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« Carnival of the Capitalists | Main | No, But I Got Nominated Real Good »

Civil Wars

One of the best descriptions that I've found of the politics of 1860 comes from Bruce Catton's The Coming Fury, the first in his trilogy of the Centennial History of the Civil War. Now, Catton was a northerner, and had the North's views of the causes of the war, which differ considerably from the South's. They do, however, have the added advantage of being right. (For instance, if states' rights divorced from slavery really were the issue, why was the CSA Constitution mute on that point?)

The key thing to remember is that at each point in the crisis, the two sides failed utterly to understand each other. The North, in particular the Republicans, had no idea of the threat they represented in the minds of the South, in particular the newspapermen. Lincoln justified his refusal to elaborate on his views on the legal status of slavery on the grounds that anything he said can and would be used against him in the court of public opinion. What he didn't see was that while it couldn't affect the election (he wasn't on any Southern ballots, anyway), his silence could be twisted just as effectively as any words he might have used.

In fact, throughout 1860, the North continued to view secession as a threat, and then as a political maneuver, long after the fire-eaters had hijacked the process and driven Union sympathy to the fringe. There was considerable Union sentiment, but it was a mile wide and an inch deep, and once the step was taken, loyalty was going to be sectional rather than national. In fact, the border states - including Virginia - didn't secede until it was evident that force would be used to protect Federal property and keep the south in the Union.

For the South's part, they didn't understand the North's commitment to the Union, and its unwillingness to be coerced into committing large portions of its GDP and legal system to the support of a crumbling institution. It also probably overestimated Southern sympathy in the border slave states, which is odd, considering that that's where the Constitution Party, whos platform essentially consisted of wishful thinking about reaching another compromise, got most of its votes.

In fact, the one character who comes out looking the most sane, the most rational, and the most insightful, is Stephen Douglas. Douglas was the only candidate who was willing to conduct a campaign on the actual issues of slavery and potential secession, while all other parties talked around the first and ignored the second. By doing so, Catton points out, they left an electino process designed for national decision-making not having resolved anything.

One last point is also worth considering. Secession was brought about by a confluence of southern temperment, and a skillful manipulation of the political process. The fire-eaters, William Yancey chief among them, maneuvered to get a crisis, promoting a schism in the Democratic Party and willing the election of Lincoln. They did this because they rightly calculated that much of the South was tired of compromise and talk and wanted action and a resolution. Douglas's sin was, in Catton's words, that he was proposing a politician's solution at a time when the political institutions had ceased to function. The fire-eaters denied him the nomination precisely because they feared he might be able to bring such an agreement about. From their point of view, it was better to split the party in order to lose the election, and then let the fear of Lincoln do its work.

For that reason, elections need to be about what they're about. It's one reason "trangulation" and "the permanent campaign" are so damaging to the body politic, and it they probably have soemthing to do with why we're now 48-48 rather than 40-40.


Have you read "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodein?

A most interesting view of Lincoln's cabinet

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