The Course of American Democratic Thought

By Ralph Henry Gabriel; Robert H. Walker | Go to book overview

Chapter 10
THE CIVIL WAR AND THE AMERICAN DEMOCRATIC FAITH

THE ROAR OF THE BATTERIES beside Charleston Harbor opening fire on Fort Sumter on the morning of April 12, 1861, announced the defeat of American political democracy. If political democracy be defined as government by the consent of the governed, the shells over Sumter made clear that a large minority among the American people had withdrawn their consent from the existing federal institutions. If the definition be that democracy is government by discussion among free men, the arguments of statesmen were silenced by those of the cannon. If democracy is merely government by the majority, the American majority in 1861 was seeking to enforce, at the point of the bayonet, its will upon a recalcitrant and determined minority. By any definition, political democracy had, for the time being, lapsed. The Republic, whose citizens had boasted for decades of their ability to govern themselves, became in 1861 the scene of a war so fierce and so bloody as to shock the civilized world. When Beauregard's batteries ceased firing, the breached and crumbling walls of Sumter perfectly symbolized American political democracy when Americans appealed from reason to force.

Responsibility for the disaster rested with the American people. No outside nation was involved. No foreign ideologies played any part in causing the tragedy. If to walk out of the council chamber and begin to fight is a fault, only Americans were guilty of such wrongdoing.

The tragedy is enhanced in the view of later generations when it is recalled that the machinery of peace was at hand. The national Congress was a forum for the discussion and the settlement of po-

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