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Let’s Not Do Another Civil War if We Can Help It, OK?

As we approach this November’s presidential election, “blood bath” is quickly becoming one of Donald Trump’s favorite new terms. If he does not take the White House, there will be a “blood bath” in the auto industry. President Biden’s immigration policies are causing a “blood bath” at the U.S. border with Mexico. In some corners, this imagery is understood as a threat: What will Trump supporters do if their favored candidate does not win? He has repeatedly suggested that violent unrest could follow his defeat. Would it be a reprise of the American Civil War?

If any contemporary historian can give us a clue, it might be Alan Taylor. In AMERICAN CIVIL WARS: A Continental History, 1850-1873(Norton, 534 pp., $39.99), Taylor, a University of Virginia historian who has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, takes a broad look at the lead-up to and aftermath of the older conflict, including the way it transformed life in Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean.

Does this wide scope work? Yes and no. I don’t think this book makes us look at the Civil War in a new way, but Taylor is persuasive in his assertion that the American conflict shaped the entire continent. “The United States emerged from the war with a stronger federal government and greater military potential,” he concludes. “Intimidated by that enhanced power, Russians sold Alaska, the Spanish bolted from Santo Domingo and the French withdrew their forces from Mexico.”

“American Civil Wars” also dwells on how the signs of a coming Union victory encouraged the creation of the nation of Canada from a diverse collection of British-held provinces on the northern border of the United States. (Now that the United States is a global power, any civil conflict in America would ripple around the world. Think of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, when lingering divisions over the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal made the U.S. government look weak and distracted; now imagine that on steroids.)

Taylor is a formidable historian and masterly writer. He briskly disposes of some persistent myths about the Civil War. If the fighting really was about states’ rights, he asks, why did the Confederate constitution ban its states from ever abolishing slavery? On the subject of Confederate fears of race mixing, he states flatly that “after centuries of sexually exploiting enslaved women, Southern whites projected their behavior onto Blacks.”

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