Shades of the Civil War: Why 2012’s election looks like 1860 

As the season of presidential politics 2012 unfolds, I’m struck by similarities between today and the tumultuous period in our history that led up to the election of Abraham Lincoln and then on to the Civil War.

So much so that I’m finding it a little eerie that this year we are observing the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War.

No, I am certainly not predicting, God forbid, that today’s divisions and tensions will lead to brother taking up arms against brother. But profound differences divide us today, as was the case in the 1850s. This is the most polarized the nation has been in modern times.

The deep division is driven, as was the case in the 1850s, by fundamental differences in worldview regarding what this country is about. Then, of course, the question was: Can a country “conceived in liberty,” in Lincoln’s words, tolerate slavery?

Today, the question is: Can a country “conceived in liberty” tolerate almost half its economy consumed by government, its citizens increasingly hamstrung by dictates of bureaucrats? We wrestle today, as they did then, with the basic question of what defines a free society.

Stephen Douglas, who famously debated Abraham Lincoln in 1858, championed the idea of “popular sovereignty.” He argued that it made sense for new states to determine by popular vote whether they would permit slavery. Douglas believed the question of slavery would submit to core American democracy — and by handling the issue in this fashion, slavery could be removed as an impediment to growth of the union.

Lincoln rejected submitting slavery to the vote, arguing that there are first and inviolable principles of right and wrong on which this nation stands and which cannot be separated from any issue, including considerations of growth and expansion.

Another lesson to be learned from 1860 is that conventional wisdom of establishment pundits is not necessarily reliable. Today’s pundits explain why the more unconventional Republican candidate possibilities don’t have a chance and why we should expect a conventional standard-bearer.

Going into the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago, the predicted candidate to grab the nomination was William H. Seward, the former governor and senator from New York. But emerging victorious on the convention’s third ballot was a gangly country lawyer, whose only previous experience in national office was one term in Congress, to which he was elected fourteen years earlier.

A year or two earlier, no one, except Abraham Lincoln himself, would have expected that he would become president of the United States.

Star Parker is president of CURE, Center for Urban Renewal and Education. Her columns are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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