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COVID-19 VS. The Civil War.

“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” - Sir Winston Churchill

The Real Danger of COVID-19

Most will probably agree that the current social and political climate surrounding the novel coronavirus has made the world a very scary place, with threats to the economy, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems looming ominously. However, this peculiar climate has happened before. On April 12, 1861, America was plunged into the Civil War, and the events leading up to this moment are very similar to what’s going on in America right now. My goal in writing this is not to pick sides or spread fear, but to draw parallels, and hopefully shed some light on how we can learn from history.

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First, some background. In the 1790’s, the invention of the cotton gin caused the cotton industry to explode, resulting in an increased demand for slaves to work on plantations. Slavery was a viable labor system and made the South wealthy. As the southern economy became ever more dependent on cotton, it became ever more dependent on slaves to keep it going. At the height of the cotton industry in the South, 75% of cotton was produced on plantations with farms of 10 or more slaves. Southern plantations were supplying Europe with 90% of its cotton, and cotton accounted for about half of all U.S. exports. As the North began to call slavery into question, the threat of losing a slave for the South would’ve been like someone today losing stocks or property. And have you ever seen someone voluntarily give up two billion dollars’ worth of property?

Most people today are dependent on their jobs for income, but with the novel coronavirus, most of them are being told to stay home. According to an article in the Idaho Press, “The economic devastation writ by COVID-19 is clear: 26.4 million people have lost their job in the last five weeks, millions of homeowners are delaying mortgage payments and food banks are seeing lines of cars that stretch for miles. Forty-six percent of all Americans say their household has experienced some form of income loss from layoffs, reduced hours, unpaid leave or salary reductions” (“AP-NORC poll: Most losing jobs to virus think they’ll return,” 2020, April 25). Many workers deemed “unessential” have lost their livelihood and are desperately trying to keep working so that they can continue to provide for their families. At the same time, many others are criticizing them, saying that they are endangering the lives of others by keeping businesses open. The divisive issue of our day is the right to economic opportunity vs. federal government mandates that threaten our country’s economy for the sake of protection of a vulnerable population. That’s the issue that caused the South to ultimately secede.

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According to the documentary, “The Divided Union: The Story of the American Civil War,” there were plantation owners who thought that perhaps slavery was not the best solution in the long run, but that until then, slavery was what they had to work with. What really made the South hostile to the North was that not only was the North condemning slavery, it was condemning slave-holders as well. The Southerners were proud, thinking of themselves as very patriotic and American. They had their own sense of honor. Because of this, they felt profoundly insulted when Northern Abolitionists called them sinners, barbarous, un-patriotic, and un-American. Because of that, even the southerners who agreed slavery was not the best solution felt personally attacked. As tensions grew, both the North and the South felt like they had a moral high ground. Abolitionists viewed slavery as an evil that had no place in a country founded on freedom. Southerners felt that the states had the right to make their own laws to ensure personal freedom and economic prosperity – even if those laws only benefitted slave owners.

Today, both the people who think we should all stay at home and the people who want to go back to work also feel like they have a moral high ground. The people who want to go to work think it’s wrong to ruin the economic wellbeing of millions of people just to lower the chances that people with compromised immune systems or the elderly will get sick. They feel like it is their constitutional right to provide for their families, and extreme quarantine measures enforced by the government limit their freedom. On the other hand, the pro-quarantine population think it’s wrong to go to work when doing so puts the lives of others at risk. Just as the North felt emboldened by the writings of abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, those in favor of quarantine feel supported by the media’s portrayal of the risks of COVID-19.

The danger, then, is that when both sides feel they have a moral high ground and start throwing accusations and blame at the other side, people become defensive because they feel personally attacked. The more divisive our rhetoric, the more divided our nation will become. For instance, Monique Hewan, a nursing student in Cold Spring, Kentucky, said in an interview with the Associated Press, “The outbreak only appears to have intensified political tensions as some Republican governors make plans to reopen and to ease other restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. ‘It all depends on whether you’re red or blue as to how you think about it,’ she said. ‘The calls for older people to die for the sake of the economy – it’s just insanity’” (“AP-NORC poll: Most losing jobs to virus think they’ll return,” 2020, April 25). This quote is a demonstration of how people who think they have the moral high ground ascribe motive to the other side. Someone who wants to go to work is accused of wanting older people to die for the sake of the economy.

One of the questions that has come up is whether decisions regarding COVID-19 are a state or federal issue. Westward expansion was what made slavery a federal issue. The South wanted the new states to allow slavery. Each state has two Senate seats, so each slave-holding state gave the South more influence in the federal government. The lead up to the Civil War was about the future of southern representation in Congress, not just the current situation at that time. The South and North had been living in compromise for years, but westward expansion threatened the status quo.

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The Republican party was created as a platform for the anti-slavery movement. Although Lincoln – the first Republican president - was a moderate who wanted to preserve the Constitution, and had been willing to continue with the status quo, the fact that there was no southern representation in the Republican party meant that the South viewed the election of a Republican president as grounds for secession. They felt backed into a corner with no hope of future compromise.

How does this relate to America today? Westward expansion looked toward the future of the country. As governors are rolling back restrictions, they are making decisions that similarly affect the future of the country. How these decisions are handled, and their outcome will have a major impact on the lives of millions of people. If there is a surge in COVID-19 deaths due to restrictions being eased too quickly, there is potential for a backlash of people demanding the federal government take over. If a president is elected who proposes federal control over all decisions related to COVID-19, states with Libertarian-leaning governors might push to secede because they believe the right to work should be in the hands of the states, determined by the wishes of the people in that state.

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This kind of backlash is not far-fetched. If a Democratic president is elected in November, Democrats are likely to lean toward strong federal government control over decisions relating to COVID-19. But even if Trump is re-elected, he has already shown that he is not afraid to take control away from governors if he believes they are not doing a good job. On Monday, April 13, Trump asserted that it’s his call to decide how and when to reopen the economy. He later reversed his statement, but it still stands as a demonstration that he is willing to take control away from the states if he believes it’s in the best interest of the country to do so. It was Lincoln’s election that pushed the South to secede, and our upcoming election could similarly influence states to secede if they feel their rights will be threatened by that president.

If the president does strip authority from states, there will be protests. In fact, protests have already begun. On Friday, April 17, according to the Idaho Press, “More than 1,000 protestors gathered at the Idaho Statehouse Friday afternoon in defiance of Gov. Brad Little’s extension of the statewide stay-at-home order” (“Hundreds defy Idaho’s stay-at-home order at Capital protest,” 2020, April 18). According to an article in the Associated Press on April 23, in Olympia, Washington, “The sheriff of Washington’s third largest county says he won’t enforce Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, saying it violates people’s constitutional rights.” In that same article, House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox warned public patience is hitting a tipping point if some changes aren’t made soon. Those changes are being called for by Republican gubernatorial candidate Joshua Freed who sued Governor Inslee in federal court, “challenging the current prohibition on religious gatherings under the stay-at-home order. The complaint contends the prohibition is a violation of First Amendment rights pertaining to religious freedom, free speech and assembly” (“Inslee faces growing resistance to stay-at-home orders,” 2020, April 23). The question that seems to be on the mind of many of these protesters is whether the government’s actions are constitutional or not.

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As it turns out, it is constitutional under certain circumstances, for the government to enforce quarantine measures. According to experts in an article in the Idaho Press, “This area of law has been well settled for approximately 200 years if not longer. Time after time, courts have upheld a state’s authority to enact and enforce a quarantine law, and that dates back at least to 1902. A lot of what we’re seeing by the protesters, they’re arguing that the quarantine law is antithetical to the constitution’s first three words, ‘We the people’, But ‘we the people’ does not mean that every individual gets to do what every individual wants… “we the people” is effectuated by our representative government. Infringing upon a constitutional right is different from violating it. Most people don’t like to admit it, but our fundamental rights are not absolute. The government actually can infringe upon them in certain circumstances. Typically, that requires the government to show that it has a compelling government interest, in order to infringe upon one of our constitutional rights” (“Why stay-at-home orders during pandemics are legal, constitutional,” 2020, April 26).

The government needs legal justification in order to infringe on our constitutional rights. But have the authorities proven that these extreme measures infringing on our rights are justified? That’s the real question here, and it’s a question that cannot be easily answered. It’s not black and white, and there’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding it. It is not clear to everyone that the measures will be effective, or that the threat of disease is greater than the threat of depression. The threat of depression is not only economic, but emotional as well.

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According to a survey mentioned in the May 1 Idaho Press, “As the coronavirus pandemic upends lives across the United States, it’s taking a widespread toll on people’s mental health and stress levels.” The survey found that roughly two-thirds of Americans felt nervous, depressed, lonely, or hopeless in the past week, and 14% said they felt reactions such as sweating, becoming nauseous, and hyperventilating when thinking about their experience with the pandemic. “Physical distancing, the lack of predictability, economic upheaval, and the inability to mourn the death of loved ones in traditional ways all are taking their toll,” said Dr. Karestan Koenen, a professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health (“Really Struggling,” 2020, May 1). So while the physical health of those with weakened immune systems is a concern, the mental and emotional health of everyone else should be taken into consideration as well. Mental and emotional distress have a way of spilling over into physical health, job performance, and relationships, which also affect our country’s wellbeing.

According to Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group, who was quoted in the Associated Press on April 30, “The longer consumers are stuck at home and can’t get to their jobs, the greater the structural damage to the U.S. economy – permanent loss of household income, permanent business closures, permanent job losses, reduced business investment – which would prevent a strong rebound” (“Economists: No quick rebound from recession,” 2020, April 30). If we do not have a strong economic rebound, the stage is set for protests that could lead to the secession of states who feel it is in the best interests of their citizens to prioritize their economic wellbeing over extreme quarantine measures. Not only that, but if the next president decides to push for federal control over decisions relating to COVID-19, states with Libertarian-leaning governors may see this as a states’ rights issue, like the South, and use that as further grounds for secession.

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Just as in the pre-Civil War time, there is name-calling, and both sides already feel like they have a moral high ground. All that’s left is for prolonged economic uncertainty and the fear of economic devastation due to a future federal overreach in response to a COVID-19 spike to set the country on a path towards another sort of Civil War. Only this time, it won’t be geographic, but between Red and Blue states.

I want to be clear that I am not trying to vilify those who are protesting extreme quarantine measures by comparing them to the southern slave-owners. I’m simply drawing parallels to show what can happen in this country when an underrepresented group feels like their livelihood is threatened. Slavery is evil, but the desire to work and support your family is not. However, those who have been deemed “unessential” and want the right to work are being treated as though they are just as evil, and that kind of treatment only pushes people to dig in their heels even more, rather than compromise.

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So is our country doomed? No. It’s on thin ice, but it’s not too late to save it. No matter what group we side with, we all need to try to understand the other side’s point of view. There are very strong cases to be made for both arguments, and the issue is not black and white. Our fellow man is not the enemy, a virus is. Name-calling only divides us, and if we’re going to have any hope of emerging from this pandemic strongly, we need unity. This situation has left us all scared, but letting that fear and anxiety manifest itself as anger directed at those with whom we don’t agree will help no one. If ever there was a time when we needed to come together (metaphorically - please maintain social distancing) as a society in support of one another, now is that time. The Federal government also needs to heed the lessons learned from the Civil War and honor the input and rights of state and local governments regarding their rights to make decisions relating to the economy. When all of this is over it may take time to recover, but if we honor and respect one another in the face of fear, we will come out stronger as a nation.

Works cited:

(“AP-NORC poll: Most losing jobs to virus think they’ll return,” Idaho Press, April 25, 2020)

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(“The Divided Union: The Story of the American Civil War,” Amazon Prime, May 2020)

(“Hundreds defy Idaho’s stay-at-home order at Capital protest,” Idaho Press, April 18, 2020)

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(“Inslee faces growing resistance to stay-at-home orders,” Associated Press, April 23, 2020)

(“Why stay-at-home orders during pandemics are legal, constitutional,” Idaho Press, April 26, 2020)

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(“Really Struggling,” Idaho Press, May 1, 2020)

(“Economists: No quick rebound from recession,” Associated Press, April 30, 2020)

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