One hundred and sixty years ago was a seminal date in American history. There had always been tension between states in the South and those in the North. Resentment among southern slave-owning states grew with increasing pressure from the more populous and prosperous non-slave states of the North. In an attempt to redress this imbalance, southern politicians were keen for new states forming in the Mid-West to be incorporated in the Union as slave-owning states to stregthen their position.
Abraham Lincoln was elected President on an anti-slavery platform in November 1860 This was too much for South Carolina, which took the radical step of seceding from the Union in December. It was followed by six others. Together, they declared the Confederate States of America in February 1861. By the time Lincoln took office as President on March 4th, they had been joined by four others.
This unprecedented situation meant nobody on either side was sure what to do next, much less how to resolve it. The Confederates genuinely believed they were defending America and the freedoms for which it stood. Even before Lincoln took office, Confederate lawmakers wrote their own constitution, by copying the original United States Constitution verbatim, except for three “improvements”:
- States each had rights to run their own affairs
- Federal government were banned from interfering in states’ internal affairs
- No law could deny or impair owner right of property in negro slaves.
The 4 million black people in those 11 states, almost all of them slaves, were not emancipated, and so had no voice in this momentous decision. Confederate leaders simply had to convince ordinary white men in their states that defending the expansion of human enslavement would, in effect, be defending the nation against “radicals” who misinterpreted “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence. As women were neither mentioned, and therefore not meant to be covered by this, neither should blacks be. Arguing that this constituted true patriotism, secession happened while tempers over Lincoln’s anti-slavery stance were still hot.
However, after several weeks of standoff, with no move from either side, that heat was cooling. Sentiment for rapprochement was building in the South because the Confederacy found itself in a quandry how to official recognition from the North was to be achieved. They decided to make a bold move tat would signal their commitment and seriousness.
Charleston Harbor was the major port of South Carolina, which had seized all Union assets there, except Fort Sumter, which dominated the harbour entrance. After minor skirmishes in early 1861, bombardment was opened on April 12th and surrender received the next day. This triggered Civil War, brnging any Southern waverers firmly on-side for the Confederacy.
The relevance of this to modern times may not be obvious to those who have not studied the rhetoric building from Trump and supportive Republicans since the first accusatory political balloons of political skulduggery were flown by them over a year ago. Speculative claims of voter fraud grew in the run-up to the November election. Then—to the surprise of most neutral observers—it continued apace afterwards, the din rising as Republicans clung to Trump as political saviour.
Ironic as it may seem, given his prominent place among America’s rich & famous, Trump has successfully played to his followers as outsider, an anti-establishment figure who had demonised the Washington careerists and Democrats, accusing them holding back ordinary Americans with their rules and socialism. Such an anti-tax/big government is a Republicans mantra. But, under Trump, it became surreal, achieving a stridency that engaged the disillusioned, especially from the far right.
His desperate attempts to hold on to the Presidency after he had clearly lost—and recounts had conformed this—was behind the unprecedented event of his supporters storming the Capitol on January 6th this year. His plea was for supporters to defend America against bureaucrats and socialists trying to deny them “their” President.
This parallels the Confederate leaders claiming justification for slavery and defying the legitimacy of Lincoln. Trump’s rallies, his multiple law suits and sunsequent activity in Republican-controlled states to disenfranchise voters echo the argument behind founding the Confederacy in 1861: that the Founding Fathers would approve such actions. Like Christian fundamentalists with the bible, Republicans are keen on literal interpretation of the wjat the framers of the 1776 Constitution meant. The insurrectionists of January 6th, and those who continue to insist the election was stolen, do not think of themselves as domestic terrorists, but as patriots in the mould of Samuel Adams, one of those Founding Fathers.
A slew of Republican-controlled rural Southern and Mid-West states (approximating to the Confederacy) have questioned Biden’s victory and revised state voting laws in such a way as to disenfranchise minority communities and erode the value of their voting, all under the umbrella of “preventing voter fraud”. Such actions indirectly support the claim that the election was stolen from Trump. The clamour continues.
“Today is 1776!”:
—Tweet from Colorado Republican Representative Lauren Boebert, January 6th 2021
While all this has been disruptive to civic life, none has been truly effective. Biden’s Presidency has completed its first six months undeterred. However, with all efforts by Trump and supporters to question the result or derail Biden’s program come to nothing, their position parallels the Confederacy pre-Sumter. They have made their claim; that has not been accepted; there is no obvious road back; high expectations among followers are now drifting toward disillusion and dejection.
So Trump, like Jefferson Davis before him, must, in that colourful American phrase, “shit or get off the pot”. Davis seized the bull by the hors and triggered four years of civil war. Whatever Trump and his increasingly desperate supporters do, it is unlikely to lead to that. But they must do something radical to reverse increasing isolation and irrelevance. Even if they could find their symbolic equivalent of Fort Sumter, shelling it is probably not the best approach. But both Trump and his supporters are not the types to go away quietly.