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America’s 2nd Civil War In The Making

The last time a civil war was threatened occurred was when the Abolitionists, the core group creating the emerging new liberal Republican Party, pushed the Southern states to abandon slavery.

Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats were fiercely divided on whether enslaved Black people should be freed, but it took place within the context of individual states defining citizenship. Did the federal government have the right to declare new states free from slavery? Or should the new states have the freedom to have Black slaves?

The threat of civil war then and now is about defining citizenship. In the past, the struggle was to allow Black slaves to achieve citizenship. Today it is to secure functional citizenship for ethnic and cultural minorities.

History does not repeat itself as a carbon copy. Instead, it replicates patterns. By identifying them, we can better comprehend how our current social movements sustain or destroy our democratic society.

The abolitionist movement became the most significant disruptive political movement of the late 1850s; the biggest today is MAGA. Each achieved a national presence by displacing the leadership of one of the existing two political parties that form a duopoly of controlling national political power. The Whig Party floundered and then folded as the abolitionists made the Republican Party the second-largest party in the nation.  Since the election of Donald J. Trump as President, the establishment Republican political leaders have succumbed to the MAGA wing of their party because of its grip on the primary system.

Although abolitionists did not initially push for expanding citizenship, once Black slaves were to be freed, they did not actively oppose it. However, they were joined by many citizens in the North who feared that the South was threatening their citizenship.

The growth of the abolitionist movement can be directly attributed to a response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act that the Southern-dominated Congress and President Pierce sponsored. As described by Glenn Young in The Winning Words“a wide range of local and ordinary people were taken into custody for failing to support the professional slave catchers who came to their communities.” And in response, “there were public demonstrations and even riots in support of Blacks, instead of the traditional riots attacking Blacks and white supporters of abolition.” Protests and the explosion of the underground railway, which ran through the North to Canada and freed an estimated 30,000 slaves, led to the revival of the dormant push for the abolition of slavery.

The threat of an aggressive South was highlighted when Massachusetts, Republican Senator Charles Sumner, was physically beaten on the Senate floor by pro-slave South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks. The South defended Brooks’ actions. The Richmond Enquirer denounced Sumner, editorializing that “these vulgar Abolitionists in the Senate … have been suffered to run too long without collars.”

Today those in the MAGA movement fear that their citizenship is being diluted through immigration, particularly by the wave of asylum seekers that appear to be overwhelming our border facilities. And the primary thrust of MAGA (Making America Great Again) harkens back to when Black citizens were discriminated against in public schools, private businesses, and facilities serving the public. Citizenship was then more narrowly defined. Looking back to that era, it was seen as a period of security from an influx of strange new inhabitants.

When President Trump pushed for building “the wall” to keep unregistered immigrants from crossing our Mexican border, he voiced the fear many MAGA folks felt about having their citizenship replaced by the newcomers; America wasn’t their home anymore.

And when Trump was impeached and indicted for possible criminal actions, he was treated like a hero speaking the truth, much as Brooks was when he beat down Sumner. The MAGA folks are as passionate about drastic change as the Abolitionists were a hundred years ago. But unlike MAGA supporters, they recognized the presidential elections as legitimate when their first candidate John C. Frémont lost.

The Abolitionists didn’t ask for the Civil War. They even tried to avoid one to preserve the Union.  In 1856 they conceded to allowing slavery in the existing slave states but nowhere else. The Republicans did not win the 1856 presidential race. However, when Lincoln ran in 1860, the abolitionist movement was steering the Republican Party, and he was their candidate, although not their first choice.

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