Is 2016 America facing an 1860 moment?
One of the hardest things to do as a historian is to capture the raw drama of a moment in the past, all the while knowing how the story ultimately ends. Whatever era it is we study, historians weigh the hopes, fears, plots, contingencies and personalities of people at a certain place and time against the longer term structural changes and cultural subtexts that these same people only dimly understood. We seek to understand why people did what they did, knowing what they knew about their own time, and what they thought they knew about their futures.
My current book project on the 1860 Presidential election tries to capture this conundrum, a people heartily engaged in the rituals of democracy, knowing full well that the outcome could – and I repeat “could” – lead to secession and civil war. Did this fear cause people to behave differently than in, say, 1856 or 1848? How well did the plotters who blew up the Democratic Party at Charleston that year, like William Lowndes Yancy, game the future course of events?
More importantly, what did the millions of ordinary Americans, both voters and non-voters, free and enslaved, men and women, think of this familiar Constitutional democracy careening toward national suicide? And how did the emerging awareness of this crisis by the Fall of 1860 cause people to think of themselves not just as voters in a peaceful republic, but as possible soldiers in a shooting war against their countrymen? Did they think the future would be like the past, and the sectional animosities would produce another grand compromise, as in 1850 and 1820? If war was to come, did they really think it would end in just a few weeks or months? How prepared were they for the calamity that awaited them?
In many ways, this is unanswerable. They didn’t know what would come after the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, no matter how much they thought they knew. But that uncertainty did not prevent them from guessing, dreading, denying, plotting, praying, polarizing, arming, just in case.
There is a lesson in this uncertainty for us today. No, we are not in an 1860 moment.
I firmly believe that the deep divisions of today resemble nothing like the politics of slavery in 1860. But it certainly FEELS like an unprecedented crisis in 2016, and we look to events in the past as a guide to the future. Is this 1933 Germany and the emergence of fascism? Is Trump really going to succeed in bringing back manufacturing jobs, and build a truly popular majority in support of him? Will the pendulum swing back hard to the left again in 2018 and 2020, now that the Republicans control everything? Will some bizarre turn of events produce a different President assuming office in January 2017?
These questions, too, are unanswerable at this point. Such is the human condition to worry about the future and make plans based on foggy understandings of the past. But this present moment seems genuinely different than past moments, and by any historical standard, it is.
We have never had a candidate like Donald Trump win the Presidency before. What makes this time especially anxious, I think, is that the other institutions we have long turned to for a sense of continuity and contentment have also buckled under. Media is completely distorted and decentralized. Religion is disappearing. Communities are more evanescent than ever before, as human migration accelerates at a pace surpassed only by the rate at which virtual, on-line “communities” come and go. Popular entertainment seems less compelling than ever. Hell, even our beloved mountains here in East Tennessee are on fire, engulfing whole communities.
These are nauseating times. More nauseating than 1919, or 1938, or 1968? That is unanswerable. We are here now, and all we have is our consciousness, our minds and bodies, to make whatever sense of this mess of a world we can, guided, however faintly, by, what the winner of that 1860 election called, the better angels of our nature.
Illustration: Wikimedia Commons