When Did the Civil War Start?

When did it start? When Trump was elected? When George Floyd was murdered? When Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building? When Obama was elected? Maybe it was the Bork confirmation process? Earlier? Maybe it started in 1776? The truth is that the United States was founded not on rocky soil but just rocks. The lack of historical soil was a choice. We’d make our own mulch, our own history, our own government, our own narrative. Isn’t that what independence is? 

What the founders and subsequent propagandists and finally the culture assumed — like many of the refugees, criminals, and entrepreneurs who peopled the 13 colonies — was that we could leave “all that” behind. But we couldn’t and we didn’t. Inherent within the very code that functions as the counties operating system is a deep split between rural and urban, between agricultural production and manufacturing, between us and them, a fact, it seems, we started out denying by beginning our constitution with the word, “We.”

Other than an exception like Japan, our story is no different than almost any nation state: an emergent and uneasy knitting together over time of disparate elements, languages, cultures and groups into what is called a “country,” a currency that holds its value well until stressed. It’s worth looking at three moments in our past for perspective to answer the question when did it or when will it start. 

What’s important to remember is that living in history is different than looking back at it. The past is neat, and actors carry out their role as if in a play, their actions entirely rational. This isn’t true, but it’s the way we see history. But the past is more like the present, when what animates actors is a bundle of contradictory and somewhat incoherent motives, mostly aimed at self-preservation and perpetuation. Nancy Pelosi does what she does because she wants “The Gavel;” Donald Trump likes to stick forks in outlets. Protesters set fires. Police draw lines that will be crossed.

None of these things is driven necessarily by deep ideological or moral principle, but often more parochial and personal animus, frustration, and fear. “If ‘they’ get power, just imagine what will happen,” people ask each other and themselves. At some point the question ceases to become an intellectual exercise and people commit their bodies to the fray, risking injury or death for stated principles that are usually profoundly obscured. Here are some glances in the rear view mirror.

Henry III, Simon de Montfort, Civil War, and the 13th Century

Simon de Montfort defending the “little guy.”

Henry and Simon could not anticipate one risk, that they not might see eye to eye. However independent the earl might claim to be, he would be helpless if he could not turn to Henry for help; and however much Henry hoped from Simon, he could not be expected to give him a free hand and meet his demands without criticism. In fact, the two men soon ceased to see eye to eye.

The 13th Century: 1216-1307
Sir Maurice Powicke
1953 (Reprinted 1970)

Like the 17th century in England, the 13th was of great consequence for the way we look at government even today, and not just because of Magna Carta. Simon de Montfort was a nobleman from France who had lost his lands. At this point, England and France were intertwined and had been in William the Conquerors invasion in 1066. Monfort did what he could to restore his own fortunes and made progress with King Henry III, the son of King John who had seen his kingdom deteriorate from its height during his father and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s reign.

Montfort’s personal grievances and his marriage to Henry’s sister notwithstanding, he not only organized baronial opposition to the King but tried to institutionalize it. He led what we’d call today a rebellion if not a civil war. The barons were not republicans or democrats (small d and r here); they were concerned with concentration of power in a king they didn’t trust. The baronial wars that led to John signing the Magna Carta didn’t lead to institutional change; Monfort’s efforts did. He established votes for members to assemble in a regular parliament, the first of its kind. In the end he lost, was killed, his family disinherited.

What lit this flame was personal relationship and dependence between a strong central government and the wider landowning barony. While certainly not a divide between rural and urban England (such a thing didn’t really exist then in feudal England), there was already a strong dissonance between the engines of the economy and the power structure that governed it. In 13th century England survival was personal, there was no distinction between “belief” and one’s roll in society. Identification, class, and geography meant winning would result in peace; losing would mean dispossession and death. However personal the feud between Henry and Montfort was, it still lead to the establishment of institution, Parliament.

The Friction Continues: The English Civil War 1640 to 1660

If we want to understand the Civil War, a glance at the maps above is far more important than the most elaborate analysis of members of Parliament. Support for Parliament came from the economically advanced south and east of England, the King’s support from the economically backward areas of the north and west . . . there was a clear division between Parliamentarian industrial areas and Royalist agricultural areas.

The Century of Revolution: 1603-1714
Christopher Hill
1980

By the 17th century the institution that was born of the tension and war between barons and King, between Henry and Montfort, was itself strong enough to mount a war against the King again, this time Charles I. And now there was a clear urban and rural divide, the underlying economic dispute was playing out in government policies on taxes especially. Who would pay for the operation of the government run by a hereditary monarch? And how would religious toleration be granted to proliferating Protestant sects without also giving it to Roman Catholics?

By 1640 Charles had to call Parliament into session to raise the taxes he needed to crush rebellion in Scotland and manage the operations of government. Montfort’s institution had grown into an almost equal power having been called together to grant legitimacy first to Henry VII strained claim to the throne, and then Henry VIII’s creation of the Church of England in defiance of Rome. Parliament went from an inconvenience, to a tool of legitimacy and order, to an existential threat to the monarchy.

Wealth and resources were certainly at play just as they were with Henry III and Montfort; who would govern, who would win, and who would lose? Rural areas were generally governed by hereditary lords with strong leanings on the established church; cities teamed with boot strap merchants who climbed into wealth on their own hard work, and they held strong Protestant if not Calvinist theology. It was yet again, a powder keg waiting for an errant spark.

And it came. Hill quotes letters of the time,

“The High Sheriff of Lancashire urged gentlemen to appear in arms with their tenants and servants, ‘for securing of our own lives and estates,” and meanwhile “’the gentry,’ the vulgar were saying, ‘have been our masters a long time, and now we may chance to master them.’”

The Nullification Crisis: 1832 – 1833

Fake News!

Clay and Calhoun first sat in stilted silence, and once begun, their discussion proceeded in fits and starts. The possibility of federal bayonets flashing in Carolina, however, was a terrific incentive to let bygones, for a time, be bygones, and soon the two were making progress . . . Clay could only pray that Calhoun would be enough.

Henry Clay: The Essential American
David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler
2010

By now, the story should be more familiar, part of the vernacular: The North versus the South. But this notion of regionalism and sectionalism that is so much a part of our narrative wasn’t then what it is today. It hadn’t been written. But it was playing out between at least three characters, a volatile, populist president, Andrew Jackson, the man who threw the election of 1824 to his opponent Henry Clay, and Jackson’s Vice President, the mercurial John C. Calhoun. So rub your eyes, and look at things without the cataracts of conventional views of the American Civil War.

Remember, the Union was formed by independent colonies that became states. There was no exit clause in the Constitution. Like the merchants in London who woke up in a monarchy that did not serve their financial and moral interests, southern farmers wondered why they were in a “union” that made their lives worse. Meanwhile, the President, bent on the removal of Native Americans off their lands, was stoking state’s rights while also threatening to send troops to Carolina. This was the same president who had vetoed a key bill to make internal improvements; states should pay for those, not the federal government.

Calhoun came to together with Clay because both felt that the taxes being imposed on the south could be ramped down without either of them losing face or advantage. The tariffs were part of Clay’s Hamiltonian American System based on financing, capital investment, and protectionism. Calhoun represented people who felt as though they were paying the bill and getting nothing in return but reproach for their system of slavery and trade.

What resulted from the personal connection between two old rivals was passage of an act that would authorize force on state’s flouting federal law by not paying the tariff, and legislation that would reduce the taxes. The two cancelled each other out. Jackson, Clay, and Calhoun could all claim victory. But the fundamental issues of economics and value were not resolved and would, in time lead to the American Civil War.

Are We Close?

Generally, things break into a war when there are deep underlying faults in the culture, a break down between leaders and people they lead, and a strong identification between values and economics.

Underlying faults

People around Oklahoma City or in rural Washington or Montana wonder what is happening in America’s cities. People in places like Seattle and Chicago wonder what the hell is wrong with people that shop at Wal Mart and why they won’t wear a mask. Beneath it is a deep fracture, centuries old, between lifestyle, economics, and values, each of which intertwines so tightly as to become almost one thick trunk. And these two trunks uphold many branches and leaves, all of which move in the wind, but are anchored too deeply to move further than a flutter.

Personal relationships and values

Politics at every level has become deeply personal. Resentment seems to trump understanding. The reason for the vitriol is always on the other side; each interlocutor says is, “Fox News!” or “CNN” or “Fake News” or whatever. Personalities and pique matter more than questions or skepticism. Everyone has to pick a side.

More importantly, decision makers have stopped talking to each other and speak through media to their supporters. Both sides are happy when the other side looks foolish. There is no room for vulnerability. Each and every opportunity to humiliate and embarrass others is taken.

Economics and values

In the United States today, there is a strong moral quality attached to wealth and poverty, being wealthy is seen as a “bad” thing while having little money is noble. There is growing consensus that someone has their finger on the scale, people “like me” are being gamed by the system. When a person gets wealthy, somehow, it was at my expense or the expense of someone less fortunate. It has become an unassailable doctrine that a few people run the country at the expense of the vast remainder.

This is false. Ordinary people through pension funds, retirement accounts, and mutual funds hold most wealth in the United States, indirectly. But aggrievement is everywhere to be found, and everyone has an article, a link, a statistic to back up their view that someone somewhere must not only be reduced in wealth and status, but also humiliated.

Will People and Institutions Expose Themselves to Harm?

For one’s country…

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

Odes
Horace
23 BC

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

Sullivan Ballou
Letter to his wife Sarah
July 14th, 1861

How many people are willing to get beaten, gassed, and arrested by police?  How many people are police willing to beat, gas, and arrest?

After all my historical review and thinking about our times what it comes down to is whether people are willing to put their bodies on the line. Are people willing to get hurt for whatever ideas or concepts or fears or fantasies that fill their minds? Do they think that their way of life is threatened to the point that if were changed by someone from the other side “winning,” that such a state of affairs would be entirely unacceptable?

Could barons live in their world paying taxes and being obedient to King Henry? Could a merchant in London tolerate a King who went to church with services in Latin? Would someone from Charleston be able to sleep at night knowing his hard earned tax money was supporting someone in Massachusetts who was an abolitionist?

With what we see in the streets, more and more, people are willing to put themselves at risk. If that continues, and if national leadership continues to seek personal satisfaction, and individuals continue to indulge in binary thinking about the future seeing anyone who disagrees as an existential threat, then yes, we’re getting there.

When we see institutions put themselves at risk at the request of the people or because they claim the support of the people we will be at civil war. Example? If the City Council of Portland authorizes force against federal agents, we’re there. If the City of Seattle authorizes the arrest of federal officers acting under federal orders, we’re there. And in each case if the media and local people hail this as a blow against oppression, we’re there. It’s not a value judgment, it’s just a measure.