American History

Party Politics, Realignment and Brexit: Can the American Civil War Teach us Anything?

Andrew Heath Blog

A recurring historical analogy in discussions of Brexit over the past few months has been the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel’s decision to back repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. In lowering the price of grain, he split his party: an eventuality that Jacob Rees Mogg, among others, has warned Theresa May to avoid. At the very same moment Peel was driving a wedge through the Tories, though, another telling comparison to our present condition was taking shape across the Atlantic, where the future of U.S. land annexed from Mexico brought the question of slavery to the fore of electoral politics, and eventually led to the Civil War of 1861-65.

Like Europe, the ‘slavery question’ in the United States provides a case in point as to how the most divisive of issues can be shielded from party politics, yet how, with remarkable suddenness, they can come to occupy the centre of political debate.

To see battles over slavery and Europe as historical equivalents, of course, would be deeply problematic. Whatever the stakes in the current crisis the human toll pales into insignificance when set against the fate of the four million black southerners forcibly held as property across the US South. But the political dynamics, at least, bear some striking similarities.

Prior to 1846, slavery, much like the Europe question before the referendum, stood on the margins of American party politics. Despite the herculean efforts of black and white abolitionists to make it the great issue of the day, neither of the major political parties had any interest in challenging the status quo. Both the Whigs and the Democrats, after all, had been vying for votes from nearly all-white electorates in the North and South ever since the heyday of so-called ‘Jacksonian Democracy’ in the 1830s. To mobilise around either the expansion or extirpation of slavery would have alienated citizens in one section or the other.

Politicians for sure often had strong feelings about the enslavement of black southerners, and would say as much in their own states, but when it came to fighting national elections the parties were non-committal at best. It was a stance that all but guaranteed slavery’s perpetuation. No wonder many abolitionists saw party politics as a dead end.

Slavery, like Europe in British politics then, divided the parties internally prior to the 1850s, but did not automatically produce what political scientists refer to as a ‘realignment’. Attempts to turn American politics into a battle between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces initially failed as the third parties of abolitionists and their southern critics flickered into life before quickly burning out… In a distorted way, such endeavours resemble the efforts of organizations like UKIP, insofar as they placed pressure on the major parties without forcing a redrawing of party lines. The survival of the Second Party System, as it was known, depended on silencing slavery as a subject of debate. When, from roughly the mid-1850s onwards, that no longer proved possible, the political landscape quickly changed beyond recognition. Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 as the figurehead of a new, antislavery Republican Party underscored the transformation. Within a few months southern whites formed their breakaway slaveholding republic.

To understand the roots of the American Civil War we, therefore, need to explain that party realignment. How did slavery move from the margins of American party politics to become its central divide? In the simplest terms, historians have tended to fall into one of two camps to answer that question: ‘fundamentalists’, who see slavery slowly but surely undermining the foundations of the Second Party System, and the ‘revisionists,’ who blame either blundering politicians or political dynamics for the collapse.

The latter often hone in on the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854: legislation that opened new territory to slaveholders and prompted the formation of the Republican Party. At first glance, a brazen attempt to extend slavery, the measure, on closer scrutiny, can be seen as a ploy on the part of the northern Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas to resolve a political impasse in his party.[1]

Eager to secure southern Democrats’ support for a transcontinental railroad from his home state of Illinois, he offered slaveholders the sop of new territory, while reasoning that soil and climate would prevent them from migrating in sufficient numbers to seize it. By making slavery extension a question for white voters in territories to determine themselves, Douglas believed the divisive issue could be depoliticized at the national level. The result was precisely the opposite: guerrilla warfare soon broke out in ‘Bleeding Kansas’ and within a few years electoral politics was pitting North v. South.

When it comes to the Civil War, I lean more towards the fundamentalist line. But if such categories were transposed to Brexit I’d be more inclined to revisionism. The Europe question has simmered in British politics since the 1970s, and has divided both major parties, but it required miscalculations on part of clever politicians to bring it to a raging boil. For Stephen Douglas and the Kansas Nebraska Act in 2016 read David Cameron and the referendum of 2016. Both were seemingly clever manoeuvres to resolve internal party conflict that had unforeseen consequences. The political fallout of Brexit, though, is harder to discern.

Even amid the current chaos, the national parties most united on Europe – UKIP, the Greens, and the Liberal Democrats – languish in the polls. No realignment has remade British politics into a struggle between pro- and anti-European parties, and for now at least, the old party lines just about hold. But will that be the case over the next few months? Once slavery did become the major issue in American politics between 1846 and 1854, it quickly tore apart the established parties. Nothing short of a revolutionary war could resolve it. That eventuality may be improbable here, but the party system we have grown up with may not long endure.

Andrew Heath is a lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, where he teaches a third-year special subject on the origins of the American Civil War. His book, In Union There Is Strength: Philadelphia in the Age of Urban Consolidation, will be published by University of Pennsylvania Press in February.

[1] Though ‘fundamentalists’ would quite rightly point out that Douglass was responding to pressure from his southern slaveholding colleagues in the Democratic Party.


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Abstinence or moderate drinking? Reflecting on the U.S. Prohibition in Britain

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On 18 December 1917, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was put forward in the United States Senate, stipulating a federal ban on the production, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Upon its enforcement in January 1920, the Prohibition era, lasting to its eventual repeal in 1933, saw the culmination of the century-long battle against liquor by the temperance movement.

Alongside America, Canada, Norway, and Finland already moved to implement a similar nationwide ban on alcohol. Britain, on the other hand, was one of the few exceptions, being among the nations where alcohol was historically politicised for not undergoing total prohibition. Comparing British and American experiences reveals that approaches to alcohol regulation have been shaped by assumed ideals about how one should, or shouldn’t, drink. The alcohol debate in the early 20th century was defined by the question on whether the promotion of abstinence was truly preferable over moderation, a disagreement that has recently experienced a noticeable comeback in Britain.

The significance of the circumstances surrounding the First World War cannot be understated when looking at the Prohibition as a global trend. Reflecting on the disruptive effects that drunkenness had had on mobilisation during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, the Russian Empire ceased all production and sale of vodka following the outbreak of war in July 1914. Before formally entering the war in April 1917, temperance groups like the Anti-Saloon League had already succeeded in banning the sale of alcohol in large sections of the United States. Eventually, wartime conditions led to the implementation of Prohibition at a federal level.

Britain also enacted its own set of countermeasures against the disruption caused by alcohol on the war effort. In the summer of 1915, Lloyd George established the Central Control Board (CCB) as a branch of the state intended to regulate the liquor trade. Aside from enforcing higher beverage duties and shorter opening hours for pubs, the CCB enacted a set of innovative policies to achieve its goals. These included a ban on ‘treating’ (buying drinks for anyone other than yourself), the installation of canteens in munitions factories to rival drinking establishments, and the nationalisation of pubs and off-licenses in regions pivotal to the war economy.

The Board’s perceived success in reducing consumption was among the primary reasons why prohibition was never implemented in Britain. The discovery that widespread drunkenness could be tamed by controlling the distribution of alcohol led many to dismiss a total ban as being unnecessarily disruptive. Medical expertise also played a key role in such debates. Evidence derived from wartime clinical and psychological research showed that, while excessive consumption was clearly detrimental to health, moderate drinking had negligible effects on the body. To many contemporaries, this indicated that legislation should promote moderation instead of total abstinence.

Hence, individual stances in the Prohibition debate were very much determined by whether one believed it was necessary to eliminate all consumption or to encourage moderate drinking. The support for a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol in Britain and America alike was founded on the assumption that moderation was insufficient to solving the problems of drunkenness and alcoholism in society.

Indeed, recent discussions on alcohol policy in Britain have uncovered renewed tensions between these two assumptions. In 2016, in response to a new set of studies that tied moderate drinking to several cancers, the official UK guidelines on alcohol consumption were lowered to a meagre 14 units a week (equivalent to 7 pints of low-strength beer) for both men and women. In light of the new evidence, the Chief Medical Officer for England declared that ‘drinking any level of alcohol carries a health risk to anyone’.[i] Although moderation is still seen as an ideal, some observers have noted that the growing realisation that there is no actual safe level of drinking hint at the resurgence of total abstinence as a legitimate policy goal in the 21st century.

Ryosuke Yokoe is a historian of medicine at the University of Sheffield, studying the history of alcohol and disease in twentieth-century Britain. He is currently working as a research assistant under Professor Julie Gottlieb for the Wellcome Trust Seed Award project, Suicide, Society and Crisis. His twitter handle is @RyoYokoe1

[i] Quote from the Department of Health (2016), ‘New alcohol guidelines show increased risk of cancer’, (last accessed 4 September 2016).

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40 years later: How We Talk About Jonestown and Why it Matters


On November 18, 1975, over 900 members of The Peoples Temple died in mass murder/suicide in “Jonestown,” a colony they had built in the jungles of Guyana.  Jonestown remains one of the most disturbing and perplexing events in study of contemporary religion.  While sociologists and religion scholars have spent decades analyzing the factors that contributed to this tragedy, the public has often regarded it as a simplistic, even risible, event.  Not only has a complex event been dismissed with facile explanations, but these facile explanations have become a lens through which contemporary controversies are regarded.

The violent end of Jonestown was the culmination of years of paranoia toward the U.S. government and the forces of racism and capitalism stoked by the Temple’s leader, Jim Jones.  After the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan, who had arrived the previous day to inspect “Jonestown,” the end of the colony was imminent.  Facing the destruction of everything they had built and fearing their children would be taken and “brainwashed” by capitalists, the community’s leaders decided to enact a plan of “revolutionary suicide” by consuming a cocktail of Flavor-aid, cyanide, and other drugs.  While many drank this substance willingly, it was also squirted into the mouths of children with syringes and there is evidence that some were forcibly injected.

Jonestown occurred within the larger cultural context of “the cult wars.”  U.S. immigration laws changed in 1965, allowing an influx of people from South Asia and East Asia that brought with it such new religions as the Unification Church (founded in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon) and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (founded in 1966 by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada).  Combined with the counter-culture of the 1960s, it seemed to some Americans that religious “cults” were suddenly taking over the country.  Many medicalized these new religions, claiming that converting to them amounted to a sort of disease of the mind.

“Brainwashing,” a term popularized by the Cold War, became a lens through which these new religions were understood.  The tragedy at Jonestown energized the “anti-cult movement.”  Critics of new religious movements felt that all their claims about mind-control and the inherent destructiveness of these groups had been proven correct.  Unfortunately, this narrative hindered more rigorous analysis of why the event happened and led to unwarranted stigmatising of new religions.

In time, the Jonestown massacre became metonymy for the idea of mind-controlled people.  The phrase “drink the Kool-aid”––in addition to being historically inaccurate––became a way of dismissing someone’s worldview by framing it as illegitimate and unworthy of debate.  Rebecca Moore, who lost two sisters in Guyana, notes that Jonestown has become a way of talking about any community deemed deviant or destructive and implying it will come to a similar end.  In a recent essay, she coined the term “Jones’s Corollary to Godwin’s Law.”  “Godwin’s Law” states that, “[A]s online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison to Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

In most (but not all) arguments, invoking the Nazis and the Holocaust creates such an extreme comparison that it stifles analysis.  Jones’ Corollary holds that discussion of new religious movements begins with a comparison to Jonestown, presenting the most extreme example as somehow commonplace.  ISIS has been interpreted through the lens of Jonestown.  In 2013, when conservative Pundit Glenn Beck announced his plans to build a community called Independence, U.S.A., it was immediately decried as “the next Jonestown.”

These comparisons matter.  Discussing the 1993 immolation of the Branch Davidian headquarters in Waco, Texas, anti-cult psychologist Margaret Singer wrote, “For me, Waco was a replay of Jonestown.”  During a standoff between the Branch Davidians and federal authorities, speculation that the Branch Davidians were planning a “mass suicide” similar to the one in Jonestown was a factor in the decision to end negotiations and attempt a “dynamic entry.”  Equating Waco with Jonestown became a self-fulfilling prophecy as the dynamic entry set the stage for the fires that ultimately killed 83.  Forty years later, we have far more data about what happened at Jonestown, yet we still invoke facile explanations of the tragedy that are not only insensitive but potentially dangerous.

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University and a co-editor of the journal Nova Religio. His research interests include American religious history, new religious movements, and moral panic. You can find Joseph on twitter via @joe_laycock

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