Seth Cohen half-remembers something he read online about the Civil War in order to bolster his argument that modern Americans are heading toward national conflict.
They say “C’s get degrees,” but what happens when an average student in American history grows up to write political columns for Forbes.com? Something like “Rush Limbaugh Predicts A ‘Veritable’ Civil War — Could He Be Right?” by Seth Cohen.
I’ve read hundreds of articles over the past few decades claiming another American Civil War is right around the corner every time we’re faced with a contentious issue. All of them, thankfully, have been wrong (so far…). But it’s not the premise of Cohen’s article I’m concerned with–it’s his distorted retelling of American history, particularly its Civil War history.
“There are some troubling parallels” Cohen claims, between America today and America 160 years ago.
“Back then, the fractious 1860 election was essentially a referendum on slavery and states’ rights, with the northern and southern states at deep odds over the future of the nation. Lincoln, the Republican candidate, claimed an electoral landslide over the three other candidates, yet only won 40% of the popular vote. The election results caused a national rupture, and before Lincoln could be inaugurated, 11 southern states had seceded from the Union. Within weeks, the confrontation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina sparked the Civil War, and the rest is history.”
Unfortunately, Cohen’s summery of these events is almost entirely wrong.
It’s true Lincoln won with 40% of the vote among a divided field, and this was the last straw for several deep Southern states. But in fact, only seven states: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, seceded specifically because Lincoln won the election. Arkansas, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina did not secede until after Lincoln’s April 15th call for a volunteer army to suppress the rebellion.
The firing on Fort Sumter that sparked the war on April 12 was almost four months after South Carolina seceded (December 20, 1860).
But Cohen’s most glaring omission was any mention of events leading up to the 1860 election. Americans didn’t just decide to start killing each other because they didn’t like who was president. The American Civil War actually started with the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 and the violence in Kansas that followed. Pro and anti-slavery partisans openly fought for months, leaving over a hundred people dead.
In 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks nearly beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to death with his cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate. After abolitionist John Brown was captured raiding the Harpers Ferry Armory in 1859, secessionist Edmund Ruffin sent pikes Brown brought along to arm freed slaves to every Southern governor as a warning of what abolitionists had planned.
In truth, sectional conflict had simmered for years leading up to the 1860 election, with outbreaks of actual violence. A few acts of civil disobedience (Cohen’s words) against lockdown orders and one moron wearing a KKK hood to the grocery store does not portend widespread armed conflict between U.S. citizens or states.
Cohen himself admits several times in his own article that another Civil War is unlikely. Perhaps next time he should think twice about trying to apply a sweeping historical analogy to the present day without looking into whether or not his analogy actually fits.