I am a white male historian of the Civil War raised in the American South. At a preternatural age, I managed with misguided pride to memorize the back-of-the-baseball-card version of that war. I knew how many died at Shiloh on which side, on which day. I could recite with indecent precision which regiments suffered what losses on which day at Gettysburg. I knew that slavery caused the war—but I managed not to focus on that fact. I was too focused on war as a man’s calling. Rambo II sent me to a local knife and gun shop where—not yet old enough to drive and too young to buy anything—I childishly cut my thumb and manfully bled all over the store. The Army recruiting station set up outside The Hunt for Red October almost made me join up. God help me, I collected Desert Storm trading cards.
Gradually and by degrees, I became a student not just of the Civil War but of war itself. Lessons I should have learned from teachers—who were still teaching Americanism vs. Communism—I had to learn on my own.
As hearings resume into the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol; as more and more Americans embrace violent threats, violent allusions, and violence itself as a way to resolve political disputes; as more and more Americans embrace disunion and a once-democratic country threatens to tear itself apart, I feel more than ever compelled to look backward, not merely on my country’s epic journey, but on my own.
My perspective comes from a particular place, and I own it from the outset. I grew up a Florida boy—a “Florida man” in training. Sandspurs, bull thorns, and cockroaches were once my great nemeses; Slurpees, disc golf, and flippy shoes were once my great compensations. Coming of age in South Florida public schools, all of my early friends were Black, but I didn’t see it that way. We were just kids playing kickball on scorched sand, avoiding like the plague the playground “tower” where a 13-year-old had supposedly hanged himself. We knew that race was a thing, but racism belonged to the adult world, looming on the horizon like puberty and lost innocence. Racially we existed “before the Fall”—or at least that’s how it seemed to me. I was called a “cracker” a hundred times before I realized it was an insult, because it had always been meant fondly.
And then, in that way peculiar to the South, we were pulled apart. I didn’t have the words for it then—self-segregation, peer pressure, cliques, structural racism, social sorting. All I knew was that something profoundly sad was happening. I saw my friends as across a great divide. “The South” would never be my friend, because it had never been a friend to my friends. Whatever we once were, we shared a common enemy—the same white kids who called them racist names and kicked me in the knee pit when I was playing Defender at the arcade just because I was a “longhair.”
I remember especially the long days on “safety patrol,” directing younger kids across the crosswalk after school. We were also charged with bringing the school’s flag down every day, and I remember standing at attention as someone burst upon the flag ceremony to shoot us with a squirt gun full of what turned out to be piss. I remember learning that the shooter was one of my best Black friends. I remember feeling wretched to learn that he was paddled, as the saying went then. Paddling, I should say, was something we all accepted, even venerated, as a school tradition. My fourth-grade teacher had a paddle with its name burned lovingly into the wood—Old No. 47—supposedly because 46 paddles had been broken on the asses of 46 unfortunate children. And did we complain? Worse. We built him Old No. 48 in wood shop with holes in it to be more aerodynamic. So did I care that my best friend had effectively pissed on me in that flag ceremony? Honestly, I was proud of him. Someone had to strike a blow. I was just sorry it wasn’t me, and I was sorry he was paddled.
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The “Harvard Law Review” Refused to Run This Piece About Genocide in Gaza
The “Harvard Law Review” Refused to Run This Piece About Genocide in Gaza
I say all this as a way of explaining in some small way why it broke my heart to see a Confederate flag flying inside the Capitol on January 6, 2021. As a child, I had always believed that there was some far-off somewhere where things were different, where I hadn’t lost my Black friends, where I hadn’t needed to be pissed on, where I hadn’t been so weak. Instead, 40 years later, I watched on television as the all-too-familiar banner of my childhood wafted freely through Statuary Hall. Kevin Seefried, the man holding the flag, was gleeful and paunchy—receding hairline, baggy clothes, bad beard, bad boots—and I instantly knew him, not literally but autobiographically. “Our look,” wrote Annie Dillard in a far different context, “was as if…two deadly enemies met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut.”
Instantly iconic, the image of Seefried carrying that flag captures the whole of the day, the whole of American history, in a single tableau. Seefried is frozen in place between the portraits of South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Calhoun had pioneered the “positive good” defense of slavery, claiming that “there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilised society in which one portion of the community did not…live on the labour of the other.” To Calhoun, it was obviously better for the permanent laborers to be Black, and Northerners’ failure to recognize this was a sign of their depravity and unwillingness to compromise. “It is easy to see the end,” he said in 1837. “By the necessary course of events…we must become, finally, two peoples.”
Sumner adhered to a different philosophy. “We are one people,” he said, “under one sovereignty, vitalized and elevated by a dedication to Human Rights.” For Sumner, the United States was not just a country but an idea. “Here [is] a new Nation,” he said, “with new promises and covenants, such as had never been made before. The rights which it promise[s] [are] the equal rights of all; not the rights of Englishmen, but the rights of man. [And] on this account our Nation [will become] a source of light to the world.”
Growing up on scorched sand in segregated Florida, I believed in Sumner long before I had heard of him, long before I could express in words the world he believed in. But the whole of my childhood came home to me when I saw that flag in that space.
My citadel had fallen: The House I had counted on; the House where things were different; the House where Abraham Lincoln had taken a stand against the Mexican-American War in the 1840s; the House that had passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s. My old nemeses had literally taken a shit on all of it, smearing excrement on the walls, snapping triumphant selfies, banging on doors in their futile search for the highest-ranking woman in the United States: “Bring Nancy Pelosi out here now. We want to hang that fucking bitch.” It may seem a small thing to wonder: “Who cleans the shit off the walls?” But somebody does, because somebody has to.
The Civil War was inaugurated, basically, because one side refused to recognize the legitimacy of an election. For decades, the “slave power” had been the masters of minority rule, but with the ascension of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, first seven, then 11, Southern states took their ball and went home—pulling out of the Union to form the Confederacy. By 1864, the Confederacy was teetering toward defeat, and the Confederate general Robert E. Lee decided the only thing that could save the day was an invasion of Washington, D.C. He gave the assignment to Gen. Jubal Early, affectionately known by his troops as “Old Jubilee” but known to Lee as the “Bad Old Man.” Early had made his bones in the Gettysburg campaign. Marching north, he had levied $220,000 from the cities of Hagerstown and Frederick; when Chambersburg had refused to pay a half-million-dollar ransom, he had burned it to the ground. (He had also burned the house of the postmaster general.) On July 11, 1864, a hastily mobilized force of government clerks, raw militia, and convalescing veterans held Early’s invasion at bay.
What Jubal Early only dreamed of doing, Kevin Seefried and his accomplices carried out in an afternoon. In the ultimate example of white male privilege, rioters were allowed to o’erstorm our ramparts, meeting a federal response at once individually heroic and collectively pathetic. We don’t need to speculate what would have happened if the Capitol had been overrun by Black Lives Matter protesters; we already know. Trump had already given the order: “Just shoot them,” he said of the peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, or at least “beat the fuck out” of them.
The day before the assault on the Capitol, January 5, Kevin Seefried had pulled down the oversize Confederate flag from the front porch of his Laurel, Del., home, in a county that is 50 percent Black. He and his son clambered into their car for a gleeful road trip to Washington to hear their leader speak:
Trump: All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats. We will never give up, we will never concede…. Our country has had enough.
Audience: Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!
Trump: We will not let them silence your voices. We’re not going to let it happen. I’m not going to let it happen.
Audience: Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!
Trump: We’re gathered together in the heart of our nation’s capital for one very, very basic and simple reason. Republicans are constantly fighting like a boxer with his hands tied behind his back. We want to be so nice. We want to be so respectful of everybody, including bad people. [But] we’re going to have to fight much harder…. Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. The radical left knows exactly what they’re doing. They’re ruthless, and it’s time that somebody did something about it…. And we fight…we fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.
We all know what happened after they broke through the windows and doors: Chanting “Whose House? Our House!” they desecrated halls formerly walked by John Adams and Abraham Lincoln, looking for someone to hang from the Home Depot gallows they had constructed on the Capitol grounds.
Yes, a lot of them were tailgaters of treason engaged in a Beer Pong Putsch. But this dismissal entirely misses the point: Virtually every unmitigated disaster that has ever befallen a democracy has been facilitated by clueless chuckleheads.
Take the pathetic squad of nihilists who inaugurated World War I, resulting in 40 million deaths worldwide. The first of the five would-be assassins strung out along the route of Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade lost his nerve and watched the car go by. The second also lost his nerve. The third misthrew his grenade, bouncing it off the trunk and watching glumly as it exploded 10 seconds later, because he’d also misset the timer. He then swallowed an (expired) cyanide capsule and tried to drown himself in a river that was four inches deep.
The sixth and sole successful assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was more lucky than skilled. The archduke’s motorcade took a wrong turn and stalled right in front of him. Standing right next to an open-topped car, he managed to hit Ferdinand but somehow missed his second target, the governor of Bosnia, and instead shot Ferdinand’s wife. Princip then turned his gun on himself but failed to get a shot off. (In prison, he also failed to hang himself with a towel.) There is nothing funny about any of this, but there is certainly something farcical. Throughout history, devastating events have been augured by—even triggered by—total imbeciles.
Students of history and politics make two fundamental miscalculations in their theory of political change. First, they assume that a majority of people act in their material self-interest. Especially in the American context, they often don’t. They act in their cultural self-interest. Any government program that benefits everyone (whether Obamacare, mask mandates, or vaccines) benefits out-groups relatively more—and America’s traditionally dominant class (white male Christians and their allies) like winning less than they like watching other people lose. They’re not actually cynical about government; they know it works, but they want it to work for them particularly, perhaps exclusively, as it usually has—or they want it not to work at all.
The second wrong-headed assumption historians (and the general public) make is more subtle but perhaps more germane: Our politics has always been a contingent stew of fantasy, apocalyptic vision, and political grandstanding, but in periods of political plasticity, the Overton window can shift dramatically. Sometimes this rare elasticity works to the benefit of humankind: “It is extraordinary how completely the idea of gradual emancipation has been dissipated from the public mind everywhere, by the progress of events,” marveled The New York Times in 1864. “Before the rebellion, it was accounted the very extreme of Anti-Slavery fanaticism to believe in the possibility of immediate emancipation without social ruin. But all these gradual methods are now hardly more thought of than if they had been obsolete a century.” Other times the elasticity works to our collective detriment, as in the case of secession and World War I, when posturing fools met the event horizon of a historical inflection point.
Seefried unfurled his banner in my House to declare his “freedom.” But as a Florida boy, I know these crackers in my nose. At the base of most contemporary American conspiracy theories is a white male fantasy that indulges the feeling of being aggrieved, abused, dominated, or violated, precisely to justify the legitimacy of the ensuing white male vengeance and demonstration of power and control. Nothing tastes better in the white male mouth than indignation—not a job and not a paycheck. The historian Gordon Fraser calls it the “libidinal pleasures of paranoia” and traces the impulse from the “Illuminati Crisis” in 1798 to Pizzagate in 2016.
Even as Mitt Romney skedaddled away from potential hanging or hostage-taking, the women in the building knew the stakes. “I didn’t think that I was just going to be killed,” said New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “I thought other things were going to happen to me as well.” Ocasio-Cortez didn’t choose that moment to admit to the whole world that she is an assault survivor. The moment chose her—because she’s an honest person and the body keeps the score. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology, said in September 2018 to the US Senate Judiciary Committee in response to Senator Patrick Leahy’s question of what she remembered most from her assault as a high schooler in Bethesda, Md., in the summer of 1982. She was testifying during the confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. “The uproarious laughter between the two [Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge], and they’re having fun at my expense. I was underneath one of them, while the two laughed. Two friends having a really good time with one another,” she responded.
Kevin Seefried, along with the rest of the rioters, had a really good time on January 6. “I didn’t know something could be so terrifying and embarrassing at the same time,” tweeted the comedian Jess Dweck. The riot may have been a saturnalia of stupid, but we need to take it seriously. There is abroad in the land an entitled minority, marinating in grievance, convinced that something is being stolen from them. What is being “stolen”—an election, a “way of life,” a “birthright,” a “Lost Cause,” Christmas—doesn’t matter. Always it is a defensive white male fantasy based on insecurity, helplessness, and rage.
And yet there is one relief from the events of the Trump years: We get to meet our old enemy on an open field. Today 66 percent of Southern Republicans support seceding from the Union. As a Civil War historian, my reaction is as simple as it is unprofessional: Are you fucking kidding me? Are we really going to do this again? Yes, we’re going to do this again and, if we have to, again and again, because as Frederick Douglass noted, “the destiny of the colored American…is the destiny of America.” Can a multiracial, multiethnic democracy actually work? As Americans, it is our task on earth to figure this out.
Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum address is remembered for his premonition of the Civil War. “If destruction be our lot,” he famously warned, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” What always gets forgotten is that Lincoln was not predicting America’s descent into a war over slavery; he was predicting America’s descent into fascism.
In his speech, Lincoln returned time and again to the fear that the loosed passions and petty grievances of America’s multitude of (white male) morons might be weaponized by an unscrupulous con man, calling them to a crusade against the “others” in their midst. “Is it unreasonable, then,” Lincoln asked, “to expect that some man possessed of the [craftiest] genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs. Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly acquire it by doing good as harm, yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling [us] down.”
Rereading these words in the era of Trump and Trumpism, I have come to realize that Lincoln had also predicted the “reality war” in which we currently find ourselves. Lincoln may have devoted his personal life to the pursuit of self-education, but he spent his political career wrestling with his fellow (white) Americans’ arrogance, ignorance, and roll-your-own-reality approach to argument, which he knew all too well growing up in rural poverty amid the self-appointed pontificators of the plains. When it comes to virtually every dimension of historical causality, we need to remember deeply what Lincoln very clearly understood—that a small but significant percentage of Americans are and have always been small, scared, selfish, sadistic, ignorant, and mean.
“I hope I am over wary,” Lincoln mused in his Lyceum Address, but “there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of sober judgment.”
Sober judgment was what Lincoln consistently found most wanting in his fellow Americans. Calling for 100,000 troops in June 1862, Lincoln lamented to Secretary of State William Henry Seward that the act would surely result in a “general panic and stampede” even though it was only what was logical and necessary to bring the war to a more rapid, triumphant close. “So hard is it,” Lincoln said, “to have a thing understood as it really is.”
So here’s how it really is: Things are going to get worse. As the historian Heather Cox Richardson and others, including myself, have pointed out, political conditions are tracking eerily toward a pattern last seen in the 1850s, when entrenched minority rule was forced to adopt ever more extreme and then violent antidemocratic tactics to stay ahead of demographic realities.
From 1789 to 1861, the South had 23 of 36 speakers of the House, 24 of 36 presidents of the Senate, 20 of 35 Supreme Court justices, and always a majority on the court. For 49 out of 72 years, the president had been a white Southerner and enslaver; for 12 more years and for most of the 1850s, the president had been a Northern Democrat sympathetic to the South. How had the slave power so completely dominated the federal government despite always having a diminishing minority of the population? The answers will seem familiar.
In 1850, when the number of free and slave states was equal at 15 each, the free states had 60 percent of the population and 70 percent of the voters—but only 50 percent of the senators. The three-fifths clause gave the slave states an average of 20 more congressmen after each census, which gave them outsize power in the House and the Electoral College. And by dominating the Electoral College (and therefore the presidency), along with the Senate, they had the power to control appointments to the federal courts. And when even these antidemocratic loopholes in our political process proved inadequate to hold back the tide? Violence.
Today’s entrenched minority uses updated tactics—gerrymandering, voter suppression, the filibuster, etc.—but the point and the effect are the same: antidemocratic minority rule. And in both cases, when that minority started to lose power, it had to go to ever-greater lengths to maintain it.
Historians aren’t antiquarians; we’re not interested in old things because they are old. We exist to tell you when the engine of time throws a rod. Like Cassandra, we are doomed to tell you what you should already know. So here’s what I know: When time becomes elastic, either politically or personally, you have to push with all your might—because otherwise your enemies will make history.