Yesterday I wrote a profile of Gustavus Fox, a Lowell resident who served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War. In composing that article, I came across a letter from Montgomery Blair to Fox dated January 31, 1861. Blair, who Lincoln would appoint to his cabinet as Postmaster once the new administration took office in March, wrote to Fox about the need to relieve Fort Sumter but also predicting that the conflict could lead to “immense destruction of life.”
Blair then shared his view of the causes of the national conflict. As I read them, I felt they could be equally applicable to our politics today.
Here are the relevant portions of the letter:
The real cause of our troubles arises from the notion generally entertained at the South that the men of the North are inferiors and the rebellion springs altogether from pride which revolts against submission to supposed inferiors. You hear these blusterers say every where that one Southern man is equal to half a dozen Yankees, and that feeling has impelled them to appeal from the Constitutional mode of determining who shall govern, to arms. They will not submit, they say, to mere numbers made up of the Mudsills, the factory people and shop keepers of the North. They swell just like the grandiloquent Mexicans. And I really fear that nothing short of the lesson we had to give Mexico to teach the Spanish don better manners, will ever satisfy the Southern Gascons that the people of the North are their equals even upon the field upon which they have now chosen to test the questions. And it is my deliberate opinion that nothing will do so much to secure real and permanent fraternity between the Sections as a decisive defeat on this field. It will show the Southern people that they wholly mistake the quality of the men they are taught by demagogues to despise. Having taught them to respect the North, conciliatory language would be listened to as proceeding from kindness of feeling and not from fear and in a short time a better state of feeling will grow up than has ever existed between the two Sections.
To be clear, Blair was a racist who had no interest in abolishing slavery, an attitude that eventually caused him to turn on President Lincoln. Blair’s reference in the letter to “Mexico” and “Spanish dons” links back to the Mexican-American War (1846-48) which was an important historic and cultural reference point for his generation).
Still, I find that Blair’s observations in this letter to Gustavus Fox echo our current political crisis: one group of Americans refusing to accept that another group of Americans with different backgrounds and philosophy of government has prevailed in a free and fair election with the aggrieved group resorting to violence and extra-Constitutional methods to retain power.