By David Sole
While April 15, 1861 is given as the official start of the United States’ Civil War, most historians recognize that the outbreak of military hostilities was preceded by decades of controversy and conflict. Even at the time, the contention between the powerful slave owning ruling-class and the growing capitalist interests (summed up as South and North) was known as the “irrepressible conflict.”
Today another irrepressible conflict is manifesting itself in this country. The January 6, 2021 insurrectionary attack on the U.S. Congress should not be seen as an isolated event. It is becoming clear that this reactionary movement is becoming more and more aggressive. It has the seeds of a nascent civil war.
The struggles leading to the Civil War of 1861 were played out in the halls of Congress over national legislation. Political parties could not avoid the issues. They also were fought out in the courts. And there was much turmoil in the streets of many towns and cities. Things reached their climax in the brutal military conflict of 1861 to 1865.
The decades before the Civil War
The founding document of the United States, the Constitution, clearly exhibits the split in the ruling classes. During the 1787 Constitutional Convention delegates compromised on how to count enslaved people related to how many members of the House of Representatives a state would have as well as how many presidential electoral votes
The slave owners wanted to count each slave as a full person, although slaves would have no vote, nor any other rights. Northern industrialists and farmers, while not fighting to end slavery, did not want to count slaves at all for these purposes.
Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution ended the dispute with the “Three-fifths Compromise”, counting slaves as 3/5 of a person. This gave the slave states the upper hand in Congress and in presidential elections for many decades. Five of the first seven presidents were slave owners.
In 1820 the conflict again came to a head when Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state. After an intense legislative struggle Maine was admitted as a free state alongside Missouri in The Missouri Compromise. And slavery was to be excluded from all new states in the Louisiana Purchase north of the southern boundary of Missouri.
By 1850 the question of the status of new states again arose. In the Compromise of 1850 California was admitted as a free state. Among other questions dealt with in the five bills making up the compromise was the strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Act requiring all officials and all people in the North to assist in catching and returning runaway slaves – or for that matter anyone who “slave catchers” even claimed to be after, with or without evidence.
The addition of new states again intensified the conflict in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which rescinded the Missouri Compromise to allow the expansion of slavery, particularly in the territories stolen from Mexico in the Mexican American War. The crisis spread outside the halls of Congress in armed conflict in “bloody Kansas” just 7 years before the outbreak of the Civil War. There, militant Abolitionists like John Brown discovered that poor white farmers would wage armed struggle against the slavocracy to preserve their families’ small farms. Along with freed Black slaves after the Emancipation Declaration of 1862, they would fill the ranks of the Union Army in the coming conflict.
The very floor of the U.S. Senate was bloodied when, on May 22, 1856, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks attacked anti-slavery Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Sumner had given a strong anti-slavery speech several days before. Brooks, wielding a heavy walking stick, beat Sumner almost to death in the Senate Chambers. It was three years before Charles Sumner recovered and returned to Congress. A motion to expel Brooks from Congress failed to get the 2/3 vote needed.
From chattel slavery then to white-supremacy today
No one today can miss the intense polarization across this country. At its core is racism and white supremacy, although other issues are definitely included. Some of these are anti-women and anti-LGBTQ+ prejudices, anti-union sentiment and anti-science ignorance especially vehement in denying climate change, the danger of the COVID-19 virus and the need for vaccination and masks.
None of this is new but it was promoted and intensified by former president Donald Trump during his term of office and ever since his electoral defeat. The January 6, 2021 insurrectionary attack on Congress is reminiscent of the attack on Charles Sumner 165 years earlier. The complete takeover of the Republican Party by these forces makes it clear that there can be no rational discourse with the adherents of this movement.
The broad attack on voting rights, aimed at African Americans, other people of color and other progressive forces is one of the center pieces of the struggle today. The failure of Congress, both houses controlled by the Democratic Party, and President Joseph Biden to make protection of the right to vote the preeminent legislative goal of his administration is of great concern to many.
Reverend Dr. William Barber, who along with other Black leaders have been arrested several times while demonstrating for voting rights for the oppressed, has called on Biden and Pelosi to withdraw the trillion-dollar so-called “bipartisan infrastructure” bill passed in the Senate, designed mostly to fill the coffers of corporate contractors, until the Senate passes the voting rights bills already passed in the House. The protection of the democratic rights of the oppressed must supersede this corporate expansion plan.
The Supreme Court in an era of conflict
Before the Civil War the U.S. Supreme Court was totally in the hands of the reactionaries. The Dred Scott decision of 1857 declared that no Black person in the United States, no matter slave or free, had any rights provided by the Constitution. This was definitely a contributing factor to the Civil War since it was certain that no relief could be found in the courts.
Today a thoroughly backward Supreme Court is following the footsteps of Chief Justice Taney’s court. Two recent rulings immediately come to mind. In Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee (June 3, 2021) the court went 6-3 to uphold two voter suppression laws in Arizona. The appeals court in San Francisco had held that these laws adversely affected Black, Hispanic and Native American voters. The Brnovich decision overturning the appeals court further erodes voting rights and comes 8 years after the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act – a signal achievement of the Civil Rights Movement.
In Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid the court again ruled 6 to 3 to overturn 65 years of well-established labor rights. This decision overturned a 1975 California law that allowed unions limited entry on farms to organize mostly oppressed workers. The right-wing court ruled that this deprived the bosses their “property rights”. Writing for vox.com on June 23, 2021, Ian Millhiser called Cedar Point “disastrous news for unions” and said “the Court’s new union-busting decision reads like something out of Ayn Rand’s darkest fantasies.”
Irrepressible Conflict from coast to coast
The decade leading up to the Civil War was also fought out in many towns and cities. Anti-slavery forces crisscrossed the North holding meetings and rallies. In a number of dramatic cases masses of people mobilized to defeat slave catchers and free imprisoned fugitives running from enslavement.
One of the most famous incidents took place on October 1, 1851 in Syracuse, NY. In 1843 an enslaved man named William Henry fled from Missouri. Hunted for years he fled over and over until he settled in upstate New York, now called himself Jerry. Here he was captured and faced return to slavery under the Fugitive Slave Act. Crowds of abolitionists gathered, armed themselves and stormed the courthouse where Jerry was being held. They forced his release and transported him to safety in Canada.
In other locations, however, pro-slavery crowds broke up abolitionist meetings. In several instances anti-slavery activists were beaten and even killed.
Today confrontations are also playing out around the country. Much attention was given to the voter suppression legislation being pushed through in Texas. The right-wing Republican majority was sure to pass the bill until the Democrats walked out, forcing a suspension of proceedings due to lack of quorum. To avoid being forced back into the building, over 50 these legislators fled to Washington, D.C. on July 12, 2021.
On July 13 the Texas House voted to issue civil arrest warrants for their Democratic colleagues. The House Speaker signed these warrants after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that it was legal. The Texas Senate proceeded to pass the noxious voter suppression bill and some Democrats broke ranks and returned to the Texas House.
Bitter conflict has also erupted in Florida as the state’s governor barred any local officials from mandating protective masks for students and staff in public schools. Both the Broward County and Miami-Dade County School Boards have disregarded Governor Ron DeSantis’ order and said schools will require masks.
DeSantis threatens to stop paychecks for any officials defying him and the Federal government may step in to pay those salaries.
The conflict inside political parties
The two main political parties before the Civil War had been the pro-slavery Democratic Party and the Whig Party. The Whigs generally were the party of business, farmers and bankers based in the North. They were not an anti-slavery party. Rather they were mainly interested in having the Federal government protect the interests of business and finance. As the irrepressible conflict intensified many small parties sprang up such as the Liberty Party in New York and the Free Soil Party. In some localities abolitionists were even elected to Congress.
In 1854 anti-slavery Whigs, joined by Free Soilers, Temperance activists and other progressives, founded the Republican Party. The Republicans ran John C. Fremont for president in the election of 1856 and won 11 of the 16 northern states. The Republicans were not strictly against slavery in the southern states, but the growing weakness of the South versus the North economically and population-wise guaranteed the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The southern slave states then proceeded to secede from the union.
Lincoln’s inauguration was on March 4, 1861 but action against the secessionists only occurred after the South Carolina militia bombarded Federal Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor on April 12, 1861.
Today the Republican Party has become the bastion of racism, white-supremacy, anti-unionism and reaction. The Democratic Party is seriously split between its mass base of workers and oppressed people on the one hand, and those who support the Wall Street corporate and banking interests on the other (known as the Corporate Democrats).
Like the Whig Party in the pre-Civil War period the Democratic Party of today cannot contain these contradictory class interests. A party must emerge, perhaps not chemically pure, that more fully and forcefully fights for the interests of poor and working people. Its program is not hard to imagine or to craft – all the elements have already been laid out in one arena or another. Fundamentally it would be a socialist program for transferring the enormous wealth of this nation to those who produce it and away from the parasitic capitalist class that currently works overtime to keep it for themselves. Such a program would also include the most vigorous confrontation and defeat of white-supremacy and also an end to imperialist wars and intervention abroad.
Like the young Republican Party of 1854 it might not win an immediate election, but it would galvanize the mass of people and prepare them for struggle.
It should always be remembered that the irrepressible conflict was not settled in the halls of Congress, not won in the courts of the land nor was it resolved even by the election of the new party to the presidency. The resolution only came through a bitter civil war. Such a fight may be in our future. We need a mass political organization to lead us in that struggle.