Disunion in Civil War America: Parallels for today?

Friday, December 1, 2017

In the early hours of November 3 a rich assortment of scholars, journalists, students, and community members gathered at the MacMillan Center for the annual conference sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. (view videos) The theme–“Disunion in Civil War America: Parallels for Today?”– was particularly timely, given current controversies surrounding Confederate monuments and the many comments about the Civil War coming from top White House officials. David W. Blight, Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center, began the conference by reflecting on the contemporary political moment in which the United States finds itself. According to Blight, “Historians have never been asked so often to answer the questions ‘What is going on? Where are we? Is this unprecedented? Is this 1859?’ ” The conference, Blight noted, was intended to ask “how is the present embedded in the past and how is the past embedded in the present?” The historians, political scientists, legal scholars, and journalists who paneled the conference took up this task with rigor.

Professor James Oakes, Distinguished Professor of History on the City University of New York, provided a keynote address that framed and influenced much of the subsequent discussion for the next two days. Oakes grappled with the fundamental nature of the crises that gripped the nation in the 1850s, ultimately leading to the Civil War. Oakes began by displaying two photos, one from the August 2017 violent rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia and the other from the anti-racist protest in Boston later that month. Of the photos Oakes remarked that when “historians look at this picture of the crowd at Charlottesville, we recognize those people…We’ve read histories of the Klu Klux Klan, of Jim Crow, of lynching, redlining, and we know what these white supremacists represent, what they stand for in American history.” About counter-protestors in Boston, we are not so sure. “Do we know where they came from?” Oakes wondered. “Do these thousands of anti-racism protesters who jammed into the streets of Boston this past summer have a history?”

From this brief detour into the present Oakes provided a history of the origins of the crisis of the 1850s and the central role the fugitive slaves played. Dr. Oakes linked an 1854 protest in Boston—against the rendition of a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns—to the antiracist protest that also occurred in Boston this past summer. By drawing lessons from his re-framing of the 1850 crisis, Oakes moved to uncover lessons for today. He argued, “One of those lessons seems clear, that nothing that happened to slavery during the Civil War can be fully understood without references to the decades of struggle over slavery that preceded the war.” Discerning lessons for today is difficult, he noted, “because where we are, is never really the same as where they were.” Nevertheless, guidance can be found “in a nineteenth century struggle against the commodification of human beings for a twenty-first century struggle against the commodification of health care, schools, and prisons.” According to Oakes, abolitionists understood that economic inequality and racial injustice are “flipsides of the same problematic coin” and people today need to understand this too. He argued, “There is something to be learned from the way thousands upon thousands or ordinary men and women who fled from their bondage went from being a perennial problem for masters everywhere to being a divisive political issue that led in the end to the destruction of slavery itself. The historical question is how did that happen? The lesson for today, the lesson that applies to anyone engaged in the struggle for social justice and equality is simply this, organization, organization, nothing but organization.”    

A panel entitled “Political Parties, Electoral Politics, and the Problem of Slavery” followed, with a focus on political ideologies. On this panel, the audience heard presentations from Professor Pamela Brandwein of the University of Michigan. She presented the history of a political faction in the Republican party who called themselves True Democrats. Dr. Josh Lynn, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Yale, focused on the populist political style of Andrew Jackson and the ways in which his ideas became a template for Americans across the political spectrum. Dr. Joseph Murphy, a Fellow at the New York Historical Society, discussed, “antislavery constitutionalism and how it served as a nexus between the abolitionist movement and antislavery politicians.”

The second panel of the day, titled “Citizenship, Immigration, and Race” turned to the multiple ways in which Black people, abolitionists, and government officials, among others, sought to define the rights of Black citizens. The panel began with Professor Christopher Bonner of the University of Maryland-College Park. Bonner’s presentation centered on the ways in which Black people responded to the Dred Scott v. Sanford Supreme Court decision. The actions taken by these Black activists contain lessons for our current moment, where arguments are being made that there has been a decline in civil political discourse. Bonner argued that such assertions misidentify the real problem. He continued, “Ideological silos are less concerning than the fact that people in some of those silos want to disfranchise or dispossess other people. A lack of civil debate is less worrisome than the fact that there are powerful people who believe that certain voices and certain groups are inherently less valuable than others… Rather than lamenting the lack of civil political conversation we might work to empower people who really believe in justice so that we can engage in conversation that might actually achieve it.”

Professor Andra Gillespie of Emory University followed, presenting on how “Americans perceive of their place in the American body politic and what their preferences are on issues about status and how they manifest themselves in symbolic things like monuments.” Gillespie asked her respondents about their feelings toward Confederate iconography. How did they reacted to President Trump’s response to the events in Charlottesville? What are some of the proscriptive things they felt should be done in the wake of these events? Professor Nick Guyatt  of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom followed with an examination of white proposals for Black colonization as a solution to anxieties about the potential of a mixed-race society that would result from emancipation. He highlighted how African American resistance to such expatriation schemes helped defeat them. Concluding the panel was Professor Kate Masur of Northwestern University who concluded the panel by looking at the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue and the ways which, in the 1850s, it was the state and localities, rather than the Federal government, that protected individual rights of vulnerable people in the United States.

The final panel of the day, “The Shock of Events,” addressed several different moments and events that prefigured the Civil War - events that shocked the country and forced its inhabitants to reposition themselves in relation to them. Professor Richard Blackett of Vanderbilt University examined the consequences and lessons of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Professor Kellie Carter Jackson of Wellesley College presented next. Jackson’s presentation centered Black women in this moment of crisis. She argued that Black leaders, particularly Black women, were central figures in John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. Whereas discussions normally have centered the radical abolitionist, Dr. Jackson emphasized that John Brown was a student of the Black radical tradition, not its leader. Thinking about the ways in which the Black women who were crucial to the actions and events of the 1850s were relegated to footnotes, Jackson asked, “150 years from today, how will we credit the contribution of black women in their own freedom struggle?” Professor Nicole Etcheson of Ball State University followed, where she attempted to “[venture] into this terrain to make some commonalities between the Kansas Civil War and the Era of President Trump.” Etcheson honed in on four areas in which she found similarities between the past and the present: concerns about voter fraud, questions of legitimacy, discussion around women and gender, and race. The final panelist of the day was Professor Joanne Freeman of Yale University. Freeman offered an examination of the acts of physical violence in the House and Senate between 1830 and 1860. She argued that by looking at these moments of violence, patterns emerge illuminating that almost all the violence in Congress resulted from contestations over slavery.

Saturday’s sessions were filled with presentations that directly addressed today’s major political issues. Black Lives Matter, white nationalist movements, and the fight over health care access were all evoked in order to stress the need for historians and other scholars to share their expertise in contemporary debates of truth, fact, and the past. The morning session began with a panel about nationalism, moderated by Professor Oakes. It set the tone for the day, with current political issues at the center of the panel. Each of the panelists evoked events in the antebellum period as lenses through which we can begin to analyze our contemporary moment.

Professor Matthew Karp of Princeton University provided an analysis of “the slave power” as a concept, ending with a call for a common politics grounded in a commitment to equality today.  Professor Dean Robinson of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst discussed white and black nationalism in the antebellum era as a path to talk about white and black nationalism in the Trump era. Robinson argued that racial solidarity is not the next step forward and it will be necessary to engage with how power dynamics affect political thought. Professor Elizabeth Varon of the University of Virginia concluded the session. Varon called attention to a countervailing theme by centering white southern dissenters into the conversation of slavery and antislavery rhetoric. In her conclusion, she cautiously provided contemporary observations. The problem for agents of change, she noted, is “the pitfall of cultural condescension. Telling people that you want to save them from themselves is very likely going to piss them off and sometimes pissing them off is exactly what you need to do, but… be aware. Actions and reactions.”

The second panel of the day, “Constitutionalism and the Courts,” focused on the legal history of the antebellum period in order to think about how the courts intersect with politics today. Many of the panelists engaged with the history of the Dred Scott v. Sanford decision in order to discuss constitutionalism, citizenship claims, and the Black freedom movement. Professor Akhil Reed Amar began with a discussion of the long shadow of the Dred Scott case. After providing an overview of the case and some of its effects, Amar noted that contemporary political movements utilize the Dred Scott decision as a way to discount judicial actions, such as Roe v. Wade. Following up, Professor Michael Les Benedict of the Ohio University noted how the courts shaped the practical form that the American Civil War took. The third panelist, Professor Cheryl Harris of the University of California-Los Angeles, addressed the Dred Scott case from the perspective of Dred Scott and his family to re-center the question of black freedom within constitutionalism arguments. She framed the courts as a field where meaning is made rather than a place from which meaning emanates. She argued, “Black resistance embraced constitutionalism improvisationally, understanding it both as a blueprint of power and a location of struggle.”

The final panelists responded to the conference’s many presentations, with each scholar providing insights on how we might move forward with these histories in mind. Each grappled with questions about when and if academics and intellectuals should jump into public conversations about the past and the present. Professor Martha Jones of Johns Hopkins University reflected on questions about the power of historical knowledge that had arisen during the conference, advising attendees to think closely about how historical tools are wielded and how they can undermine people working at the front lines of politics. Sarah Kendzior, a noted journalist, followed with a history of state-sanctioned autocratic measures in the United States. She made the point that President Trump did not specify an era when he proclaimed he would “make America great again” and posited whether he may have been talking about a period other than the 1980s, perhaps a time like the 1830s. Professor Jill Lepore of Harvard University warned about the potential pitfalls of using parallels or historical analogies, noting that doing so can diminish and distract from the particularities of today. She advised the audience to provide analyses in a historical framework that takes into account continuity and change, arguing that one must act responsibly when they jump into public debates about the past. Professor Kenneth Mack of Harvard University followed, again cautioning about the use of historical parallels. He stressed the necessity of jumping into public debates, but doing so self-consciously and modestly. Professor Sean Wilentz of Princeton University concluded the panel, urging historians to speak up. He argued that the United States is at a moment of historical rupture, where there are constantly people calling into question what truth is. He stressed the need for historians in the public sphere. The panel concluded with a question and answer period, with Kendzior reminding the audience that compassion grows when scholars jump in and provide context in contemporary debates.


Written by Bianca Dang, a Ph.D. student in African American Studies and History, and Alycia Hall, a Ph.D. student in African American Studies and History.