What the Civil War tells us about political forecasting

People are bad at it

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As Yogi Berra once said, “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

It can be even tougher making those predictions in real time. There are so many contradictory pieces of information, mutually exclusive conclusions, and Twitter hot takes. Even simply following conventional wisdom can cause daily whiplash.

It can be enough for many people to say that it’s impossible to predict modern day politics, and so we shouldn’t even try.

I believe that part of this fatalism comes from an unrealistic sense of how easy it was to predict things in the past. Too often, history taught backwards, starting with a well-known event, and then teaching its origins.

For example, we learn about the American Revolution by learning about the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre, and the Continental Congress, with the implication that those were clear and inevitable steps on the path to revolution. There’s no accounting for whether the path could have been diverted - only a post-hoc explanation of what did divert it.

This happens especially in popular history books, where minor episodes are often tied to the big one they are connected to, like the below description of the occupation of Boston from 1768 to 1770, which happened five years before Lexington and Concord.

We who know what’s to come, are told a teleological story, ignoring that to those living at the time the future was still the future.

In other words, we are rarely taught what the predictions were at the time - what the political risk analysts of the day were saying. This is a problem for history, but also a problem for political analysts, who are deceived into how uncertain our own times are.

Examining past predictions

Today, I’m going to take a brief look at one of the most seemingly inevitable events in American history to see what people at the time forecasted.

As nearly all high schoolers in America were taught, the Civil War was preceded by decades of debates and infighting that took slavery from an issue to the issue facing the country. The Missouri Compromise, the Compromises of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Acts - you could pass an AP History Exam simply by listing the things that led to the South seceding after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.

But was secession seen as a certainty by those living through these times? Was this irrepressible conflict,” as Senator William Seward described it in 1858, easy to forecast?

First inklings

One of the prophetic quotes sometimes mentioned about the Civil War was by John Adams to Thomas Jefferson in 1819, when he wrote that “the Missouri question” “might rend this mighty Fabric in twain.”

Yet the broader quote shows that it’s part of a more general worrying about the future of the country:

The Missouri question I hope will follow the other waves under the Ship and do no harm—I know it is high treason to express a doubt of the perpetual duration of our vast American Empire, and our free Institution... but I am sometimes Cassandra enough to dream that another Hamilton, an other Burr might rend this mighty Fabric in twain—or perhaps into a leash, and a few more choice Spirits of the same stamp, might produce as many Nations in North america as there are in Europe.

Rather than a clear sense of where the country was going, as it is sometimes recast as, Adams was saying that:

  • He did not think that the Missouri question would be too distinct from other issues of the day in its impact

  • His main fear was ambitious politicians that would tear the country apart for personal gain

  • He did not assume a slave/free dichotomy, but thought that fragmentation would continue.

In short, Adams was not predicting slavery would tear the country apart. Reading this as a forecast is selecting the one possibility he mentioned that came true and disregarding the others, cherrypicking to make him seem a nineteenth-century Nostradamus.

Lincoln’s campaign and miscalculations

Let’s fast forward to the brink of war, when we might assume that the predictions would be much easier to make. Presumably, in the year leading up the the separation of the country, intelligent observers would know what’s coming.

For this, I turned to the archives of the New York Times, which are fully searchable and a good representative sample of what was being discussed at the time.

Here we see something familiar to any follower of modern politics - utter confidence in what would turn out to be completely untrue.

July 24, 1860

  • By a Southerner arguing for secession: “in all probability” Republican party would lose after one term, though he still believed that required breaking up the union. [They won the next 5 elections]

Aug 11, 1860

  • By a Northerner arguing against secession: The Republican Party will not emancipate slaves and threats of war were overblown. “What would the South do in such a case [blockade of southern ports]? Commence war upon the North?” [Yes]

Sept 29, 1860

  • Reprinted from Charleston, South Carolina, Mercury, arguing that the North would not fight: “the South has nothing to fear. The Government soldiery - the main reliance of the fanatics and with which they threaten us - are but a handful in comparison to the force which any single State can throw into the field. The troops will speedily melt away. Recruits are not easily obtained, especially in such a war.” “For such a purpose, I do not believe that ten regiments could be mustered in all the fanatic States.” [The Union army raised the equivalent of 2,139 regiments]

Nov 6, 1860

  • In the immediate wake of Lincoln’s election, a reporter tracking the calls for a vote in states for secession: “The vote to be given in a few days will develop the strength of each side; and, from my experience in the South, I believe that vote will be so cast as to leave the Southern Confederacy men in a hopeless minority.” [It didn’t]

Nov 7, 1860

  • In the week of Lincoln’s election: “We regard the result in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, as having substantially dispelled all the danger of disunion which the election of LINCOLN was supposed to involve.” [South Carolina seceded a month later]

Nov 9, 1860

  • In the roundup of events after the election: “We are not surprised - nor in the least alarmed - at the symptoms of resentment and the movements towards secession which greet the news of Lincoln’s election in the Southern States.” “But we have entire faith in the final subsidence of these waves of popular frenzy in the Southern States… They may not at once breast the storm and denounce the secession movement:- but they will prevent all sudden commitments and action, and insist upon the most careful examination of the whole subject in all its bearings before any final steps are taken.” “The whole South will eventually become perfectly satisfied that every evil they suffer from the present Union would be infinitely aggravated by its dissolution” [The attitude was led by local elites and they drove secession]

However, the worst, most misplaced prediction I came across was from only three weeks before the attack on Fort Sumter, after Lincoln had already been inaugurated and seven states had seceded.

This surprised me. Even though I’ve written a book on the Civil War and have seen my fair share of bad political analysis, I was taken aback at how misguided the author was. 

I present this from March 21, 1861, at length

While we remain united, even nominally, there will be on both sides the utmost aversion to a hostile collision. All in both sections who desire the restoration of the Union, will do everything in their power to prevent a conflict. The Federal Government will avoid a resort to force until absolutely compelled to use it in self-defence, -- and with every day of reflection the people of the South will become more and more unwilling to precipitate such an issue.

no war, -- no force can ever restore the Union. That work must be done by other means. The people of the South must come back, -- not be driven back: and they will do it whenever they are convinced that their safety will permit, and that their interests require it.

The efforts of Union men in every Southern State should be recognized and encouraged. Documents, setting forth the true position of the Administration upon every question involving Southern rights, should be placed in the hands of every Southern man. The patronage, the influence and the power of the Government should be used to build up the Union party in every Southern State, and to enable it to contend vigorously and successfully with the party of Disunion.

This may seem a long process, -- but it is the only one which contains the slightest promise of success. 

This feels almost like a parody of bad political analysis today:

  • Assumption of good faith motivations that clearly weren’t there

  • Certainty of what could not happen

  • Belief that better information would fix the problem

  • Certainty of what would happen

Lessons for today

We all hope that the Civil War is not a good analogy for politics today. But there are still lessons to be learned.

  • Don’t assume that big changes can’t happen. The Civil War was the most important event in the country’s history. Yet as states were seceding and the country inching closer to war with itself, there were still many who couldn’t see it. 

  • Accept uncertainty. What stands out to me was the utter confidence in what we know didn’t happen. The South did start a war. The North did raise more than ten regiments. The electoral results in Virginia did not dispel thoughts of disunion.

  • Understand the true political dynamics of a situation, not what you hope is there. The March 21 column was wrong because it was predicated on pro-Union elements strong enough to fight secession. That states had already seceded at that point should have been enough to show that wasn’t realistic.

Political analysis is a difficult job. But luckily we have historical examples to look back on to remind ourselves that, as long as we follow a process and use best practices, we won’t be remembered as the person that predicted the Confederacy wouldn’t start a conflict and that the Union couldn’t win it within the same column.

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