The tantrums. The bad manners. The stubbornness. The ruptures. I read the news and think of the Civil War times.
Fortunately, no single issue divides us geographically, as slavery did then; otherwise, there are startling similarities between the politics of that time and what we have now.
The 1850s were a cataclysmic time, as events intensified the need to solve the ‘problem’ of slavery, an entrenched point of controversy which for decades had defied solution. Since the time of the Founding, some 60 years before, statesmen on different sides of the issue had found ways to compromise so that the nation could keep functioning.
Compromise was ‘good’ in the sense that it averted political paralysis or the breakdown of the Union, but ‘bad’ in the sense that it was merely a ‘settlement’—an agreement that temporarily put the issue to rest, without resolving it once and for all.
Compromise kept the nation and its government going, however. It allowed the two major political parties (Whigs and Democrats then) to enjoy a fine balance of power. But the possibility that one party might gain ascendency over the other, and thus resolve The Issue in their favor, raised the stakes on every controversy. Every political battle was fought as though it were the ultimate one.
Little did the parties know that, in the coming decade, their organizations would be shattered into pieces—one party split in two, the other dead. A new party would be born.
Or did they know? It seems they suspected. Yet, rather than rearrange their parties around The Issue, they, too, like us, engaged in a politics of avoidance. Politicians tried to suppress slavery. They introduced the gag rule in the House. They devised temporary fixes. Above all, they hoped the uncomfortable problem would go away. That it would be resolved sometime, in the future, by someone; but not by them.
The repeated return of The Issue gradually wore civility away. Eventually, politicians on the two sides of the slavery issue stopped socializing. Their insults grew more personal, causing violence and occasional invitations to duel. Content with power, the parties were fearful of what an ultimate resolution of the Issue would mean.
People in the states grew restive, too. Being more particularized, they were not content with some of the federal compromises. There were the same charges then: that federal action was a threat to their way of life.
Slaveholders worried that they would be deprived of their property; they railed against a federal government that would drain their prosperity away. Abolitionists in the North were also unhappy: they didn’t want to have to return fugitive slaves to the South, as federal law decreed. So they began to work against the federal law, not only in the courts, but by subverting it too.
Opinions became polarized, varying sharply depending on what part of the country you were in. Countrymen looked on their opponents as people with whom they had nothing in common. States began crafting arguments to justify their leaving the Union, growing weary of the yoke of federal compliance, and certain life would be better if they could have their own way.
Never had there been such partisan strife. It was a time when the weaknesses of our political system lay fully exposed; when our parties, our leaders, and our devotion to the Union failed us. It was an uncompromising time that left us divided in two.
Image: N. Mendal Shafer,
“Diagram of the Federal Government and American Union,”
1862 lithograph, from this source.
A shout-out to the Wikimedian who prepped this image
and made it so easy to find—thank you.