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President of Civil War Museum: Similarities Between the Elections of 1860 and 2016

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The American Civil War Museum president S. Waite Rawls discusses how both 1860 and 2016 witnessed fractured political parties, anti-immigrant sentiments, and clear divides in voting patterns between different geographical factions of Americans.

On February 22, S. Waite Rawls, foundation president of The American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Va, joined Merion West‘s Erich Prince to discuss the Civil War in context. He explains the parallels he sees between the United States presidential elections of 1860 and 2016.

Could you begin by giving a general background of what prompted you to start looking into this comparison between the elections of 1860 and 2016? Is this something that emerged from your research or was it something that just dawned on you one day? Where did this hunch come from? 

Erich, being a Civil War historian and working at the country’s biggest Civil War museum, you start to know that era well. During the Summer of 2016, I started really noting similarities between much of what Donald Trump was saying and what the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s was saying. There were two parties in America in the 1830s and 1840s: the Whigs and the Democrats.

The Whigs were breaking down into different factions, and they basically disappeared. There were some good historians, and then a few op-ed folks picking up on the dissolution of the Whig party [as compared to events in 2016]. You could observe something similar happening to the Republican Party with the breakup of the Tea Party, or the Freedom Caucus on one side and the moderates from the other side.

The Whig party was breaking up; the Know Nothing Party was part of its break off. The Know Nothing Party was around for the better part of a decade, and its approach was eerily similar to what you’d hear today: anti-immigration, anti-different religion. At that time, this Party was objecting to the influx of Catholics because there was this huge migration of Irish Catholics coming to America.

The other faction of the Whig party, mind you, developed into the Republican Party. When Abraham Lincoln was in Congress (a decade before the Civil War), he was a Whig. So, at the time, you had this new Republican Party. The other thing that was happening was that slavery was becoming more and more the crucial topic of political discussion.

Do you think there were any topics in 2016 that were anything nearly as divisive as slavery that might have been contributing to a split in the Republican Party? Does abortion compare? 

Nothing nearly to the degree that slavery was in the 1850s. I mean—sure, there are parallels, and abortion is a good example. By the way, I joke with people sometimes because we look back today and think how stupid people were. Didn’t they realize that slavery was an evil thing? There’s no question whatsoever about slavery today. We think that we’re so smart today that we have figured out the solution to every problem.

What do they say? “We love to mock the conventional wisdom, so long as it yesterday’s, not today’s.”

That’s right. I mean the only two things, it seems, that we, as a society, have yet to figure out is: when does life begin and when should it end.

In political science, there is  a lot of talk about this idea of so-called realigning elections. Of course, some scholars as of late have begun to doubt the power of that phenomenon as an explanatory force. Do you think that’s a framework that still has some use when discussing these sort of pivotal elections like 1860 or perhaps 2016? I suppose time will tell if this is true about 2016.

Yes, as long as you don’t give the connotation that it happened suddenly. The 2016 election was more sudden than anything else because of the persona of Donald Trump. However, the split between the old America and the America of the future  (the future of a much more diverse demographic) long precedes him. 

You could see this as far as when Pat Buchanan was running for the Republican primary against President George H.W. Bush. There was this older, poorer, or less well educated white vote that existed. It wasn’t regional– it was everywhere. 

So the election of 1860 had been coming, and you saw it coming. The Democratic Party was splitting apart into the Southern Democrats and Northern Democrats. In the 1860’s during the first Democratic Convention, they split apart to the degree that the Southern Democrats walked out. There were significant disagreements about how the party platform should treat the permanent retention of slavery in the Constitution.  The split in the Democratic Party was the reason Lincoln was able to get elected with only 39% of the popular vote.

If the Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats together would have been unified, the Democrats would have won the popular vote and the Electoral College. This aside, there is the issue of parties realigning themselves and becoming more factionalized than unified.

Just like today, you can be watching T.V. and you’re saying, “I’ve seen this show before.” There’s Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren pulling Hillary Clinton way to the left of where she had been. They got her backtracking on issues like trade. We’ve got the same thing today.

A modern realignment of the Republican Party is going on. If you’re a moderate Republican, you might like John Kasich, but what do you do when the Freedom Caucus pulls the Party rightwards? 

I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about this so-called rural-urban divide. I know you mentioned that some op-ed writers and political commentators were making note of this.

They were talking less about geographical point of view. The commentators were taking a more ideological point of view. Staunch conservatives, like George F. Will or Bill Kristol were discussing the split in the Republican Party over whether or not someone supports Donald Trump. 

David Brooks has been terrific on this. From six months before the election until now. Every time I would see a commentator talk about the rural vs. urban division, I would see six or eight writers using the term “bicoastal” to describe voting patters. My guess, however, is that they were looking principally at an electoral map.

When I started looking at the electoral map, the real eye opener for me was when my wife and I were driving through Western Pennsylvania a month before the election. There were Trump signs everywhere. Then it hit me: if you grew up in a small town (doesn’t matter if it’s a swing state, a solid blue state, or a solid red state), you see foreign competition and what technology is doing to factories. That’s what matters.

Was any of the division over slavery also manifesting itself through a rural vs. urban lens in the years leading up to 1860? 

No. It was much more sectional—in large part because of gradual emancipation in the North. 

At the time of the signing of the Constitution, there was a greater percentage of households in Connecticut that owned slaves than in South Carolina. A lot of people in Connecticut had one or two slaves. Sure, there were more slaves numerically in South Carolina, though, because a slave owner either had zero or hundreds.

Now there were pockets in the North that were very sympathetic to the South because they were economically dependent on cotton. Like mill towns in the North. Or even New York City. New York City dealt closely with the South because of the business of shipping cotton to places like Europe. 

So the knuckle draggers of today talk about the complicity of the North in slavery. “Complicity” is a strong word, but there were certainly huge northern economic conditions that were presupposed slavery in the South. 

Lastly, if you had to pick the top two or three comparisons between the elections of 1860 and 2016, what would they be?

Number one is the anti-immigration, anti-religious themes that were so strong in the 1850’s. Instead of it being anti-Muslim like today, it was anti-Catholic. Instead of the anti-people of color today, it was anti-Irish and anti-German.

The second parallel is the deep divisions within the parties themselves. This happened on both sides: the Whigs had broke up and the Democrats split. 

But the strongest one can be seen on the map. You can see fifteen years of migration on an electoral map until the voting patters became North against South. 

When you look at the electoral map of 2016, it looked bicoastal. If you look at the county map you so very distinctly can see the mid-state corridors that voted Democratic such as St. Louis, Denver, or Chicago. These divisions are clear between rural and urban America. 

Thank you for joining us today, Waite.

Thanks, Erich. 

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder and the editor at Merion West. Erich has written for a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, and the Orlando Sentinel. His writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress. Contact Erich at erich@merionwest.com.

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