Let us return to the unfortunate dead days of 1840-1860, the days leading up to the Civil War. The United States had two political parties, the Democrats and – toward the end fading out of existence – the Whigs. We had a series of Presidents, most mediocre.
At the start of the period, each party had a northern and a southern wing, the two wings being not wildly different in strength. Both wings of both parties were united on the key issue of the day, this being the preservation of the Union. Before that issue, all other issues of the day were, it was then believed, obliged to give way. In support of this end, northern and southern wings of each party had to remain somewhat moderate on the slavery issue.
Then matters began to go down hill. A series of events gave proof to antislavery advocates in the North that The Slave Power, the South, was advancing to overwhelm the Union. The Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned the Missouri Compromise. The Dred Scott decision and the Fugitive Slave Act created popular dissent. Southern postmasters censored the mails, keeping abolitionist writings out of Southern hands.
Less obviously, the balance between the northern and southern wings of the Democratic Party weakened, so that southern pro-slavery Democrats tended to dominate. The more they dominated, the more radical their party became, the less northern support was at hand, and the more the Southern Democrats dominated. An endless spiral set in.
A consequence was that northern anti-slavery supporters drifted into abolitionist parties, notably the Free Soil Party. Now there was something that had not existed before, namely a partisan rather than a sectional disagreement over slavery. There could still be agreement between sections on issues; for example, tariff bills passed with overwhelming southern as well as northern support. To obscure the political landscape, anti-immigration groups such as The Order of the Star Spangled Banner became politically active. Republican candidate Fremont almost won the 1856 election. He lost because he lost Pennsylvania and New Jersey, apparently due to a whispering campaign that he had converted to Roman Catholicism.
And now we reach John Brown. In late 1859, he and a small group of followers seized the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Brown believed that vast numbers of slaves would rally to his cause, allowing him to lead a servile insurrection that would sweep across Virginia and the rest of the South, thereby ending slavery. He had been warned by Frederick Douglass that nothing of the sort would occur, but went ahead with his plans anyhow.
Douglass’ warnings proved correct; the slaves of Virginia did not rise in rebellion. As also seen during the Civil War, Harper’s Ferry was surrounded by high hills and therefore indefensible. Brown was captured, tried, and hanged.
The consequence, as noted by historian David Potter, was that the South simply ceased to listen to the North, and to a lesser extent vice versa. The country was now hopelessly divided. Matters rolled downward until 1861, when Fort Sumter was fired upon.
Now we advance to 2021, and the storming of the Capitol. There was a large, peaceful assembly well away from the Capitol building. Out from this assembly, a violent group numbering in the hundreds or low thousands assembled and stormed the Capitol. Like John Brown’s insurrectionists, these insurrectionaries would appear to have had no possibility of accomplishing their apparent objectives.
And, like John Brown’s insurrectionaries, the Capitol insurrectionaries drove a deep wedge into American politics. Like the South before the civil war, liberals and Democrats revolted by the insurrection are simply ceasing to listen to their political opponents. Instead of postmasters censoring the mail against abolitionists, we have private firms blocking the voices of conservatives.
This situation is not a positive outcome for our country.