“This seems like madness” – An editorial from the aftermath of the 1860 election hits close to home

I wrote this blog post in late October 2016, just a week before the 2016 presidential election. I held off on publishing it then. I would like to share it with you now. 


The study of history in many ways is a study of patterns. Historians probe the historical record in order to seek the ebbs and flows of civilization through time. In observing American history, these patterns materialize throughout in our democratic cycles.

Political parties fray, deteriorate, and cease to exist.

Ideologies emerge, gain a loyal, sometimes rabid following, then recede.

The tides of the American story ebb and flow across the decades.

In 2016, we find ourselves amid the tidal surge of history, submerged in a Presidential contest that has sunk to unbelievable depths of anger, frustration, and moral uncertainty. We may find ourselves asking the question, “Is this the worst its ever been?”

Yet, when looking to the past as a young historian of Civil War-era America, I see parallels to an incredibly formative moment in our nation’s history. The election of 1860 pitted people, regionally and politically, against one another like never before. New, dangerous forces were at work as the election cycle ground on, crushing one party and putting the nation on a path toward self-immolation.

Before our current cycle, I had a hard time imagining what it must have been like to be amid those tectonic political and cultural shifts. America entered a new, industrialized era with rapidly evolving technology that allowed Americans to transport products, people, and ideas faster than ever before.

Immigrants poured into Northern cities and attracted vehement rage by so-called nativists.

A system of racially-based slavery stood firmly ensconced across the South, with 4 million people locked in its grip. Yet, deep suspicion and resentment of free blacks held equally firm in the North.

Abolitionists called for the immediate or gradual cessation of the slave system at the South. Fire-eaters screamed for the South’s immediate departure from the Union that had bound the states together since 1789.

Now, in 2016, I have begun to have a clearer vision of what living through that moment must have felt like.

Deep uncertainty in the future. An unsettling sense of foreboding. Yet, also an optimist’s hope that clearer heads will prevail.

I attach this editorial from November 1860 as an example that our moment certainly shares parallels with that most perilous time in American history. This editorial from the Patriot & Union rings down the years to us as a warning from our past about what can happen when we don’t listen to the “better angels of our nature.”

From the Harrisburg Daily Patriot & Union, November 29, 1860:

Thanksgiving.

On this day we are called upon by the Executive of the Commonwealth to render thanks for the blessing conferred upon us during the past year by Providence. And truly we have many things to thank Providence for – a bountiful season, a steady increase of all the elements of material prosperity, and exemption from those scourges of the human race, war, pestilence, and famine.

Providence has dealt bountifully with us – and yet we are not satisfied with our lot.
The most highly favored country upon the earth, with the best government, and everything that a people could desire to make them contented and happy, we are notwithstanding upon the very verge of a revolution.

We are quarreling with our own prosperity, and about to fly from imaginary evils to greater evils, the extent of which cannot be imagined.

This seems like madness. If we should read anywhere of a nation voluntarily exchanging prosperity and peace for anarchy and civil war, we would hardly credit the reality of such an infatuation. We can understand how want and oppression bring about wars and revolutions – how people, goaded to madness by oppression, revolt against their rules and abandon the ploughshare for the sword.

 But we cannot comprehend how it is possible that a prosperous people, upon whom Providence has smiled, should deliberately quarrel with their own prosperity, by abandoning a government which has conducted them to the highest pitch of national greatness.

While, therefore, we render thanks to a kind Providence for so many material blessings, let us invoke Him to incline the hearts of the people to such measures as shall tend to soften those asperities which have caused the existing discontents, and perpetuate the Union under which we have prospered.


Featured Image: An 1860 cartoon showing the presidential candidates tearing apart the fabric of the Union. 

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