Far-right protesters clash with anti-fascist demonstrators in Charlottesville. Photograph: Michael N/Pacific/BarcroftImages
Psychological explanations, however, do not fully explain Americas current political condition. We are in conflict about real and divergent ideas. Are we engaged, half-wittingly, in a slow suicide as a democracy? Are we engaged in a cold civil war as one writer has suggested? Or does it feel like 1859, as another expert wondered, with so much rhetorical and real violence in the air? The election, and performance in office of Donald Trump, have many serious people using words like unprecedented, or phrases like where in time are we or we havent been here before. Commentators and ordinary citizens have been asking how or where in the past we can find parallels for our current condition.
For historians, Trump has been the gift that keeps on giving. His ignorance of American history, his flouting of political and constitutional traditions, his embrace of racist ideas and groups, his egregious uses of fear, his own partys moral bankruptcy in its inability to confront him, have forced the media to endlessly ask historians for help. That moral cowardice by Republicans shows some glimmers of hope; Mitt Romney has just called out Trump, accusing him of unraveling our national fabric by his coziness with white supremacists, and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee charged Trump with putting the nation in great peril by his incompetence and racism.
Sixteen years ago, in the book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, I made a simple claim: As long as America has a politics of race, it will have a politics of civil war memory. Unfortunately, despite many more fine books, as well as conferences and courses taught on the same subject, that prescription seems truer now than ever. The line from the killings of Travon Martin and Michael Brown, through a myriad of other police shootings, and then especially from the mass murder of nine African Americans in Charleston in June, 2015, to the recent white supremacist demonstration and violence in Charlottesville mark a dizzying, crooked, but clear historical process. America is in the midst of yet another of its racial reckonings which always confront us with a shock of events we are, pitifully, never collectively prepared for. Just now we are engaged in a frenzied wave of Confederate monument removals; it is a manifestation of how well-meaning Americans can demonstrate their anti-racism and full of admirable impulses. But this too in all likelihood will not itself prepare us for the next shock of events nor our next reckoning. Hence, we so achingly need to know more history.
All parallels are unsteady or untrustworthy. But the present is always embedded in the past. The 1850s, the fateful decade that led to the civil war, has many instructive lessons for us. Definitions of American nationalism, of just who was a true American, were in constant debate. After the Great Hunger in Ireland the US experienced an unprecedented immigration wave between 1845 and the mid-1850s, prompting a rapid and powerful rise of nativism. Irish and German Catholics were unwelcome and worse. The Mexican-American war of 1846-48, the nations first expansionist foreign conflict, stimulated an explosive political struggle over the expansion of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 caused a wave of refugee former slaves escaping the northern states into Canada, as well as a widespread crisis over violent rescues of fugitive slaves. Indeed, the constant flight of slaves from the South to free states was, in effect, Americas first great refugee crisis. The abolition movement, the countrys prototypical reform crusade, became increasingly politicized as it became more radical, extra-legal, and violent.
At every turn in that decade, Americans had to ask whether their institutions would last. The two major political parties, the Whigs and Democrats, either disintegrated or broke into sectional parts, north and south, over slavery. Third parties suddenly emerged with success like no other time in our history. First the Know-Nothings, or American party, whose xenophobia and anti-Catholicism got them elected in droves in New England in the early 1850s. And the most successful third party in our history, the Republicans, were born in direct resistance to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, championed by Democrats, and which opened up the western territories to the perpetual expansion of slavery. A succession of weak and pro-slavery presidents from 1844 through 1860 either tarnished the institution of the presidency or deepened the sectional and partisan divide.
In 1857, the supreme court weighed in by declaring in Dred Scott v Sandford that blacks were not and could never be citizens of the US. They had, wrote chief justice Roger B Taney, for more than a century been regarded as beings of an inferior order so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect. This most notorious court decision legally opened up all of the west, and for that matter, all of the north to the presence of slavery. So discredited was the supreme court among many northerners in the wake of the decision that the Republicans made resistance to the judiciary a rallying cry of their political insurgency. That impulse led to the election of Lincoln in 1860, interpreted by most southern slaveholders, who firmly controlled that regions politics, as the primary impulse to secede from the union. They believed they could not co-exist in a nation now led by a political organization devoted to their destruction.
By the time of the sectionalized and polarized election of 1860, conducted in a climate of violence and danger caused by John Browns raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, north and south had developed broad-based mutual conspiracy theories of each other. They did so through a thriving and highly partisan press, in both daily and weekly newspapers. Both sides tended to have their own sets of facts and their own conceptions of both history and the constitution.
White southerners feared and loathed abolitionists, and now they faced anti-slavery politicians who could truly affect power and legislation if elected. By the 1860 election, pro-slavery interests had developed a widespread theory about a black Republican conspiracy in the north, determined on taking hold of all reins of government to put slavery, as Lincoln in 1858 had actually said, on a course of ultimate extinction. In the secession crisis, one southern leader after another pronounced against what they perceived as an abolitionist conspiracy against their livelihoods and their lives. William Harris, the secession commissioner for Mississippi, claimed in December, 1860 that Republicans now demand equality between the white and negro races, under our constitution; equality in representation, equality in the right of suffrage equality in the social circle, equality in the rights of matrimony. He concluded therefore, the deep south faced a stark choice: Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, the part of Mississippi is chosen, she will never submit to the principles and policy of this black Republican administration.
That Republican party, along with radical abolitionists, advanced an equally potent idea of a slave power conspiracy that had grown into a staple of antislavery politics. The slave power, argued northerners, consisted of the southern slaveholding political class; they were obsessively bent on control of every level of government and every institution presidency, courts, and Congress. The slave power especially demanded control over future expansion of the United States in order for its system to survive. The theory made greater sense with time to many people, since they could see that the slave south, though wealthy, was increasingly a minority interest in the federal government.
No one made this case about the slave power better than the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In May, 1853 Douglass gave the slave power clear definition. It was a purely slavery party in national affairs and its branches reached far and wide in church and state. The conspiracys cardinal objects were suppression of abolitionist speech, removal of free blacks from the United States, guarantees for slavery in the west, the nationalization of slavery in every state of the union, and the expansion of slavery to Mexico and South America.
By 1855, as the Kansas crisis deepened, Douglass saw the slave power as an all-encompassing national plague with instinctive rapacity, with a natural craving after human flesh and blood. It was a murderous onslaught upon the rights of all Americans to sustain the claims of a few. Seeking consensus with the slave power, Douglass maintained, would be thawing a deadly viper instead of killing it. He had faith in the monsters inherent tendency to over-reach and destroy itself. While crushing its millions, he said, it is also crushing itself. It had made such a frightful noise with the Fugitive Slave Act the Nebraska bill, the recent marauding movements of the oligarchy in Kansas, that it now performed as the abolitionists most potent ally. Douglass detected a great change in northern public opinion. Instead of regarding the abolitionists as mere fanatics crying wolf, the masses now perceived the evil in their midst and themselves cried kill the wolf.
Thus we might see one of the strongest parallels of all between the road to disunion and our current predicament. The rhetoric about the slave power and about black Republicans has a familiar ring today. Millions of Americans on the right who garner their information from selective websites, radio shows and Fox News possess all sorts conspiratorial conceptions of liberals and the alleged radical views of professors on university campuses. Many on the left also know precious little about people in rural and suburban America who voted for Trump; coastal elites do sometimes hold contemptuous views bordering on the conspiratorial about the people they fly over. Americans are more than politically polarized; we are bitterly divided about our expanding diversity, about the proper function of government, about the right to vote and how to protect it, over womens reproductive rights, about climate science, over whether we even believe in a social contract between citizens and the polity. In other words, like the 1850s, we are divided over conflicting visions of our future. Let us hope that we find ways to fight out our current conflicts within politics and not between each other in our over-armed society. From my perspective, we can hope that like the slave power, the white supremacist far right will become its own worst enemy, and after all its frightful noise, kill itself.
As Americans consider the survival of their own amor patriae we might reflect on just how old our story is. We love stories of exile and return, destruction and redemption. When Moses sent the Israelites across the Jordan, he instructed them to put up memory stones to mark their journey and their story. Americans have put up more than their share of memory stones, and are just now living through a profound process of deciding which ones will remain. But as we look deeply into just what our own amor patriae means, and whether it can hold together, we might think hard about what inscriptions we want written on the memory stones of our own times. We might draw one from Douglass in 1867: We ought to have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man we shall be safe.
- The author is Professor of American history at Yale University and author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, and the forthcoming, in 2018, Frederick Douglass: American Prophet