Ideas: The 1860 and 2020 Elections

After a close race, Joe Biden was declared the winner of the American presidency on Nov. 7, 2020. Trump, however, has not conceded, and in an October poll, more than half of voters said they expect violence. Some fear (and others threaten) civil war. Examining the conditions surrounding the Civil War of 1860, there are noteworthy similarities between the elections of the 16th and 46th presidents, but it is unclear what exactly a 2020 civil war would be about. 

Lincoln/Biden parallels begin at the primaries. Lincoln ran for the Republican nomination against Simon Cameron, Salmon Chase, Edward Bates, and William Seward, all of whom he later incorporated into his cabinet. His rivals were all men of national reputation, while Lincoln’s political experience consisted only of a single term in Congress and two failed bids for the Senate. Although he was not a total unknown, having debated publicly with Stephen Douglas and spoken throughout New England, it was obvious to no one that he would become the most important political figure of the 19th century. Like Lincoln, Biden seems to have won his party’s nomination as most people’s second choice. As the 2020 Democratic primary unfolded, the other contenders dropped out one by one. Many voters consider Biden a compromise candidate, with less exciting policies than Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Pete Buttigieg. Biden’s electoral base included many less inspired by his agenda than fed up with Trump, including the lifelong Republicans behind the Lincoln Project who saw Trump as damaging to the ideals of the Republican Party.

In 1860, the sentiments of Lincoln’s voters may have been similar. Most Civil War historians agree that James Buchanan was the worst president in American history. Taking very little action, he allowed the national problem of slavery to fester. In his inaugural address, Buchanan called it, “happily, a matter of but little practical importance.” Several states in the South, where Lincoln was not even listed on the ballots, seceded in response to his election before he’d even taken office. Then, as a lame duck president, Buchanan did nothing to maintain the Union. He claimed the self-styled Confederate states should not have left, but that the federal government had no power to prevent them from doing so. Like Lincoln, Biden will be taking the reins from a president who has allowed discord to flourish. Refusing to condemn neo-Nazis, exacerbating the immigration crisis at the US/Mexico border, insulting everyone from combat veterans to the NFL, politicizing a pandemic, and repeatedly inciting violence, Trump has done much to polarize and little to unify the country during his four years as president. His core tactic of promoting conspiracy theories to undermine anything in his way, including the electoral process, the press, scientific data, and his competitors, would have fit in well in 1860. The validity of Lincoln’s election was contested by conspiracy theorists, who suggested that he was secretly mulatto, a socialist, and even a cannibal. When Biden takes office in January, he will, like Lincoln, need to dispel plenty of “fake news.” 

In a bid for unity during his first inagural address, Lincoln addressed the secession crisis, announcing, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Despite his reassurances, a civil war broke out over the institution of slavery. The events of 1861 suggest that if the country is already headed toward civil war, there is probably little Biden can do in the coming months to prevent it. However, as Richard Hanania wrote in the Washington Post, citing the wealth and military power of the United States, “civil war is likely to remain a metaphor.” Deep grievances tend to only erupt in civil war in countries where the State lacks the capacity to put down rebellions. 

Unlike in 1860, this election was not driven by a single issue such as whether to contain, abolish, or expand slavery. Rather, there are tense national debates about a number of subjects including gun ownership, climate change, access to healthcare, and the appropriate pandemic response. Today’s urban/rural divisions, while fierce, are less clear-cut than the North/South divide of 1860. While their effect remains to be seen, Trump’s reluctance to concede breaks an important norm, and he could use the next several months to add fuel to the fire, making Biden’s job upon inauguration more difficult. While not exactly the powder keg of 1860, the divisions that shaped the 2020 election will not be easy to heal.  

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