Brinksmanship is a pretty effective tactic; the disciplined refusal to compromise until the very last minute often panics a less steadfast opponent into making desperate concessions. Currently Congressional Republicans are engaging in brinksmanship with the debt ceiling, refusing to approve raising the ceiling by the deadline of August 2nd unless there is an effective budget reduction plan in place that does not include raising taxes. They say that they will not compromise.

Presumably this is just a negotiating stance; failure to increase the debt ceiling would have terrible consequences. According to Paul Krugman, “ At best, we’ll suffer an economic slowdown; at worst we’ll plunge back into the depths of the 2008-9 financial crisis.’’ The austerity measures that would follow could cost “possibly millions of jobs.’’ Moreover, the Republicans were nearly ready to surrender the Bush tax breaks on the wealthiest last year before President Obama stopped demanding that concession. In addition, even the financial establishment is resigned to a tax increase. CNBC’s Jim Cramer, a reliable spokesman for smart money positions, has been on TV all week saying that people who make more than $400,000 per year could absorb a tax increase without suffering. The rich don’t want the tribulations austerity would involve; they don’t want riots in the streets. It’s bad enough there are riots in Athens.

So perhaps the Republicans will play hardball until they have wrung the last concessions out of the Democrats, and then will agree to tax hikes. But one of the problems with brinksmanship, of course, is that it isn’t always brinksmanship. Sometimes the people threatening to go all the way really do intend to go all the way.

In 1860, after the election of Abraham Lincoln, slaveholders throughout the south began the process of getting their state legislatures to secede from the union. For weeks and even months, many in the north did not take this effort seriously. Southerners had threatened secession before, and had never gone through with it. There was no reason to believe they would be serious now. Yes, Lincoln was personally opposed to slavery, but he said that he did not intend to do anything to end slavery where it presently existed. Surely some sort of reassurances could be enacted.

And indeed, reassurances were offered—the famous Crittenden Compromise. In its strongest component, it offered a constitutional amendment that would clearly allow slavery, and that would forbid any future Congress from acting to abolish it. Most people north and south were content to make that deal in order to avoid secession. Most people in the north were not ardent abolitionists, and most people in the south were not disunionists. Lincoln himself ultimately backed the offer.

But the destiny of the south was in the hands of slaveholders who no longer wanted to compromise with the north, but who wanted to be free from it. They envisioned the creation of new slaveholding empire that would be centered in the southern states, and that would extend into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, and that would include Cuba and Martinique and parts of Mexico and Central America. They were willing to go to war to be independent. They didn’t figure that the conflict would be particularly long or terrible. Of course they miscalculated, and that misjudgment cost them everything—life, property, society. Slavery was, of course, abolished.

Are today’s Republicans as uncompromising? Some certainly are. Grover Norquist, for example, seems quite willing to destroy the system in order to resurrect from its ashes a very different kind of country with a very small government that has a very small interest in regulation or social welfare. Norquist, as founder of Americans for Tax Reform, opposes all tax increases, and has gotten nearly every Republican legislator in Congress and most in state governments to sign a pledge to never raise taxes. Norquist once said that his aim was to reduce the size of government until it was small enough that it could be drowned in a bathtub. He is more a threat to our way of life than was Osama bin Laden.

So the question today is, what is the Republican agenda? Is it to reduce the deficit, or destroy the government? Those rebels in 1860 and 1861 didn’t want to fashion a compromise that would have preserved slavery within the union; they wanted to shatter the union, to create a new, a more ambitious entity. They were willing to risk the whirlwind to achieve it, and the whirlwind is precisely what the nation suffered.

What do the Republicans really want today?

[Cross-posted at]

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.