A call to action, January 2021

Our democracy is under open attack. Americans who have long considered our system of government to be the source of all our nation’s problems have at last acted to overthrow it by invading the Capitol building in an attempt to stop the certification of a fair and legal presidential election.

These people have been taught to hate “the government” at least since the days of President Reagan, who claimed in his January 20, 1981 inaugural speech that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

This was the official start of an alternate American history, one that identifies all government, but particularly our federal government, as the enemy of American freedom and individuality. This imaginary history describes a “great” America that was controlled by white Christian men, where there were no homosexuals, non-Christians, or feminists, and all immigrants were “honest, hard-working” white Christians.

Those of us who study and love actual American history have always had to fight against this fantasy American history.

We’ve done our best to teach the people we talk with about the real history of race, sex, religion, immigration, and politics in America.

We do this tirelessly because the study of real American history is always the study of the struggle to fulfill the unique mandate of our founding documents, which commit Americans to promoting the general welfare by acknowledging the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We take pride and pleasure in helping people understand the importance of the pledge of allegiance they make to stand up for liberty and justice for all.

We are ever-ready to show other Americans how the language “all men are created equal”, with its assumed meaning of “white men”, was a starting point from which generation after generation of Americans expanded rights to include women, non-white Americans, and all citizens of this country.

We don’t pretend that American history is a rose garden of justice and triumph. But we help people understand that we have a unique national conscience that drives us, each generation of Americans, to live up to our founding principles, that won’t let us settle for less, that makes us despair over injustice and recommit, over and over, to creating a more perfect union.

Today, in 2021, we must do even more.

Today, we must rise up to take real action against the terrorists who would destroy our democratic government. Not just by issuing statements of dismay, but by actually mobilizing protests in the streets and online.

There is no line between “history” and “current events”, between “studying history” and “talking about politics.” Today’s political event is tomorrow’s history. We can’t divorce our study of American history from political activism in the name of justice.

This is a time for action as historians. What can we do?

We must first demand that emergency actions be taken to remove a treasonous president, and the treasonous members of Congress who voted to overturn a legal election.

We must fearlessly identify anti-democratic, racist, nativist activities and groups and explicitly call them out as enemies of our democracy. This is not the time to call for “trying to understand.” If we pretend not to understand tyranny and terrorism after studying it for years, we are part of the problem.

We must acknowledge the magnitude of the terrorist overrunning of our Capitol and Congress. We cannot tell the public this is just another in a long history of anti-democratic activism. If we minimize what happened on January 6, we help Americans to normalize it, and we are part of the problem.

We must teach Americans their real history, which does not include a once-great America in the undefined past that only a dictatorship can restore. We must teach Americans that our history is one of success and failure in the never-ending pursuit of liberty and justice for all, and that only when we do that work are Americans truly great.

We must speak out to interrupt lies and hate speech. If you are called on to give commentary in any public forum, speak bravely and clearly about the anti-democratic terrorism taking place in the United States, and make it clear that we are bound as Americans to call it by its name and fight against it.

We must refuse to find, provide, or tolerate excuses or justifications for hate speech and for physical acts of terrorism.

We must give talks and write articles and have discussions where we explicitly connect what we learn in American history to the politics of the present day, and the American mandate to create a just and democratic state.

There is open war in America today. If historians can’t or won’t take action in this moment, then we really are just useless “history nerds” and academics, escapists who hide our heads in the sand of the past.

The birth of Red and Blue states

This is part three of my series of posts discussing exactly how slavery led to the Civil War and banishing the myth that the war had nothing to do with slavery, and that no one in antebellum America cared about slavery.


There were two parties for most of the period of 1800-1860: the Whigs and the Democrats (there were some name changes along the way). Both parties were completely evenly spread throughout the nation. There were no “red” or “blue” states. Every state was a pretty equal mix of Whig and Democrat. Americans believed in their parties, and expected to solve political problems through them.


Neither Whigs nor Democrats identified themselves with a particular region, religion, or social issue. They identified with their party. This meant that individual states had to fit their wants and needs into a national party platform. No single state or issue could take over a party’s agenda. Consensus building was the norm because any state with a particular piece of legislation to push had to get the support of the entire party. There were no factions to rely on to swing a vote.


So pro- and anti-slavery politicians who focused all their energies on the single issue of slavery could not build the majorities they needed to make their party adopt that stance. There were pro- and anti-slavery Whigs, and pro- and anti-slavery Democrats. But they kept it local. The Georgia Whig party might condone slavery, but they wouldn’t push for national laws about it, because they knew that would hurt Massachusetts Whigs, and then the Whig party might lose the Massachusetts gubernatorial election. And vice-versa, and the same went for the Democrats. So while slavery was an agitating issue, neither party took a stand on slavery on the national level.


But when the U.S. seized its huge western territories from Mexico in 1848 (today’s California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming), the south’s desire to take slavery into those territories, especially California, and the north’s desire to keep slavery out of those territories, started a conflict that eventually broke party unity. Southerners openly pushed for federal laws to protect and extend slavery. From 1846 through the 1850s, party-shattering events came in swift succession:


1846: Wilmot Proviso

1849: Nashville Convention

1850: Compromise of 1850

1854: Kansas-Nebraska Act

1854-6: the violence of Bleeding Kansas

1854: birth of the Republican party

1856: caning of Senator Charles Sumner

1857: Dred Scott decision

1859: John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry

1860: split of the Democratic party


The Democrats split at their convention into one group completely focused on protecting slavery throughout the U.S., and one “moderate” group content to let the western territories vote on whether to form free or slave states. Each side backed its own presidential candidate in 1860.


So we see that from the end of the Mexican War and steadily through the 1850s, the national parties became regional parties. This is why, although slavery was hotly debated for years, it didn’t lead to war until 1861. The acquisition of those western territories in 1848 suddenly raised the stakes on the slavery question to dizzying heights, and individual actions in the federal government and amongst the American people provoked partisan reactions that grew stronger with each incident.


The Whig party dissolved, leaving the Republicans to represent the north, with no southern members to keep happy. They were free to pursue their platform, which was based on restricting slavery. The Democratic party split, giving it no chance to win a national election.


When people saw that their old parties were no longer a good tool for dealing with issues, people lost faith in working through the political system at all. Many became convinced that they  had to go outside politics and channels to get what they wanted. And war was the ultimate form of going outside politics and channels to effect change. When the south saw a Republican elected president, it withdrew from the United States altogether.


Next time: Secession

What made the North and South different before the Civil War?

In today’s post, part two of my series on how slavery led to the Civil War, I’ll be leaning on the historian James McPherson for quotes, from his fascinating book This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War.

First, all that data on tariff debates and farmer v. factory worker is, indeed, not the stuff of civil war. The main difference between north and south, the one that led the nation to war, was slavery. The north did not want it to spread to the new western states being created, and the south did. The south fought federal attempts to ban slavery in the west, using the states’ rights argument. Each state has the right to decide for itself whether it will be slave or free, the south said; any federal attempt to ban slavery outright is illegal.


So all the vague talk of the federal government interfering in “state government” or “state policy” sharpens up considerably when you face the fact that the only “policy” at stake was slavery. Slavery made north and south different—and enemies: “On the subject of slavery, the North and South… are not only two Peoples, but they are rival, hostile Peoples,” said the editor of the Charleston Mercury in 1858. [McPherson, 11]


But the southern states were quite willing to interfere with northern state policy, as southern Congress members passed fugitive slave laws that allowed the federal government to go into northern states that had passed anti-slavery laws and personal liberty laws and force those states to hand over people identified as escaped slaves. The fugitive slave laws also allowed southern slaveholders to bring enslaved people into free states without punishment, and forced northern citizens to help slave catchers.


When northern states complained about their personal liberty laws being violated, the southern-majority Supreme Court reminded them that national law outranked state law, and national law had a mandate to protect slavery. Southerners in Congress also imposed a gag rule in the 1830s which disallowed antislavery petitions from northern states to be presented to Congress. [Ibid., 9]  So states’ rights were not so sacred for the south when it came to slavery, and the south hotly demanded that the federal government override northern states’ rights to outlaw slavery in their own states.


That’s why Lincoln’s election to the presidency caused secession and civil war. For 49 of the 72 years in the period 1789 to 1861, the American president had been a southern slaveholder. Now a northerner whose party was created expressly to stop the spread of slavery was president, and the deep south panicked. South Carolina went first, and its secession convention stated that with Lincoln as president, “the Slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.” [Ibid., 7-8, 11]


Note that it’s the slaveholding states losing their independence that is the last straw; when it was non-slaveholding states whose rights were violated, the south was okay with that.


Lincoln’s election not only meant the end of slavery, in the south’s opinion, but was the final nail in the coffin of the two-party system, and the party unity, that had dominated American politics in the 1800s. From 1787 to 1860, the nation was involved in a debate over slavery. That debate was contained by the party system. When that system fell apart, the debate could no longer be contained, or kept contained within the political system.


Few Americans today would recognize the death of the Whig party as a major contributor to civil war, but it was. In the next post, we’ll see why.

Amazing Fact: The Civil War was fought over slavery

Myth: The Civil War was not fought over slavery.

Supporting myth: Lincoln was okay with slavery, and he declared war.

“Proof” of myth: Slavery wasn’t ended until after the war, because Lincoln couldn’t do it earlier because the North would have stopped fighting, and wouldn’t do it because he was pro-slavery.

The Civil War was fought over slavery. That’s just all there is to it.

I didn’t grow up hearing this. When I was in K-12, in the 1970s and early 1980s, I got the old saw that the Civil War was fought because the North and South were just so darn different. The South was agricultural and rural, while the North was industrialized and urban. The North wanted tarriffs on imports, while the South didn’t. Their stands on banking, railroad subsidies, and other economic matters were what made the North and South so dangerously different. Slavery was just a side issue, really a small part of southern life, and one to which northerners were completely indifferent.

It never occurred to me, as a youth, to wonder how differering positions on banking could drive a nation to Civil War. Could opposing ideas on where to place the intercontinental railroad really divide a nation? But the textbooks I was given (and this was in a northern state) rushed me right past that to the start of the war and the issue of states’ rights.

This argument says that southern states seceded not to protect slavery, but to stand up for their constitutionally given rights to chart their own internal course, without interference from Congress. The southern states resisted efforts by the federal government to limit state power, goes the argument, and they did so for the benefit of all states, north and south. The federal government was violating the Constitution and threatening democracy, and the liberty-loving southern states could not live with this. They seceded, thus preserving their states’ rights. And the Constitution says they could.

Well, as you know from my About page essay, this whole package was still being pushed very recently by the K-12 publishers. And in fact, someone I know who is 73 gave me the same story recently. Slavery didn’t cause that war, he said; northerners didn’t care, there was no difference between northern and southern boys fighting, and the whole war was a shame. This man’s grandfather fought for the Union. Yet this man is ashamed of the whole thing, because he was fed the same amazing pack of lies about the Civil War that I was; lies that damage America today.

This is the first in a series of posts, because the myth of the Civil War is so big and so insidious. Next time, I’ll begin to show how slavery drove the nation to war. And before I’m done, the unforgivable and obvious lie applied to Lincoln–that he was proslavery–will be demolished.

Next: what did make North and South so different?