It has become fashionable in some circles to liken the Republican Party to the Southern Confederacy—the same Confederacy created out of the throes of sectionalism and secession to preserve racial slavery, and the same Confederacy that in 1861 inaugurated violent civil war against the lawful government of the United States. Recent essays in Rolling Stone and the New York Review of Books have given the clearest expression to this comparison. But the analogy is false, and it demands a corrective.
It is self-evidently false because no American today sanctions the buying and selling of persons in marketplaces as chattel. Such sights were common in the nation’s capital until 1850 and across the South into the 1860s. So ubiquitous was slavery in the antebellum South that, absent complete federal guarantees, the institution required rigorous protection in local law. Slavery was the bedrock and the figurative cornerstone of the Confederacy. This treasonous political experiment was dedicated not to the proposition that all men are created equal—a principle given expression by the authors of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, reaffirmed by the Republican Party at its founding in 1854, and celebrated today by Americans of good will irrespective of political party—but to the degradation of African-Americans.
Frustrated that their northern neighbors did not share in the parochial and false view that the original United States Constitution protected slavery as an essential American value, Southern Confederates created their own foundational legal text by adopting much of the original language of the United States Constitution, but with a twist: to their modified constitution, they added explicit guarantees for slavery that, in their warped way of thinking, reflected the moral and scientific “progress” of their age. Confederates believed that the American government’s Framers in 1787 were naïve to believe in human equality. That belief, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens told eager listeners in 1861, was retrograde and “an error.”
If those among today’s woke fantasize about the inevitability of a second civil war in America or stoke a perverse curiosity about the prospects of such a conflict, the fact remains that casual invocations of civil war are dangerous. To Americans who lack historical education and sensitivity—regrettably, a sizable portion of the public today—the Civil War from 1861 to 1865 may seem quaint. Perhaps its place in history offers a certain sense of security to twenty-first century Americans. Surely, we reason, the likes of that war could never happen again. And, of course, the moral lessons of the Civil War appear self-evident and politically expedient in the here and now; a sense of moral self-aggrandizement comes with likening one’s political cause to the cause of Union and emancipation that emerged from the Civil War.
It is true that, in the end, much good came from the American Civil War. That conflict is unique in the history of modern nations because state-sanctioned violence achieved the unlikely liberation of millions of persons held in brutal bondage. But there is no guarantee that any future struggle could or would produce an outcome of such moral, political, and social consequence. If the uncivil character of contemporary political discourse is any guide, future conflict—imbued with the cynicism of our age and unmoored from the tenets of just war—would prove vitriolic and perhaps even more deadly than the violence from 1861 to 1865. Widespread killing on city streets in an age of mass digital media would be terrifying to behold.
The stakes of our polarized future, real and imagined, are high. It is reckless in the current historical moment to compare any political party in the United States to the southern slavocracy of the nineteenth century. It is wrong—a factual error and a distortion of truth—because in America, no matter how contentious our politics seem today, and in spite of well-documented instances of police brutality, thousands of persons are not sold into slavery at market and in plain view. American society in the twenty-first century would be unrecognizable to Southerners in the 1850s who demanded the expansion of slavery into the federal territories. Our politics today would be inscrutable to Confederates in 1861 who obliterated the Constitution of the United States, and who sought through war to build an apartheid society with limitless power to protect slaveholding in perpetuity. Slavery is long gone.
To claim that any political party in the United States today resembles the Confederacy trivializes the horrific history of slavery in nineteenth-century America. It makes a mockery of the terrible human suffering that was the true cause of the Civil War, a devastating event the likes of which Americans of all political persuasions should hope never to see again. And it desensitizes people of good will to evil at work in the world that truly does resemble the horror of nineteenth-century slavery. Americans today are not herded onto trains like cattle and shipped to hellish internment camps of hard labor and almost-certain death (as are persons, for instance, in China). Indeed, to whatever extent any political regime champions those who would enslave others, the closest analogy in the historical present lies with the Chinese Communist Party, which routinely kills its own—especially women and men of religious faith who stand against statist totalitarianism.
History rhymes, as Mark Twain is said to have quipped, but it does not repeat itself. Analogies have limits. Students of the past should be careful about how they deploy historical comparisons. And above all, Americans should not talk casually of civil war.
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