The Christian Science Monitor

Risk of a new civil war? Today 'us and them' differs from 1850s.

A nation divided into groups of angry, polarized voters.

Political parties splintering under the stress of social and ideological disagreements.

Distrust in institutions. Constant partisan accusations. Widespread conspiracy theories about the perfidy of the other side.

Powerful new communication networks that spread news of all this throughout the United States.

Is this a staccato description of the state of America today? Yes it is. But just as much, it’s a sketch portrait of the 1840s and 1850s, the era of national upheaval prior to the explosion of the Civil War.

These two periods aren’t exact analogies, of course. Chattel slavery was an evil and a means of division rarely matched in history. Nineteenth century America was steeped in personal and political violence; national democratic government then was relatively young and unformed, trying to find its way.

But “then” was an extreme version of “now,” and the results of its extremity may hold lessons for today. In the 1850s provocative action begat more provocative action, creating and then feeding a whirlwind that ended in fighting. National politics became so dysfunctional it broke down the public consensus that underlay republican governance.

Modern America is not in danger of falling into a second Civil War, says Jason Phillips, Eberly Family Distinguished Professor of Civil War Studies at West Virginia University, and author

Once again, an ‘us’ and ‘them’Civil War, the sequel?Clashes in CongressHow to get back to ‘We the people’?

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