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What Sayest Thou, Ulysses?


I’m reading Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs (h/t Josh Marshall). It is, in its unpretentious way, a brilliant piece of prose and a remarkable historical document.

I am particularly struck by how well Grant captures the sense of excitement and consumable drama that accompanied the run-up to the Civil War. The Union’s final unraveling took place in an environment of wall-to-wall propaganda, disinformation and hysteria. Southerners consumed a steady news diet fetishizing abstractions like state sovereignty, slavery and aristocracy, and purporting to unmask Northern conspiracies behind every proverbial corner. Meanwhile, popular anger over the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act fed a rising tide of resentment against slavery in the North. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 300,000 copies in its first year. Which was a lot, relatively speaking.

There were rallies and parades. At meeting halls and taverns, Americans marinated in the latest outrages perpetrated by the Other Side, and thrilled to the stem-winding speeches of local orators and broadsides in partisan newspapers. Voter turnout in the 1860 election approached 84%. Each startling political development seemed to follow on the heels of the one before it, whipping up a dizzying atmosphere of political theatricality. Regardless where one’s sympathies lay, in other words, the dysfunctional politics of sectionalism was entertaining as hell.

Against such a backdrop, it must have been hard to muster much concern for the threat of war. There was (with the exception of the Kansas territory) no fighting in the streets. There was no mass exodus to other countries so as to spare husbands, sons and brothers from the looming cataclysm. America’s most recent war—the invasion of Mexico in 1846—had been a romp. Few believed that half of the white men from many Southern towns and hamlets would be dead within four years. Few imagined that they might themselves perish in battle, near obscure creeks and villages whose names would be sanctified by their blood.

There is little doubt in my mind,” Grant wrote,” that the prevailing sentiment of the South would have been opposed to secession in 1860 and 1861, if there had been a fair and calm expression of opinion, unbiased by threats, and if the ballot of one legal voter had counted for as much as any other. But there was no calm discussion of the question. Demagogues…declaimed vehemently and unceasingly against the North; against its aggressions upon the South… They denounced the Northerners as cowards, poltroons, negro-worshippers; claimed that one Southern man was equal to five Northern men in battle; that if the South would stand up for its rights the North would back down.”

The traditions of truthfulness, political restraint and forbearance—traditions that underpinned the American federal system—needed to be destroyed almost as a precondition for secession. To that end, Southern extremists used the threat of secession as a political cudgel, seizing on various pretexts to provoke constitutional crises and extract economic and political concessions. As the Southern slavocracy set about undermining the union, they were actually helped by the unexpected entertainment value of their efforts. The more extreme their tactics and rhetoric, the more riled up everyone got, the weaker the federal government became, and the nearer they came to their goal of separatist confederacy. The road to disunion was paved with bullshit.

And in that sense at least, it’s hard not to see some parallels between the politics of the late antebellum and the present day. A deeply racist and corrupt party representing a factional white minority controls all levers of federal power. Like the Fire Eaters of old, today’s Republicans seem to view the destruction of comity and forbearance in federal politics almost as a goal unto itself. Trump is giving James Buchanan a run for his money as the worst president in American history. Republicans now deal heavily in conspiracy theories, and thrive on distrust in government. The American public, meanwhile, lives in siloed and polarized informational environments, and we are well down the road toward self-segregation on the basis of political affiliation. Our politics might be a car wreck, but we are all imbricated, and it’s hard to look away.

There is, of course, no direct comparison to be drawn between the sectionalism of the 1850s and contemporary politics. Nor is there any domestic issue that remotely approaches the import and sensitivity of the “slave question.” There is, however, a sort of gleeful and destructive recklessness to our present political moment that echoes the late antebellum era, when politicians scoffed at the notion that there could ever be a war between the states, and thus saw no danger (and much advantage) in trying to start one.

As in the 1850s, it feels as though we too live in an age of suspended consequence. Surely, there must be some limit to the Republicans’ ability to dissemble their way into power. Surely, there must be some terrible, world-altering price to pay for the damage being done to our union, our notions of truth, and our ability to self-govern. In the late antebellum era, the costs of that recklessness utterly exceeded the grasp of the American imagination. Is this an "ante-something" era too? If so, what? And how bad will it get?

One wonders what an observer as keen as Ulysses Grant would say about our present moment. Probably not "lol, nothing matters."

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