Once again we’re a nation divided over fundamental issues of human suffering and civil rights. With a cruel, corrupt president stoking the hatred, a revolt is inevitable.
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Are we on the brink of a second civil war? Trump supporters are accusing the media of starting one. One poll indicates that 31 percent of Americans think a civil war is likely. The media certainly seems to be bracing themselves for one, publishing a steady flow of think pieces and features in newspapers across the country But maybe the question is less, “Are we heading for a civil war?” and more, “Is one already underway?”
Historians aren’t psychics, but we find clues into the present and future by looking at the past. And the world of Trump has so many of us scrambling to find historical precedents. Donald Trump’s gleeful embrace of patriarchal, Christianist white supremacy in multiple forms—the Muslim ban, the criminalization of marijuana, the continuing rollback of civil rights, the slow destruction of a free press—has a lot of us reaching for comparisons to the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, or the spate of authoritarian dictators across Latin America. But there are precedents closer to home as well—a civil war fought in part over white supremacy, and a revolution that pitted neighbors against one another over their loyalty to a tyrannical government. If we are in the run-up to a civil war, we might ask: Which one?
There were families fleeing horrific conditions and illegally crossing borders in the early 19th century—but they were crossing state boundaries, not national ones. Desperately attempting to emancipate themselves, by any means possible, enslaved Black people risked a perilous journey to freedom. And the hardening of border-enforcement practices toward undocumented immigrants is eerily reminiscent of the conflict over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Slaveholders had always been ruthless in their pursuit of enslaved fugitives. But before 1850, people in free states did not have to assist slaveholders in attempting to recapture escaped slaves; reaching a free state meant safety, albeit with an uncertain future. Although private slave-hunters could and did attempt to kidnap self-emancipated fugitives, they could not compel others to assist.
In 1850, that changed. The so-called Compromise of 1850 was supposed to limit the geography of slavery in the United States. The Fugitive Slave Act was part of the deal, an attempt to pacify legislators from the slaveholding South, who were as hard line in their white supremacy as border-wall supporters today. The pre-1850 situation for fugitive slaves was something like undocumented life under Obama administration policy—fraught with dangers, never secure, but with some hope of building a life in freedom. The Fugitive Slave Act, however, meant “zero tolerance” for escaped slaves, even in free states.
Under the Act, officials in free states were required to cooperate in the pursuit, capture, and return of suspected fugitives. Anyone could face a six-month prison term and a fine of about $30,000 in today’s money for offering food, water, or other aid to a suspected fugitive. What’s more, the captured suspect had no right to legal representation, and could not speak in their own defense during any judicial process.
Every Black resident of free states faced a new threat. Even those born free or legally emancipated might be falsely identified as a fugitive. Overnight, they became highly vulnerable to kidnapping and enslavement. Just as the U.S.-born children of immigrants still learn to fear “la migra,” children born in freedom felt the threat of the slave catchers.
Black people living in the North, of course, knew exactly what horrors the slave-catchers would be taking them to. Black abolitionists like James Forten, Robert Purvis, and Susan Paul had been pursuing abolition with urgency for decades before the 1850s, and they had a growing network of vocal white-abolitionist allies, not only in the United States, but internationally as well. Yet the vast majority of white Northerners remained in privileged ignorance about slavery, and radical abolition remained a minority opinion—until the 1850s. Much as the audiotape of crying children separated from their parents shocked and horrified previously passive Americans in 2018, seeing fugitives pursued in their own backyards changed the Northern white opinion, and quickly.
The story of Anthony Burns is one such example: Burns had escaped from Virginia to Massachusetts in 1853, finding work at a men’s clothing store in Boston. On May 24, 1854, he was captured on his way home from work. Charles Suttle, the man who legally owned Burns, had decided to retrieve his “property.” Boston erupted in anger. Abolitionist lawyers Richard Henry Dana and Charles M. Ellis used legal maneuvers to delay his deportation and fight for him at a hearing before a judge. On May 26, a crowd of around 7,000 attempted to storm the jail where Burns was being held in order to free him. Alas, all attempts—legal or extralegal—were unsuccessful.
With nearly 2,000 Marines and other armed guards holding back a crowd of 50,000, Anthony Burns was marched to the docks and boarded a ship for Virginia. The entire episode cost the federal government around $1 million in today’s dollars. The Burns affair, and others like it, turned many of those who had previously believed in compromise into ardent activists. Wealthy Bostonian Amos Adams Lawrence wrote to a relative: “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists.”
Is a similar awakening happening today? For people of color, the current turn toward increased authoritarianism under Trump is not a new development, but an acceleration of a police state that already existed. It is no accident that congressional women of color have led the most effective pushback against Trump’s policies, women like Therese Patricia Okumu, who has recently emerged as one of the most visible faces of grassroots protest.
Are white Americans finally getting onboard? Perhaps. The large donations to RAICES and other immigrant-supporting organizations and the nationwide protests on June 30 suggest that, at least on the current issue of family separations, putting children in cages, and having kids, even toddlers face judges without legal counsel, more white Americans are paying attention. (It should be noted that such interest doesn’t erase white racism; in the 1850s, many Northern whites became anti-slavery but were perfectly okay with racial segregation. Current white engagement may have similar limits.)
Abolitionists emphasized the way slavery sundered families. As Frederick Douglass wrote: “My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant. It [was] common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.”
The writers of the 1850s did not have the modern medical expertise that details the grave psychological effects of family separation on children or on parents, but they conveyed the scenes of family desolation effectively and powerfully. Harriet Jacobs published an autobiography in serial form in the New York Daily News in the 1850s, detailing her experiences as a slave in North Carolina. She described for her Northern readers the horrors of New Year’s Day, the day that enslaved people might be hired out for the year—or sold:
“On one of these sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother was brought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away. She begged the trader to tell her where he intended to take them; this he refused to do. How could he, when he knew he would sell them, one by one, wherever he could command the highest price? I met that mother in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, ‘Gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me?’ I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence.”
Yet why did these scenes not also move white Southerners, and their remaining Northern supporters? Will Trump supporters soften their hearts at the images of orphan towns where parents have been deported while their U.S.-born children remain behind? Will they care when they read the agonizing stories of parents whose children may be permanently “lost” by the government? The evidence from the past suggests, sadly, that they may in fact double down on their white supremacy.
In the late 18th century, white Southerners had often defended slavery as a necessary evil for economic survival. But by 1837, John Calhoun was arguing on the Senate floor that it was a positive good: “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”
Southern novelists penned sentimental portraits of slavery wherein happy, grateful slaves lived in peace with benevolent owners who treated them with respect and cared for them in old age. Meanwhile, abolitionist literature was banned across much of the South, leaving Southern whites in a “media bubble” that bears more than a passing resemblance to Fox News–Breitbart-Infowars. Modern conservatives have been persuaded that immigrants from Central America are largely rapists and gang members; 19th-century conservatives believed that the industrial North was the real hellhole and the South a white paternalistic idyll. Even Jeff Sessions’s invocation of the Bible to justify his inhumane policies sounds familiar, as white Southern ministers frequently quoted Genesis 9:25 to justify slavery: “And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.”
It seems unlikely that the vilification of the Democrats will end any time soon, either. The Republicans of the 1850s in some ways resemble the modern Democratic Party, emerging as the party of anti-slavery and progressive reforms. But that’s not how Southern slaveholders saw it. In 1860, as tensions reached their height, the Presbyterian minister James Henley Thornwell wrote, “The parties in this conflict are not merely Abolitionists and slaveholders, they are Atheists, Socialists, Communists, Red Republicans, Jacobins on the one side and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other.”
So does this mean we’re facing a new civil war? Certainly, we are a nation deeply divided over fundamental issues of human suffering and civil rights, key elements driving the mid-19th-century conflict. But there is a grim reality to confront. This time, the equivalent of Jefferson Davis is sitting in the White House, not in Richmond, Virginia. And Donald Trump wields far greater executive power than Jefferson Davis, or Abraham Lincoln for that matter.
When we think of civil war, it’s important to remember that the American Revolution was a civil war, too. In some very important ways, it was an internal English conflict, in which the rebel leaders demanded their Constitutional rights as white, English men. They ranged themselves against a powerful government which, by their argument, had broken a constitutional contract between the government and the governed.
White English men were guaranteed certain protections (freedom of speech for legislators, freedom from executive interference in law, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, among others) under the English Bill of Rights, signed by William and Mary in 1688. The document limited the power of the government, particularly the executive branch, balancing it against the legislative powers of Parliament. The grievances against King George’s government that Jefferson listed in the Declaration of Independence were meant to explain why rebellion was justified—if a contract is broken, the other side doesn’t have to honor it anymore.
Donald Trump has a long habit of breaking contracts. Why would the Constitution be any different? His Department of Justice has attempted to overturn habeas corpus and due process rights for immigrants. With the help of a dubiously obtained Supreme Court justice, he has successfully discriminated against Muslims in a travel ban. He is ignoring a 9-0 Supreme Court ruling in an attempt to strip naturalized citizenship from immigrant Americans. The ACLU has called him a “one man Constitutional crisis,” and that is quite apt.
Donald Trump would appear to model himself, not on previous presidents, but on the European absolutist kings the Framers feared. He disdains any check on his power, whether from courts, legislatures, or the power of journalism. Eighteenth-century Versailles was a beautiful palace, but its kings ruled over a police state where newspapers were forbidden, where the right to a trial did not exist, and where political unrest was ruthlessly squashed by a vast network of informants and police. Is this Trump’s vision for America?
The moral moment feels like the 1850s, but the Constitutional crisis is more reminiscent of the 1770s. If a new civil war looms on the horizon, it may be a complicated affair, combining a pushback against executive power with a struggle to end the systematic abuse of human beings (and “zero tolerance” is hardly the only area of concern). Echoing Lincoln, we may still hope for a “new birth of freedom.” But as he well knew, that birth might be very painful.
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