Civil War remains as relevant today as in times before

Samuel Damren

As a result of Nikki Haley’s failure some weeks ago to acknowledge that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, the issue has become a focus of national debate.

The Confederacy surrendered in April 1865 at Appomattox and was dissolved.  

The Constitution was amended to abolish slavery (13th Amendment), provide for equal protection of law (14th Amendment), and the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude (15th Amendment). No politician today is promoting revocation of those amendments.

What then is the relevance of the Civil War to current-day politics?

The answer resides in unhealed political divisions that Donald Trump purposefully advantaged to gain election and then exploited in the first term of his presidency.

Fulfilling his campaign promise, the Trump Supreme Court justices struck down 49 years of precedent based on Roe v. Wade. The decision in Dobbs v. Jackson is every bit as divisive to contemporary American values on the issue of reproductive rights as the Taney Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford was to the concerns of pre-Civil War Americans with the institution of “negro slavery.”

By denigrating the “Negro African race” as “altogether unfit to associate with the white race,” and expanding conflicts over slavery across State borders, the Dred Scott decision was a flashpoint to pre-Civil War politics.

As a direct result of Dobbs, there is now an alignment of “Free Choice States” and “Right to Life States” closely following the division of states for and against slavery at the onset of the Civil War. It is equally a flashpoint to current-day politics.

The issue of slavery in pre-Civil War America also split apart the three major American Protestant churches along the same fault line.  

In the 1843 Triennial Convention of American Baptists, abolitionists on the planning board for foreign missions rejected slave owners who applied to be missionaries on the ground that they could not be true followers of Jesus.

Baptists in the Southern states broke away and formed the Southern Baptist Convention, which remains the largest evangelical denomination in the country today.

Methodists and Presbyterians later followed by also dividing into pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions.  

In pro-slavery factions, evangelical support for the institution of “Southern slavery” as the “slavery of the Bible” was unabashed. Defenses based on scripture appeared in church publications and the published letters of prominent clergy.

The appalling history of Southern evangelical support for slavery, the Confederacy and thereafter for “Jim Crow,” legalized segregation, and prohibitions on inter-racial marriage is detailed in Joel McDurmon’s 2019 book, “The Problem of Slavery in Christian America.”

Every time one might be befuddled by the unswerving fealty that so many Christian evangelicals demonstrate to Donald Trump, it is instructive to remember that these individuals share heritage to religious communities that once vociferously defended slavery.

In the third volume of a three-volume work by Yale professor David Brion Davis entitled “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation,” Davis describes the “animalization” of those enslaved along racial lines as one in which enslavement is justified based the purported inferiority of certain races and their supposed incapacity to rise above status as mere animals or other lower life forms.

This technique of denigration is a staple of MAGA Republican attacks on a different target group today: immigrants. In disparagement of non-white immigrants attempting to cross the Southern border, Trump has variously referred to them as “vermin,” an “infestation” and similar derisions.

In this and other MAGA chaos he released to motion, Trump believes, like Taney before him, he is singularly positioned to heroically preserve a “way of life” premised on racism.

Another parallel between the time of the Civil War and today is evident in the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” and “The Big Lie” that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen by Democrats.

The Lost Cause was falsely propagated in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and remains gospel to this day in many regions of the South. It asserts that conflicts over slavery were not the cause of the Civil War, but that the South was the victim of a “War of Northern Aggression” preventing the exercise of legitimate states’ rights. The narrative casts white Southerners as victims.

The “victim” in the narrative of “The Big Lie” is, of course, savior Donald Trump.  

Unsupported by evidence in innumerable court cases, the “Big Lie” assets that Trump lost the 2020 election as a result of voter fraud.

Finally, there is the parallel to political violence. After seceding from the Union, Confederate forces attacked federal forts in the South to secure munitions.

Federal troops at Fort Sumter resisted, which sparked the four-year Civil War costing the lives of 620,000 soldiers.

Because secession is no longer a viable option, Trump pursued another route: the violent attack on Congress by his supporters to secure and prevent vote certification on January 6, 2021, and to overturn the legitimate Presidential election outcome by fraudulently substituting “alternative slates of electors.”

It was treason in 1861. It may have only been insurrection in 2021.

So, yes, discussions about parallels between the Civil War and today’s politics are relevant, highly relevant.


Samuel Damren is an attorney and author in Ann Arbor.