On April 28, 1836, Francis McIntosh, a 26-year-old free man of color and steamboat porter, was arrested by local police after refusing to help the officers chase down a sailor. He was charged with breach of peace and told by two arresting officers that he would serve at least five years in prison for the crime.
Shocked and likely fearing the possibility of being returned to slavery, McIntosh stabbed the two arresting officers, fatally wounding one of them, before fleeing into a nearby outhouse.
Moments later, after McIntosh was caught and taken to jail, an angry white mob numbering in the thousands broke the Black man out. In his 1994 biography of abolitionist newspaperman Elijah Lovejoy, Paul Simon wrote that McIntosh was then chained “to a large locust tree, his back against the trunk of the tree, facing south and facing the people who brought him there.
“They piled wood around him, mainly rail ties and old planks, as high as his knees. Shavings were brought, and someone got a hot brand — the kind used on horses and livestock. They touched the brand to the shavings and started a fire …”
The mob paid an old Black man named Louis 75 cents to keep the fire burning overnight. The next morning, a “black and disfigured corpse could be seen. A group of boys started throwing stones at the remains, the object of their game being to see who could first succeed in breaking the skull.”
Two years later, on Jan. 27, 1838, a 28-year-old lawyer stepped in front of members of the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield to give a speech. The theme of his remarks that evening were “the perpetuation of our political institutions,” and the lynching of Francis McIntosh — which many of his peers and colleagues would have preferred he just forget or at least suppress in polite company — was top of mind.
“At what point is the approach of danger to be expected?” Abraham Lincoln said. “I answer, if it ever reaches us, it must spring up among us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.
“I hope I am over-wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse-than-savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.
“This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth, and an insult to our intelligence, to deny. Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the every-day news of the times. They have pervaded the country, from New England to Louisiana; they are neither peculiar to the eternal snows of the former, nor the burning suns of the latter — they are not the creature of climate — neither are they confined to the slave-holding, or the non-slave-holding States. Alike, they spring up among the pleasure-hunting masters of Southern slaves, and the order-loving citizens of the land of steady habits. Whatever, then, their cause may be, it is common to the whole country.”
Last week, I read The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future, a new book by the Canadian journalist and novelist Stephen Marche. The book, a work of speculative nonfiction, illustrates a range of possible scenarios that might prompt a wave of crippling civil unrest in the United States: a political assassination, the catastrophic flooding of a major urban center like New York City and an act of domestic terrorism, such as a dirty bomb exploding in the nation’s capital.
Any of these can be the spark that blasts the federal government’s last, fragile vestiges of institutional legitimacy and organizational competency to smithereens, essentially foreclosing any hope we have of collectively confronting other cascading existential threats — from climate change to the next pandemic.
“The United States, as an entity, survived one civil war,” Marche writes. “The question for the next civil war is not necessarily whether the United States would survive but whether it would be recognizable afterward.”
Nowadays, I often wonder, quietly, if my concern is sound or if I have become, in Lincoln’s words, ‘over-wary.’ Have the many books, the magazine and newspaper articles, the cable TV “commemorations” of Jan. 6, and all of the trending alarm about potential civil war on social media thrown me into a state of undue anxiety?
The worry, at this point, is tactile. As I type this in my drafty apartment, I dread the prospect of a country so ungovernable, so raggedly decentralized and chaotic, that central heat in freezing temperatures will no longer be taken for granted, and every winter everywhere in this dismantled, disunited republic will be, to varying degrees, a version of Texas in the winter of 2021.
And if this is the direction we’re headed, if my gut is right, what should we do to either pre-empt this cold, dark future or prepare for it?
“Yes, possible civil unrest looks very likely to happen more in our future,” Bao Bui, a visiting history lecturer at the University of Illinois Chicago, told me last week in an email response to my concerns. Bui teaches a course on the first American Civil War and wrote his doctoral dissertation on “personal privacy and letter-writing” during that period.
“The [Black Lives Matter] protests can be seen as outgrowths of the Civil Rights marches of the 1950s/1960s,” he wrote. “But what will be even more dangerous to human life and democracy will be copycats of events like Jan. 6 and militia plots (like the one in Michigan to kidnap the governor).”
Patrick Homan, an Oak Park resident who teaches political science at Dominican University in River Forest and whose course on democracy and authoritarianism started on Monday, told me over the phone that he also thinks America is “trending in the wrong direction.”
Homan’s concerns about the widespread disruption of social norms and the increasingly disintegrating rule of law in this country echo a young Lincoln speaking roughly 200 years ago.
Corey Davis, a lecturer at UIC who specializes in 19th century U.S. history and who has also taught courses on the first Civil War, told me last week that he’s alarmed at the division in the country, but emphasized that the racial and political violence we’re seeing today is nothing new.
“The events of Jan. 6 are in keeping with a tradition,” Davis told me. “Political violence of that sort has always been around. We like to think that events like that are relics of a distant past rather than something that is still with us today, but that’s largely wishful thinking. So when I think about Jan. 6, I’d like to contextualize it within a longer history of political violence in the U.S.”
There is a clear and present through line that runs from the lynching of Francis McIntosh to the extrajudicial killings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
An invisible bridge, much stronger than the literal ones that are falling apart all over America, connects the insurrection of Jan. 6 to the Wilmington insurrection of 1898, in which white supremacists overthrew the democratically elected, ethnically diverse government in that North Carolina city; and the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre of 1921, in which white mobs destroyed the Black section of that city’s Greenwood District.
There is a through line stronger than a fiber optic cable connecting a group of white boys stoning the skull of a lynched Black man for sport to a national wave of white teenagers conducting mock slave trades of their Black peers on Snapchat for laughs and giggles.
But historians will tell you to be careful about simply extrapolating from the past.
“If there were another civil war, it would look very different from the one in the 19th century,” Davis said. “The American Civil War of the 1860s was, of course, largely regionalized — famously North vs. South. Sectionalism drove that conflict. Today, it would be more of an urban/rural divide. Secondly, there is no central issue driving the conflict presently in the way that the Civil War of the 19th century was driven by slavery.”
Indeed, the very term, civil war, may be insufficient, if not counterproductive, for explaining the nature of our current political predicament. The 19th century Civil War would seem downright orderly in comparison. That war was at least fought between two well-defined polities. Moreover, the election of 1860 that brought Lincoln to power may have been a major catalyst for the war, but a defeated Stephen A. Douglas and his Northern Democrats did not travel the country propagating the Big Lie.
After a cleavage, at least substantial parts of the material remain intact. It may be more accurate to call what we’re currently experiencing and are likely to experience in the future a Shattering.
If the first civil war was tragedy and left us the aura and mystique of Lincoln at Gettysburg, the second civil war will be farce, perhaps leaving for posterity (if successive literate generations remain) the motto of another tall, ambitious, wiry innovator who, unlike Lincoln, appreciates neither history nor language, who has experienced neither war nor mass death, and whose moral maturity has been stunted by a life programmed in front of glass screens, his life’s work reducible to the perpetuation of what psychologists, in the words of Marche, call “‘the reduction of empathic stress’ — the basic inhumanity that the facelessness of the internet permits.”
“Move fast,” a 20-something Mark Zuckerberg famously said, “and break things.”
The second part of this column will be published next week.