WThe Civil War was never ended, so any rumors of a new civil warfare in the United States is nonsense. That is essential knowledge for understanding current political divisions, especially the recriminations surrounding the leaked draft Supreme Court Roe decision, negating constitutional protections of a woman’s abortion rights.
The nation’s divisions on abortion and other topics are still mostly along the battlefield lines of Civil War. While one side remains grounded in the Confederacy, the other party draws energy from northern and coast voters. Critics of federal power continue to resist protecting voting rights, women’s rights, and educational access, while progressive proponents endorse national voting, health, and education standards. White supremacy pervades these divisions—the color of one’s skin remains one of the best predictors of which side you are on.
After the Confederacy’s surrender in April 1865 the first chance to repair these divisions was missed. The war-weary Union failed to make the required commitments to transform the South’s institutions and behaviors. The federal government responded to family and business pressures in the North by reducing its presence in the South and cutting back on law enforcement spending. It also began pardoning seceding states and remitting them to the Union. Although the Confederate States’ former leaders wrote new constitutions in 1868 that included African-American officials, they soon reverted back to white supremacy with little repercussions from federal authorities. Ten years later, Southern leaders were still in Congress, State Houses, and Police Forces, just as before the war.
Although there were major changes—especially the end of slavery and the passage of constitutional amendments guaranteeing equal protection and universal male voting—the Confederates who returned from the battlefields were largely allowed to rule again. Their property was still a majority and their deadly power in the South. The Confederates had a resurgence of white rule in the 1870s, when they attacked and excluded African-Americans as well as other supporters. People who demanded equal treatment of vulnerable citizens were bullied and even killed. In the second half the nineteenth century, hundreds of white and black men were executed by organized mobs for challenging the colour line. The cold-blooded murderers were frequently acquitted by the courts.
Because it offered political stability, mainstream politicians in the North, such as forgettable presidents Rutherford Hayes or James Garfield, accepted violent white rule from the South. Although they wouldn’t win any votes, the Southern politicians would be able to resist rebellion. Southern politicians willingly received Northern presidents after close-contested elections. They did all they could to curb presidential power. This included defunding federal law enforcement. It was a prolonged time of divided country that, although it seemed peaceful, included systemic violence towards African-Americans and women as well as many minorities.
These problems lie at the heart of current turmoil. American democracy is being impeded by the laws and practices that protect white minority rule. States can still limit voter participation using old methods, such as difficult to reach polling places, excessive registration requirements and increased harassment of voters. States have also perfected old gerrymandering methods, creating districts that do not allow certain groups to be represented. The promotion of these techniques, accompanied by baseless claims of “voter fraud,” have worked because they are familiar. Many people see their past as a source of legitimacy.
Because they are based on this past, our laws can be seen as a key part of the problem. Posse Comitatus Act was imposed on President Hayes in 1878 by Southern politicians. It severely restricts military power at home. This Act encouraged the strong assumption that federal forces will not be involved in elections-related disputes. The fact that the Pentagon cleared Lafayette Square in June 2020 of demonstrators should come as no surprise, but it was slow in responding to insurgents who threatened certification of the president’s new position is not surprising.
The certification was vulnerable in the first place because of the Electoral Count Act of 1887—a compromise authored by Democrats and Republicans after a disputed election in 1876, and two very close elections in 1880 and 1884. This Act established a number of complicated procedures to allow more power for governors and the state legislatures to determine which electoral votes would be given to President Trump. They take the votes from citizens and allocate voters to them. Then they attest the results. Congress can still object to the state electoral votes, provided they have a majority in each house. From Election Day through certification, there are numerous opportunities for state and local officials to impact the result. It was the exact intention of nineteenth-century politicians and contributed to violence and conflict around 2020’s presidential election.
The Fourteenth Amendment states that elected officials who support the type of violence seen on January 6, 2021, are prohibited from holding office. However, President Andrew Johnson gave blanket pardons to ex-Confederates right away after the law had been ratified in 1868. Lawmakers who supported violent groups like the Ku Klux Klan attacked federal institutions weren’t held responsible.
That precedent surely encouraged some current members of Congress to believe that they could assist efforts to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s presidency without penalty. Ted Cruz, for one, invoked Southern white resistance and majority rule history when he asked his colleagues to postpone the election of 2020 and set up a special commission that would investigate lies about fraud that were being circulated by him and his associates. Many others believe they are able to serve as elected officials and incite insurrection.
These poisoned ancestral ties aren’t just a problem with American democracy. These poisoned inheritances are often overlooked in highly political debates or self-serving attempts to praise the nation. However, they are evident to all who carefully examine our past. The uncomfortable evidence of systemic exclusion and division is too painful to ignore. Accept the evidence and recognize the wounds. Then, we must work together to heal. This means that laws and institutions must be changed to ensure fairness for all.
For strengthening democracy, historical reckoning is essential.
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