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Refusing to Accept the Results of a Presidential Election Triggered the Civil War

The danger of President Trump's rhetoric.

The American Civil War began because slaveholding Southern nationalists refused to recognize the lawful election of Abraham Lincoln. The underlying cause may have been fear that a Republican president would ban the expansion of slavery into the West, but the triggering incident was losing a presidential election.

We are confronted with a similar crisis today. According to the reporting of Barton Gellman in the Atlantic, a group of loyalists is laying the groundwork to disregard the results of the November presidential election if they send Democrat Joe Biden to the White House. These new fire-eaters, taking a cue from President Trump himself, advance what scientists call a “non-falsifiable hypothesis.” If Trump wins the election, the system works; if he loses, the system is corrupt. Any critique of this logic is only more proof that hidden forces are conspiring against him. The danger this posture poses to the United States is as great as the one manifested by Southern secession in 1861.

While states are not threatening to leave the Union today, Lincoln faced a similar situation to the one confronting us.

Lincoln lived most of his life as a Whig but aligned with the new Republican Party in the 1850s during a transitional era in American politics. Northern opinion was turning against slavery, and enslaved people’s efforts to resist and escape bondage kept the issue center stage. Rather than accede to the changing political landscape, Southern Democrats maligned the new Republican Party as an existential threat because it opposed the expansion of slavery in the Western territories. Promoters of secession, called “fire-eaters,” knew they did not command majority support even within the South, so they deployed a rhetoric of fear and anger that condemned Republicans as “fanatics” and encouraged fellow Southerners to regard Lincoln’s election as “an open declaration of war” upon the region.

This hyperbolic language left no room for compromise or middle ground; it was intended to terrify voters into opposing Lincoln. The result was that Lincoln was not listed as a candidate in many Southern precincts, and his election, thus, surprised even moderate Southerners who believed he could not command an electoral college majority. By perverting the electoral process, fire-eaters swayed moderates to adopt their conspiratorial approach to politics.

Lincoln believed in the protection of minority rights, but he also believed in majority rule. Secession was, in his words, an appeal from the “ballot to the bullet.” That is, because Southern Democrats could not persuade a majority of voters to their standard (as they had for decades), they abandoned the political process altogether. This action, Lincoln felt, made self-government impossible. If the losing side in an election could always walk away, how could a nation ever remain intact?

Lincoln mobilized the United States for war to make clear that secession would not and could not be accepted. Because the North won the Civil War and secession itself was repudiated, we tend to think of the United States as naturally perpetual. We take political stability for granted. But the Civil War could have ended differently, and we need to take seriously lessons of the 1860s.

First, Lincoln mistakenly believed that Southern secessionists would not find popular support. He was wrong. Once U.S. armies marched into the South and enslaved people began seeking freedom within their lines, most White Southerners cast their lot with the Confederacy. In retrospect, the crucial time to act was in the weeks before and after the election, when Lincoln needed to explain to the country that the fire-eaters’ heedlessness risked destroying the United States and inaugurating civil war. By underestimating the scale of the threat he faced, Lincoln made his pursuit of a unified nation much more difficult.

While no one today is threatening secession, the same principle that Lincoln saw as sacrosanct and worth fighting for is under assault. The losers of elections step aside because of respect for the electoral process itself. Rather than acknowledge this essential principle of democracy, Trump said, “We’re going to have to see what happens,” setting himself up as arbiter of the election.

It may well be that most Americans do not endorse his tactics or his belief in his own infallibility. But now is the time to say so. The new fire-eaters, as they might be known, must be isolated and the results of their tactics exposed for what they are: a campaign to destroy one of the key practices in our democracy. Republican refusals to explicitly condemn Trump’s position exacerbate the danger by confusing voters and lending credence to conspiracy theorists that election results can’t be trusted. When Southern voters read news of Lincoln’s election, they had been primed to see a conspiracy rather than a simple defeat. The same thing should not happen today.

And like in 1860, what happens in American elections matters across the globe. Lincoln understood that secession would have devastating consequences for democratic movements everywhere. He came to office after the liberal revolutions of 1848 had been crushed by European monarchs. Reformers around the world celebrated the United States as the one place that was expanding, rather than contracting, access to the vote and office-holding. This is why Lincoln called the United States “the last best hope of earth.”

When the Union won, English radicals boasted that “Republican institutions have stood firm.” Giuseppe Mazzini, who helped unify Italy, called on the United States to “be a guiding and instigating force for the good of your own country and that of Humanity.” The United States is not the sole democracy in the world any longer, but it is the largest and the most powerful. The failure of a peaceful transfer of power here would only encourage today’s anti-liberals — Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro — in their use of authoritarianism.

Of course, Trump does not represent the kind of policy-driven effort initiated by the secessionists of the 1860s. They seceded to protect the future of racial slavery in North America. But the damage such a pursuit threatens is just as menacing as that brought about by Southern fire-eaters 160 years ago.

Luckily, Lincoln also provided a model for how political transitions should occur. He accepted, from the beginning, that elections involve both winners and losers. In 1864, when his reelection was uncertain, he explained to his Cabinet that he expected to be defeated but hoped the North would win the war before he left office. Trump rejects this fundamental feature of how democracies work. By enabling this tactic, Trump loyalists and the mainstream Republicans who refuse to publicly disavow his stance — not just reaffirm the principle of a peaceful transition of power in the abstract — are inviting the discord of the 1860s back into public life. Every political party pursues victory, but for party politics and democracy itself to flourish, they must also accept the possibility of defeat.