C&D: How long before a war of words turns into actual war?

On March 26-27, the National Constitution Center will host an interactive, interdisciplinary forum and workshop titled “Can We Talk? A Conversation about Civility and Democracy in America.”

Conference participants, drawn from such fields as history, political philosophy, political science, law, sociology, journalism, and communications, will explore both the historical and contemporary context of civility, dissent, and democracy.

As a warm up, we asked some of our guests: “Only once in our nation’s history has a political war of words escalated into actual warfare. Are there lessons from the political crisis of 1861 that apply to today’s political battles?”

Could our rancorous political climate ever again produce secession and war? Political rancor has been the norm in American history, yet only once did incivility morph into war. In historical context, our era does not suffer from particularly nasty political discourse. Moreover, it is improbable that America would ever face the profound sectional disillusionment that preceded the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was elected with essentially no popular votes from the southern states. Today, the voting divide is not nearly so stark–even a vividly red state like Wyoming gave President Obama about a third of its votes in 2008. Deep south voters in 1860 (all white males) knew no one who voted for Lincoln, yet Lincoln was now their president. They concluded that the rest of the nation had turned against them, and that it was time to secede.

Thomas S. Kidd, Senior Fellow of the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University

The escalation from words to war in 1861 was caused by a federal government that discarded the 10th Amendment and continually ignored its constituents, despite the people telling them exactly what they wanted.   Similarly, over the past three years, the federal government has focused its attention on forcing American taxpayers to protect and bail out insolvent banking institutions, while these same banks, with the purchased help of the federal government, were the cause of the economic crisis in the first place.

Despite evidence of fraud and illegal acts by Wall Street being blatantly obvious, not a single person has gone to jail.  The people spoke loud and clear not once, but twice, in our last two elections, yet were still ignored.  Four boxes protect our freedoms: The soap box, the jury box, the ballot box and the ammo box.   If the ballot box no longer serves the people, how long will it be before they reach for the final box?

Stephanie Jasky, Founder, Director, FedUpUSA.org

The crisis of 1861 was a far more significant crisis than the one we’re facing today.  Republicans, for all their attempts to thwart the Obama administration’s policies and reel in big government, cannot be compared to the southern “fire eaters” of 1861 (despite their “fire eating” rhetoric and persistent attempts to demonize the nation’s first African American president).

The Civil War settled the argument of secession—that since the individual states had freely joined the Union when they ratified the Constitution they had the right to opt out of the Union whenever they wished—and established the pre-eminence of the Union.  And by abolishing slavery the Civil War expanded the definition of “freedom.”  The lesson of 1861 is that even the Civil War did not resolve the two fundamentally opposing views of American freedom that still dominate today’s political discourse:  one side fully believes that the government secures our freedom while the other, equally passionately, is convinced that government endangers freedom.  Can the two sides ever be reconciled?

Ralph Young, Professor (Teaching/Instructional), Department of History, Temple University

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