What is conservative and what is radical? 1860 and 2016

Hello and welcome to post seven 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. Today we extrapolate a parallel between Trump and Abraham Lincoln.

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.

Speaking of slavery, a New York Times editorial from October 1861 focuses on whether or not newly nominated Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln really intends to end slavery as southerners insist. Despite the fact that Lincoln represented a party founded in large part to stop the spread of slavery, and that Lincoln had, over the previous four years (since his debates with Stephen Douglas) been more and more clear that he found slavery morally wrong and dangerous to the political Union and American democracy, and that most Republican voters expected Lincoln to “teach the South a lesson” after having its way in Washington for four score and seven years, the author of the editorial is sure that Lincoln will do nothing to stop slavery:

After Mr. Lincoln shall be elected we think he will very promptly take steps to dispel the fogs that have been thrown around his political position – and that he will present himself to the country as a Conservative, devoted to the Union, considerate equally of every section and of every State, and resolved faithfully and with firmness to maintain the Constitution in all its parts. We have no doubt that he will proclaim himself opposed to the extension or increase of Slavery, and equally opposed to any interference of Congress, or of the North, with Slavery in the Southern States. He has repeatedly declared himself in favor of an efficient Fugitive Slave Law, and opposed to negro suffrage and the political equality of the negro race. We regard these as eminently conservative views, and if his Administration adheres to them with firmness and fidelity, we believe it will contribute largely to the restoration of the public peace, and fortify the Constitution and the Union still more thoroughly in the affection and confidence of the American people…

In this short paragraph we have a wealth of contradictions:

—The idea that Lincoln’s plans as a Republican president were unclear, shrouded in “fog” by outsiders, is an amazing example of wishful thinking. Very few people in the U.S. in the election year of 1860 felt unclear about what Lincoln would do regarding slavery. Northerners assumed he would stop it from spreading and eventually end it in the South; Southerners assumed he would immediately abolish it throughout the Union. This is because of Lincoln’s many statements about hating slavery and wishing to help it along to oblivion, and because of his party’s antislavery basis.

—The statement about a conservative being equally devoted to every section and state is also pretty astounding. The 1860 election was the first in which no presidential candidate represented the entire country. The Republicans were Northern, the Southern Democrats were Southern, the Democrats were primarily Southern, and the Constitutional Union party was created to attract loners who did not take a side—of whom there were vanishingly few. That was the whole point of the 1860 election: the country had irretrievably divided over slavery. There was no going back, and certainly not with a candidate like Lincoln who was antislavery. He did not represent the South.

—The characteristics of “eminently conservative views” given here are shocking, as they are three examples of radical race hatred against black Americans and, in the case of the FSL, a violation of the Constitution (state antislavery laws were overruled by federal law insisting that slavery must be acknowledged in those states while slave states were not forced to acknowledge abolition). This is what passes for normal in a country driven to extremes of sectionalism: maintaining the horrible, anti-democratic status quo is “conservative” while attempting to restore democracy is “radical”.

—How is it possible to confidently claim that if Lincoln does continue to maintain the proslavery status quo it will restore the Union and public peace, and fortify the Constitution? The Constitution is already violated, and it’s the status quo of appeasing slaveholders itself that has led the Union to the brink of rupture and destroyed the public peace.

If we look to the present 2016 presidential race, we see unsettling similarities between this article and how Trump is often described by his admirers. He may seem like a dangerous radical, but that’s just a “fog” of misinformation spread by his detractors, all of whom are themselves dangerously biased. Trump is devoted to the United States and its Constitution, and will treat all Americans with the same love and respect, no matter how much he targets certain populations for his hatred. His deeply racist, sexist, and anti-democratic views are actually “eminently conservative”, representative of the established status quo and traditional American values.

At the same time, the editorial writer’s willful blindness to the reality that the nation has changed and is on a very dangerous course toward civil war is seen today in writers and speakers and average Americans on both the Democratic and Republican sides. Pretending that the 2016 election is business as usual is as crazy as pretending that the 1860 election was. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that you live in dangerous times, and that the status quo is being fundamentally challenged. Presenting radical hate as common sense, threats of nuclear war as protecting national security, and an unstable character as “honest” is as much an attempt to say that nothing is changed when everything has changed as anything written in 1860.

Next time: the end of our journey

Presidential campaigns, 1860 and 2016

Here we launch a 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. We’ve often noted that the growth of a new kind of sectional tension in this country runs disturbingly parallel to sectional tension in the years before the Civil War; here we explore those parallels by going back to newspaper reports on the 1860 campaign and comparing what we find there to what we see happening now.

What is sectionalism? It’s a situation in which one part of a unified group begins to feel alienated, and to separate itself from that group, on the basis of geography or interests. Those interests usually become passions. In the two decades before the Civil War, sectionalism occurred as the South (geography) began to separate itself mentally and emotionally from the North because of the South’s commitment to slavery (interest), which the North did not share. Eventually, the North reciprocated by developing its own sectionalism, which rejected union with the South over slavery (see our post Northern sectionalism before the Civil War for more on that). Each geographic region defined itself in terms of slavery, embracing or rejecting it, and insisting that slavery was the one key issue of the day and for the nation. Eventually, sectionalism led to secession, and, as Lincoln said, the war came.

Today, sectionalism still has a slight geographic component, as southern state legislatures make a stand against liberty and justice for all (through state laws demonizing illegal immigrants, gay and transgender Americans, women seeking abortions, etc.) while most northern states do not. But geography has been trumped by interests: the real divide in the U.S. is ideological, between liberals and conservatives. Neo-conservatives, as they were called in the 1980s, found a stronghold in formerly Democratic southern states in the 1960s as the Democratic party under Johnson reached a pinnacle of civil liberty and social justice, particularly for racial minorities, that racist leaders of southern states and state politics could not accept. They moved to the Republican party, which, under Nixon, welcomed them as a bloc that supported the president’s and the party’s desire to stop civil rights legislation (on the basis that the federal government was overreaching and trying to “legislate morality”).

Conservatism had a boom under Reagan that moved it out of the south and into many white, middle-class homes around the country, as their inhabitants identified with Reagan’s image of the “real” America as white, self-supporting, and Christian, as opposed to everyone else, who was not white, on welfare (and abusing it), and non-Christian. Many white Americans also vibed to Reagan’s statement that the federal government was a curse and a burden (“government isn’t the solution to the problem; government is the problem”) and that it should be dialed way back to have minimal impact on people’s daily lives (i.e., no more social legislation). (See our post Reagan’s Farewell, 1989: We the People need no government for more on that.)

Many political leaders and people in the west seemed to embrace this new conservative message, as they saw themselves in a battle to the death with the federal government over access to and development of/mining on public lands, water, and protecting endangered animals.

Over the decades from the 80s to the 2010s, the new conservatism found strongholds in every part of the nation, wherever poor and middle-class white people felt disenfranchised and/or insulted by big business, immigrants, and/or liberals. To be fair, the movement is not entirely white; there are black and Latino conservatives. But the movement began with white people “taking back” their rights from newly-empowered minorities. For the past five years or so, the new dimension of sexuality has been added in, as conservatives generally identify as straight and feel their rights threatened and curtailed by the expansion of civil rights to gay and transgender people.

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, although the south and west (particularly the Mountain zone) skew conservative while the northeast and Pacific Coast skew liberal. The midwest seems divided.

This new sectionalism has been an issue in every political campaign since 1980, but this year it is the be-all and end-all of the entire presidential election. And this is where the comparisons become striking:

—1860 was the year that sectionalism over slavery became the main issue of a presidential election. 2016 is the year that sectionalism between liberals and conservatives is the main issue.

—In 1860 the Democratic party fractured under the stress; the party split, nominating two different candidates: a Southern Democratic proslavery candidate, and a (northern) Democratic candidate who was on the fence but unlikely to abolish slavery. Today, the Democratic party vote may be badly divided between Sanders and Clinton.

—A new party emerged to take the place of the Whig party that had already been destroyed by sectionalism: in 1860 the Republican party was a party of radical social change dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery and “its eventual extinction”. Today, the Republican party is promoting radical social change by (presumably) nominating Trump as its candidate.

—In 1860, some people watching the campaigns were confident that the country would not split over it, while others tried hard to laugh off the idea, but no one denied that talk of civil war was in the air. In 2016, we laugh about people saying they’ll move to Canada if their candidate doesn’t win, and try hard to promote the idea that people whose candidate loses will put country ahead of cause and support the winner, but no one can deny that there are many voices saying they will do no such thing.

Next time we will get into the early coverage of the 1860 campaign and begin our comparisons, hoping as always to draw some useful plan of action from the exercise.

De Tocqueville on Red and Blue States

I was listening once again to Bill Cook’s fantastic lectures on De Tocqueville last night and he was on the section where De Tocqueville talks about political parties.

De Tocqueville describes two types of political party: great parties and small parties. Great parties, he says, overturn society, replacing one system of thought with another. Small parties agitate within society. So whereas great parties tear society apart and create a new society, small parties only degrade the existing society.

Great parties focus on ideas, the big picture, and the general effects of those ideas in practice. Small parties are petty, focused on individuals, immediate consequences, the here and now, and, above all, victory. Victory is more important than convictions, and when winning is job one, the small party will compromise its own values to win. The small party doesn’t really have a philosophy or faith in a set of values. It will adopt whatever policies allow for victory, and will scare voters by predicting that individuals from rival parties will cause immediate negative consequences for them.

When De Tocqueville was writing, in the 1830s and 1840s, there were no Republicans and Democrats as we know them; the two-party system was not yet in place in the U.S. But his description of great and small parties rings true today.

The party that says if Michael Dukakis is elected president, then Willie Horton will come to your house and kill you, is a small party. The party that wants you to focus on a gas tax holiday over the summer of 2008 while accomplishing nothing toward our long-term fuel problems, is a small party. The party that agitates against gay marriage while ignoring or generating the economic problems families face is a small party. The party that gives lip service to military personnel and their families while refusing to pay those personnel properly or support their families in any way if the on-duty family member dies in service, is a small party. The party that builds a wall to keep out immigrants while refusing to penalize businesses that hire illegal immigrants, and while refusing to stop using the services of illegal immigrants itself, is a small party.

As we vote this year for a president, and as we vote in other years for Congress members, governors, state legislators, and the many referenda that come up in our individual states, we should remember De Tocqueville’s definitions of parties, and make sure we cast our vote for the party that overturns some long-held ways of doing things in order to create more common good, rather than the party that merely asks us to hate someone else in our country.

The party that tells you that your good can only come about if someone else is punished is the small party, and does not deserve your vote. The party that tells you that the U.S. must continue to do what it has been doing because to change course is to lose, that change is humiliation, does not deserve your vote.

Keeping De Tocqueville in mind whenever you go to the polls will remind you that this nation was founded on big ideas and overturning society for the good, and that no harm can come of Americans thinking big.

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