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Democracy Is Hard

Last week a group of historians met in Columbus to discuss the interpretive framework for Ohio’s observance of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  (The Ohio Historical Society organized the event; the Ohio Humanities Council sponsored it.)  The first order of business was to offer our initial thoughts on “An Overarching Theme:  The Big Picture.”  On a scratch pad I scribbled “Democracy is hard” and “War as an engine of social change.”  We wound up discussing these and other potential themes — “Memory” and “Transformation” — and at the end of the day, “Democracy is Hard” was one of those we decided to explore in more detail.  I was tasked to write a brief summary, reprinted below:

The Civil War, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman insisted, stemmed from an “excess of democracy.”  He had a point.  The Founders had established a republic, not a democracy.  Well aware that, historically, most republics had failed, they were convinced that success depended upon the restriction of political participation to those with “civic virtue”:  the capacity to understand the complexities of government and a willingness to make choices based not on narrow self interest but on what was best for the commonwealth as a whole.  To ensure this, they instituted property and residency requirements so that only those with a strong stake in the community could vote.  Further, they placed a premium on consensus and had no conception of political parties as we understand the term.  Instead they regarded strong differences in political opinions as evidence of a destructive “spirit of faction.”

Despite the Founders’ wishes, the American Revolution unleashed forces that by the late 1820s had transformed the republic into a democracy characterized by universal white male suffrage.  (Women and African Americans remained largely excluded.)  Political parties emerged, with strongly contrasting views on government and an ability to mobilize voters seldom matched in American history — voter turnout frequently reached 80 percent.  The parties flattered the common (white) man.  They argued, in effect, that the common (white) man had the requisite civic virtue precisely because he was common.  They relentlessly exploited the fears of voters and routinely portrayed the opposition as a threat to liberty, a trait since characterized as the “paranoid style in American politics.”  Shamelessly partisan, newspapers of the day slanted the news in favor of their preferred political party.  They were little more than extended editorial pages.

Initially this system worked.  The two major parties — the Whigs and Democrats — were about equally matched and enjoyed support in all parts of the country.  Well aware that slavery had the ability to split the country along sectional lines, for two decades Whigs and Democrats managed to exclude it from national political life.  The War with Mexico (1846-1848), however, raised a vexing issue: whether to permit slavery in the vast territories the United States had acquired as a result of its victory.  From then on, politicians never found a way to contain the slavery question, and by 1854 a major new party — the Republicans — had emerged, largely on the basis of its opposition to slavery in the western territories.  At stake was a fundamental question about the nature of the United States.  Was it, at bottom, a free republic with pockets of slavery; or a slaveholding republic with pockets of freedom?

Compromise on this issue was possible.  Most Republicans did not object to slavery per se, and only a small minority regarded as a moral imperative the immediate, uncompensated emancipation of slaves and the extension of full legal, political, and social equality to African Americans.  But hotheads on both sides exploited the “paranoid style” for all it was worth.  Tempers flared.  Mob violence became common — lethally so in some cases, particularly “Bleeding Kansas.”  In its Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court unsuccessfully tried to resolve the slave issue.  The victor in the 1860 presidential election, Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln, consistently denied any intent to abolish slavery, candidly regarded African Americans as inferior to whites, and thought the racial problem could best be solved by sending the African American population to colonies in Africa or the Caribbean.

The Deep South, however, regarded Lincoln’s election as a mortal threat.  During the winter of 1860-1861 seven states seceded from the Union rather than accept the verdict of a fairly conducted election whose winner was never in dispute.  Last minute efforts at a compromise solution went nowhere, and when Lincoln attempted to “hold, occupy, and possess” federal installations in the seceded states, the newly created Confederacy fired upon the U.S. garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.  Lincoln’s call for 75,000 militia to suppress the rebellion led four states of the Upper South to join the Confederacy.  A full-scale war began, heartily welcomed by most of the American population, who saw it as an opportunity to cleanse the republic.  It took four years, ten thousand military engagements, and 620,000 dead to resolve through violence an issue that the democratic process had utterly failed to solve.

Nowadays when Americans think about the Civil War they typically do so with a sense of nostalgia.  To them democracy seems easy.  They see little problem with exporting it to other countries, even those devoid of the history, institutions, or political culture necessary to sustain it.  Nor do they see danger in the extreme present-day partisanship — a renewal of the paranoid style of politics — that between 1830 and 1860 pushed the republic off a cliff.  In so doing they overlook a central lesson of the Civil War:  Far from being easy, democracy is extraordinarily hard.

Comments (4) to “Democracy Is Hard”

  1. Mark,

    You make some great points here. I would point out that the Republicans of the 1850’s played up the idea of a slave aristocracy, or “slave power,” that they argued had taken over the Democratic Party and through it the federal government itself. Most Northerners were only concerned about slavery insofar as it affected thier own freedoms, as Grant stated in his Memoirs.

    I especially like your last point about today, though. I try to make this connection for visitors to White Haven every day. I think politics in this country have always been extremely partisan, but when was the last time we heard elected officials stand up and talk about secession as a legitimate course of action?

  2. Brilliantly written.

  3. The issue doesn’t end with the beginning of the war.

  4. Dear Mark,

    Thanks for sharing your ideas. I hope you and Brooks have a full 7 games to decide the victor!