There was or is a movement in California for secession from the union. As others have mentioned, Texas has also considered that option. And when the word “secession” comes up, the natural inclination is to think of the Civil War. Therefore, it pays to look at the causes of that war and whether there are analogies to the current state of affairs. In other words, is the United States headed for another Civil War?
Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, there was vast economic upheaval in the United States. The Industrial Revolution was gaining steam in Great Britain and throughout the world. Cotton, the leading export of the South, was becoming increasingly less valuable worldwide. The South was dependent upon King Cotton as much as they were dependent on Northern banks. Today, globalization and “free” trade agreements have created a similar economic upheaval.
This economic upheaval in the 1850’s went hand-in-hand with political upheaval. An upstart party, the Republicans, were gaining power. Another dominant party at the time- the Whigs- were losing power. Today within each party we see some upheaval. On the Democratic side, there are the socialist-leaning Democrats against the not-so-socialist Democrats while on the Republican side there are the NeverTrumpers against everyone else. Lest anyone believe either the GOP or the Democrats will go by the wayside, they won’t. However, there are certainly the equivalents of the Whigs in each party.
In the decade leading up to the 1860 election, there was a serious breakdown in civil discourse. It reached its climax when Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was beaten with a cane on the floor of the Senate. Yet, with slavery as the powder keg issue as a backdrop, there was also the examples of Bleeding Kansas and Harper’s Ferry. Abraham Lincoln was depicted as a monkey in some newspapers. There was no decorum to speak of. I think we can all agree such is the case today.
The next two precursors are vitally important as concerns the current state of affairs. The first is a fundamental difference in the meaning of the Constitution. Throughout the Constitutional convention and afterwards, there was great debate about what, how or even if the federal government could do anything about slavery. This was the underlying backdrop to the Civil War. Each side came to believe that they possessed the proper narrative for the future of the country. Each became an existential threat to the other’s way of life.
Instead of the Blue versus the Gray in the 1860’s, today it is red states versus blue states. And to a large extent, the battle lines are drawn. Red champions a continuity of family and community- the “unum” in our motto. Blue declares communities should be chosen through the power of the state. Blue sees firearms as uncivil and a dangerous individual choice. Red sees firearms as the great political equalizer and ownership a God-given right. Red sees abortion as a threat to family, community and faith while blue sees it as an individual’s right to choose (about the only thing where they place a premium on “choice”). Blue seeks what they consider necessary controls on free speech to protect vulnerable or “protected classes,” while red sees state control of thought as a threat to individual freedoms. Both believe their virtues must be enforced with equal zeal.
Hence, the fifth and final commonality between the 1850’s and the present is a difference in dreams. The South at the time was largely agrarian reliant on slave labor to produce their cash crops. The other was industrial favoring tariffs to protect their products. Clearly, in the 1850’s there was a line drawn on a sectional basis- the proverbial North versus South. Today, the lines are ideological.
Today, we can look at an electoral map and see that there is indeed somewhat of a sectional divide. There is a huge swath of red between the blue West coast and Northeast. But, it is also disingenuous to say that the country’s map is dividing along sectional lines. In many states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida, there are deep divisions in each state. Because Trump won these states in 2016 is no reason to believe he will repeat that feat in 2020. The margins of victory were not that great and a small shift here or there can change the electoral map.
In other words, today’s divide is not as clear-cut sectional as it was leading up to the Civil War. Instead, the divide is more ideological in nature.
In part 2, this writer will look at the situation today using not only the analogy of the Civil War to see if we are headed to a second one, but also look a further back in American history to see if the seeds of a new Civil War are an inevitability and what, if any, could be the fuses to ignite the powder keg.