Irrepressible Blundering

by Akim Reinhardt

Did All Chicagoans Support The Civil War?I first heard “The Blundering Generation” in the 1990s when I was taking a course on Civil War history. As my professor explained, the early 20th century saw a new cohort of historians who no longer personally remembered the war and debated anew the nature of its origins. They were trying to move past the earlier, caustic interpretations of Northerners and Southerners who openly blamed each other, the former decrying the Southern “slaveocracy” and the latter bemoaning the “war of Northern aggression.” So instead, these thinkers at the vanguard of historical study decided to blame everyone. Or no one.

One new interpretation was The Irrepressible Conflict: Increasingly divergent economic, social, and cultural differences between the North and South were so profound and so deeply rooted, that the war was essentially unavoidable. Oh well. The other new viewpoint was The Blundering Generation: The Civil War, tragically, had been entirely avoidable, but was brought on by thirty years of missteps and increasing vitriol by a generation of incompetent and extremist political and social leaders.

It’s easy to imagine why these men (these historians were all men), born after the Civil War, raised in its long shadow and the seemingly endless animosity it spawned, would look for a way to move past it. But their groundbreaking debate, inevitability vs. endemic stupidity and extremism, proved to be a false dichotomy. Newer, better, smarter schools of thought eventually followed and displaced them. Yet nowadays I am reminded of this early Civil War historiography when I listen to observers talk of our current divided society.

Once again, we are a nation teetering on the edge. Some, it would seem, believe we are divided in deep, fundamental ways that we are powerless fix. And others argue that the real problem is “extremists” on both sides pulling the nation apart. But when I recall the failed historical interpretations of a century ago, it leads me to conclude that both of these assessments about our current partisanship are probably wrong. So let us dig into why blaming everybody or nobody are both wrong answers.

I. Our Irrepressible Conflict

The basic problem here is the notion of inevitability. In the course of human affairs, little if anything is destined to happened. If what people did was inevitable, historians would have to do little else than list events. But instead we agonize over cause and effect. Nor is it as simple as the common aphorism Everything happens for a reason. When examining big issues, the causes (there’s almost always more than one) are usually a complex swirl of overlapping, intersecting, and even contradictory factors that can be difficult to describe, much less disentangle.

In the case of the Civil War, the simple answer is: slavery caused the war. And in fact, that’s not wrong, per se. But leaving it at that leaves out a lot, such as: tensions over expansion into the new Western territories; questions of nascent federal power vs. states’ rights; diverging economic interests between an urbanizing, industrializing North and rural, cash crop agricultural South; bitter regional disagreements over tax policies; the social and economic changes brought on by an immigration boom (mostly in the North); and many more that I won’t list here for fear of boring you.

But then again, most, if not all of those issues were compounded by slavery. For example, anxiety over Western expansion was driven by whether new territories and states would be free or allow slavery. Would there still have been political divisiveness around expansion if not for slavery? It’s very likely. But it would have taken a different shape, and probably would not have been nearly intense. How intense? A mini-civil war called “Bleeding Kansas” preceded the main event as settlers literally fought over whether the new territory would be slave or free.

Furthermore, if the conflict was irrepressible, then why did four slave states (Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky) remain loyal and refuse to secede? And why did Virginia have to be coaxed into the Confederacy with the promise of making Richmond its new capital? And why did that state ultimately fracture anyway, birthing non-slave West Virginia? And why did 45% of Northerners vote against Lincoln when he ran for re-election in 1964 even though the North was on the verge of winning the war?

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, we began to hear a lot about how we’re a divided society. And those discussions occasionally have an air of inevitability about them. As if the divisions are intrinsic and cannot be breached. As if America is plagued by ancient enmities that will never be overcome.

Some of the proposed divisions are colorful, like red states vs. blue states, and white collar vs. blue collar. Some are timeless classics, like rich vs. poor and straight white people vs. everyone else. Some can be mapped, like the coasts vs. middle America, or cities vs. suburbs or cities and some suburbs vs. some suburbs plus the exurbs and rural America. Some are socio/cultural, like snobbish, college-educated elites vs. provincial, high school-educated reactionaries, Christians vs. non-Christians, or religious folks vs. secularists. And some are hyper-American, like liberals vs. conservatives, women’s rights advocates vs. anti-abortionists, or gun control advocates vs. gun rights advocates.

The problem with these kinds of explanations is that it’s very difficult to find a consistent thread running throughout. If you add it all up, you get something like:

White, conservative, Christian, blue collar, sub/exurban or rural middle Americans who hate opera and gay hairdressers, and think no one should be allowed into the country or to have an abortion, and every fetus should be issued an assault rifle with a high capacity magazine


Black/brown, well-to-do, liberal Jewish Muslim Hindu Buddhist atheist and agnostic gays who feel most at home in a big city art museum where immigrants steal jobs by performing abortions and melting down deer hunting rifles.

Of course there are people who fit either of the most extreme stereotypes, if not my cartoonish caricature of them. But exaggerating how big those extreme camps are makes it difficult to explain things such as the nearly 40% of Latino men who voted Trump, and that Trump voters’ median income is $70k/year, hardly “working class.” Meanwhile, most Democratic voters actually support some restrictions on access to abortion, and very few want to defund the police.

But more importantly, nothing is static. People change over time, and cultures and societies with them. Take, for example, Ronald Reagan. The patron saint of today’s Republican Party. Even as the GOP divides between genuine Conservatives and newer populists, perhaps the only thing that all seem to agree on is their undying love of Reagan and their firm belief that he is the ultimate modern Conservative icon.

Yet, when he was governor of California (1967–75) Reagan legalized abortion when it had been illegal, and spearheaded gun control.

Did your head just explode? Good.

Meanwhile, classic liberal reforms, such as welfare, prison reform, and facilitating helping to expand the rolls of labor unions, were all effectively undone by Democrat Bill Clinton.

Nothing is forever, so our course forward is never permanently set. Will current partisanship continue to get worse? If so, for how long? Instead of worsening, will it stabilize? When will it recede? It’s impossible to know, of course. The important thing is to recognize that anything is possible, and to work towards our desired outcomes. Because historians of the future won’t write this history; rather, we’re all writing it right now. They’ll merely seek to understand it.

II. The Blundering Generation?

A few dummies and assholes can really fuck things up, no question about it. And the United States certainly had its share of ineffective politicians and firebrand ideologues during the run up to the Civil War. But there are at least two major reasons why a plague of bad leadership does not ultimately explain why the Civil War happened, or why the United States is so divided today.

One issue is that the South seceded in reaction to Abraham Lincoln winning the 1860 presidential election. And Lincoln was clearly not stupid or incompetent. Rather, he is unquestionably one of the smartest and savviest presidents ever. Nor was he, by any rational measure of his times, an extremist.

Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was not an abolitionist. He did not want to end slavery. He merely wanted to preclude its spread to the new Western territories (this stance was called Free Soil). Until the day he died, his top priority was preserving the union. And to do so, he was prepared to bend over backwards and give the South almost everything it wanted except the easy expansion of slavery into Western territories. He only came around to abolition, slowly and tentatively, when he realized that Northerners needed a moral reason beyond preserving the union to keep fighting an increasingly brutal war. And even then, he remained a typical racist of his day who viewed black people as inherently inferior and best suited as a laboring class beneath whites.

Similarly, we could identify many Confederate leaders who were highly competent, as well as those who were reluctant to secede but ultimately followed the tide.

Another major problem (there are many, but we’ll stick to two) is that the Blundering Generation thesis casts too wide a net. It not only exaggerates the scope and impact of incompetent leaders, but also tends to cast them as all equally bad and wrong. It creates a false equivalency.

In order to make their argument work, Blundering Generation historians had to paint the abolitionists as a fringe group of religious zealots detached from reality. Were many abolitionists annoying, sanctimonious, and paternalistic? Sure. Were there flaws in their thinking and approach that need to be examined and critiqued? Absolutely. But saying they were as bad, and as at fault as the people who went to war to protect slavery, is a deeply immoral argument. Abolitionists fought to end slavery. Southern secessionists fought to keep other humans beings and infinite generations of their offspring in eternal bondage with no more rights than a chair or a donkey. It’s important to point out the flaws, foibles, and even deep shortcomings on each side. It is utterly reprehensible to say both side were equally bad and morally culpable for the Civil War.

For the Blundering Generation historians, this false equivalency was a spectacular failure, and it is hard to excuse them. They, after all, had the advantage of 20/20 hindsight. In the moment, however, it can be more difficult to assess what’s going on. Why? Take the abolitionists as an example. They were in fact a fringe group, numerically speaking; prior to the Civil War they were a tiny minority, and mostly well-to-do urbanites in New England and some pockets of the Midwest. So even many people who opposed slavery to some degree, such as the Free Soilers, viewed them abolitionists as radical extremists and even delusional for wanting to end slavery altogether, as if such a thing could ever be accomplished.

The point is not that abolitionists were extremists for their era. They were. It’s that they were on the right side of history, and even in the non-slave North, mainstream Americans had trouble recognizing that for about thirty years. But eventually most people caught up to them. Or at least enough did that the 13th amendment got ratified by Northern states in 1865, ending slavery.

So when someone says that Trump and Biden or both divisive, or that Democrats and Republicans are both censorious, many people in the present moment can be tempted to believe it. And while some progressives might be misguidedly policing language in an effort to curb racism, sexism, and homophobia, Republican governments are literally outlawing the education of racism in American history as a way of erasing that history. And while about a third of Americans might hate Biden while another third hate Trump, one is a very run-of-the-mill politician while the other is a notorious charlatan and twice-impeached former president who has probably done more damage to American democratic norms than at least the seven previous presidents combined, and perhaps all of them minus Richard Nixon.

Blaming no one for hyper partisanship is fatalistic and prevents us from doing anything about it. Blaming both sides equally creates a false equivalency that provides justification and cover for the worst perpetrators of it. I have no solution for how we move past it. But as was the case in the 1850s, we are probably mired in a deep set of divisions that will take at least a generation to burn out. In the end, the slavers lost. Hopefully those championing increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic governance will also lose. But even if they do, the damage will have been done. It took another century to undo a watered down version of slavery that came to be known as Jim Crow. Who knows what shock waves will scar American democracy for decades to come.

Akim Reinhardt’s website is