Is America about to face its second civil war? The Portland antifa ally suspected of shooting a Trump supporter said a civil war was “right around the corner.” Former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta war-gamed the 2020 election and suggested that Joe Biden may cry foul if he loses, starting off a chain reaction resulting in secession and a civil war. Far-left groups recently came together to prepare for a civil war.
While many fear a civil war may be in America’s near future, in some senses, the civil war may have already begun. When South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1861 and officially kicked off the Civil War, Americans had already been fighting one another for years. The decade of the 1850s has a great deal to teach modern Americans about how a civil war happens.
The Civil War wasn’t as clear cut as we think
In the September 2020 edition of The Atlantic, anti-racism author Ibram X. Kendi compared Donald Trump’s presidency to the 1850s, the decade leading up to the Civil War. He suggested that Trump has proved that America is still racist and that he has inspired a backlash of mass protests, “an anti-racist revolution.”
Kendi rightly noted that in the 1850s, “a critical mass of Americans rejected the South’s claim that enslavement was good and came to recognize the peculiar institution as altogether bad.” However, he wrongly suggested that this awakening to the evil of slavery was the cause of the Civil War and the ultimate abolition of slavery.
In fact, abolitionists were the minority in the North and Abraham Lincoln won on a platform of restraining the spread of slavery, not abolishing it. Lincoln wanted to return to the conditions of the Founders’ grand bargain on slavery — allowing it, but with limits — while the South pushed to expand it, steamrolling the limits the Founders put on the institution.
The South arguably brought the war on itself by partisan overreach, and the Left is arguably doing the same thing in modern America.
Shortly after the United States adopted its new Constitution in 1789, the Founders passed an updated version of a bill they had passed under the Articles of Confederation two years earlier: The Northwest Ordinance. This law formed a key part of the Founders’ grand bargain on slavery. The Founders viewed slavery as an evil that could not be eradicated yet but one that must be restrained. The Northwest Ordinance prohibited the spread of slavery into the northern territories, specifically the area that would become Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.
As Americans spread west, new states joined the Union in pairs, with one new free state for every new slave state. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 drew a line, prohibiting slavery north of that line.
However, as Kendi noted, “slaveholders expanded their reach into the North” during the 1850s. Thanks to the Compromise of 1850, southern “slave-catchers, backed by federal power, were superseding state and local law to capture runaways (and free Blacks) who had escaped across the Mason-Dixon Line. Formerly enslaved people such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, as well as journalists such as William Lloyd Garrison, stood in pulpits across the North and West describing the brutality and inhumanity of slavery. Meanwhile, slaveholders fought to expand their power out west—where white people who did not want to compete with enslaved Black labor were calling for free soil.”
The situation was even worse than Kendi described. Pro-slavery Democrats pushed the notion of “popular sovereignty” for new states north of the Missouri Compromise line. Democrats argued that when a new northern state was entering the Union, white landowners could vote on whether the state would become free or slave. Abraham Lincoln grew to prominence by arguing against this notion.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 opened the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to “popular sovereignty,” unleashing a flood of pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers who turned Kansas into a war zone. “Bleeding Kansas” was a prelude to the Civil War.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court issued the heinous Dred Scott decision in 1857, which explicitly claimed that black people “had no rights” America was “bound to respect.”
In the decades before the Civil War, the South held tremendous sway over the federal government. The vast majority of presidents before Lincoln came from the South and the South dominated Congress before the Civil War.
Americans commonly think the Civil War started because Lincoln wanted to abolish slavery while the South wanted to preserve it. In reality, the South seceded because Lincoln wanted to prevent the expansion of slavery. He wanted to return to the sort of compromise the Founders had envisioned — one that allowed the evil of slavery to persist but that also limited it, so that it might eventually become extinguished. The South forced Lincoln’s hand, and he issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure to preserve the Union and the Constitution.
The North wasn’t the aggressor before the Civil War — instead, the South was abusing its power and fighting tooth and nail against Lincoln, who represented a moderate backlash to its radical pro-slavery position.
This Civil War history puts the riots in context
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