Echoes of an Uncompromising Time

Lithographed "Diagram of the Federal Government and American Union, 1862 (Courtesy Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Susan Barsy, Parties Made New: Our Critical Elections, Our Polity.
Susan Barsy, A World Without Lincoln, Our Polity.
Paul Finkelman, Lincoln’s Letter to the Editor, New York Times.

5 responses

  1. A well written post—sure does resonate with our times. I suppose “The Issue” now is the federal budget and debt. The problem has been looming for a decade or more (more, I think), and the piper sure is piping now. You capture well what is going on (or not going on) in D.C. It is sad to think that “The Issue” is now causing strife almost as bad as the slavery issue did generations ago….Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    • Yes, the debt is our critical issue, and the entitlements. If the parties chose to resolve these issues, instead of wrapping them in hysterical rhetoric, they could–fortunate, the issue of reining in spending (even for social goods) is more tractable than the problem of slavery, with its attendant questions of how to classify human beings. It’s important for all of us to begin urging our lawmakers to find humane solutions as we move into an era of budget reductions. Thanks for commenting. Susan

  2. The period leading to the Civil War (especially the 1850s) were characterized by increasingly bitter political rhetoric and action. It was also a period of three horrible presidents. James Buchanan was probably the worst in the history of this Republic stating the South did not have the right to secede but the Federal government did not have the right to prevent it……..(idiotic). In the end the election of 1860 was contested by four parties and the great Abraham Lincoln won…….the South immediately took steps to leave the Union and began hostilities. Ultimately some issues can only be solved by war and this was one of them….it was a great tragedy (over 600,000 Americans killed) and the South defeated……. Today we face difficult problems and a clear choice as we move forward. We do hear talk of “secession” from certain quarters…….one wonders if these folks are serious. At times I think the future of the Union is in jeopardy. History teaches us many lessons….we should learn from them.

    • Hi, Joe–
      I think the Civil War pretty decisively established that states do not have the right to secede, just as the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s established that states do not have the right to nullify a federal law. But we do see states and governors pushing back against the federal government and against laws they do not agree with–it is an effort more aggressive than I can ever remember seeing. George Washington would be dumbfounded at our lack of devotion to the Union and our (consequent) lack of unity. As he foresaw, fierce partisanship is the root of the problem. Citizens need to stay active, and the pendulum will spring the other way.
      Thank you for writing in.

  3. Pingback: The returned to Slavery « just telling it as it is