A Useable History: Partisanship, Citizenship, and the Presidential Election

Charleston_Mercury_Secession_Broadside,_1860In the introduction to Gary Gallagher’s new book The Enduring Civil War, Gallagher talks about his own Civil War origins. “My lifelong interest in the Civil War era stems from its profusion of dramatic events, compelling personalities, unlikely political and social twists and turns, and engrossing military action,” he writes, articulating a sentiment that resonates for many of us. He goes on to list some of the fundamental questions that piqued his passion. For instance: “Would the Union forged by the Revolutionary generation be scuttled because part of the electorate did not like the outcome of the presidential election of 1860?”

This question, in particular, gave me pause when I read it. It has eerie resonance with current events.

Before I go any further, I want to say up front that what follows is political in nature but is not intended to be partisan. There’s a difference, and I’d like to ask everyone to read it with that difference well in mind. (And in the further interest of avoiding partisanship, I’ll delete any comments that point any fingers one way or the other.)

That Gallagher’s original question should resonate should not be surprising. “The urge to find a fresh and usable past always has been and remains compelling and irresistible,” he writes elsewhere in his introduction.

And, after all, isn’t that one of the primary objectives for studying history—so we can learn from the lessons and examples it offers?

Last autumn, a presidential tweet warned of “a Civil War like fracture in this Nation.” At the time, I dismissed the idea as hyperbolic. Since then, though, the situation seems to have only deteriorated:

Any student of history knows that American politics has been a full-contact sport since George Washington’s second term, so today’s deep partisanship isn’t unique. Look back to the 1790s or the 1850s for other examples.

But that’s why Gallagher’s question gave me pause. The example of the 1850s does not offer me much comfort.

Two books I read this summer outlined that period and the deterioration of its political climate in detail. The first was The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War by Joanne B. Freeman. “The book resonated so strongly with me,” I wrote in July,

because as the nation unknowingly barreled toward Civil War, the decade leading up to that conflict grew increasingly fraught with political and social strife. Yelling and grandstanding replaced discussion and dialogue. Obstruction replaced debate. Compromise vanished. Moderation became rarer and rarer and, eventually, impossible. New technologies expanded the reach of the press, but society lacked the moral maturity to use those technologies responsibility (that went for not just the press but also media consumers), which only worsened rather than improved the situation. 

Any of that sound familiar?

The second book was Heather Cox Richardson’s How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America—a book that drew distinct parallels between Antebellum America and today. To be honest, that book shook me up a little.

As I’ve continued to process those two books, Gallagher’s question has served as a focusing lens. Freeman and Richardson clearly chronicled the process by which a minority of the electorate, dissatisfied with the outcome of the election, opted to scuttle the Republic rather than abide by the results.

And a lot of that process looks a lot like today.

I don’t ponder this question as a catastrophist but, rather, to ask what our responsibilities are as students of history. And I’m asking you this directly. If we study history to learn from its examples, what can we learn from this example? How do we apply what we’ve learned? How can a so-called “usable history” serve us in this historical moment? How can our history help us rescue ourselves from this present?

The trick, as we struggle with these questions, is to avoid succumbing to partisan interpretations of the past. Any of us could find an interpretation of facts that would allow us to cherrypick a conclusion we’ve already reached in order to “prove” a partisan point. We have a higher calling beyond partisanship to citizenship, and it’s from that nobler perch that we need to look back and look forward.

Partisans from both parties frame the upcoming election as a “battle for America’s soul,” which suggests an us-versus-them battle of good-versus-evil, precluding any good intentions or loyal opposition. Partisans have gone from being opponents to enemies. At what point does that enmity become irreversible? What was the point of no return in the 1850s? How will we be able to recognize it now?

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?” Lincoln asked in an 1838 speech to the young men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. “I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Little did he realize how prophetic his words would be in his own time. How prophetic are they for us now?

Ben Franklin said, at the end of the Constitutional Convention, that we now had a Republic “if you can keep it.”

Will the Union forged by the Revolutionary generation be scuttled because part of the electorate does not like the outcome of the presidential election of 2020?

What can we do about it, and how can our history help us?

4 Responses to A Useable History: Partisanship, Citizenship, and the Presidential Election

  1. I’ve read “The Field of Blood” and did find it a cautionary tale for today’s political climate of rampant partisanship. I’m currently reading “Union” by Colin Woodard. His take on U.S. history is that the South did win the Civil War, through deft (and brutal) machinations right up into the mid-20th Century. I think the success of the Lost Cause story was a big part of that. Woodard argues that 240-plus years of sectionalism is a largely unrecognized primary force in our body politic. See also his books “American Nations” and “American Character” for additional insights.

  2. I’ve seen these parallels as well and I’m going to throw psychology/philosophy into the mix for a second. I don’t think there has ever been a time when the “us vs. them” mentality hasn’t been prevalent in the psyches of mankind. Harmony and acceptance don’t come naturally anymore. Tribes, kingdoms, countries, and states (in this context) have declared war on one another since the dawn of time. I think the divide can be blurred, but only when the differences are hidden or obscured. But the minute we find out that one party or group of people advocate for something that we are staunchly opposed to, we have an emotional reaction because these convictions are so deeply rooted in our self-identity. A comparison between the free vs. slave argument can be seen in the pro-life vs. pro-choice movement. Each side has their strong opinions about the other and there’s no getting around that. Once someone has decided on something it’s hard to make them let go. It’s up to them to be open-minded or understanding of the other side before anything can be accomplished. And because many aren’t taught this sort of mental flexibility, the gulf between the sides grows wider and deeper and it’s filled with all those negative, toxic feelings that are consuming the country (or the world)… All that being said, I think the job of trying to bridge this gap belongs to everyone, but especially historians because they can look back in hindsight and see how these trends end. But historians are the minority and the media and society as a whole more often reject sound reasoning because it’s not “sensational”. It makes people uncomfortable. Only once we’re all open to that discomfort and learn to find common ground somewhere, then can we reverse the tide and avoid that national-suicide Lincoln mentions.

  3. Excellent article and comments! It is almost surreal that we are experiencing seemingly parallel events to those that happened during the time that we are all fascinated by, i.e., the American Civil War. Another very good book is The Children Of Pride. It is a compilation of letters from a southern family in Georgia ( the Reverend Charles Colcock Jones) and the letters date from the mid 1850’s through the war itself. The significance of this is that it provides light to us, the future, as to thoughts and feelings of the presidential elections that took place in 1860.

  4. Comments arguing that a schism is imminent neglect some basic facts: We are all tied to the Federal government through Social Security, road programs, Medicare and Medicaid and so on; Almost every red state has a large urban center which votes and acts differently than the rest of the state ( Atlanta, Memphis, Richmond, San Antonio, Houston etc. There is no easy rural vs urban divide as in1860, Is it likely that 60 year old men and their sons will take to the fields giving up hot showers, TV and all those creature comforts we have grown to love. Fun to talk about the similarities but there will not be a repeat. We are all too tied to the Federal Union now and we weren’t then.

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