Many have reported on the fears of approaching civil war in the United States due to the conflict between the left and the right in politics. Talk of liberty and rights abounds with extremists vowing to take to arms to defend their freedom. As I continue to read about Andrew Jackson’s presidency, this sounds more like 1830 than 1860.
In 1830 there was a great debate in the Senate that started over a bill proposed to limit sale of lands in the West. This stirred up old sectional rivalries in the country and led to the Webster-Hayne debate. The West was opposed to the limit proposed as it would slow their increasing power which came from the population moving westward. The bill was proposed by a New England Senator whose interests were in industry and manufacturing, hoping to slow the migration of its population westward. A Senator from the South (Hayne) saw an opportunity to bring up his views on states’ right and nullification. The debates lasted from January to May 1830 and were very heated. Ultimately, the debate came down to liberty and the value of preserving the Union and whether they were compatible. Webster gave one of the most famous speeches in American history that ended with the line “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”
The main division between North and South at the time was that the North was industrial while the South was agricultural. The North favored a high tariff to protect their manufacturing. The South opposed this as it made their goods more expensive to sell overseas. Of course, the evil of slavery made this division even harder to unravel. But what seems to have been overlooked in all the debate was the fact that these interests were made stronger by one another. The North needed the South and vice versa. The South grew the food and textiles that the industrial North needed to feed and clothe their workers. The North provided the goods and the transportation that the South needed to grow and sell their food and goods. Both sides let their rancor and partisanship drive a wedge between them.
We see the same happening today, though the divide is different. Today the division is largely between urban liberal politics and the more conservative politics of rural areas. Once again, both sides need each other and for similar reasons. Urban areas get their food from the rural areas. Rural areas rely on the urban centers to distribute their food and goods and to get them to market. Politically, we need to value both individual liberty (conservatives’ big issue) and community responsibility (the hear of the liberal view). But as in the 1830s, we are letting our party politics and partisanship blind us to our mutual dependency. This was perhaps summed up best by Edward Livingston, a Senator from Louisiana during the debates when he said, “The spirit of which I speak… creates imaginary and magnifies real causes of complaint; arrogates to itself every virtue—denies every merit to its opponents; secretly entertains the worst designs … mounts the pulpit, and, in the name of a God of mercy and peace, preaches discord and vengeance; invokes the worst scourges of Heaven, war, pestilence, and famine, as preferable alternatives to party defeat; blind, vindictive, cruel, remorseless, unprincipled, and at last frantic, it communicates its madness to friends as well as foes; respects nothing, fears nothing.”
Unfortunately, Livingstson’s plea for cooler heads ultimately went ignored. The flames of discord continued to grow and led to the conflagration of the American Civil War thirty years later. I only hope that in this century, common sense and cooler heads will prevail.