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A House Divided

Lincoln and the Civil War

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln declared for posterity that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” This reflection, now iconic, is actually both innocent and wrong. Innocent since anything truly divided will collapse, be it a “house” or a nation. Wrong since the American “house” had slavery from the beginning, while slavery was nearly a universal reality for thousands of years. All (or most) had ended the practice peacefully or legally, and that is exactly what would have occurred here had Lincoln not been elected president.

Slavery, the institution, cannot “cause” war; events that occurred in 1860-61 caused both secession and Civil War (there is no recorded war to free someone else’s slaves, including the American Civil War). The abolitionist movement, which immediately preceded the war, “lit” the spark that turned 1861 into an inferno. The analogy is a “cut” on your arm: treated well, it will disappear; scratched repeatedly, it will cause infection. If, say, Stephen Douglas had been elected in 1860, there would have been no war and, eventually, as in all other societies, no slavery.

Lincoln’s follow-up expression in the same speech was much more important. Here he made a prediction that the United States could not “remain half-slave and half-free”: the U.S. would either adopt slavery without condition or it would abandon it altogether. In effect, Lincoln threw down the “gauntlet,” certainly as the South saw it. The prediction was partly accurate: slavery could not possibly endure forever. But the U.S. was not “half-slave,” as the white confederacy occupied only about one-fifth of the total white population (5.5 million out of 28 million). But the remark was interpreted as a dire warning, that one or the other side would prevail, and sooner rather than later. Subsequently, Lincoln’s election to the presidency (with 39%) meant civil war, as the southern slave states seceded and fired the first shot.

But the Civil War was both the most avoidable and most tragic event in American history, by far. Lincoln was not an abolitionist, and secession was unnecessary. Afterward, abolitionist veterans, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, and Charles Peirce, formed “The Metaphysical Club” at Harvard. Horrified by the human and material destruction that they had helped bring about, they founded “Pragmatism,” an effort to avoid fanaticism and dogmatism and use measured reason, legislation, patience, and restraint in solving problems. Pragmatism became America’s single contribution to philosophy and served to promote the emphasis of ideas upon experience, which fostered “progressivism,” public administration, and empiricism into American culture (Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, 2002).

But war takes two sides: neither Lincoln nor South Carolina (the first to secede) can singularly be blamed. The firing on Fort Sumter was the opening, but it didn’t come from the blue. Such is the universal case, as the victors in World War I discovered when they blamed Germany alone. Likewise, Pearl Harbor is best remembered as naked aggression. True, but what preceded it: decades of tension, mistakes on both sides, and opportunities lost.

Divisions in the U.S. today

There is an analogy to today’s America in the “House Divided” metaphor. The political/cultural divisions that have dominated recent society remind many of the period right before 1861. Fanaticism and “identity” politics have infected the polity. Divisions of states into “red, blue,” seemingly “hysterical” reactions from both the President and the “nevers,” existence of a “derangement syndrome,” accusations from both of “existential” issues, the notion of a “cold civil war,” the media as a political operative, and the search for impeachment reasons have all come to play a decisive role in public discourse.

On the one hand, today’s division is overrated, without perspective. The USA has always, repeat always, been a divided house. From the beginning, the Revolution was supported by only about one-third of the people (the guerrilla war between “Tories” and “Loyalists” was, by some accounts, worse than even the Civil War). Probably the only true unity in American history came right after Pearl Harbor but slowly disintegrated and exploded around the 1960s (Vietnam War, civil rights movement).

Today’s divisions on the surface seem self-provoked. They are difficult to explain, as they seem to arrive from no origin in particular but from a form of self-examination engineered by a new generation of cultural “watchdogs” and “revisionists.” As in the past, these are frequently associated with foreign “agents,” now identified as “meddling” or in “collusion” with “fellow travelers” inside (including the President, the Clintons, and assorted “operatives” from Washington to Australia to England).


Internal divisions before have usually been identified as coming from elsewhere as well. Immigration, now issue number one, has origins in the “nativist” movement of the mid-nineteenth century. Foreign ideologies dominated internal dissent in the twentieth century. The infamous “Red Scare” of the 1920s re-appeared in the 1950s in the form of “McCarthyism.” Prominent figures in the 1930s, Joe Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh, identified with Nazi Germany.

In the current unrest, Communism has been replaced by Fascism, with frequent reminders of Hitler and the Gestapo and bringing the “Reich” to these shores. Much of the dissension, to remind of Lincoln’s warning, predict no choice, either democracy or Fascism. The issue is almost always “existential.” The Washington Post, on page one, every issue, declares that “democracy dies in darkness” (an implied warning) while political candidates frequently claim President Trump as an “existential” threat (an explicit warning). “White Nationalists” have swastika flags and are, thus, “Neo-Nazis” (but George Washington was a “White Nationalist” also).

There is also a theory that the cultural unrest, especially in the academy, is derived from overseas. “Cultural Marxism” has dominated the American academic landscape for decades, especially from the “Frankfurt (Germany) School of Critical Thought” and its expatriate Herbert Marcuse. Such origins were famously introduced by the late Alan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and later by Michael Walsh, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, (2018).

Enemies Within

In my classes at The Institute of World Politics, since 1998, I have often asked the question: is the existential threat to the U.S. internal or external? Without hesitation, almost 100% (of maybe 1,000) have said “internal.” The country has not been invaded since 1812, and, since then, the only real existential threat came within, 1861.

No one foresees a Chinese army occupying Washington, nor is a Russian-controlled political system credible (“meddling” notwithstanding). But the threat from within the culture threatens to tear the country apart if it continues. The obsession to re-discover history by highlighting “institutional” sins or by erasing unpleasant symbols are tactical maneuvers in this new “war.” The New York Times has just begun “Project 1619” to “reframe” American history around slavery as the definitive national identification.

Harvard Professor Randall Kennedy has summarized this re-interpretation of American society as consisting of “all forms of social oppression … suffused with white supremacism, capitalist exploitation, misogyny and the repression of unconventional sexuality” (Washington Post, August 25, 2019).

He did write “all forms”: races, classes, economies, genders, sexualities. Is anything left?

Lincoln had it easy; he only had one problem: how to win a war.