The Good Life: 1860, 2020 Are Years Of Politics Of Hatred

I wish I had not decided to read a biography of Jefferson Davis.

It reminded me that the hatred of political opponents was used to justify the killing of political opponents in our Civil War.

The venom of Congress in 1860-61 is eerily reminiscent of the venom within Congress these days.

The 309 men in Congress in 1860-61(there were no women) would not talk to members whose political philosophy was different.

It is not that they could not talk. They talked, and talked, and talked as much as today’s members of the House and Senate talk. Indeed, if cable television and the 24-hour news cycle had existed in 1860, members of that Congress would have yammered enough to fill its air space, just as today’s 541 members seem to do. (That number, 541, includes six non-voting members representing territories, etc.)

The 1860s members could not talk to each other because they would not listen to each other. Instead, they shouted right past each other: “Slavery!” “States’ Rights!” “The Union!” “Secession!”

Aren’t our politicians doing much the same thing today?

Political hacks and windbags brag that they will “fight” for us in Washington.

I don’t want members of Congress to “fight” for me. I get angry when they fight. They are supposed to be rational adults. We elect – and pay – them to consult, to deliberate, to debate, to compromise, to find solutions, to resolve problems. If they want to “fight,” they ought to join the infantry. Go fight people who shoot back.

In 1860, they did “fight.” Four years earlier, in 1856, a Southern fanatical House member, Preston Brooks, beat nearly to death a Northern senator, Charles Sumner, using a cane, right there on the floor of the Senate.

By 1860, when Jefferson Davis served his second tenure as a senator, nearly every member of the Senate was armed, with pistols, knives, sword canes and the like.

Today, we do not know how many members of Congress carry weapons on the floors of the House or Senate chambers. Their rules say they are not supposed to carry weapons there, but they are allowed to carry weapons in their offices and elsewhere in the Capitol. As privileged politicians, they are routinely waved around the metal detectors in the Capitol.

In 1860, with the crippling assault on Sumner still fresh, the politicians carried weapons out of real fear that they could be forced to use them — or out of real hatred for political opponents.

Are we there again in 2020?

Not yet, I hope.

But the politics of hatred does drive the cable television ratings, and that is the only important thing, right? Never mind trying to speak civilly. Let’s just yell at each other. What could go wrong?

By 1865, nearly 5 percent of the people who had been alive in the country in 1860 — just 31 million back then — were dead, maimed or missing. The Civil War resulted in 650,000 combat deaths and an estimated 1.5 million casualties.

Today, there are more than 10 times as many of us, 331 million. If it came to war, does that mean that 16 million of us would become casualties?

Those 1.5 million casualties in the Civil War were inflicted by fists, knives, swords, muskets, rifles and cannons, nothing more. Today, we have machine guns, missiles, chemical/biological weapons — and nukes.

I don’t really expect today’s verbal insults to break out into open warfare. For one thing, there is no territorial equivalent to the “South” that became the Confederacy. Today’s virulent invective can be found in every state and territory, just as reasonable, rational and civil discussion can be found in every state and territory.

But what I learned, or relearned, from the Jefferson Davis biography is that right up until the hotheads in South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter (because the hotheads in the North would not hear of evacuating federal troops from that indefensible Charleston Harbor site) — right up until that moment, everybody who was anybody kept saying they did not want war.

Davis said it, as a United States senator and even as the provisional president of the nascent Confederacy. (He was formally elected after the war started.) Lincoln said it. Lee and Grant said it. Sherman and Longstreet said it.

But look what happened when the rhetoric spiraled out of control.

That’s what hatred can do.

That’s why I am glad that I did not live in 1860-65.

As for 2020 … listen, watch and read. Then, you tell me.


Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: denny2319@windstream.net.


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