The estimable Dennis Prager has argued for a comparison between antebellum US and present day US. He is trying to draw a comparison between the divide between North and South, today’s pro-Trump and anti-Trump. We can extend this to South Carolina’s threat to secede over the Tariff of Abominations and California’s threat to secede over Trump’s ascension to power. But do these constructs really hold up that well?
North-South divide was not wholly about slavery, though that was part of it; it was also about money. As Charles Adams has argued, the debate was whether the US would have a high tariff or not. The Northern industrial and shipping interests favored a high tariff on foreign imports. Such a tariff would serve to put extra tax revenue at their disposal, through the Federal government, as well as create a favorable balance of trade. The South opposed the tariff because, as a largely agrarian slave-economy, it could not afford a high tariff on the hundreds of commodities which it was forced to import. These two divides can hardly be dragged to today. Tariffs are not a major issue, and slavery is dead.
Today’s divide between Californian and the flyover country is one of ideology, and only partially one of money. Conservatives and Republicans, generally, want to see less taxation, not more, and almost none favor Trump’s absurd suggestions of economic protectionism. California wants to leave the US because it finds Trump to be morally unbearable. Neither Lincoln or Trump are as bad as their enemies think they are. Lincoln was willing to live with slavery; Trump is hardly a Buckleyite.
Secession was, until 3 months ago, treated as if it’s the worst thing in American thought. Under Obama, secession was racist and evil, but under Trump it’s a benign reaction to an orange buffoon. Secession is the right for a people to say who shall rule over them, and who shall not. It is also the right to decide what sort of political union they will live under. Having this right does not legitimize all exercise of it, Southern secession was foolish, but it was neither immoral nor illegal. Secession (when discussed by non-Leftists) may be identified now with all things evil, but that is due to bad history, poor morals and worse constitutional theory. There is nothing evil in secession. California would be foolish to leave the Union, but leave it may, though we may offer inducements to remain.
Finally, fears of a new Civil war are deeply misplaced because the Civil War was not a black-and-white affair. Unlike WWII, that ‘last good war’ of American lore, the Civil War had no clearly good or evil side. Was Lincoln just because he wrote an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice Taney? Was Robert E. Lee an evil man because he owned slaves, and deplored the institution?Lincoln’s legacy is one so mixed that the Right is still not agreed upon his significance. One says he is the re-founder of our nation, another that he got lost in his own rhetoric, another that he was a tyrant, another that he created the imperial presidency. And the argument goes on.
The Civil War was fought for the soul of the nation, whether states or the Federal government would command this nation. The States lost, and we are today left with an arbitrary, federal Leviathan as a result. The war today is also one for America’s soul, but in a different way. Then it was battle of principles of unity vs. principles of independence.
Today it is a struggle between those who think America possess the right to decide it’s fate, and those who don’t. It’s a divide between those that think we, who are Americans, have the right to choose who can and cannot be part of our polity.
The struggle is now one of words, protests and articles. May it never go farther.