Open Access

The Dynamics of Democratic Breakdown: A Case Study of the American Civil War


The 2020 election raised fundamental questions about the future of American democracy. Although the Democratic presidential nominee Joseph Biden won a decisive victory in the Electoral College and the popular vote, President Donald Trump refused to accept defeat. For weeks after the election, Trump falsely claimed that Democrats had stolen the election. In an unprecedented step for a defeated incumbent president, he pressured Republican election officials and legislators to help him overturn the election results. Trump’s attacks on American democracy culminated on January 6, 2021, when a pro-Trump mob invaded the United States Capitol Building to disrupt the Electoral Vote Count.

In the aftermath of the 2020 election controversy, national polls found that over 90% of Americans believe that American democracy is in danger. Since the election, experts on both ends of the political spectrum have warned of the possibility of a full-fledged democratic breakdown in the United States.

This article places America’s political crisis in historical context by examining the only democratic breakdown in the nation’s history: the Civil War. Following Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 election, eleven southern states seceded from the Union. The conflict that ensued cost over half a million lives and left one-half of the United States in physical and economic ruin.

This article makes three main points. First, a dispute over election rules did not cause the Civil War. Instead, the war resulted when the dominant political class in the South—slaveholders—rejected the principle of majority rule. American history thus demonstrates that even in the case of an election of unquestionable integrity, a disgruntled extremist minority might still break the country apart.

Second, the slaveholders feared that if they put the issue of secession to a popular referendum, the non-slaveholding majorities in southern states might vote against it. To achieve their goal of destroying the Union, therefore, slaveholders dictated special rules for the secession votes in their states. After Lincoln’s election, southern state legislatures delegated the issue of secession to state conventions. Across the South, slaveholders manipulated the convention election rules to ensure the result they wanted: break-up of the federal union.

Third, and finally, northerners viewed the war as a battle for the survival of democracy itself. They recognized that no democratically held election would ever be binding if losers could simply break free and form their own government. Northerners thus rallied around the Lincoln administration and supported the Union war effort through four bloody years of battle. The Union’s victory vindicated democracy as a form of government. The Confederacy’s crushing defeat in 1865 demonstrated that democracies could successfully navigate even the most extreme forms of civil disorder. Most important of all, the Civil War era gave rise to a dramatic expansion in the inclusiveness of American democracy. Ironically, therefore, the United States government emerged stronger in 1865 than it had been when the war began in 1861.

Publication timeframe:
2 times per year
Journal Subjects:
Law, Public Law, other, History, Philosophy and Sociology of Law, International Law, Foreign Law, Comparative Law