Was the Civil War Inevitable?
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In the late morning of March 6, 1857, two days after the inauguration of James Buchanan as the 15th president of the United States, the Supreme Court’s chief justice, Roger B. Taney, stood among a crowd of reporters and spectators on the ground floor of the United States Capitol and formally read the 55-page majority opinion in Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sandford. Born during the American Revolution and now just shy of 80, Taney could still take over a room with his sense of conviction, and as he began to address the crowd, the old Supreme Court chamber brimmed with anticipation.
Dred Scott’s name was by that point well known to many Americans. The four days of debate on the case, conducted in December of the previous year, had been covered extensively by newspapers. Scott, an enslaved man, and his wife, Harriet, had sued for their freedom based on Dred’s claim that their late owner had taken them for several years into Illinois, a free state, and to Fort Snelling, in a Northern territory where slavery was banned by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. That federal legislation effectively outlawed slavery in the territories above the 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. It was considered a “sacred pledge” by many antislavery Northerners determined to protect the West as “free soil” for “free labor,” but pro-slavery Southerners became equally determined to incorporate new territories as slaveholding states. In deciding whether enslaved people could gain their freedom by residing on free soil, the Supreme Court might answer a question critical to the growing nation: What would the status of slavery be in the Western territories?
Now Taney was ready to deliver the decision. A Marylander and former slaveholder, he was six feet tall and had a drooping, worn facial expression and tobacco-stained teeth. His voice was a bit weak and his body enfeebled, but he remained possessed of what a critic called an “infernal apostolic manner.” Black people, he said, could never be “citizens,” nor considered “as a part of the people.” The room stirred as listeners recognized that Taney was reaching for a much bigger impact than simply the fate of Dred and Harriet Scott and their daughters, or even the question of whether slavery would be permitted in the territories. “Every citizen has a right to take with him into the Territory any article of property,” the chief justice declared. “The Constitution of the United States recognizes slaves as property and pledges the Federal Government to protect it.”
The great crisis over the existence and expansion of slavery had just made a decisive turn. In the aftermath of Taney’s reading, the decision was greeted with a torrent of editorial commentary. Newspapers that sided with the Democrats, like The Daily Picayune of New Orleans, celebrated the court for “so adjudge[ing] the vexed question of the times as to rebuke faction … and consolidate the Union … for all time.” Republican papers, like the New-York Tribune, called the decision “atrocious,” “wicked” and “abominable.” The Chicago Daily Tribune declared that Illinois could no longer prevent someone from “opening a slave pen and an auction block for the sale of black men, women and children, right here in Chicago.” The New-York Daily Times saw the ruling as a revolution against the federal government. “Slavery,” it maintained, “is no longer local; it is national.”
Taney’s decision sought to resolve a powerfully divisive issue that, it turned out, he could not control. Over the next three years, the country descended into disunion, followed by civil war. Recently, it has become disturbingly common to hear Americans wonder aloud whether we are headed for another breakup of some kind. Especially on the far right, talk of overthrowing the government has been increasing, reaching a peak when a mob stormed the Capitol, inspired by President Donald Trump’s persistent claims that the 2020 election had been “stolen” from him. According to the Chicago Project on Security & Threats, use of the term “civil war” surged by 3,000 percent among Twitter users in the hours after the F.B.I. search of Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago in August. A similar surge occurred in September when President Biden gave a prime-time speech in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, denouncing “MAGA Republicans” as anti-democratic threats to America. In the recent trial of Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers militia who was charged with seditious conspiracy, a jury heard many hours of testimony and saw a mountain of evidence implicating the defendant in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Rhodes warned that if Trump did not invoke the Insurrection Act to stop the electoral count in Congress, he and his people would take violent action and trigger a “bloody civil war.” (Rhodes was convicted in late November.)
We might dismiss all this as paranoid ravings, except that a recent University of Virginia Center for Politics poll found that 52 percent of Trump voters and 41 percent of Biden voters at least somewhat agreed that America is so fractured that they would favor some kind of “secession” of blue from red states. Some of this sentiment is no doubt a result of irresponsible rhetoric practiced by people who seek to sow chaos or increase media ratings (and reflects a rather romanticized conception of our Civil War in the 1860s). But the anxiety animating these concerns is real.
Our divisions are deep and seemingly intractable. Thomas B. Edsall, a contributor to The New York Times’s Opinion section, conducted an extensive survey of social-science data and concluded that “there appear to be no major or effective movements to counter polarization.” It would seem that every well-meaning attempt at bipartisanship, political reconciliation or even decency in public discourse has to fight the powerful headwinds of disinformation flowing from ardent Trumpists and their media allies. A strained insistence on conformity and correctness of thought, language and behavior by the left and the right also seems to have rendered respect, grace and honest communication across political lines a thing of the past. And our elections, rather than reliably resolving our differences, are now unsteady rituals of intolerance. One enduring lesson of the 1850s and 1860s is that democracies survive only when those who lose elections accept the result.
Today, given the scale of hyperpartisanship, it might be said that our country is already in the midst of a slow, low-intensity civil conflict. Will it bring about something more violent and destructive?
Credit…White-nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images. Depiction of the Bleeding Kansas era in “The History of Our Country” (1905): Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
For historians, this question leads back to the 1850s and the debate over what brought the nation to civil war. The 2020s are vastly different from the 1850s in terms of technology, demographics, race relations, media and America’s standing in global affairs. We do not even have the same Constitution. Americans of the 1850s were governed by the 1789 Constitution; today we live under the Constitution forged during Reconstruction by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. What these two decades do share, however, are cultures of what the historian John Higham called a “boundlessness” colliding into “consolidation.” Possibilities could seem infinite to an inventor in 1855 seeking to patent a new grain reaper or a thousand other devices needed in an expanding early industrial economy, as they do today for creators of software in the biomedical or aerospace industries. Each era inspired great hope for a limitless future, but also dread of internal conflict and violence. They share a culture of fear that the American experiment is in peril and in need of regeneration — through politics or violent conflict or both.
A recent book offers sobering prospects for where our current situation might lead. Barbara F. Walter’s “How Civil Wars Start” examines more than 200 civil wars in modern history and suggests two major variables that help gauge the potential for civil conflict. The first is whether a government is a “partial democracy” — either a backsliding democracy or an autocracy trying to democratize — and the second is whether its population is voting based on people’s ethnic, religious or racial identity rather than on something else. Walter argues that we will never again see a sectional or regional conflict between armies in the United States, but she believes that decentralized insurgencies, which she calls the “21st-century civil war,” are possible.
The debate over whether America is on an irreversible path to division and breakup like the one that led the country to war in 1861 raises an obvious question: Was the Civil War preventable? Although it is no longer at the center of academic history, this question once dominated American historians’ minds like no other. Historians from the 1930s to the 1960s engaged in a prolonged debate over whether the war was inevitable, and if it was, when it became so. For historians, the stakes of the question are very high. Most of us reject the concept of “inevitability” as a force in history; we much prefer “contingency,” the constancy of change in cause and effect. We tend to avoid single-cause explanations and prefer to situate the big events of the past within complex swirls of social history and political culture.
Although it is antithetical to the historian’s craft, inevitability is utterly beguiling. In an engrossing work from the 1950s titled “Historical Inevitability,” the philosopher Isaiah Berlin held that “for historians determinism is not a serious issue.” Then, turning sharply, he said, “Yet, unthinkable as it may be as a theory of human action, specific forms of the deterministic hypothesis have played an arresting, if limited, role in altering our views of human responsibility.” Indeed, when are we in control of events, and when are forces, ideas and upheavals our masters? When living in the midst of a historical process, no one can know where the train is taking them, whether in the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, around the rim of the Empire of Japan in 1937 or on the Kansas plains in 1857. But when we look at each of these periods in retrospect, our human tendency is to perceive an inevitable course of action leading to the known future.
Understand the Events on Jan. 6
- Timeline: On Jan. 6, 2021, 64 days after Election Day 2020, a mob of supporters of President Donald J. Trump raided the Capitol. Here is a close look at how the attack unfolded.
- A Day of Rage: Using thousands of videos and police radio communications, a Times investigation reconstructed in detail what happened — and why.
- Lost Lives: A bipartisan Senate report found that at least seven people died in connection with the attack.
- Jan. 6 Attendees: To many of those who attended the Trump rally but never breached the Capitol, that date wasn’t a dark day for the nation. It was a new start.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that we cannot write narrative history without turning points. And for historians of the period leading to the Civil War, there are many to choose from. In his indispensable “The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861,” David M. Potter notes “the ubiquity of the slavery question” as early as 1848, unleashed into American politics by the war with Mexico and the conquest of the Southwest. “No other issue in American history has so monopolized the political scene,” he wrote, a notable claim considering that he published the book in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Potter, though he didn’t make an explicit argument about inevitability, found the essential conflict of 1860 fully “articulated by December of 1847.”
But was that the pivotal turning point? Or did it come in 1854, when the Kansas-Nebraska Act proposed to settle the question of whether those territories would permit slavery on the basis of “popular sovereignty,” meaning the voters would decide by referendum? The law proved so unworkable that it led to widespread vigilante violence, death and destruction across Kansas, as one side saw a slaveholding oligarchy out to destroy free labor and small independent farmers and the other saw a fanatical tide of radical abolitionists, seeking to deny slaveholders their property rights. Still other historians have made the case for 1857, when an economic crisis threw hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work and led Northerners and Southerners to blame each other for the suffering. That year, wrote the great Civil War-era historian Kenneth M. Stampp in his too-little-read book “America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink,” “encompassed a political crisis which proved to be decisive in the coming of the Civil War.”
As a historian of the period, I find Stampp’s case for 1857 as the great pivot on the road to disunion to be persuasive largely because of the Dred Scott case, which stoked the fear, distrust and conspiratorial hatred already common in both the North and the South to new levels of intensity. As we worry over where the country is headed today, it’s instructive to turn our attention to this milestone on the road to war. Though the first bullets would not fly for another four years, Dred Scott was the point of no return. It revealed and shaped the political condition of a society as dangerously divided as it had ever been — polarized, to employ our modern term. It confirmed for antislavery Northerners that the pro-slavery South would stop at nothing, constitutional or otherwise, to preserve and spread slavery. In the wake of the decision, those seeking a middle ground saw few paths to compromise.
The Dred Scott decision brought to a head tensions that had been growing throughout the 1850s. For opponents of slavery in the North, the decade was simultaneously one of heightened activism and deepening despair. Fugitive slave rescues, some violent and successful, followed the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. In May 1854, just as the Kansas-Nebraska Act exploded in American politics, a man named Anthony Burns, who had escaped slavery in Virginia, was arrested and detained in Boston. Two days later, a multiracial crowd, angry and armed, stormed the courthouse but failed to free the young Burns, even as a guard was killed. Burns was tried under the Fugitive Slave Act and ordered to be remanded to his owner and returned to Virginia. Amid tremendous controversy and rumors of violence, President Franklin Pierce sent some 1,500 federal troops to Boston to keep order. On June 2, the city streets were decked in black banners and filled with crowds of abolitionists as Burns was marched in shackles to the wharf.
The Burns case provided another sensational story in a society already reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which was published in 1852. Above all, the book galvanized Northerners, as well as Southern critics, like no other work of literature ever had, around the issue of the fugitive slave and the sensibility that slavery might die in America only by violence. Fear for the future of the country percolates up from the sea of sentimentalism in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The book is replete with reversals of responsibility for slavery, with evil Yankees like Simon Legree and conflicted slave owners like Arthur Shelby and Augustine St. Clare, but in the end, as the literary historian Andrew Delbanco writes, the novel’s central theme is that “conscience is no match for the coercive force of the market.” The novel swept up the American imagination and played its part in widening the sectional divide.
African American leaders followed these currents intently. A rhetoric of righteous revolutionary violence flowed from some Black writers in the 1850s. The political crisis over slavery forced a choice, Frederick Douglass wrote. Either America’s creeds were a “warrant for the abolition of slavery in every State of the Union,” or the only alternative might become revolution. He began to advocate and justify violence in self-defense against slave catchers. The formerly enslaved minister Samuel Ringgold Ward wrote in his 1855 autobiography that the great question before the country was “not whether the black man’s slavery shall be perpetuated, but whether the freedom of any Americans can be permanent.” Most whites might deny or avoid the reality, but Black and white freedom were mingled in a single political fate.
The country’s growing divides were on clear display in the 1856 presidential contest, in which slavery was the central issue. The new Republican Party — an entirely sectional, Northern coalition — ran on a clear antislavery platform that opposed any expansion of slavery into the West, calling for the immediate admission of Kansas as a free state and labeling slavery one of the “relics of barbarism.” For their candidate, they chose the explorer John C. Frémont of California. The Democrats ran James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, a man of pro-slavery sentiments. A third vaguely moderate, nativist party, calling itself the American Party, ran the former president Millard Fillmore, another Northerner sympathetic to the South.
The rhetoric of the 1856 campaign was dire. Republicans of all backgrounds made the idea of a “Slave Power conspiracy” their primary slogan. The notion was as old as the 1820s but now had new persuasive currency. The Slave Power, so the argument went, was a small cadre of slaveholders in the South who had managed to manipulate all the levers of government, and now law, to render slavery forever safe in the Union. Evidence of this was abundant: Every American president, except for the two Adamses, had been either a slaveholder or a pro-slavery sympathizer, and two-thirds of Supreme Court justices had been slaveholders. The Slave Power had even succeeded in making Northerners legally complicit in returning fugitive slaves to their owners. According to the Slave Power’s most incisive historian, Leonard L. Richards, “Usually, conspiracy arguments have limited appeal, inspiring a handful of true believers but not a wide audience. The Slave Power thesis, in contrast, attained the status of conventional wisdom in Republican circles and had wide appeal across the North” in the 1850s. The Slave Power idea had a strong basis in fact, but abolitionists and Republican politicians inflated and weaponized it as propaganda in a politics of fear.
For their part, pro-slavery Southerners had long rehearsed their own conspiracy against what they viewed as the religious zealots in the vanguard of abolitionism, whom they called the “Black Republicans.” Among many white Southerners, as well as their Northern allies, the label “Black Republican” became a ubiquitous description for anyone who opposed the extension of slavery, and certainly for anyone favoring its elimination. In 1856, if you screamed “Black Republicans” enough and accused them of trying to achieve the “amalgamation” of the races through forced marriages, millions of voters would be frightened. Racial purity has often shown its power to unite white Americans. “The Black Republican party favor the full citizenship of the negro,” declared The Indiana Daily State Sentinel in 1857. The Detroit Free Press hailed Dred Scott because it destroyed “the underpinnings of negro-worship” and threw “that detestable ism in the dirt.” Frederick Douglass humorously exploited the irony of the terminology. At a state convention for Republican delegates in 1856, Douglass declared: “You are called Black Republicans. What right have you to that name? Among all the candidates you have selected, or talked of, I have not seen or heard of a single black one.”
Both sides of the American political divide now accused each other repeatedly of being the true “disunionists.” Political opponents were no longer election foes; they were enemies with values that threatened the republic. An opponent so evil and dangerous must be destroyed, not merely defeated. One clear lesson of the 1850s is the danger of conspiracy theories, how they grow in the cracks of a fractured society.
Are we a society driven now, as in the 1850s, by conspiratorial visions of each other? On the left, many see Trumpism, and the Republican Party that buttresses its extremes, as tantamount to the Slave Power, a devious force seeking to lock in minority rule through extreme gerrymandering, state and local culture wars and the partisan takeover of the Supreme Court. In the minds of some Fox News devotees, the specter of corporate neoliberalism, “coastal elites,” L.G.B.T.Q. rights and globalization is the new version of “Black Republicans,” taking over our material, moral and intellectual lives with “wokeism” and fraudulent voting.
Fear works in politics. Shout “voter fraud” loud and often enough, and it gains legitimacy. Label your opponent a “socialist,” and it will appear on placards at rallies. Declare mainstream print or television reporting “fake news,” and those on your side possess a ready-made slogan for any disagreeable information.
The conspiracies swirl around our digital information space in ways that 19th-century Americans could hardly imagine. The man who is accused of breaking into Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home in San Francisco and assaulting her husband, Paul, was most likely inspired by a long-standing climate of Pelosi hatred, exemplified by Stewart Rhodes’s line from Jan. 10, 2021: “We should have brought rifles [to the Capitol]. We could have fixed it right then and there. I’d hang [expletive] Pelosi from the lamppost.”
The election of 1856 did not result in widespread violence, but it was very sectional, and conspiracy politics ran rampant. Buchanan won, carrying every slave state except Maryland, as well as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and California, while Frémont won the rest of the free states. For some pundits at the time, and historians in retrospect, the election was called a “victory within defeat” for the Republicans. The old Whig Party was now effectively dead, its Northern remnants folded into the Republican Party, and the nativists more and more pitched their tents in the Republican camp as opponents to the expansion of slavery, the supposed denigration of free labor and the slaveholding oligarchy’s threat to individualism. The Republican Party was an unsteady coalition of factions and strange bedfellows, but it represented a potent new political force. The splintering of the American party system, a phenomenon in process ever since the war with Mexico, endangered the cohesion of the Union itself. What happened next would launch the country onto an irreversible course to war.
By the time Buchanan was ready to be sworn in, in March of 1857, the Supreme Court had finished its deliberations in the Dred Scott case. A winding legal road had brought the case to this point. The Scotts were legally married at Fort Snelling in what is now Minnesota, which was free territory in 1836, when Dred was around 40 and Harriet was 17. The impetus for their lawsuit might have come as much from Harriet as from Dred. They had two daughters, Eliza and Lizzie, and Harriet was determined to protect them from enslavement. In 1842, their owner, Dr. John Emerson, returned to Missouri. He died a year later, and Dred and his family transferred to the ownership of his widow, Eliza Irene Sanford. Her brother, John Sanford, would eventually claim to be the true owner of the Scott family and declare his intention to possess his property.
But Scott had supporters in Missouri who saw the potential in his case for a freedom suit. Such suits were not uncommon during the 19th century, especially in the territories. They demonstrate the ambiguous and conflicted nature of enslaved people’s legal status in these volatile years of westward expansion. Scott’s case was first brought in the Circuit Court of St. Louis in 1846, where he prevailed, only to have the decision overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court by a 2-to-1 vote. The Missouri state justice William Scott, a pro-slavery Democrat, feared that to free the Scott family would risk disunion and, echoing John C. Calhoun, cause “the overthrow and destruction of our government.” From there the case made its way through a series of appeals. A Federal District Court concurred with the state’s decision. Scott’s supporters enlisted, pro bono, the famous free-soil politician and lawyer Montgomery Blair to take his case, and under Blair’s legal leadership, Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it reached the docket in late 1854.
The court faced three major questions. One, jurisdiction: As a Black man, was Dred Scott a citizen, with the right to sue in a federal court? Two, the validity of the “free soil” concept: Were Scott or his wife and their children entitled to freedom based on their residence for several years in a free state and a free territory? And three, the Missouri Compromise line: Would the court rule once and for all on whether Congress, and therefore the federal government, had the power to restrict the presence of slavery anywhere in the jurisdiction of the United States?
In one way or another, all of these issues were at the center of the 1856 election, and its bitter partisanship hung over the justices and their deliberations like a poisoned cloak. As is the case today with our conservative-majority court, the Taney court was decidedly partisan. Of the nine justices, seven were appointed to the bench by Southern pro-slavery presidents. Five of those seven were from slave states and slaveholding families. Of the four Northerners on the court, Robert C. Grier of Pennsylvania, an old Jacksonian Democrat, was appointed by President James K. Polk, perhaps the most pro-slavery chief executive of the entire antebellum era, and Samuel Nelson of New York was appointed by President John Tyler, a Virginian. They each joined the Southern majority in the Dred Scott decision. The two other Northerners, John McLean of Ohio and Benjamin R. Curtis of Massachusetts, would be the dissenters in the case.
Ahead of the inauguration, Justice John Catron and Justice Grier corresponded directly with the president-elect about the case. Buchanan wrote back urging them to push for a decisive declaration on Congress’s power to control slavery in the territories, knowing full well that the justices were aware he sought a pro-slavery outcome. Grier consulted about Buchanan’s letter with Justice James Wayne of Georgia and the chief justice himself, in what one historian has called a highly irregular “game of judicial politics” and a “breathtaking example of judicial activism.” Buchanan was given advance notice of the decision so that he could, if he so chose, refer to it in his Inaugural Address in the first week of March. In no uncertain terms, by the time Taney sat down to write the majority opinion, the fix was in for a broad decision that would try to settle, in thoroughly pro-slavery terms, the constitutional question forever.
It was the finality of the decision that made it so pivotal in leading the country to open conflict. To radical abolitionists, and certainly to many Republicans, the most offensive part of the decision was that it closed off the possibility of liberty or citizenship for free Black people. To the political antislavery coalition, growing in the North, the case’s inflammatory result was that it explicitly opened all of the Western territories, potentially as well as Northern states, to the legality of slave ownership. Dred Scott v. Sandford declared an eternal pro-slavery future in America.
Resistance began with the two dissents. In Justice Curtis’s opinion, he reminded the chief justice and posterity that when the Constitution was adopted in 1787, free Black men had been able to vote for delegates for the ratification conventions in five states. He also pointed out that there was no racial qualification for citizenship anywhere in the Constitution, thus declaring Taney’s originalism bad history and false law. Curtis further contended, with a long history to back it up, that slavery could exist only where “positive law” expressly sanctioned it. Otherwise, how could so many Northern states have abolished it? And as to the claim that the Constitution had been written “exclusively by and for the white race,” Curtis labeled this a mere “assumption,” contradicted by the Preamble, which calls for a “more perfect union,” and the Declaration of Independence’s promise of natural rights. This opinion was printed and published almost immediately in pamphlet form, a highly unusual act. Curtis had taken Taney’s uninformed originalism and thrown it in his face.
Opposition to the decision quickly became a marker by which Republicans would define their careers. At the annual convention of the American Antislavery Society in May 1857, Frederick Douglass, now very much a political abolitionist devoted to fighting slavery through law and political action, said the Slave Power was “poisoning, corrupting and perverting the institutions of the country.” Douglass warned that the conspiracy threatened everyone. “The white man’s liberty has been marked out for the same grave with the black man’s,” he said. The “ballot box is desecrated, God’s law set at naught.” He believed that the only way to stop the Slave Power was direct confrontation, the “overthrow” of slavery, “sooner or later, by fair means or foul means … in peace or in blood.” As the historian Elizabeth Varon has written, the Dred Scott case and the extended reactions to it gave the Slave Power concept a new stark reality and a “terrifying boundlessness.”
From 1857, the Dred Scott case determined how many Americans voted. It made moderation nearly impossible, and many Republicans took more radical stances. The next year, Abraham Lincoln accepted the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in a speech at the Statehouse in Springfield, Ill. Standing on the high dais, Lincoln gave his poetic oration about a “house divided” that “cannot stand.” The one-term congressman and successful lawyer had always hated slavery, but he came of age a devotee of Henry Clay and the Whigs’ moderate approach. He was a gradualist about abolishing the institution and believed that the removal of some part of the African American population from the country remained an effective solution. But as we have seen, the election of 1856 was the end of the road for the Whigs. By 1858, Lincoln had begun to adopt a more aggressive tone.
The slavery controversy, Lincoln announced, “will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.” Just what Lincoln intended to predict in this speech has never been perfectly clear, but his fears and his analysis of the current divide were distinct and resounding. He believed that the national “government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” Lincoln kept a moderate’s hopeful pose: “I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” For antislavery Northern Republicans, this was the existential fear unleashed by Dred Scott: that slavery would no longer be confined to the South, where it might gradually die out. Because of Dred Scott, they believed that slavery now stalked their own neighborhoods.
As a June breeze wafted off the prairie and through the windows of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Lincoln gave a blurry prediction. The “opponents” of slavery may “arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.” As Lincoln’s career moved ever closer to the national center in the next two years, those words — especially “ultimate extinction” — would be reread and repeated by both sides in the slavery crisis. Lincoln had laid down a marker: What the republic risked in the slavery crisis was everything.
For the remainder of the “House Divided” speech, Lincoln shifted to a vigorous attack on the Dred Scott decision. We often stop reading after the poetry of his opening, but the crisis posed to the Union emerges clearly in the rest of the address. Lincoln did not explicitly employ the term “Slave Power,” but he gave it many other names. He said that the Nebraska doctrine and the Dred Scott decision together had become a “piece of machinery” in the hands of Southerners and their Northern Democratic allies. Lincoln insisted that his audience see what he saw: clear “evidences of design, and concert of action, among its chief bosses” to give slavery an eternal future in America. These designers — the Slave Power — had one primary goal since 1854: to open “all the national territory to slavery.” The idea of popular “self-government” had been rendered “perverted” by this organized cartel, such that under law, “if any one man choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object.”
In stark terms, Lincoln had become the moderate as alarmist, a conspiracy theorist in his own right, alerting his tribe of the struggle ahead. Such blunt warnings had become mainstream rhetoric for Republicans by this point. Before ending the “House Divided” speech, Lincoln stated the deepest Republican and free-soil fear, especially in the wake of Dred Scott: that a new case would emanate from the border states, or even a free state, that would challenge whether any state could lawfully “exclude slavery from its limits.” Here Lincoln darkly predicted that “such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the states.” Lincoln believed that such a decision was “probably coming” and that the only way to stop it was by organizing and voting, such that the “power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown.”
Four months after Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech, Senator William Seward of New York delivered a speech in Rochester in which he said the country had become a “theater,” staging a drama between “two radically different political systems.” The two systems were “incompatible,” Seward announced, and on a course of “collision” in an expanding single nation. Echoing, even extending, Lincoln’s metaphor, Seward concluded portentously: “It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces.”
Today many Americans would agree that our current politics pit two such forces against each other. As a result, our country faces crises of institutional legitimacy, of utterly polarized media sources, of transparent voter suppression, of irreconcilable public-policy debates over guns, abortion, climate change, public schools and attempts to control the conduct of elections. We have reason to wonder if the persistence of racism is a transhistorical ingredient of American politics. Justifiably, we fear vigilante, militia violence against the institutions and political leaders we depend on. We rightly worry about whether American democracy can withstand the current pressures placed upon it by the authoritarian tendencies that Trumpism has unleashed.
A striking dissimilarity between the 19th century and today is that even during the secession crisis of 1860-61, those who lost elections acknowledged their defeat. They acted politically to organize against their opponents in the next election or they took the revolutionary act of domestic insurrection and withdrawal from the Union, but they did not dispute the election results.
What is common to the 1850s and our own time is fundamental and disruptive change and a powerful minority that seeks to turn back the clock to prevent it. We can see this in some of the similarities between the decisions in Dred Scott and Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Each draws on history as a means of arresting certain developments in society. Taney, in Dred Scott, argued that Black people had always been perceived as inferior and had been mostly enslaved and therefore possessed no rights as citizens. But that had not stopped many thousands of Black people and their allies from demanding and fighting, legally or otherwise, for their freedom and their rights. Similarly, in Dobbs, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. argued that abortion was nowhere in the Constitution and had never been legal until Roe v. Wade. But women had sought abortions for generations, however clandestinely, as a medical practice that they considered their right.
Each decision says, in effect, that because certain freedoms were not enshrined in law historically, the evolution of society to embrace those freedoms is irrelevant. Would Justice Alito overturn Loving v. Virginia (1967) because marriage between two people of different races is nowhere in the Constitution, or because decades of state laws prohibited it? Should clean-air legislation be on the chopping block because it is nowhere in the 1787 or the 1868 Constitutions? What about Native American citizenship? Women’s suffrage? Federal regulation of the industrial economy? Disability rights? Same-sex marriage? And what of the precious right to vote, so long denied or suppressed by law or by violence in this country? Voting rights are not in the original Constitution, either.
In both cases, the stakes are the nature and extent of freedom in this republic. What will the next year bring? Is a second Dobbs v. Jackson decision on the horizon, as Republicans in the late 1850s feared a second Dred Scott? There is good reason to fear the Moore v. Harper case from North Carolina, which will test the “independent state legislature” theory, which contends that only state legislatures — not the state courts — have authority over federal election procedures and voting rights. Progressives understandably fear that the states’ rights doctrine has become a Trojan horse of the right wing, returning power to the states so they remain safe from the post-Civil War and post-New Deal regulatory powers of the federal government.
Are today’s myriad crises somehow equivalent to the great question of slavery in late-antebellum America? Can our current rabble of loud difference still be governed? The recent midterm elections provide measures of reassurance: Most election deniers lost, although some key candidates did prevail in Colorado, Florida and Ohio, Wisconsin and elsewhere. Overall, it appears that at least small majorities in many regions prefer facts over bizarre conspiracy, democracy over authoritarianism and American pluralism over racism and xenophobia. In other Western democracies, far-right extremists win seats in national assemblies, where coalitions can constrain their ideas. But in a two-party system, the capture of one party by extremists is enough to cause great political havoc and violence — a lesson we should have learned from the destruction of our Union in 1861.
Authoritarianism is an American historical tradition, newly energized and threatening our republican existence. In coming elections, we shall see whether our 21st-century democracy will live or die honestly, whether we, too, are heading for collapse or renewal through politics, law or civil conflict. How we answer such challenges will determine whether it is 1857 again in America. Even if it is, we need to remember that antislavery advocates did not merely lay down in front of the juggernaut of Dred Scott; they mobilized and fought back — over race, rights and their future.
David W. Blight is the Sterling professor of history at Yale University as well as the director of its Gilder Lehrman Center for the study of slavery and abolition. His book on Frederick Douglass won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for history. Máximo Tuja, who goes by Max-o-matic, is an illustrator in Barcelona known for his collage work. He is the founder of The Weird Show art platform.