If there’s one thing Americans of all political stripes can agree on, it’s that the country is divided—bitterly, dangerously, perhaps irreconcilably riven. “It shows up in very cinematic fashion, in things like the Scalise shooting,” says historian Allen Guelzo. “So we jump to the conclusion: Oh my goodness, does it mean we’re on the brink of civil war?”
No, answers Mr. Guelzo, director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College. The Civil War was singular and is almost certain to remain so. But he does see continuities, some of them surprising, between then and now. And he thinks today’s divisions are worse than those of any time in American history except the 1850s and ’60s.
Today “there are a lot of unhappy personalities, and there are divisions of cultural values,” Mr. Guelzo tells me over dinner at the Union League of Philadelphia, where he’s been a member since 1983. That was also true when the country was young, “between Jefferson and Adams, and between Jefferson and Hamilton,” and later with “all kinds of acidulous political and cultural divisions—over Masons, Catholics, John Calhoun, nullification, tariffs, Andrew Jackson. You go down the list, and it’s one thing after another. But it didn’t drive us to civil war.”
What did was the combination of slavery and secession, “and the two of them are really bound together.” Both are “very absolute questions,” Mr. Guelzo says. Lincoln’s observation in 1858 that “this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free” was born of the failure of repeated efforts at compromise—most recently the Supreme Court decision that made Chief Justice Roger Taney infamous.
“When Taney wrote Dred Scott in 1857, it wasn’t because Taney was the most vile pro-slavery ideologue in the country,” Mr. Guelzo says. “He wasn’t—I mean, the man had actually emancipated his own slaves. And while he certainly wasn’t friendly to abolitionists, that’s not why he wrote Dred Scott the way he did. He did it because the situation in 1857 seemed to have demonstrated that neither the legislative branch nor the executive branch was capable of arriving at a solution for the slavery question. So who steps up into the batter’s box? The judiciary—we will settle this.”
But even slavery was not a sufficient condition for war. “If slavery had been legal in, let’s say, Minnesota, Maine, Florida and Louisiana, there would never have been a Civil War,” Mr. Guelzo says. What gave the question “political mass” was geography: Slavery had been outlawed throughout the North by the early 19th century, leaving 15 states where it was legal. “Because these slave states were all contiguous, they could look at a map and see themselves as a political unit.” Eleven did in 1860-61.
George Bush, Sr. was Vice-President for eight years and President four years. He is quoted as saying: In crucial matters – unity, in important things – diversity and in all things – generosity. Apparently this is a quote from one of the saints. So, slow down Mr. President, you’re going too fast. Let the people catch up.