On May 1, 1863, Clement L. Vallandigham attended a political rally in Mount Vernon, Ohio. He created a bit of a stir. Before long, federal soldiers had arrested the recently defeated Ohio congressman. He was charged with all sorts of unpleasant, even treasonous, things. The military tribunal considered the charge that the Ohio congressman had declared "that the present war was a wicked, cruel, and unnecessary war, one not waged for the preservation of the Union, but for the purpose of crushing out liberty and to erect a despotism; a war for the freedom of the blacks and the enslavement of the whites.” The court found him guilty and eventually banished him to the Confederacy.
We historians care about Clement Vallandigham because he was a Democratic congressman for the first half of the Civil War, and he had been a leading opponent to the Lincoln administration and the Union war effort. We remember Vallandigham as an anti-war “Copperhead.” He is our most visible version of this perhaps treasonous wartime breed. Social media of the day – political cartoons, satirical cartes de visite, cheaply reprinted song sheets, and partisan editorials – feature Vallandigham’s name and face, providing historians with precious evidence and useful illustrations. The Mount Vernon crowd was a raucous one. Vallandigham, one of various speakers, declared that he opposed the war, hated Lincoln, despised conscription, and was just an angry fellow. They cheered. Except for the few Union soldiers in plain clothes, who took notes and reported back to General Ambrose E. Burnside, the recently appointed commander of the Department of the Ohio.
On January 6, 2021, another angry politician who had recently lost an election gave a speech to an excited crowd, this time in Washington, D.C. Some folks say that the speaker, Donald Trump, should be held to account for treasonous speech. At this writing I do not know if that will happen, but I do know that several people in that crowd were soon committing various federal crimes and quite a few are already arrested; one is dead. Pundits on both sides of the political aisle are wondering if the Republican Party is effectively dead, or at least permanently divided. It may be that we have an unusual situation, where current political events help us rethink a somewhat murky past, while that past sharpens our understanding of recent episodes.
Since last March, I – like so many others – have limited my activity to a very few places and things. Specifically, I have honed expertise in two areas: I finished a book about northern Democrats during the American Civil War and I obsessively watched the events that eventually lead to the assault on the United States Capitol. I submit that these two political obsessions share a bit in common, and what we think we know about the Civil War can inform our understanding of today. Or is that vice versa?
Historians who write about the American Civil War commonly describe the northern Democrats as divided into two camps: War Democrats and Peace Democrats. The former generally supported Abraham Lincoln and the war effort; the latter called for an end to the military conflict. Some portion of those Peace Democrats are described as “Copperheads.” In our historic memory the wartime Democratic Party is seen as essentially divided while the Republican Party of Lincoln – later restyled as the Union Party - shared core values and party coherence. That is a coherent story for the textbooks, although it is not quite on the mark.
We historians are sometimes lumpers and often splitters. The impulse to split leads to some fundamental conclusions. Civil War Democrats certainly differed about whether they should cast their lot with Abraham Lincoln and the war effort. Moreover, anti-war Democrats in the Midwest and in the urban East Coast (to select just two geographic areas) thought differently about the war and their opposition to it. Things get more complex when we look hard at slave-holding Democrats in border states like Kentucky. The splitting project is really pretty simple. The North’s Civil War Democrats thought different things, or at least arrayed their core passions in different orders.
But what about the impulse of the lumper? Civil War Democrats generally understood themselves as “conservative” and they commonly viewed politics and politicians arrayed along an ideological – as opposed to purely partisan – spectrum. They had fundamental beliefs about the Constitution and about the appropriate power of the federal government. Those core beliefs led these Democrats to some fundamental opinions about key issues of the day, including civil liberties, conscription, federal taxation, and emancipation. They shared fundamental ideas even though they divided over how to proceed. Some were bothered by the decisions of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, but they were willing to hold their noses and back the war effort because defeating the Confederacy trumped ideological concerns about public policy. For others, the administration’s policies at some point became a bridge too far. Some of those had some kinship with the Confederacy. But for many more their ideas about the Constitution and about the relationship between the federal government and the individual states led them to conclude that Lincoln and his administration had simply gone further than they could support. In this lumping formulation, many Civil War Democrats agreed on fundamental propositions, even while they split over whether they were willing to back Lincoln and the war effort.
At this point one might ask about what northern Democrats thought about slavery, race, and white supremacy. Several thoughts come to mind. Many (although not all) of these northern Democrats would have agreed that the institution of slavery was immoral, and the experience of being enslaved was truly horrible. The problem for the modern observer is that these Democrats lost little sleep over the peculiar institution. Before the war they had done their best to maintain a national political party with a strong pro-slavery southern wing. With secession they no longer had to appease firebrands to the South, but they still mouthed abstract notions about states’ rights. Some endorsed the notion that the institution of slavery was really the best for both the enslaved and their white masters. But in truth they seemed indifferent to slavery as a human condition. These Democrats did worry about a post-emancipation future where population migrations would result in black freed people moving into white northern communities. They worried about miscegenation or some form of racial amalgamation in their own states, rather than about freeing enslaved people. Yes, these Democrats were racists and they embraced notions of white supremacy long before those notions had an articulated language. Were they more racist than northern Republicans? Probably. But we should not overstate that difference. With some exceptions, mainstream northern Democrats were not celebrating slavery in their speeches or private writings, even while their newspapers sold racist tropes and pushed the fear of black migrants entering their worlds.
Did Clement Vallandigham and his crowd push a treasonous agenda? I do not really think so. Vallandigham and many other northern Democrats opposed the military conflict. He thought that the war would not be won, and he had no enthusiasm for emancipation. He disliked Lincoln and believed that many of his core policies, including conscription, violated the Constitution. He also had a lot to say about the fundamental cost of the war and the citizens who bore that cost. His was a radical voice in opposition to the administration, but perhaps he was more an enemy of the war and of Lincoln than a true enemy of his nation.
The lumper, then, understands that northern Democrats really agreed on quite a bit. Some were War Democrats and some were Peace Democrats. And we think of some of those Peace Democrats as “Copperheads.” That is a label that some Lincoln critics proudly embraced, but we should not lose track of the fact that in many cases that label “Copperhead” was applied by partisan Republicans or their editors. Historians writing about the Civil War should be cautious about calling wartime Democrats “Copperhead” the same way that future historians should be careful about who in 2020 should be described as a “socialist.”
This brings us back to January 2021. There are pretty stark divisions within today’s Republican Party. How does today’s situation compare with the divided northern Democrats during the Civil War? The wartime Democrats differed on key issues and history labels them in distinct groups. The labels defining today’s different GOP camps are pretty clear as well. We speak of “Never Trumpers” and “Trumpers.” Some segment of the anti-Trump Republicans have abandoned their party, if not the ideological convictions that originally made them Republicans. During the Civil War conservative editor Chauncey Burr liked to point out that he was an ideologically pure Democrat, whereas politicians who claimed to be War Democrats had really abandoned their party. Today an outspoken cohort of conservative Republicans and ex-Republicans, including the clever and caustic members of the Lincoln Project, blame the Trump Republicans for having abandoned them. The Civil War Democrats divided over whether to support a huge civil war while today’s Republicans seem to have divided over how much they support one man.
Despite their differences, the Civil War Democrats shared key ideological convictions. It feels more challenging to summarize the ideology of today’s Republican Party. Like those Democrats, modern Republicans embrace the notion of “conservative” values, although those are not always easy to identify. There have long been divisions in the GOP, with fiscal conservatives sparring with social conservatives, and a powerful wing of evangelical conservatives pursuing particular policy goals. But right now it is harder to get a handle on the party’s ideological core. In broad strokes, they seem to embrace tax cuts, but they appear unmoved by deficits. They do seem to be consistently opposed to excessive government regulations, particularly when the environment or worker safety are involved. And they like conservative judges, particularly if they might undermine abortion rights. One might reasonably turn to the 2020 Republican Platform for a clear sense of what the party stands for. But, alas, they passed on that ritual. There are other issues one might raise that have motivated individual Republicans, but it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that in 2020 the Republican Party was entirely about Donald Trump, rather than any consistent set of ideological convictions. (One need not be a professional pundit to predict that in the next few years ideological fissures will roil the Democratic Party. But ideology will likely be central.)
Then there is the matter of race and ethnicity. History is quick to point out that the Civil War Democrats were a party of racists. That is a presentist term, but no doubt both the party’s leadership and its rank and file embraced massive racial prejudices. The contrarian points out that pretty much all white Civil War era Americans held a disturbing assortment of racist beliefs. That is certainly true, but it is a poor defense of the Democrats. Once freed from their party alignment with the southern slaveocracy, most northern Democrats seemed to have had little interest in either slavery or emancipation. They did worry tremendously about what might happen to an almost exclusively white northern society if hordes of freed people headed North. And their skilled propagandists played on those fears when speaking to voters.
Today’s Republicans exist in an entirely different racial world for a host of reasons, many of which are related to the fact that the modern descendants of those enslaved people are part of public life, and they vote. Perhaps there are some similarities? Certainly white Americans today are still living in a world shaped by racism and an assortment of prejudices. And surely there is some reason to conclude that today’s white Republicans – like the wartime Democrats – are more inclined to embrace some of those prejudices than their partisan opponents. And, again like the Civil War Democrats, it might simply be the case that some of their leaders and members of the rank and file lose little sleep over racial inequalities. Certainly there are political approaches to public policies engaging racial and ethnic difference (immigration, voter suppression, policing, incarceration, drug laws) that future historians will likely describe as pretty unsettling if not flat out racist and xenophobic. And perhaps the gap between the parties is actually more pronounced today than in the 1860s, if only because of the racial composition of voters in each party today. Democrats worried about what would become of them if their white worlds became more racially diverse; today’s Trump Republicans surely seem to be deeply concerned about the implications of a racially and culturally diverse society.
This is not intended as a screed against today’s Republican Party (well, not entirely), but rather as a call for thinking about those wartime Democrats in this broader context. They differed with each other about whether the party should support that huge war, but they really agreed on a broad spectrum of conservative ideals. And even the folks who backed Abraham Lincoln did not really embrace everything he was doing. They were, in those senses, a coherent political party.
Let us return to those two speeches. On May 1, 1863, Clement Vallandigham had a lot of nasty things to say about the war and the Lincoln administration. But in recalling the congressman and his angry rhetoric, it is perhaps worth keeping in mind that he provided his audience with a clear path to addressing these national ills. The answer, he said, rests in “the ballot box.” If his supporters wished to end Lincoln’s tyrannical reign they should vote him out of office. On January 6, 2021, the President of the United States spoke to an enthusiastic crowd in Washington. His core message was a bald-faced lie. He declared, not for the first or last time, that he had been cheated in the 2020 election. History will judge whether he was fully conscious of the fact that he was lying. In any case, the enthusiasts in that crowd believed everything he said. And whereas Clement Vallandigham – the man we recall as a traitor to his country – urged his listeners to use the ballot box to end the war, Donald Trump urged his listeners to march to the United States Capitol, where they might stop the constitutionally determined process of counting votes from the Electoral College. In the short run they were astonishingly successful, aided by a shocking number of elected leaders from the Republican Party.
In late 1863 Vallandigham lost another election when Ohioans turned back his bid for the governorship, preferring John Brough, a War Democrat. There is apparently no record of the loser declaring that he had been cheated. Say what you want about the wartime Democrats, but they revered the Constitution. Vallandigham faced a military tribunal for his Mount Vernon speech. It remains to be seen what Donald Trump will face.
J. Matthew Gallman
Department of History
University of Florida
Matt Gallman is a Professor of History in the University of Florida. He is the author or editor of multiple books about the Civil War. His latest book is The Cacophony of Politics: Northern Democrats and the American Civil War (forthcoming, Fall 2021, University of Virginia Press).
Megan Kate Nelson
Thanks for this, Matt! I'm sending the link to Lindsay Chervinsky, who is creating a list of pieces by historians on the political chaos.
Wyatt Reader M.A.
Prior to this posted material, I have attempted to refrain from commenting upon current political matters, on lists generally. With H-CivWar's Editors allowing this material re: Vallandigham, etc., I assume that it is possibly due to the importance of current events, I am finding this precedent may serve as a further wish, to explore and comment upon such matters as presented in this post, rather than strictly adhering to history and historical matters.
Wyatt Reader MA
US Govt. ret.
After reading and thinking about Matthew Gallman’s message, I remain at a loss to determine whether the words of historians in times of crisis are more misleading (or irrelevant) than informative. After all, the past doesn’t repeat itself, only historians do — constantly. Steeped as we are in the past (or our own versions of it — one of my colleagues once chortled at a faculty meeting that “the problem with historians is that we’re too concerned about the past”), we are so tempted in stormy times to pose as the public’s guide (therapist? Aeneas? Cicero?), to deploy our erudition and fine-grained skills to contextualize what people still struggle to explain.
Gallman’s discussion of the Civil War Democrats is on better ground than his befuddlement over the modern GOP. Although he is correct that Vallandigham’s May 1 speech did not counsel disobedience, it didn't need to to get him the martyrdom he craved. Unless Gallman’s forthcoming book indicates he has found otherwise, there is no extant copy of Vallandigham’s speech. And although whatever he said there, as transcribed by both friendly editors and reported by Burnside’s many “spies” standing next to the stage, got him sentenced to “close confinement” (not banished -- Lincoln ordered that), his predicament had less to do with his specific words there or an embarrassing overreach by a zealous general and JAG, than with Vallandigham’s relentless denunciations of the war and the draft. Vallandigham didn’t have to tell people to dodge the draft, he only had constantly to denounce it in wartime as unjust and unconstitutional, to “dog whistle” in modern day parlance, to dodgers, bounty jumpers, and deserters, that his principles covered their tracks. That certainly was Lincoln’s view. In his published justifications of Vallandigham’s treatment, Lincoln famously echoed the words of his lifelong foe, Stephen Douglas, who blamed the GOP for inciting the Harpers Ferry raid, by accusing Vallandigham and his Ohio Democrats of being “a real strength to the enemy” by pursuing a course “notorious, known to all, and of course known to Mr. Vallandigham. ... When it is known that the whole burden of his speeches has been to stir up men against the prosecution of the war, and that in the midst of resistance to it he has not been known in any instance to counsel against such resistance, it is next to impossible to repel the inference that he has counselled directly in favor of it.”
Gallman makes a good case about the bedrock conservatism of Civil War Democrats, a point noted by others like Joel Silbey and Jean Baker. Yet can historians be as detached and careful about the present they live in? Here he joins company with court historians like Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who so often cross over to punditry and prognostication disguised as historical insight that I strain to take them seriously. David Blight, whose superb scholarship has won him easy access to the op-ed columns of major national newspapers, opined recently in the New York Times, about the danger of a “Trump Lost Cause” in the aftermath of the Capitol Riot (an infamous event now deserving of capitalization), as if Trump and Lee, or the riot and Appomattox, have anything in common, is such a case of remarkable overstretch. Blight’s Republicans are now susceptible to a new demagogue with a “story, ... fraught with lies and misguided beliefs,” supported by “right-wing media” and a few thousand putschists at the Capitol. That the Democratic party and very intelligent voters like himself are, of course, genetically immune from their own kind mythmaking is taken as a matter of course. These are things that always plague one’s opponents, not one’s friends. The fact that Trump led a faction, while Lee and Davis, on the other hand, led an embryonic nation in what Lincoln called “a ... clear, flagrant, and gigantic case of Rebellion” lasting over four years, devastating a section of the country and mobilizing 80% of one region’s eligible manpower, leaving scars still raw today, gets smoothed-over in analyses like these. What sculptor chips away at a statue memorializing the Capitol Hill rioters or The Donald, and what town square would even host it? How many scholars lie in wait to lionize Trump and his mob the way that historians (and Democrats, one must add) did Lee and his army in the late 19th and early 20th century? Not many, I suspect, and none at Blight’s Yale, we can be certain.
That’s why we should be skeptical of analogies to a one-of-a-kind period, the Civil War era, that never repeated itself despite historians’ straining to draw it forward into the present. And we need to be mindful of the danger that we abandon the critical detachment we apply to the historical record when we become pundits today. Gallman’s message trods such shaky ground. He can award conservative ideological coherence to the Civil War Democrats, but the conservatism of the modern GOP, a party for which his message signals his disdain, leaves him scratching his head. He confesses to having trouble figuring out what the GOP stands for, when by any reasonable examination of the legislative record, it is united behind a lot — the Abraham Accords and Jerusalem; tax cuts and tighter monetary policy; the problem of overweening government power; immigration restriction; “originalist” jurisprudence; higher defense spending; deregulation especially of financial markets, energy development, antitrust, small businesses, and employment practices (and not just on “environment” and “worker safety” which, Gallman apparently believes, are objectives that only can be advanced by something called “regulation”). Much of that agenda is consistent with prior Republican policies long before Trump’s elevator ride, whatever Professor Gallman may think of them. There also are genuine policy differences within their ranks over trade, health insurance, immigration, isolationism, and civil liberties -- conservatives have debated these things among themselves for years. These are no more incoherent than the policy legacies and divisions of Democratic administrations because it’s a truism that these party institutions are coalitions of interests, passions, identities, and cultural cross-currents. To some analysts, however, it’s impossible to believe that the other side believes anything worth believing; like a dumbstruck Henry Clay in the aftermath of Jackson’s victory, they attribute defeat to a deluded “public mind.” The GOP must be ipso facto a collection of angry guys united only by unintelligible urges, emotions, prejudices and yearnings for some mystical great white republic, despite the fact that the party increased turnout in two election cycles to bring out 74 million people, including millions of ticket-splitters who abandoned Trump at the top of the ballot and went for their party the rest of the way down. That this party now faces a troubled and divided future as the Civil War Democrats did, (Joel Silbey remarked that it “was a terrible time to be a Democrat”), and which demagogues are lining up to exploit, is worthy of careful analysis and debate, but that discussion should begin with the recognition that all parties will suffer identity crises when their extremes threaten to define the mean, that the GOP’s internal divisions are about means as much if not more than ends, and not with the assumption, in the face of contrary evidence, that the party lacks a constraining constellation of beliefs that Gallman has little trouble discerning among the factious Civil War Democrats in much more dangerous and divisive times than the present.
Thanks to Peter Knupfer for his extended remarks on my H-CivWar essay. As he notes, I have recently completed a book on the North’s wartime Democrats: The Cacophony of Politics: Northern Democrats and the American Civil War (forthcoming, University of Virginia Press, fall 2021). I set out to write that book largely because I was interested in attempting a study of wartime politics. I also thought it would be challenging to write about historic figures whose opinions I found unpleasant.
This essay is not excerpted from that project, but the book and the essay share a core observation that although wartime Democrats divided strenuously, they also had an awful lot in common. I attempted no grand new analysis of Vallandigham. His core story is well known so I did most of my digging elsewhere. On the other hand, I do think that our collective memory of him is probably flawed. Yes, there is no known text of the speech that eventually transported him to the Confederacy and then to Canada. A very detailed summary is in Thomas C. Mackey’s Opposing Lincoln: Clement L. Vallandigham, Presidential Power, and the Legal Battle over Dissent in Wartime (Kansas, 2020).
I really did sit down to write that essay because Trump’s January 6, 2021 speech – and the immediate response – made me think of the Vallandigham speech that got him in so much hot water. That got me thinking about the Democrats during the Civil War and the Republicans today. For the former I have some limited expertise; for the latter I am no more than an interested citizen.
I am not a Republican, and do not claim to speak for the GOP. In my lifetime I have seen many Republican leaders whose opinions I really disliked demonstrate some pretty consistent personal integrity. But as I look at the months and years leading up to January 6th (and here I seamlessly slip from historian to faux pundit, with apologies to Wyatt Reader) I am struck that the party that has long had coherent ideas (most of which I disliked) really had become the party of Donald Trump. It seems to me that the party’s leaders (with the possible exception of the senator from Utah) have abandoned their integrity. A piece of data: A CNN poll taken between January 9th and January 14th found that 75 percent of Republicans still believed that Biden really did not win the 2020 election. That means that historians will have to struggle with why three quarters of the rank and file in one party believed a complete lie. The simple answer (which I think sounds pretty accurate) is that these people believed it because Donald Trump told them that over and over again. And almost the entire elected leadership of that party declined to point out that their president is a liar. Why? Because ¾ of their base believe him. And the circle continues. So, yeah, we can talk about the core ideas that the GOP still shares. But it feels impossible to ignore the fact that their elected leaders must cater to voters who believe things that are not true. It may be that Dr. Knupfer can explain these leaders and their base.
And so on January 6th Donald Trump encouraged a mob to commit treason. And they did. On January 11th I wondered what would become of him. Now we know that he has been impeached. It strikes me that the GOP will have to find their integrity, or new leaders with integrity, before we should wrestle with their ideas.
My thanks to Professor Gallman for taking the time to reply; this kind of discussion is what H-Net is really about. All that I ask of him is that he try to apply the same skeptical and critical eye to his punditry that he applies to his research, especially if he decides to “seamlessly slip from historian to faux pundit.” Gallman introduced this analogy between the historical and the contemporary, between Trump and Vallandigham, and the only connection I can see is that they gave incendiary speeches. Both qualify as demagogues whose outlandish behavior attracted some pretty outlandish behavior in response. That’s pretty much it.
But instead of leaving it at that, in his second post Citizen Gallman (and I use this moniker not sarcastically, but just to distinguish Gallman-as-faux-pundit from Gallman-as-historian) offers reflections about the GOP that are no different from the conventional wisdom on most major op-ed pages like the New York Times, which I’m sure tell their readers things “over and over again” such that they believe them, and all leaving me wondering what this has to do with Clement Vallandigham. So we read that about 56 million Americans believed Biden “did not win the 2020 election” (as established by several recent polls) because Trump “told them so over and over again” (established by no independent authority). That 56 million people don’t think, but blindly follow; that they didn’t suspect something was wrong before he told them something was wrong is unprovable as a matter of historical analysis and is precisely why I find this punditry so unconvincing. None of it bears any relationship to conditions in Civil War America and all of it is open to serious dispute in relation to current affairs. Did wartime Democrats need a Vallandigham to tell them that something was wrong when Republican officials and generals shouted “traitor” at their opponents, arrested editors, suspended habeas corpus, and posted soldiers at the polls? Vallandigham surely said things “over and over again” to Democrats, so why didn’t the vast majority of the party follow him? But apparently in 2020 56 million Americans sure needed The Donald to alert them to the claim that something was wrong with an election that by any standard was unprecedented. Maybe there’s an alternative explanation from Citizen Knupfer, also slipping into faux punditry, that would serve just as well in historical analysis? In state after state, as a pandemic intensified, officials changed long-standing election regulations and deadlines. Given the government’s incompetence in facing the pandemic or even delivering a first-class letter on time, it was pretty natural that the public suspected it couldn’t handle an inundation of millions of mailed ballots. Trump exploited those doubts for his own benefit. Long before Trump’s court cases, legislators and editors raised concerns about this changing of the goal posts and the mass experiment in mailed ballots. Fears about stolen elections have a bipartisan history in this country -- they extend back beyond Jim Crow and up through cries of voter suppression that still ring in Stacey Abrams’s failed gubernatorial bid in Georgia. The courts and public officials have determined that neither recent claim has much foundation in fact, but those determinations did not dispel widespread public skepticism that something was wrong with those elections.
The critical methods Professor Gallman applies to dead Democrats are absent from Citizen Gallman’s discussion of living Republicans. He has his own reasons for this, but a clue might lie in his concession that while some Republicans have “personal integrity” they still advocate policies that he “dislikes.” And unlike his genuine dislike for Copperhead racism, among other things, he has a stake in opposing Republican policies nowadays. But does this spark any useful light on the motivations of people who vote for those policies? Research on voter behavior has demonstrated that voters often use an overlay of unconstrained euphemisms couched in a language of grievance to encompass multiple, often competing agendas as a way to explain their choices at the ballot box. And we await the findings of future political scientists that can help reconcile the idea that 75% of the GOP believes the election was stolen with the rampant ticket-splitting on the GOP ballot that had something to do with Trump's defeat. Given the tarnished record of recent polling organizations we simply don’t know, and can’t predict, whether those Republicans who “believe a lie” act on that belief or just relegate it to the past and move on. So far, a few thousand out of 56 million acted on it, violently; many of them are headed to jail. If turnout drops precipitously, strong third parties form, or other symptoms of underlying, structural disorganization appear, then we’ve got something to worry about. While no one would seriously wish upon Trump the ignominious fate of Vallandigham, who accidentally shot himself while making a case to a jury, an alternative explanation might be that Trump is permanently diminished by his role in the riot; that states will try to calm concerns about mail voting by enacting election reforms as Florida did in 2000; that in the minds of many voters, like those in the aftermath of 1960’s contested result, it won’t be necessary to do anything more than belly up to the bar griping about dishonest politicians, chalk it up to the occasional irregularities of American elections, and like the Civil War Democrats, live to fight and win another day.
Historians of our period need to check their partiality at the door and avoid the temptation to draw analogies to an exceptional period marked by “a ... clear, flagrant, and gigantic case of Rebellion.” We need to admit the influence of possible bias, of our own stake in the fate of parties when commenting on, well, parties, in the same breath that we practice our profession. It also helps us, and by extension our students, to distinguish between an op-ed expressing one’s informed opinions of current affairs and an essay on historical events based on a detached examination of sources, which can be easily confused by a piece that attempts both.
Allow me to add some thoughts here. Since I have an advanced degree in digressions, some of them will drift from the core subject.
1) As Thomas Haskell argued, objectivity is not neutrality. The fact that Matthew Gallman holds a negative opinion of the current Republican Party does not mean that his judgment is necessarily tainted by bias—something Peter Knupfer assumes but does not demonstrate. We often think of objectivity as an absence of values, when in fact it is a value itself, one that allows us to hold other potential biases in check when making an analysis.
2) Gallman’s comparison of Vallandigham and Trump is an interesting one, but I admit there are so many differences between the two moments that I can’t fault other historians if they initially say “hold on.” That said, the two moments have enough in common that thinking about them together can be generative of insight—in my view that’s what Gallman is after. Indeed, it isn’t evident to me that Gallman presumed his audience to be that of a pundit instead of fellow Civil War historians, who likely compose the bulk of H-CivWar’s readers.
3) Knupfer is correct that H-CivWar is a much better forum for having a substantive discussion than most of the alternatives, a drum I’ve tried to beat as H-Net’s Vice President of Networks. Comments go out to readers just like the original post and are subject to moderation by academic editors and rebuttal by fellow academics. H-Net’s system is built for conversation among fellow specialists—it’s much better than screaming into the void on a newspaper article’s comment feed.
4) Academic readers of H-Net networks are welcomed to share politically-infused view points as long as they meet the editors’ standards for expertise, coherence, pertinence, and civility and as long as the editorial moderation process itself is free from ideological bias. There are some networks that prefer to strictly avoid politics, and there is leeway for that too as long as they are consistent (and preferably explicit about the policy). But now I’ll take my VPN hat off and go back to being a historian.
5) Knupfer notes that the past doesn’t repeat itself, but I’ll suggest to you that this claim, commonplace in the profession, is an absurdity. It’s one of what I think of as “Clio’s Shibboleths.” Subjecting that claim to an empirical test would require Peter to show that in all of human history there had never been two events that were so substantively similar in their causes, development, and consequences that they can fairly be called repetitive. Clearly there are at least stretches of historical time that are marked by patterns of recurrence, especially with social phenomenon. One has to be careful not to lose sight of what is also changing while tracing similarities across time, but it’s also best to avoid arguing there is no substantive repetition in history because one can always find one thing that is different between two events.
6) That said, I also think in the case of Gallman’s opening essay that we’d be well served by recapturing the otherness of the past—something that can get overlooked in the scholarship on the Civil War and Reconstruction. (Just to be clear, I’m not saying Gallman in particular fails to do this, just that it’s something we Civil War-era historians should focus on more often.) Let me suggest two points along these lines, one where I imagine Gallman agrees with me and another where I think we disagree. The first is in the role of the Constitution as the centerpiece of political life in the Civil War era, something that is not true of politics today. Of course, Civil War-era political partisans tended to disagree about the Constitution and how to interpret it, but that they did so set them apart from at least a very substantial chunk of the American electorate today, including the portion of it that thought that storming the Capitol Building was a democratic and patriotic act. We do live in a very different political context than Lincoln and Vallandigham. The other pertains to the centrality of notions of race and of white supremacy in particular to the political culture of the Civil War era. This is a subject on which I do not believe the field has established a consensus. I did find that Gallman’s essay danced around this topic some, noting only that Democrats were racist but that Republicans often were as well. I’ll resist the urge to suggest how much more needs to be said about that and how much room there is for debate. But I will note that this is an area where the very powerful continuities that exist down to the present—for example, violence against racialized minorities and wealth inequalities—do so alongside big transformations. In the middle of the 19th-century, there was no scientific consensus against racial thinking as there is now. The scientific consensus that exists now has real-world implications and informs a broader pattern of belief on the political Left, sometimes pigeon-holed as political correctness, that holds that it is glib and wrong to characterize individuals based on membership in non-affiliative groups. I would aver that the existence of that broader pattern of belief is a very substantive and important break from the past and something that places the political culture of the Civil War era in a different world from our own.
7) Re Knupfer’s comments about historians engaging with the public, I'll note that we are in a moment where changing norms within the profession and technology have combined to open things up. Public engagement is now common place in forums as diverse as the WaPo’s “Made by History” and Reddit’s “Ask a Historian.” Much of this is beneficial, I imagine, but like Knupfer I suspect that there is some need to subject much of this work to critical scrutiny. I do worry that there is a presumption, cooked into many online forums, that when an expert speaks their views can be commented on but not challenged on an equal playing field. There are some substantial questions to ask about whether historians are actually changing anyone’s minds and whether they are doing so for the better. I’m guessing some of you know much more about that than I do, and will note that my concerns here are inchoate and mingled with gratitude for all the engagement that is taking place.
Prior’s advice that I would have to scan “all of human history” to show that no two events were so “substantially similar” that they can be “fairly be called repetitive” changes the definition of “repeat itself” into “similarities” across events. I used “repeat itself” advisedly in my preface, not as a synonym for “similarities,” which of course we can find across the eons of human behavior, but as a foil for my real point: that historians do repeat themselves. But I’ll take the hit for not making that clear enough. I think that whether we’re talking about “similarities” or exact “repetition,” perhaps we can stipulate that the Civil War isn’t “similar” to anything else in American history before or since? And whether or not I subscribe to one of Clio’s shibboleths, I offered that remark as a preface to my central concerns about loose analogies between events during the Civil War and today.
By the same token, I would surely agree with Prior that it would be unfair to argue that either Prof. Gallman or Citizen Gallman is or should be objective. I am arguing about partiality, not objectivity. No historian or human being is objective and there is no moral neutrality about something, say, like slavery. But professionals are under a particular obligation to be impartial when they review the evidence and draw their conclusions, or at least to disclose their partiality when doing so. And asking a professional of Prof. Gallman’s stature to be especially aware of his attachments, rather than detachment, while commenting on current affairs does not, it seems to me, place too much of a burden on him, especially when there is so much rich scholarship available about the behavior of voters, the nature of factionalism, and especially about the modern Republican party that he could call upon for much more interesting parallels to his Civil War Democrats. So to my mind Professor Gallman’s “slip from historian to faux-pundit” was anything but “seamless.” What we got was a CNN poll and pretty much the same analysis one can find in any of dozens of today’s newspapers.
To Prior’s point 6, I have no problem with his pointing to “race” and the “centrality of the Constitution” in political discourse as having unique attributes in this era, but in relation to my concern about analogies to the period, they still were more continuities than truly unique characteristics because they already were characteristics of antebellum life for decades beforehand. First and foremost among the “other” things that defined the era was the civil war itself. And that is my problem with these analogies to the era. There was a war going on unlike anything before or since in the American experience, and it, more than anything else, imposed an exceptional spin upon events, issues, and other continuities, like race, or the behavior of voters and political institutions. War wasn’t just background noise to the great themes of race and the Constitution. It was the noise itself.
In the end, my hope is that historians who offer us something new and interesting about the subjects they study will also offer us something new when they act as pundits. I am genuinely eager to read what Professor Gallman has to say about Civil War Democrats because I expect it will be original, and a lot remains to be understood about the nature of northern dissent during that era. But unstated biases have their consequences when one strays from detached observation of the past to commentary about the present. Citizen Gallman’s observations about the GOP do not seem to have inspired any similar curiosity about similar patterns that might be at work in the Democratic party and that might have contributed in some way to a polarized climate in which people believe “lies” told them “over and over again.”