Richard Kreitner brings up the odd 1857 abolitionist convention in Worcester threatening secession as an avenue to asking tough questions of modern voters about the rhetoric of extremism running through American society. I hesitate to suggest this story has too much value for us today. First, the headline vastly overstates it. Even in 1857, hard core abolitionists like Garrison and Phillips were basically freaks that most people in the North still eschewed. William Lloyd Garrison had no political power to help move Massachusetts toward secession from the Slave Power. Second, it’s pushing the historical analogy envelope really far to create meaningful connections between this and Bernie or Bust rhetoric.
It is however worth remembering two points related to this. First, it’s remarkable just how shaky the entire existence of the nation was in the late 1850s and that the 1860-61 secession of the South was hardly the only moment where this was a serious consideration in the decade prior. Second, American political rhetoric and extremism is now more heated than it has been since the Civil War and that’s pretty scary. This is hardly the only time since then that radicalism has influenced American politics, as any student of American communism knows well. But those communists were actually pretty good Democratic Party voters in the Popular Front era, and we know that third parties never lead to anything in the United States. Never since the Civil War has the idea of even living under the regime of the other party been so distasteful on either side and certainly not since the Civil War has one party simply seen the other as inherently illegitimate to the point of creating a Constitutional crisis in order to stop opposition rule.
Not sure how we get through this. But I hope it happens with less violence than the last time.