I have hesitated to predict Barack Obama’s nomination here partly from superstition. I am not accustomed to having too many things turn out as I had hoped, and I didn’t want to fall for any false dawn. Yet it seems more and more likely that he will win, and that this election might be a defining moment comparable to 1860 or 1932. And meanwhile, I have been doing some intermittent reading that suggests to me that, for all the depressing developments in recent politics that I have had to mention over these last three and a half years, things are not, in fact, going so badly, and the coming crisis in our political life could be as peaceful as the one that the British underwent during the 1860s.
My main source is Allan Nevins’s The Ordeal of the Union, whose first four volumes I read in their entirety close to thirty years ago, and which I have been dipping in and out of recently late in the evening. (The four volumes on the coming of the Civil War are perhaps the greatest work of American political history ever written; the further volumes on the war itself are, I regret to say, not as good.) Having begun with the Compromise of 1850, I have this time skipped the Kansas-Nebraska Act and gone straight to the election of 1856, the first one in which the new Republican Party fielded a candidate. The atmosphere is familiar, but there are major differences. Nowadays one can hear venomous partisan poisoning on your local clear channel radio station at any hour of the day or night, but in those days mainstream politicians, newspaper editors, and clergy were doling out the same kind of rhetoric—albeit in more inspiring language—over slavery. They represented the Good, their enemies the evil. Northerners at the least were arguing by 1856 that slavery must be confined to its existing home; Southerners were arguing that slaves were property like any other and that they should be able to take them anywhere in the Union—a view that the Supreme Court was about to endorse. The threat of southern secession if
Now the conservative hatred for everything the Democratic Party and Republican allies accomplished between 1932 and 1969 is perhaps equal to anything the northerners and southerners felt in the 1860s, but it has not actually infected leading Republican politicians, who understand, perhaps, that their constituents’ dreams simply can never come true. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the more extreme leftists (especially in academia) have essentially turned their back on politics for the last three and a half decades, and are confining their influence to college classrooms rather than spreading the word on talk radio. That, perhaps, is why Barack Obama thinks he can actually rise above the partisanship of the last two decades, and because there is no consuming issue like slavery to overcome, he may be right.
The civil war crisis was violent; the crisis of 1929-45 was not, at least at home. Across the
This may be my last posting for two weeks, thanks to vacation.