From fiction to hashtags to serious think-pieces, worries about a society coming undone reflect deep anxieties over the political, social and economic divisions roiling the country.
But these fears are unfounded. And, in fact, these professed fears about our future actually provide hope. Perhaps one of the most striking differences between now and the Civil War era is how we talk about our national goals and collective actions. Civil War Americans anticipated a different future than we do. They declared optimism about the future and believed violence could hasten it. We express anxiety about tomorrow and fear that warfare will destroy it.
Apocalyptic visions captivated Americans' imaginations in the years before the Civil War. Southern Baptist Samuel Baldwin predicted in 1854 that Armageddon would ruin the Mississippi Valley, topple monarchies and Catholicism across the globe and introduce the second coming of Jesus Christ. The prophet calculated that these events would occur between 1861 and 1865 — a vision that won popular support when war broke out in 1861.
When Baldwin prophesied that Christ would return during his lifetime, he expressed a popular Protestant belief of the era, not a fringe faith. A wide array of Americans — evangelicals, reformers, utopians, boosters of manifest destiny and champions of scientific progress — believed that their actions could hasten the millennium, Christ’s thousand-year reign on Earth.
Many believers assumed that fire and blood would cleanse the world of sin and corruption before this divine presence. On April 11, 1861, the eve of the Civil War, Arthur Carpenter, an Indiana shoemaker, thought “a war of 5 or 10 years would be a great thing,” because “it would purge our nation.” Even after he volunteered and saw combat, Carpenter dreamed of biblical bloodletting. “When I die, I want it to occur in the largest battle that was ever fought, since the creation of the world,” he told his parents.
John Brown embodied Civil War Americans' faith that violence would reform America and usher Christ’s return. Brown believed that God had chosen him to end American slavery. After years of praying for the institution’s demise and guiding runaways to freedom, Brown turned to violence in Kansas and Virginia. Before his attack on Harpers Ferry, Va., Brown and his followers adopted a provisional constitution of the United States that would redesign the federal government after bloodshed washed away America’s sin. When his attack failed and he faced the gallows as a convicted traitor, Brown predicted a biblical reckoning for America, promising his jailers that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood."
White Southerners shared this 19th-century conviction that bold violence remade the world. Ardent secessionist and slaveholder Edmund Ruffin watched Brown die and called for disunion and war before other abolitionists followed his example. In 1860, he published “Anticipations of the Future,” a book that forecast Abraham Lincoln’s election, Southern secession and Confederate victory. Instead of waiting for an overt threat from the federal government, Ruffin urged slave owners to strike the first blow, take Fort Sumter, declare independence and convince the enemy that the price of reunion required too much Yankee blood and treasure. When the Civil War began at Fort Sumter, as he had predicted, Ruffin was there to fire the first shot.
In some respects, recent forecasts of a second civil war echo American prophecies that spread across the nation in the 1850s. In both eras, warnings and threats of a looming conflict made headlines, emboldened radicals and worried millions of citizens. Both societies sensed the tempo of events quickening and questioned where it would end. Waves of immigrants and refugees challenged the inclusiveness of both cultures. Recent inventions — telegraphs then, smartphones now — promised more intelligence than they delivered. Emotional partisanship poisoned politics, and factions of wealthy Americans exploited the situation to defend hidebound economic interests.
But a sea of historical experience separates our time (and our view of time) from their own. The Civil War came at a moment when Americans felt control over an open, limitless future that God destined for them. Northern and Southern radicals embraced that optimism, confident that they could harness the war to achieve their ends. Enslaved millions considered America’s violent abolition an answer to their prayers. The heady optimists of the Civil War in the North and South raced toward Armageddon.
In contrast, our modern crisis is shaped by Americans feeling blindsided by unseen forces and questioning their power to direct the future according to plan. The firebrands of today who hope to stoke the passions of a divided nation encounter a society that is less confident about its future. Antebellum Americans looked forward to warfare as a catalyst for civilization, progress and salvation. After Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans doubt that warfare follows predictable, controllable paths and recognize how major conflicts create more problems than they solve.
The cultural temperaments of then and now provide stark contrasts. We spend billions of dollars on dystopian blockbusters; they spent their lives in utopian communes. Our millennium threatens human extinction from climate change; theirs promised human salvation from the Second Coming. The 21st-century’s approach to tomorrow may seem gloomy, but it has its advantages. Instead of inducing apathy or despair, envisioning a perilous future has raised awareness, sobered citizens and increased collective resolve to change things before it is too late. Our future is different from Civil War America because we imagine it differently.