It has not been uncommon, in recent years, to hear Americans worry about the advent of a new civil war.
“Is Civil War Ahead?” The New Yorker asked last month. “Is America heading to civil war or secession?” CNN wondered on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Last week, Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois told “The View” that “we have to recognize” the possibility of a civil war. “I don’t think it’s too far of a bridge to think that’s a possibility,” he said.
This isn’t just the media or the political class; it’s public opinion too. In a 2019 survey for the Georgetown Institute of Politics, the average respondent said that the United States was two-thirds of the way toward the “edge of a civil war.” In a recent poll conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard, 35 percent of voting-age Americans under 30 placed the odds of a second civil war at 50 percent or higher.
And in a result that says something about the divisions at hand, 52 percent of Trump voters and 41 percent of Biden voters said that they at least “somewhat agree” that it’s time to split the country, with either red or blue states leaving the union and forming their own country, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia (where I am a visiting scholar).
Several related forces are fueling this anxiety, from deepening partisan polarization and our winner-take-all politics to our sharp division across lines of identity, culture and geography. There is the fact that this country is saturated with guns, as well as the reality that many Americans fear demographic change to the point that they’re willing to do pretty much anything to stop it. There is also the issue of Donald Trump, his strongest supporters and their effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Americans feel farther apart than at any point in recent memory, and as a result, many Americans fear the prospect of organized political violence well beyond what we saw on Jan. 6, 2021.
There is, however, a serious problem with this narrative: The Civil War we fought in the 19th century was not sparked by division qua division.
White Americans had been divided over slavery for 50 years before the crisis that led to war in 1861. The Missouri crisis of 1820, the nullification crisis of 1832, the conflict over the 1846 war with Mexico and the Compromise of 1850 all reflect the degree to which American politics rested on a sectional divide over the future of the slave system.
What made the 1850s different was the extent to which that division threatened the political economy of slavery. At the start of the decade, the historian Matthew Karp writes in “This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy,” “slaveholding power and slaveholding confidence seemed at their zenith,” the result of “spiking global demand for cotton” and the “dependence of the entire industrial world on a commodity that only American slaves could produce with profit.”
But with power came backlash. “Over the course of the decade,” Karp notes, “slavery was prohibited in the Pacific states, came under attack in Kansas and appeared unable to attach itself to any of the great open spaces of the new Southwest.” The growth of an avowedly antislavery public in the North wasn’t just a challenge to the political influence of the slaveholding South; it also threatened to undermine the slave economy itself and thus the economic basis for Southern power.
Plantation agriculture rapidly exhausted the soil. The sectional balance of Congress aside, planters needed new land to grow the cotton that secured their influence on the national (and international) stage. As Karp explains, “Slaveholders in the 1850s seldom passed up an opportunity to sketch the inexorable syllogism of King Cotton: The American South produced nearly all the world’s usable raw cotton; this cotton fueled the industrial development of the North Atlantic; therefore, the advanced economies of France, the northern United States and Great Britain were ruled, in effect, by Southern planters.” The backlash to slavery — the effort to restrain its growth and contain its spread — was an existential threat to the Southern elite.
It was the realization of that threat with the election of Abraham Lincoln — whose Republican Party was founded to stop the spread of slavery and who inherited a federal state with the power to do so — that pushed Southern elites to gamble their future on secession. They would leave the union and attempt to forge a slave empire on their own.
The point of this compact history, with regard to the present, is that it is irresponsible to talk about civil war as a function of polarization or division or rival ideologies. If those things matter, and they do, it is in how they both reflect and shape the objective interests of the people and factions in dispute.
Which is to say that if you’re worried about a second Civil War, the question to ask isn’t whether people hate each other — they always have, and we tend to grossly exaggerate the extent of this country’s political and cultural unity over time — but whether that hate results from the irreconcilable social and economic interests of opposing groups within the society. If it must be one way or the other, then you might have a conflict on your hands.
That’s where America was with slavery. That’s why our actual Civil War has been called the impending crisis. I’m not sure there’s anything in American society right now that plays the same role that the conflict over slavery did. Whatever our current challenges, whatever our current divisions, I do not think the United States is where it was in 1860. We have enough problems ahead of us already without having to worry about war breaking out here.
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