division into two hostile camps, each convinced the other poses a mortal threat to the republic.
“Today’s events bear an uncanny resemblance to an earlier decade—the 1850s,” wrote one author in Politico. “It is like 1859,” wrote another in Foreign Policy. “Everyone is mad about something and everyone has a gun.” In 2018, Rasmussen reported that 31 percent of likely voters thought the United States would experience a second civil war within five years. In 2020, the number had increased to 34 percent. In 2022, 50 percent of respondents to another survey thought that there would be civil war “in the next few years.”
Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy
The analogy is common. But is it accurate or useful?
What caused the American Civil War
In the 1790s, the newly formed United States was nearly ripped apart by partisan divisions between Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. After winning the presidency in 1800, however, Jefferson offered an olive branch, declaring, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” He adopted some of his opponents’ policies while gutting them as political opposition, successfully governing the country as the patrician leader of a populist uniparty. Jefferson’s successors, James Madison and James Monroe, followed his lead. During six consecutive Virginian administrations, American politics focused on continental expansion and internal development, with the question of slavery kept off the national agenda.
In 1828, Andrew Jackson picked up where the Virginians left off, adding a sophisticated Democratic political machine to the mix. During the 1830s, northern abolitionists began to agitate for reform, but southern slaveholders responded by shutting down the discussion: They blocked the dissemination of abolitionist literature through the mail, prohibited debate on the subject in Congress with a “gag rule,” and physically attacked any antislavery politician who had the temerity to protest.
Eventually, however, continued westward expansion forced the issue to the fore. In 1846, northern Democrats tried to ban slavery from any territory acquired in the Mexican-American War. They failed, but two years later they joined with the Whigs to exclude slavery from the Oregon Territory. In 1850, a grand compromise brought California into the union as a free state while allowing Utah and New Mexico to enter later as possible slave states. Then, in 1854, Congress paved the way for the Kansas and Nebraska Territories to enter but left the slavery question for local residents to decide. Since the results of those decisions would tip the balance of pro- and antislavery forces in the Senate, partisans of both camps flooded into the territories and openly battled for local control. In the next few years tensions rose ever higher, and when antislavery Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in a four-way race in the election of 1860, the southern states seceded. Lincoln refused to accept their decision and the nation plunged into civil war.
How close a parallel?
The situations then and now certainly have some similarities. The abortion issue, for example, shares some characteristics with slavery, from the existential question of personhood and its associated rights to the institutional question of which branch of government should address it and at what level. The Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision protected slavery and its 2022 Dobbs decision unprotected abortion, in both cases raising crucial questions about how the issue should be settled and by whom.
Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy
Then as now, immigration was changing the country’s demographic balance and remolding society, creating a populist backlash among the native born. In 2021, foreign-born citizens made up 13.6 percent of the population; in 1860, they totaled 13.2 percent.
In both eras, the country’s rival factions believed they represented utterly incompatible visions of national life and faced the prospect of dominance or doom. In the middle of the nineteenth century, southern states knew that if slavery could not spread to the west, they would collectively become an ever smaller, weaker, and more vulnerable province in a larger, hostile country. Red America today, notes the political scientist Pippa Norris, operating from many of the same geographical redoubts, feels similarly threatened culturally:
At a certain point, the arc of history, which bends toward liberalism, means that traditional values among social conservatives lose their hegemonic status, which is eventually reflected in progressive changes in the public policy agenda evident in many postindustrial societies during the late 20th century, from the spread of reproductive rights, equal pay for women and men, anti-sex-discrimination laws, support for the international rules-based world order based on liberal democracy, free trade and human rights and concern about protection against environmental and climate change…. Since the early 1980s, on issue after issue…the pool of social conservatives adopting traditional views…has been shrinking in size within the U.S. national electorate, from majority to minority status. They are running down an up elevator.
With Republicans and Democrats today increasingly sorted into rural and urban strongholds, the country’s reddest districts and states gain structural advantages within the electoral system that allow a minority of the population to dominate the majority—just as southern slaveholding states were able to do because of the Constitution’s three-fifths clause. From targeted attacks on prominent political figures to street clashes by politically affiliated mobs, political violence today is rising to disturbing levels (even if it has not yet gotten to Bleeding Kansas levels). And both eras feature a refusal by powerful political forces to accept the outcome of a presidential election—via southern secession then and the Stop the Steal movement now.
Still, the differences seem even more compelling. Most critically, the institution of slavery affected every aspect of southern economic, political, and social life. It was the “cornerstone” of everything else in the south, as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens put it, with racial dominance the organizing principle around which the rest of existence was arranged. This all-encompassing system was geographically limited to a single contiguous region of the country and could be sustained only by constant forceful repression inside and out—hence the whips and chains, the suppression of speech and assembly, and the extraterritorial reach of fugitive slave laws.
For the north, in short, there could be no lasting compromise with slavery, only victory over it or submission to it. Nothing in American life today is truly comparable, and without such a driver, you don’t get another civil war. (In Israel, by contrast, the situation today shares enough similarities with the United States in the 1850s to make the analogy disturbingly relevant there.)
Lessons to be learned
During the Civil War, the Union had a population of 18.5 million, while the Confederacy had 5.5 million free and 3.5 million enslaved. The border states had a population of 2.5 million free and 500,000 enslaved, along with 340,000 Native Americans. The struggle convulsed the continent, with 2.1 million northerners and 880,000 southerners taking up arms. And it was a bloodbath, with 620,000 combined military dead by the end.
The north’s victory ended the south’s “peculiar institution” once and for all, but the reunited country was left to deal with its tragic legacies. A brief Reconstruction collapsed into the resumption of white dominance, and much of the ground gained by the war was lost. The Jim Crow era lasted for generations, and it wasn’t until the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century that Black Americans managed to achieve full legal equality. It took still more activism from further generations to press for full social equality, and the struggle continues today.
Crucial issues from the 1850s, in other words, remain unresolved and continue to shape current American life. And longstanding social identities and communal histories fuel contemporary hatreds, as the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, demonstrated so vividly.
Yet the ways they are operationalized today differ significantly from the past. In actual Civil War battles, tens of thousands of soldiers died. The Charlottesville clashes, fought over the removal of Confederate monuments, and even the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, resulted in only a handful of casualties. They were tragic and sobering. But they were not harbingers of organized mass political violence.
In the end, the 1850s comparison is both comforting and troubling. The country is not at risk of political collapse or civil war, and has, however slowly, improved dramatically over the long run. Yet somehow it is still replicating the toxic political psychology and extreme emotions of the lowest period in its national history. It is not the 1850s. But it feels as bad.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.