It’s the last post in our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign, in which we leave the campaign and think ahead to its logical and inevitable conclusion—the election of a president.
Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,
Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…
Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “religious freedom”, and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.
We don’t know who will win the 2016 presidential election, but it seems fair to say that the reporting of Election Day in 2016 will be much like the reporting from the New York Times on Election Day 1860:
…The return of Napoleon from Elba did not a greater excitement than the returns of the present election. All day yesterday the inquiry was in everybody’s mouth, “What’s the latest news?” Newspapers were in demand… Every bus that carried its dozens of citizens businessward in the morning was a reading-room, a political meeting-house and a pseudo stock board, all in one. Some read the papers, some fought the bloodless battle over again, bringing their batteries of profound argument to bear upon the proposition that “they knew Lincoln would be elected”… In the streets, in the restaurants, in offices and counting-houses such was the tenor of the talk, and the character of the occupations of all to whom a leisure moment came.
Change out “newspaper” for “Internet” or “TV” and it fits pretty well. Change out “Lincoln” for “Clinton” or “Trump” and again it seems likely. One hopes that the battles after the 2016 election results are in will be bloodless; as we know, the returns in 1860 heralded the shedding of more American blood than anyone could have imagined even on November 7, 1860, when it was obvious to most Americans that sectionalism, created and exacerbated by the enslavement of black Americans, had driven a wedge so deep into the country that nothing short of a war seemed powerful enough to dissolve the sectionalism and mend the breach.
Today, Trump denies that he was inciting people to murder when he said on August 9 that the “Second Amendment people” might find a way to stop Clinton from naming Supreme Court justices if she is elected president, but this was just the most egregious of many calls to violence and bloodshed that we’ve heard in this country over the past year of campaigning, all, so far as we have seen, coming from the conservative side of the liberal-conservative sectional divide that is currently rending our country in two.
It’s hard to imagine another Civil War being fought today over liberal-conservative sectional issues. But as we said back in 2008 in Union or Slavery?:
Think of it this way: what if right now, as you sit reading this, the United States was in danger of civil war. Some group of states had actually written up papers outlining how they would secede, and they had the power and the foreign backing to do it. Imagine that every week you read about how these states—let’s say 15 western states—were ready to actually sever their ties to the U.S., and leave the nation with 35 states and a big hole.
It’s impossible for us to really imagine this. We are faced daily with serious threats to our economic, intellectual, and political unity—there’s constant talk about red and blue states and how the coasts hate the middle and vice-versa, etc.—but we cannot imagine this translates into a threat to our actual political unity. We can’t picture facing the possibility that civil war would break out over these issues and that the United States as we know it would cease to exist.
And all over one political and social issue. An important issue, to be sure, but not one that you thought could destroy the United States. Say it was illegal immigration. It’s been simmering for decades, but it’s begun to boil in the past 10 years, and people’s emotions are getting stronger about it. What do you think will happen in this situation?
Well, you expect it to keep dragging along as a divisive issue that will someday get enough minor legislation to die down, and be replaced by something else. Inertia or a solution, those are the options.
You never expect it to cause an actual civil war, with people in your state fighting people from another state. You don’t expect to see armies formed in the western U.S. states to fight the U.S. amed forces. You don’t expect to have your home destroyed by battle next year.
And that’s the way Americans viewed slavery in the antebellum years. It was a divisive issue, and was getting hotter after 1848, but civil war? Really?
The current election is causing great anxiety for many Americans on both sides of the sectional divide, but no doubt few are ready to believe that it could spark another Civil War. As we’ve seen in the Times‘ coverage of 1860, they were loathe to believe it, too; to the very end they kept reflecting the belief that somehow the proslaveryites would gradually back down and accept the fact that they no longer controlled political power in Washington. They were wrong. And those who believe today that one side or the other will back down from civil war may also be wrong. We devoutly hope they are not. But our trip back in time to the 1860 election has, sadly, inspired more fear than hope on that issue.