Presentism versus Past-ism, by way of Civil War historian Gary Gallagher

By David Waldstreicher

Ruth began our blogging dialogue (blogalogue?) with a Ruthian swing for the provocative fences: “American Political Development is history at its worst.  At least, that’s what some historians who reside in the United States and teach in American history might say about our field — it’s “’presentist.’”

Time for me to reciprocate. Sometimes history is political analysis at its worst: not presentist but past-ist. As in, every historical moment is unique, and all comparisons are ideological if not teleological. In some historians’ hands, the result of past-ism is to both kneecap political arguments they don’t like and preserve history for those who know “the facts.” Facts which, on scrutiny, turn out to be made significant by interpretation.

I have objected to this tendency recently in an essay in The Boston Review about the 1619 Project controversy. One of the historians with whom I take issue, Sean Wilentz, has been doing the same thing with respect to Trump: insisting that Trump is de novo, has no historical parallels, and certainly not Sean’s main man, Andrew Jackson. This has the added benefit of shifting any blame away from Wilentz’s own political favorites, the Clintons. In other words, sometimes the insistence on historical incomparability is itself a political gambit.

But today I’d like to illustrate the important (and really, unavoidable) use of historical comparisons to illuminate and argue about the present by pointing to a 500 word op-ed, “Think the US is more polarized than ever? You don’t know history,” published on Feb. 14 by the Civil War historian Gary Gallagher on The Conversation, and republished by the History News Network today: [many annoying links within his article stripped out below]. Here’s Gallagher:

” It has become common to say that the United States in 2020 is more divided politically and culturally than at any other point in our national past. As a historian who has written and taught about the Civil War era for several decades, I know that current divisions pale in comparison to those of the mid-19th century.       

Between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox in April 1865, the nation literally broke apart. More than 3 million men took up arms, and hundreds of thousands of black and white civilians in the Confederacy became refugees. Four million enslaved African Americans were freed from bondage. After the war ended, the country soon entered a decade of virulent, and often violent, disagreement about how best to order a biracial society in the absence of slavery.

To compare anything that has transpired in the past few years to this cataclysmic upheaval represents a spectacular lack of understanding about American history. A few examples illustrate the profound difference between divisions during the Civil War era and those of the recent past.

Today, prominent actors often use awards ceremonies as a platform to express unhappiness with current political leaders. On April 14, 1865, a member of the most celebrated family of actors in the United States expressed his unhappiness with Abraham Lincoln by shooting him in the back of the head.

Today, Americans regularly hear and watch members of Congress direct rhetorical barbs at one another during congressional hearings and in other venues. On May 22, 1856, U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina caned Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts into bloody insensibility on the floor of the Senate chamber because Sumner had criticized one of Brooks’ kinsmen for embracing “the harlot, Slavery” as his “mistress.”

Recent elections have provoked posturing about how Texas or California might break away from the rest of the nation. But after a Republican president was elected in 1860, seven slaveholding states seceded between Dec. 20 and Feb. 1, 1861. Four of the remaining eight slaveholding states followed suit between April and June 1861. Americans were thus forced to face the reality that the political system established by the founding generation had failed to manage internal fractures and positioned the United States and the newly established Confederacy to engage in open warfare.

The scale and fury of the ensuing combat underscores the utter inappropriateness of claims that the United States is more divided now than ever before. Four years of civil war produced at least 620,000 military deaths – the equivalent of approximately 6.5 million dead in the United States of 2020.

The institution of slavery – and especially its potential spread from the South and border states into federal territories – was the key to this slaughter because it provoked the series of crises that eventually proved intractable. No political issue in 2020 approaches slavery in the mid-19th century in terms of potential divisiveness.”

Like the military historian he prides himself in being, Gallagher focuses on the horrifying, fratricidal violence of the Civil War, and rightly extends that back a few years to the caning of Sumner. He admits that the cause was slavery, the divide sectional. Surely we have nothing so violent, and no divisions so irrepressible, now. So comparisons of culture wars and party battles to real wars are irresponsible.

Gallager’s political motives seem benign enough. We could do with fewer pronouncements of doom and even fewer denunciations of each other. But what if it is Gallagher who is comparing apples and oranges – in his opening gambit, comparing a declared war to the cultural and political polarization, and violence, that led to a breakdown of the political system, secession, and armed conflict?  Why does he want to isolate the Civil War and its violence from the violence of slavery itself and violent resistance to it – the border wars and anti-abolitionist mobs that became so controversial?  I’m glad that Gallagher is (finally; he used to downplay it) centering slavery in his understanding of the nature as well as the causes of the Civil War. But by declaring historical analogies off limits, he makes it impossible for us to see and discuss long-term developments, continuities – and precisely the ones that the recent 1619 Project of the New York Times Magazine has highlighted. I won’t even go into how the entire Civil War generation, on every side, fought their political battles with reference to the American Revolution.

Note that the excruciatingly violent counterexamples Gallagher highlights are reactions against abolition: Rep. Brooks’ caning of Sen. Sumner and proslavery actor John Wilkes Booth’s murder of President Lincoln. If today’s polarization has anything to do with structural racism, if today’s battles are being fought in particular ways because,  as David Brion Davis argued in 2001 [] “the Confederacy’s ideological victory following the Civil War,” then it might not be such a bad idea to analyze today’s politics in light of the central event of U.S. history. How much progress has been made – will be made? How free are the free? These were the questions of the 1850s, the 1890s, and remain the questions for 2020.

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About Ruth O'Brien

Professor Ruth O'Brien, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York (CUNY) & Honorary Unaffiliated Academic Book Series Editor for The Public Square, Princeton University Press & Heretical Thought, Oxford University Press, USA Last book: Out of Many, One: Obama & the Third American Political Tradition (U of Chicago 2013). Nickname: Professorette by Rush Limbaugh (see