Was the Civil War Inevitable?Roundup
tags: slavery, Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, abortion, Samuel Alito, secession, Dred Scott, January 6
David W. Blight is the Sterling professor of history at Yale University as well as the director of its Gilder Lehrman Center for the study of slavery and abolition. His book on Frederick Douglass won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for history. Máximo Tuja, who goes by Max-o-matic, is an illustrator in Barcelona known for his collage work. He is the founder of The Weird Show art platform.
In the late morning of March 6, 1857, two days after the inauguration of James Buchanan as the 15th president of the United States, the Supreme Court’s chief justice, Roger B. Taney, stood among a crowd of reporters and spectators on the ground floor of the United States Capitol and formally read the 55-page majority opinion in Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sandford. Born during the American Revolution and now just shy of 80, Taney could still take over a room with his sense of conviction, and as he began to address the crowd, the old Supreme Court chamber brimmed with anticipation.
Dred Scott’s name was by that point well known to many Americans. The four days of debate on the case, conducted in December of the previous year, had been covered extensively by newspapers. Scott, an enslaved man, and his wife, Harriet, had sued for their freedom based on Dred’s claim that their late owner had taken them for several years into Illinois, a free state, and to Fort Snelling, in a Northern territory where slavery was banned by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. That federal legislation effectively outlawed slavery in the territories above the 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. It was considered a “sacred pledge” by many antislavery Northerners determined to protect the West as “free soil” for “free labor,” but pro-slavery Southerners became equally determined to incorporate new territories as slaveholding states. In deciding whether enslaved people could gain their freedom by residing on free soil, the Supreme Court might answer a question critical to the growing nation: What would the status of slavery be in the Western territories?
Now Taney was ready to deliver the decision. A Marylander and former slaveholder, he was six feet tall and had a drooping, worn facial expression and tobacco-stained teeth. His voice was a bit weak and his body enfeebled, but he remained possessed of what a critic called an “infernal apostolic manner.” Black people, he said, could never be “citizens,” nor considered “as a part of the people.” The room stirred as listeners recognized that Taney was reaching for a much bigger impact than simply the fate of Dred and Harriet Scott and their daughters, or even the question of whether slavery would be permitted in the territories. “Every citizen has a right to take with him into the Territory any article of property,” the chief justice declared. “The Constitution of the United States recognizes slaves as property and pledges the Federal Government to protect it.”
The great crisis over the existence and expansion of slavery had just made a decisive turn. In the aftermath of Taney’s reading, the decision was greeted with a torrent of editorial commentary. Newspapers that sided with the Democrats, like The Daily Picayune of New Orleans, celebrated the court for “so adjudge[ing] the vexed question of the times as to rebuke faction … and consolidate the Union … for all time.” Republican papers, like the New-York Tribune, called the decision “atrocious,” “wicked” and “abominable.” The Chicago Daily Tribune declared that Illinois could no longer prevent someone from “opening a slave pen and an auction block for the sale of black men, women and children, right here in Chicago.” The New-York Daily Times saw the ruling as a revolution against the federal government. “Slavery,” it maintained, “is no longer local; it is national.”
Taney’s decision sought to resolve a powerfully divisive issue that, it turned out, he could not control. Over the next three years, the country descended into disunion, followed by civil war. Recently, it has become disturbingly common to hear Americans wonder aloud whether we are headed for another breakup of some kind. Especially on the far right, talk of overthrowing the government has been increasing, reaching a peak when a mob stormed the Capitol, inspired by President Donald Trump’s persistent claims that the 2020 election had been “stolen” from him. According to the Chicago Project on Security & Threats, use of the term “civil war” surged by 3,000 percent among Twitter users in the hours after the F.B.I. search of Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago in August. A similar surge occurred in September when President Biden gave a prime-time speech in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, denouncing “MAGA Republicans” as anti-democratic threats to America. In the recent trial of Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers militia who was charged with seditious conspiracy, a jury heard many hours of testimony and saw a mountain of evidence implicating the defendant in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Rhodes warned that if Trump did not invoke the Insurrection Act to stop the electoral count in Congress, he and his people would take violent action and trigger a “bloody civil war.” (Rhodes was convicted in late November.)
We might dismiss all this as paranoid ravings, except that a recent University of Virginia Center for Politics poll found that 52 percent of Trump voters and 41 percent of Biden voters at least somewhat agreed that America is so fractured that they would favor some kind of “secession” of blue from red states. Some of this sentiment is no doubt a result of irresponsible rhetoric practiced by people who seek to sow chaos or increase media ratings (and reflects a rather romanticized conception of our Civil War in the 1860s). But the anxiety animating these concerns is real.