Cover photo

A Republic, if you can keep it: how 2024 rhymes with the 1850s

Outside of the broad strokes, the average person walking down the street likely knows little about the political machinations and philosophies that defined the Civil War era over 150 years ago. Lost Causes, Bleeding Kansas, popular sovereignty, the racist and slavery-defending wolf-whistle of “states rights” — these terms and concepts gather dust in the history textbooks that shaped our understanding of 19th-century America in school. Sepia-toned relics of a bygone era, disconnected from our modern world of AI, streaming, and social media.

But the political battles of the 1850s—the decade that paved the bloody road to civil war—have left me with a creeping sense of déjà vu. The intractable debates, the splintering factions, the radicalizing rhetoric, the eroding norms, and the scorched earth threats of the right-wing. Change a few names and dates, and the yellowed newspaper headlines from the 1850s could almost be confused for the rage-filled tweets and op-eds of the 2024 punditry. History, as always, has an uncanny way of rhyming.

The 1850s was a time of immense political turmoil and transformation in America. At the centre of the growing storm was the issue of slavery’s expansion into new western territories. This existential question cuts to the core of the nation’s identity and values in the antebellum era. Would America remain half slave and half free? Could such a house divided against itself stand, as Lincoln would later frame it?

The political system buckled under the weight of this moral reckoning. The Whig party, a load-bearing pillar of the two-party system, splintered and collapsed, torn apart by internal contradictions on slavery. The Southern states, falling behind in the Industrial Revolution and increasingly under attack as their slavery-driven culture and economic system were isolated by a Western world that had primarily banned the abhorrent practice, were a powerful force dominating National American politics, with the obsessive goal of protecting slavery as an institution at minimum, and preferably expanding it everywhere they could.

In the carnage, a new coalition appeared, the (then) Republican party, united around containing slavery’s spread. The dying Whigs were replaced by an insurgent movement fueled by grassroots energy from an activated base.

The Democrats weren’t spared the turmoil. Southern “Fire-Eaters” grew increasingly radical in their defence of slavery, threatening secession and civil war and holding the free states hostage if their demands weren’t met. Northerners in the party tried to keep the fragile coalition together through appeals to restraint and compromise. But the selfish, short-sighted and bitter extremism of the pro-slavery South wouldn’t allow an inch of compromise.

Congress reflected the disarray and deadlock. Flooded with new representatives from recently admitted states, the delicate balance of power teetered. In one telling episode in 1856, a Congressman from South Carolina savagely caned an abolitionist, anti-Slavery Senator in the Senate chamber, nearly killing him. The attacker resigned, only to be hailed as a hero back home and quickly reelected. Political violence was condoned, even celebrated.

Norms of civility and decency eroded under a barrage of conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and unhinged propaganda. Wild rumours spread that abolitionists planned to launch a race war and that Jefferson Davis plotted a coup to seize the White House. The advent of the telegraph enabled the “fake news” of its day to circulate with unprecedented speed. A sense of shared truth crumbled.

Demographic change fueled anxiety and resentment. Waves of Catholic immigrants unsettled the Protestant establishment, seen as a threat to democracy, American values, and political power. A nativist backlash festered, scapegoating the foreign “other.” Sectional identities hardened into a dangerous tribalism.

Economic grievances simmered. While a small group of Southern planters and Northern industrialists reaped the rewards of the Market Revolution, many felt left behind or exploited by bracing changes — the rise of wage labour, the decline of skilled artisans, and growing wealth inequality. Populist movements like the Know Nothings gave disaffected workers a vehicle for their rage.

The water boiled. And boiled. And boiled.

Of course, no historical analogy is ever perfect. The 1850s had unique contours and complexities that can’t be neatly grafted onto 2024. But if some of those broad parallels send shivers down your spine — eroding democratic norms, splintering parties, radicalizing rhetoric, hyper-partisanship, truth decay, demographic anxiety, economic dislocation — you’re not alone. The political climate on the eve of the Civil War carried hints of the fevers we sweat under today.

There’s an adage that the past is prologue, that we study history to avoid dooming ourselves to repeat it. Taking our temperature against the thermometer of the 1850s can provide uncomfortable but instructive insights. If some of those readings look familiar, concerning, or frightening, that’s not a coincidence. It’s a warning from the ghost of our global, philosophical, political past.

None of this is to say another civil war is right around the corner. That specific future isn’t pre-ordained or even likely. But one of the tragic lessons of the 1850s is how quickly democratic erosion can spiral out of control, how fast norms can unravel, and how the unthinkable can become inevitable. The Civil War was not destined until suddenly it was.

Americans thought of democracy as an unchanging entity that would never get too far off track. They thought democracy was self-correcting. That assumption of the guardrails holding feels uncomfortably familiar today.

If the 1850s offer any wisdom for our troubled times, it’s this: there is nothing permanent about our political order. Democracies aren’t naturally self-sustaining — they must be nurtured and protected by each generation. “A republic, if you can keep it,” to echo Ben Franklin’s famous quip.

The political dumpster fire of the 1850s shows how far off the rails any bulwark of democracy can careen when contempt for democratic ideals, mutual toleration, and forbearance calcifies into a flamethrowing, win-at-all-costs ethos.

In the gutter brawl of antebellum politics, a recognition of the common good and legitimacy between opponents was thrown away by a political faction who cared more about protecting racism, actively destroying human rights, and subjugating human beings. The capacity to see ourselves in our perceived enemies feels similarly diminished in our times.

Democracy is not a spectator sport — it requires active stewardship. It’s a fragile construct, not an indestructible edifice. And in times of intense polarization and social churn like ours, it can be heartbreakingly brittle.

No, we can’t draw a straight line from the 1850s to the 2020s, but engaging thoughtfully with the Civil War’s political antecedents is more than an academic exercise in drawing clever historical parallels. It’s an invitation to see our reflection in a foreboding mirror, however warped or faint. Sitting with that discomfort may — if we’re wise enough to look — shake us from any remaining complacency about the work it takes to sustain a democracy.

@Westenberg logo
Subscribe to @Westenberg and never miss a post.