woody zimmermann 120“It was the best of times and the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens, describing the era of the French Revolution. A great nation, which had contended with Britain for control of North America and helped our new nation win independence, came apart at the seams and descended into a maelstrom of violence, evil and terror that destabilized the country for decades. During the Reign of Terror nearly anyone could be “denounced” and put on trial for his (or her) life on the flimsiest pretext, with little or no evidence to support the charges. Crowds cheered barbarously as the heads of the Republic’s “enemies” rolled (literally) from the execution scaffold. Even France’s King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette became victims. Aristocrats – indeed, any persons of exceptional wealth or station – were especially vulnerable during this unstable period which ultimately produced Napoleon and unleashed a generation of war upon the world.

No era is exactly like another, but our formerly-united states are drawing perilously close to replicating 1790s France. Today, a rebellion – which some call a “soft coup” – is being waged by a political faction which cannot (or will not) accept the results of the last election. Completely shocked by their candidate’s defeat, Democrats claim that “infamous powers” – most probably the Russians, in collusion with the Trump campaign – perturbed the election and corrupted the vote-tally. Determined to keep Mr. Trump from governing, they are attacking, blocking and denigrating his designated cabinet ministers by any possible means. Involvement by the former president is everywhere whispered, but nowhere directly confirmed.

The instrument of choice for executing Republican “aristos” today is not the guillotine – however devoutly some might wish it were. It is the “death of a thousand cuts” inflicted by “reporters” and opposition politicians who hurl charges containing little (or no) substance or supporting evidence at their targets for destruction. The Big Lie is widely employed: i.e., repeat a lie loudly and often enough, and it will be believed. These assassins are abetted by a dedicated cadre of holdover Obamanistas embedded in the “deep state” of the federal civil service. They supply damaging material – including some classified information – to media-operatives who can best use it to hamstring the elected government. I am not alone in suspecting that the true aim is not just crippling Mr. Trump’s government, but driving him from office entirely. Many pundits say the prevailing environment is “unprecedented.” But is it?

Well, yes and no. After the election of 1860 made Abraham Lincoln our 16th president, seven southern states [1] formally seceded from the Union and met in Montgomery, Alabama (February 1861) to form a government for the new Confederate States of America. Leaders of those states believed that Lincoln would disrupt Southern commerce and life by restricting or outlawing their “peculiar institution” (i.e., slavery). At his Inauguration on March 4, 1861, Lincoln spoke these stirring words directly to those states:

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it.’… We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”[2]

But Mr. Lincoln’s earnest plea for temperance and reason went unheeded by southern firebrands. After Confederate forces under the command of General P. G. T. Beauregard cannonaded Fort Sumter into surrender on April 12, 1861, the president called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion and save the Union. That call caused four more states to secede and join the Confederacy. [3] The greatest crisis in American History was underway.

By the end of the ensuing four-year Civil War, more than 2.5 million men had served in Union armies, and upwards of 1 million in Confederate armies. The Union suffered 365,000 deaths from battle, disease and imprisonment, from a population of 18.5 million; the Confederacy had 284,000 deaths, from a population of 5.5 million free persons and 3.5 million slaves. Another 470,000 – total, both sides – were wounded. The war settled the question of whether states could leave the Union, but the deep divisions which precipitated the war, and were exacerbated by it, continued to haunt the nation for more than a century. Indeed, they and related issues bedevil us down to the present day. These include:

  • Is the right of free speech guaranteed to citizens by the Constitution absolute, or may it be limited by states and institutions?
  • Does the right to bear arms apply only to official armed forces, or to individuals also?
  • Are personal arms intended only for hunting or recreational activities, or may citizens employ them for self-protection?
  • May the federal government make and enforce laws which regulate the exercise of religion or violate religious doctrines?
  • Can an individual be subjected to civil sanctions for declining to execute a business transaction which violates his religious conscience?
  • May states supersede laws enacted by the federal government?
  • May states enforce federal laws when federal authorities decline to do so?
  • Do the courts have authority to override a Constitutional action taken by the president? If so, how far does that authority extend?
  • May federal agencies issue rulings which harm or destroy legal businesses?
  • Are trans-gendered persons a “minority” within the meaning of Civil Rights statutes?
  • May schools and businesses discriminate against some individuals in order to meet goals of ethnic or racial “diversity”?
  • Are individuals illegally in-country entitled to all rights guaranteed by the Constitution?

This is only a sample of the many issues which divide Americans. As in Lincoln’s time, some citizens don’t trust our government institutions to deal with them. They are throwing in the kitchen sink to hurt Mr. Trump’s government and render it ineffective. Officials and legislators once reputed to be honorable and patriotic public servants have embarked on a destructive course of near-treasonous political obstruction that can only lead to their ruin and disgrace. Thus, the question for our president – as it was for Mr. Lincoln – is “What are you prepared to do?”

It’s instructive to study how Lincoln approached the Herculean task of defeating the rebellion and restoring the Union. At first, he used only words. As we saw in his 1861 Inaugural Address, he tried to reason with the seceded states – appealing to their essential patriotism and their emotional ties to the history and traditions of their country. He wanted to bring them together to air their grievances and work with him to resolve their concerns.

Only after the Southern states resorted to violence did Mr. Lincoln go to war. Unfortunately, he wasn’t prepared for war to the degree that the South was. In December 1860, the Union’s standing army contained just 16,000 men, while South Carolina alone had over 200,000 under arms. Many of the Union’s best officers (including Robert E. Lee) decamped to serve in the Confederate army, leaving the Union with a skeleton force mostly engaged against the western Indians. The president’s 75,000 volunteers would effectively increase the Union army by eightfold. Many of the new men, of course, were farmers with no experience as soldiers. So Mr. Lincoln had his hands full. As history shows, the Union endured several years of inept generalship and military disasters before their armies could finally defeat the Confederacy.

Mr. Trump has a similar task ahead of him. As in Lincoln’s day, a noisy faction is raising hell about his election and all the imagined “damage” his presidency will bring. No states have seceded, although activists in California are actually petitioning to put a secession-proposal on the state ballot. Will the movement catch on? Color me doubtful. Virginia is the only state of the old Confederacy that Hillary Clinton carried, and I don’t think the Old Dominion will have another go at secession.

Mr. Trump’s initial tactic – mirroring Mr. Lincoln’s opening move – is talk. He’s no Lincoln, but he is keeping important issues before the public and engaging in verbal pushback against his opponents. Despite Democrats’ opposition to his cabinet picks and legislative agenda, Mr. Trump is resolutely moving ahead. As his opponents see their rhetorical and legislative gambits failing to stop him, they will have two choices: (1) accept his presidency as a fait accompli; or (2) take their resistance to another level via violence and outright treason within the deep state.

If they choose (1), calm will gradually be restored. Mr. Trump will implement his program over some perfunctory grumbling from Congressional Democrats, and the country will move into a new era of peace, strength, prosperity and comity. But if Mr. T’s opponents choose (2), then the country will have to endure a second civil war – fueled by hate and producing much misery and ruin. There will be casualties – perhaps not on a literal battlefield, but individuals, families and communities will be harmed. Commerce will be disrupted. Reputations will suffer, and division will reign for years to come. Our previous Civil War trashed an entire section of the country and perturbed its politics and civil institutions for generations. Do we really want that again?

As I write this, there are troubling signs that the anti-Trump campaign is escalating into violence. A recent pro-Trump rally in Berkeley, California, turned violent when anti-Trump thugs physically attacked some rally-attendees. A melee ensued when pro-Trump people fought back. There were numerous injuries. Police are still trying to sort out who did what to whom.

On the war-of-words front, Vice-president Mike Pence blasted the Associated Press this week for publishing his wife’s e-mail address. (What was the value of doing that?) In a letter to the AP, the vice-president’s counsel, Mark Paoletta, wrote: “The publication of Mrs. Pence's active private email address to millions of your readers has subjected her to vitriolic and malicious emails and raised serious security concerns. There was absolutely no reason to publish this private email address and you should be ashamed of your reprehensible conduct…”

We stand before the abyss of open war. I join many of my countrymen in fervently hoping for deliverance from war’s mighty scourge. But if this cannot be, we hope Mr. Trump, his government, and his supporters will contend for the country. Let’s pray that those who haven’t accepted Mr. Trump’s election will, as Lincoln said, be “…touched by the better angels of our nature…” As is so often true, the Old Book calls across the ages:

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

[1] Original Confederate states:          

State

Date Seceded

1.

South Carolina

Dec. 20, 1860

2.

Mississippi

Jan. 9, 1861

3.

Florida

Jan. 10, 1861

4.

Alabama

Jan. 11, 1861

5.

Georgia

Jan. 19, 1861

6.

Louisiana

Jan. 26, 1861

7.

Texas

March 2, 1861

[2] See President Lincoln’s First Inauguration speech at http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/1inaug.htm

[3] Confederate states that seceded after war broke out.

State

Date Seceded

8.

Virginia

April 17, 1861

9.

Arkansas

May 6, 1861

10.

North Carolina

May 20, 1861

11.

Tennessee

June 8, 1861