Ominous Parallels?


A congressman wrote to a friend about an argument on the floor of the House of Representatives:

I never said a word to anybody, but quietly cocked my revolver in my pocket and took my position in the midst of the mob, and as coolly as I write it to you now, I had made up my mind to sell out my blood at the highest possible price.

An historian described the atmosphere in the Capitol in this way:

Recurrently, speakers lashed out in passages that threatened to precipitate a general affray. . . . Practically all members were now armed with deadly weapons. In both chambers, Senator Hammond said, “the only persons who do not have a revolver and a knife are those who have two revolvers.” For a time a New England Representative, a former clergyman, came unarmed, but finally he too bought a pistol. A Louisiana Congressman threatened to fetch his double-barrelled shotgun into the House. Supporters of both parties in the galleries also bore lethal weapons, and were ready to use them.

I quote from Allan Nevins’ The Emergence of Lincoln (New York, 1950; 2.121, 124), the best study I know of American politics in the late 1850s. The passages I cite refer to events of early 1860. In the middle of 1861, such events and the emotions that accompanied them produced their final effect — civil war.

What produced this expansion of political and military force, much of it permanent, though unimaginable in earlier American history?

Daniel Webster (and many others) had warned that factional disputes, intensified without limit, could result only in catastrophe:

Sir, he who sees these states, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see the heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without producing the crush of the universe. (Speech in the Senate, March 7, 1850)

The warnings were heard and understood; yet, as Lincoln was to say in his second inaugural address, “the war came.”

What produced this awful effect, this war in which a million people perished, and more were dreadfully wounded? What produced this war of limbs hacked off without anesthetic, of towns put to the torch, of economic and psychological devastation on an enormous scale? What produced this expansion of political and military force, much of it permanent, though unimaginable in earlier American history? And what produced the peace that followed the war, a peace in which black people, the objects of the victors’ alleged solicitude, languished in poverty and systematic humiliation, generation after generation? And this sorry peace was inseparable from the war itself.

In the second inaugural Lincoln identified what he considered the causes of the conflict:

Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.

Lincoln’s words impute to the major actors more conscious choice and final purpose than most of them felt. Jostling one another in the pursuit of immediate ends, leaders on both sides employed political methods that were not intended to produce a war, yet turned out to be the best means of doing so.

Let me put it in this way. Suppose you want to effect a violent disruption of human life. Here are some things you can do.

1. Convince yourself that you and your friends are right, entirely, and no one else is right, at all, about anything, thereby creating as many political divisions as possible. Reject any speculation that other people, though wrong, may have serious reasons for being that way.

A flood of propaganda spread the idea that no one who disagreed with the latest version of partisan orthodoxy could possibly have any but immoral reasons for doing so.

2. Try to make sure that the political field is cleared of everyone but deadly enemies.

It is often said, and this is true, that before the 1830s Southerners were in general agreement that slavery was an evil, and many Southerners were more than amenable to limiting and eventually getting rid of it. There is also general agreement that the great majority of Northerners were happy enough to endorse ideas for the gradual abolition of slavery; indeed, every Northern state that started with slavery had successfully ended it. Even in the slave states, there were large numbers of free black people — by 1860, 250,000 of them.

Yet 30 years of being labeled enemies by both the partisans of slavery and the partisans of abolition progressively immobilized the ordinary, mildly well-intentioned middle range of public opinion. A flood of propaganda, emanating from each camp of zealots, spread the idea that no one who disagreed with the latest version of partisan orthodoxy could possibly have any but immoral reasons for doing so. Of the thousands of low points in this supposed dialogue, I will mention one — the political emasculation of Webster, formerly the North’s most admired public figure, at the hands of his fellow New England intellectuals, for the crime of supporting the Compromise of 1850. Thus Whittier, the supposedly gentle Quaker poet, depicting Webster as Satan in hell and Noah in his drunkenness:

Of all we loved and honored, naught
Save power remains;
A fallen angel’s pride of thought,
Still strong in chains.

From those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!

Then, pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;
Walk backward, with averted gaze,
And hide the shame! (Whittier, “Ichabod”)

Note the instructive tone, the ecclesiastical certainty (“the soul has fled”), the moralistic comments and commands. These methods, though repulsive to almost everyone, are necessary to your purpose. You cannot be too self-confident when affixing the mark of Cain. Guard yourself: you must never become conscious of the irony involved in damning people while pretending that they are only worth ignoring.

Leaders on both sides employed political methods that were not intended to produce a war, yet turned out to be the best means of doing so.

3. Once you’ve converted potential collaborators into scorned opponents, and multiplied those opponents, do your best either to silence or to enrage them. Southerners were better at this than Northerners. In the South, the mails were censored to prevent dissemination of anti-slavery opinion, and mobs were formed to rid communities of people who gave signs of being anti-slavery; in ten Southern states, the Republican Party wasn’t even on the ballot. But in the North as well, jurists, writers, and teachers were targets of political correctness. Mobs were raised against “agents of the South,” non-abolitionists were purged from Protestant clergies, and politically active people were hounded into choosing between an official Democratic Party, directed by an incompetent president, which insisted that the Kansas-Nebraska Act be renounced and reviled, and a rising Republican Party, which insisted, for opposite reasons, that the Kansas-Nebraska Act be renounced and reviled.

4. Turn marginal positions into moral and political tests. The great issue of the 1850s was the question of whether slavery should be permitted in the Western territories, where no one but wild fanatics had ever believed that slavery could subsist. The North nonetheless demanded that it be banned by act of Congress, and the South nonetheless demanded that it be promoted by act of Congress. Sectional moralists indignantly rejected the Kansas-Nebraska idea, once favored by the South, that the question be left up to the people of the territories. Here was an issue of no practical importance, but it became the test of political viability. Emphasizing politically marginal questions makes it certain that marginal politicians will rise to the top; and if trouble is what you want, these people will give it to you.

5. Try to win, not by debate, but by definition; this is what “principled” people do. To the South and its friends, Republicans were always Black Republicans; that’s what they were. To radical Northerners, all proposals from south of the Mason-Dixon line were by definition products of the Slave Power, which was attempting to spread chattel slavery throughout the North, and ultimately to rule the Western hemisphere. It followed that useful proposals, such as gradual emancipation, which had attracted great sympathy on both sides of the Ohio, were by definition entering wedges of the opposition’s Satanic schemes, to be rejected out of hand.

Emphasizing politically marginal questions makes it certain that marginal politicians will rise to the top; and if trouble is what you want, these people will give it to you.

6. Do your best to promote identity politics — the quest for power considered as a right derived from group membership. Southern partisans applauded the Supreme Court’s bizarre decision in the Dred Scott case, asserting that the Constitution governed everyone but protected only persons of non-African descent, while the cultural leaders of the North assumed that the Constitution was of no effect whenever it contradicted the will of God, which was effectively the will of Northern clergymen.

7. Render yourself blind to your own hypocrisy. The goal of hardcore abolitionists was (hold on to your hat) the secession of the North from the South, an act that would relieve the North of any possible association with slavery. To say that this idea expressed maximal concern for the tender consciences of abolitionists and minimal concern for the welfare of the slaves would be a pathetic understatement. As documented by such historians as Edward Renehan (The Secret Six, 1997), few abolitionists (John Brown was an exception) had any respect for actual, living African-Americans. Distinguished leaders of the abolition movement spoke of them in terms I do not wish to quote. Most hardcore abolitionists were also pacifists, advocates of “non-resistance.” Yet when secession happened, they became fervent advocates of violence as a means of crushing the other section’s suddenly illegal and immoral rupture of the union. Southern publicists cultivated a similarly gross hypocrisy — a growing emphasis on the Christianizing and civilizing effects of slavery, amid increasing attempts to criminalize the education of black people and curtail their practice of religion.

8. The fact that you can’t perceive your hypocrisy doesn’t mean that other people can’t; to prevent its public disclosure, you must therefore remove from positions of influence everyone who sees you as you are. Any pretext will do. You can follow the example of the religious proponents of slavery who removed honest preachers from the pulpit, as punishment for being divisive. Or you can take your cue from the religious opponents of slavery, who attacked all who differed with them as foes of Christian love.

Few abolitionists had any respect for actual, living African-Americans. Distinguished leaders of the abolition movement spoke of them in terms I do not wish to quote.

9. Flirt with, encourage, and finally idealize violence. In 1856, Charles Sumner, Republican of Massachusetts, delivered a speech in the Senate that was so insulting to a Southern senator, a person who had aided and befriended him, that Stephen Douglas, listening, muttered to himself, “That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool.” The candidate for other damned fool was Congressman Preston Brooks, Democrat of South Carolina. He didn’t try to kill Sumner, only to humiliate him, but he went to the Senate chamber and assaulted him with a cane. Once he had started, he became more enthusiastic and wounded him so badly that he might have died. The response of Southern partisans was to celebrate Brooks’ achievement, often with souvenirs of model canes, as if caning your political foes were an act of Arthurian virtue. In 1859, John Brown’s attempt to abolish slavery by inciting a servile insurrection — a campaign in which the first enemy slain was Heyward Shepherd, a free black man — sent Emerson, Thoreau, and other Best People of the North into paroxysms of idolatry. Their celebrations of Brown were immediately followed by a wave of Southern lynchings of people erroneously suspected of being in league with him. The participants seem never to have regretted their mistakes; it was all in a good cause.

When things have gone that far, what’s left but war? It’s true, few people, North or South, black or white, wanted a civil war; comparatively few people in the South actually wanted secession, and none of them would have wanted it if they’d had enough sense to visualize its consequences. But when zealots who hold political power cannot stand to be in the same room with one another, except when they are armed — physically or rhetorically — with weapons of destruction, the only choice remaining is the choice between peaceful dissolution and civil war. And few people of that kind will settle for peaceful dissolution.

Once Brooks had started, he became more enthusiastic and wounded Sumner so badly that he might have died.

So much for the events and feelings of the mid-19th century. Do they have anything to say to us, about our own time?

You can answer that question as well as I can. The idea of “ominous parallels” is basically a joke — nothing is really parallel in history, and the most ominous thing about purported parallels is probably the strength of people’s belief in them. But alleged parallels can suggest real similarities, however distant — and important dissimilarities, too.

When I compare 1860–61 with 2018–19, one dissimilarity seems especially important: the difference in intellectual culture, historical knowledge, and capacity for complex political thought between the leaders of then and the leaders of now. Seward, Lincoln, Crittenden, Davis, Benjamin, Douglas, Stephens, Houston, and immediately before them, Webster, Benton, Clay . . . We can discuss their delusions, their false perspectives, their sacrifices of long-term to short-term benefits, their strange errors of judgment. But please show me a list of equally intelligent, capable, knowledgeable, or even personally interesting political leaders in America today.

You can’t? That’s what I call ominous.

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Michael F.S.W. Morrison

Stephen Cox is one of the most brilliant and -- don't blush, sir -- important people in intellectual United States circles.
There is a lot in this essay, and frankly I haven't yet read all of it. But I will. I certainly will, as I always do for his work.
Two points I'd like to make now: That war of 1861 to 1865 was not really a "civil war." It was not two factions fighting to control one country or one government.
It was a war against secession.
I prefer to call it The War Against Southern Independence because it is accurate - and, of course, jerks a lot of chains.
One quote from Dr. Cox really intrigues me. I had never seen it before: "... Lincoln was to say in his second inaugural address, 'the war came.'”
That so reminds me of Clinton's "mistakes were made."
"Oh, gosh, no, *I* didn't do anything wrong. It just happened!"
Southerners apparently generally thought they could whip them effete Yankees quickly and get back to their farms, but there is no evidence Southerners, even the politicians, had thought of conquering the North.
They just wanted to have their own country.
But Lincoln and his capitalist cronies didn't want to lose the revenues of the South so "the war came."
Being industrialized, and more than willing to throw away lives for capitalist profits (U.S. Grant used, especially around Petersburg, human wave assaults later copied by North Korea and China and, later still, by North Vietnam).
Yes, there are people today who say, "Oh, thank goodness. How terrible if the country had been divided."
No, how terrible that as many as one million lives (according to some modern research) were thrown away in order to maintain an empire

Scott Robinson

Dear Stephen,

In the first point of your list of "parallels", I see the decrying of the border wall as "immoral" as an example of this. I'm familiar with people describing similar things as parallels, but I actually don't know what that label literally means. I'll have to actually study this. I would summarize the current battle calls to fight immorality as, "The same thing happens all over again." I see the so called divisiveness we witness today as being similar to the conflicts that have arisen from fundamentalism (this is another of those words with evil connotations). Fundamentalism and compromise can not coexist. If you compromise, you lose some of those items that a fundamentalist values. This is why compromise is often called selling out. This is why people don't "acquiesce for their rights", but "fight for their rights."

Best Wishes,


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