As you read about the current debt ceiling debate in Congress, remember this: there didn't have to be a Civil War.
In 1860, radical slaveholders in the lower south used the election of Abraham Lincoln to push their neighbors and countrymen into choosing secession. Never mind that Lincoln explicitly stated that his administration would make no moves to limit or abolish slavery in any state where it was already legal; the secessionists argued that Lincoln's election marked a point of no return, after which it would only be a matter of time before slavery was ended.
And perhaps they were accurate in their apprehension. One thing that Lincoln's election certainly terminated was the radical slaveholders' dream that the United States would expand its slaveholding territories into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. And so secession was the only to save the dimming vision of encompassing Cuba and Martinique and Nicaragua in a wealthy and powerful slaveholding empire.
And so the southern states one by one left the union, the slaveholders resisted all efforts to compromise; indeed, they even refused a Constitutional amendment that would have prohibited Congress from ever making any effort to abolish slavery. But in their minds, the future did not reside within the existing arrangement, but in its termination. Yes, they knew there was the risk of war, but few of them thought it would happen, and those who did thought it would be short and glorious affair. Time proved them wrong.
There is a radical element at work today reminiscent of those ultras. The Republican Party has long been in the sway of a radical element that considers the idea of higher taxation to be a political transgression of the first degree. Like the secessionists, they have a larger agenda that is also backwards-looking. They see the future in an America where the government has been shrunk to near-nothingness, where there are no social welfare programs, where the New Deal has been repealed.
And like the secessionists of 1860, they are so determined to achieve their objectives that they are willing to accept the threat of catastrophe in order to have their own way.
Defaulting on the debt is not like slipping into Chapter 11 to buy some time to reorganize. "Defaulting on debt is an all-or-nothing enterprise,'' as Simon Johnson put it in The Baseline Scenario. "And the consequences of the U.S. defaulting would be severe, not just for world markets but also for the ability of every American business and household to borrow, lend or make just about any financial decision.''
In 1860, slaveholding radicals rejected compromise and risked war in an effort to achieve their own self-serving objectives. The reward for their success was to bring tragedy and grief to virtually every door in the land. But once again, radicals are at work.
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