Many people in the US are displeased with how things are going today, but have we reached the point of being a pre-Civil War powder keg?
Media outlets love to remind Americans that our nation is more polarized now than it has been since the Civil War. Be that as it may, there is a difference between a country on the brink of war and a nation working through the challenges of difficult issues.
The tone of our political dialogue has become increasingly divisive as the president, members of Congress and news networks have traded blows, but are we actually at risk of a real conflict? Let’s examine some of the events that led up to the American Civil War, as well as civil conflicts in other countries, to see just what the brink of a disaster looks like.
States’ Rights and the Lead-up to America’s Civil War
While it is comforting to think that we were so morally guided as to wage war solely for the freedom of African-Americans, the political argument that vaulted slavery issues into the limelight was the question of states’ rights.
Essentially, states’ rights is the question of whether all political power resides with the federal government, or whether each state retains individual sovereignty. During the Civil War era, states’ rights were called into question because some states had outlawed slavery, while others had not.
With the battle lines drawn, several exacerbating incidents that occurred between 1820 and 1860 eventually led to the battle of Fort Sumter and the war’s official beginning.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was controversial to Unionists, who disagreed with allowing a new slave state to form. The Wilmot Proviso, proposed in 1846, would have outlawed slavery in territories acquired as the result of the war, but it never passed, due to opposition from the South.
Territorial expansion of slavery was outlawed in 1850, and as tempers flared, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, John Brown mounted a raid on a Southern arsenal and Abraham Lincoln was elected president. After 40 years of buildup, the war formally began in 1861.
Then and Now
Forty years ago in 1977, Andrew Young was appointed the first African-American U.S. ambassador to the UN and Roots brought the issue of civil rights into living rooms around the country. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing.
We’ve come a long way since then. It’s easy to look at the events in Charlottesville and fear we’ve reverted to some of our most shameful moments in history. But, as terrifying and heartbreaking as it is to hear anyone in the 21st century openly espousing white supremacist views, let’s add a bit of perspective. The fact is, today there are roughly 3,000 enrolled Ku Klux Klan members, compared to peak enrollment of more than 4 million in the 1920s.
That’s no excuse for Americans to act this way, but it seems like today’s situation is more a matter of unrest caused by an extreme minority of hateful people, not a nation divided on the issue of race. There are other polarizing political issues, but you don’t hear speculation about wars for a new health care system.
What We Can Learn From Our Neighbors
Venezuela is a much smaller nation than the United States, and right now its people are suffering from prolonged civil unrest. You could call it a civil war, and some have.
After a failed election, violent protesters attacked 200 voting centers and killed more than 10 people. Venezuelans are concerned about electoral fraud. They fear that the government has become corrupt at the hands of the nation’s wealthy, and with the economy in decline, they have no choice but to take power back through force.
While there are parallels to our situation in the United States, it doesn’t seem like an apples-to-apples comparison. Yes, some Americans are concerned that elections are becoming corrupt — finance reform has been a hot topic for decades, and our current president is under scrutiny for involvement with Russia.
But the institutions designed to investigate these wrongdoings don’t seem to have failed us just yet. It would be foolish to think our government operates without any corruption, but the U.S. economy is relatively healthy, and people have more to lose here than Venezuela. Fighting in the streets doesn’t seem the way to beat the alt-right.
Civil Wars Have Real Consequences
When war broke out in 1861, 620,000 Americans died. It’s hard to imagine a group of U.S. citizens so large and so aggravated that something of that nature could happen in the 21st century. We fight our battles differently today.
We don’t mean to suggest overcoming the discomfort that comes with tearing open these age-old wounds will be easy. We may get a taste of the violent civil clashes not seen since the 1960s, but negative partisanship — the unwillingness of Americans to endorse either major party’s views — means Americans today don’t want the type of pitched battle we saw 150 years ago.
A Test of Our Statehood
Calling our current struggles a civil war is extreme. What we’re enduring is growing pains. Racism is still a major issue in European nations that have existed for thousands of years — to think we, as Americans, can quell it in fewer than 300 years is foolish. A resolution to the distress we feel about our morally misguided countrymen, and perhaps even our morally wrong president, will only come through empathy.
Violence might frighten one person enough to put down their cause — it might even kill them — but in the end, that is only creating a martyr. Instead, we have to accept that it lies with those of us who understand our better nature to be role models and deliver the medicine our country needs for this sickness to pass.