Hello and welcome to part 5 of our series on Michael Woods’ article “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature”, in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians). Here we look at ways today’s historians are approaching the convoluted politics of race and slavery in the U.S. before the Civil War, and the insights into the many reasons why white antislaveryites opposed slavery—many of which were about protecting their own interests.
How was slavery a threat to white Americans, as they saw it? Here are the bullets:
- Slavery as a threat to white jobs: Remember our distinction between abolitionists, who believed slavery was a moral wrong, and antislaveryites, whose problem with slavery was that it took jobs from white Americans and threatened our democratic political system. Antislaveryites did not want slave labor spreading through the country, taking jobs away from the white laboring classes and giving a fractional minorityof white slaveholders far more power than they were due in Washington. This takes us to point 2—
- Slavery as a threat to republicanism: If a handful of plutocrat southern slaveholders controlled most of the U.S. economy through the labor of their enslaved people, they would become “too big to fail” in Congress, and their demands would dictate U.S. policy. This was a threat to republican liberty that was not fantasy, as the south, though the smaller section, lost very few battles in Washington, and often had the federal government bending over backward to placate it. So slavery was a threat to the poor white worker and the white nation as a whole. Sectional conflicts like Bleeding Kansas can be read as “a struggle to secure the political liberties of whites” —the whites who voted to make Kansas a free state, who were threatened literally and figuratively by proslaveryites who killed settlers and overrode the antislavery constitution of the territory to present their proslavery constitution to the proslavery president James Buchanan, who accepted it. [Woods 432]
- Slavery as a threat to white liberty: the 1854 Fugitive Slave Law was only the boldest and latest move of the slave power to not only steal liberty from enslaved people who escaped to freedom, but to encroach on white liberty itself. Whites were forced by the law to help slavecatchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. If the Fugitive Slave Law was all about black slaves, why was it fining, jailing, and threatening free whites? Why did it seem to focus on attacking the liberties of northern white citizens as much as it did on preventing black Americans from gaining liberty? It was just another example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government.
- Slavery as a perverting force on white nature: northerners who read about the inhuman abuses slaveholders inflicted on black Americans, and read proslavery politicians’ own forceful defenses of violence against the enslaved, and read about or saw for themselves the aristocratic lifestyle of major slaveholders, were disgusted at what slaveholding seemed to do to white nature. Slaveholders were not tough, hardworking, honest men, as whites were supposed to be, but lazy and corrupted by power, living lives of ease that made them effeminate and shallow. Slavery had led to the development of a chivalric code that emphasized violence in defense of one’s honor, but no exertions of body or spirit in any other direction. And, as we’ve seen, slaveholding had led wealthy slaveholders to pervert American democracy itself to protect and extend their twisted way of life. Antislavery emotion in the north often called on its followers to counter this perversion of whiteness, and the free soil, free labor ideology (of free, honest, hardworking, muscular farmers) was a direct counterpart to the depraved planter.
- Slavery as a wedge into the white race: this is directly related to the point above. Rich white slaveholders had long prevented poor southern whites from rising up against their oligarchy by focusing on race instead of class. Don’t focus on how unequal you are to us in every respect, they told poor whites; focus on how superior we all are to blacks. Even the poorest, least educated white man is better than a black man. Focusing the poor white majority on racial solidarity rather than class inequality preserved the unequal social and political system in the south and shored up slavery. Since the vast majority of white southerners did not hold slaves, and had nothing in common with slaveholders, how was it that they were willing to fight a war for slavery? This question has been asked by Confederate apologists for over a century, and had a featured role in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. The answer, that poor white southerners wouldn’t have fought to defend slavery, is used to “prove” the point that the war was not fought over slavery and that southerners were fighting for states’ rights. But the real answer is that poor whites fought the war for many reasons, but one was because rich whites asked them to, and fought alongside them, in a living illustration of the bond of race. Poor southerners, like any human beings, were not about to allow “foreigners” from the north invade their homes and farms without raising a finger to stop them simply because those poor southerners didn’t hold slaves. Poor southerners fought to protect their lands and families. But during and especially after the war, rich southerners put a gloss on that that made the war about whites joining together to fight for white superiority. The horrid backlash against southern blacks after the war sprang in large part from poor whites’ fury at having their racial superiority taken from them, and to prevent blacks from achieving true equality with them. So the white racial “bonding” over slavery was seen by northern whites as another perversion of white identity brought on by slaveholders.
We see from this survey one of the main points of recent scholarship: bringing slavery back to its central role in provoking the Civil War. In the latter part of the 20th century, slavery was de-emphasized as a cause of war, in part because studies focusing on northern racism came to the fore at that time, and the logic ran that if everyone was racist then slavery couldn’t have started the war. This point of view had been popular with southerners since 1865, as they went about the business of recasting the war as a noble fight for states’ rights that had nothing to do with slavery. It caught on with a new generation of non-white scholars who felt white historians gave the north too much credit in saying it fought the war over slavery. This was a necessary correction to the super-noble representation of northern feeling popular in the north since 1863. But as research continues, we begin to see a more complete and complex picture of the truth: slavery was the only issue leading to war, but not just because of its immorality—as Woods points out, “Some forty years ago, Larry Gara urged historians to make a ‘crucial distinction’ between self-interested opposition to slaveholder power and moral opposition to slavery as an oppressive institution.” [Woods 431] But whether you were against slavery because it was cruel or because you felt it robbed you of a job, slavery was your issue going into the war, and, as Woods points out, few people were so black-and-white about the issue. People felt a range of sometimes contradictory emotions about slavery, and those feeling grew and changed during the war. Recognizing human complexity in any field is crucial to truly understanding it.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
In part 4 of our look at trends in 21st-century Civil War scholarship, we look at the new attention being paid to northern sectionalism. This post, like the others in this series, are informed by Michael Woods’ very interesting article in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.”
We tend to learn that in the years before the Civil War, the south became increasingly divided from the rest of the nation, and that southern sectionalism was basically defined by proslavery politics and devotion to a chivalric social ideal and an agrarian economy. This is presented in contrast to the north, which was simply the United States as it had always been, unchanged before the war, unchanging during the war, and triumphantly reimposed on the south after the war. “The North” and “the Union” are used interchangeably by most texts.
But recent scholarship has focused on the north’s own sectionalism—its departure from traditional United States ideas and practices, which was prompted in large part by and was a reaction to southern sectionalism. As the south defined itself as a region, so the north began to define itself as a region, one that was morally and economically superior to the south [Woods 427]
Here are some facets of northern sectionalism:
Free labor, free soil sentiment: As the south pressed a proslavery agenda, the north began to develop a free labor agenda. Neither agenda was original to the founding of the U.S. or its politics and economy until the rise of sectionalism. The U.S. was founded on a mix of free and slave labor. But the north responded to southern proslavery by developing a cult around free labor—the image of the independent, strong, self-sufficient yeoman laborer, be he farmer or industrial worker, who supports his family by the honest labor of his body. Free labor, the north opined, was wholesome and manly, and invigorated the entire nation. This went beyond opposing slavery; many people who opposed slavery did not buy into this romanticized vision of labor, realizing that factory workers had little control over their wages, worked in unsafe conditions for far too many hours, and were actually made up of women and children as well as men. They also knew that farming did not always repay honest labor, being at the mercy of the weather, and, later, railroad shipping costs. But the romance of free labor was a defining feature of northern sectionalism, opposed as it was to slave labor, of course, but also to lazy, weak, effeminate slaveholders who profited from the labor of others.
Manufacturing: The U.S. was not founded on manufacturing. Like all nations at that time, its economy was predominately agricultural. But in the decades leading up to the Civil War, the north identified itself as a manufacturing economy—a modern, exciting, powerful economy of the future that provided a living for unskilled workers and uneducated immigrants and grew the wealth of society as a whole. Again, the reality of dangerous working conditions, exploitive hours, women and child laborers, and no rights for workers was overlooked by those pushing manufacturing as modern and uniquely northern. Southerners who argued that factory workers were basically slaves were ignored.
Disunionism: Like the south, the north had populations calling for civil war. Radical abolitionists declared that the United States was founded on the sin of slavery and could not be salvaged. It would have to be destroyed, and a new nation started from scratch. Like radical proslaveryites in the south, these northerners believed it was their region alone that could do this important work.
Recasting patriotism in its own image: Southern proslaveryites used U.S. founding documents, the Revolution, and hero-Founders like Jefferson to support their proslavery position, using all three to find quotes that supported their position. Thus proslavery southerners could claim to be the real Americans, fighting malevolent attempts to pervert the Constitution by ending slavery. This we learn early and often. But the north followed the same path, using the same three sources to prove that they were the real Americans. Antislavery northerners crafted a position that balancing slave with free states, and not extending slavery into the west, was the dream and purpose of the founders. Abolitionist northerners said that the War was meant to end slavery forever. Free labor northerners claimed that the south was perverting the principles of the nation by tying the economy to old-fashioned, agriculatural labor and halting the Manifest-Destiny possessing of the west. Whichever group you belonged to, you as a citizen of the northern section were the real American.
Woods sums this up well: “Together, recent studies of northern sectionalism and southern nationalism make a compelling case for why the Civil War broke out when it did. If the South was always a separatist minority, and if the North always defended the American way, secession might well have come long before 1861. It is more helpful to view the sectional conflict as one between equally authentic (not morally equivalent) strands of American nationalism grappling for the power to govern the entire country according to sectionally specific values.” Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Welcome to part 2 of our perusal of Michael Woods’ very interesting article in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.” Here we look at Elizabeth Varon’s book Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 and her persusasive argument that cries of disunion evolved in interesting ways between 1789 and 1860.
Disunion, just to be clear, refers to states leaving the United States and, therefore, breaking up the Union. Disunion was a cry heard constantly in the decades in question in the U.S., and was synonymous with civil war.
We should also describe the sides that participated in disunion language. We tend to think there were people for slavery and people who wanted slavery to be abolished, but there were more sides than that. There were proslavery Americans who wanted slavery to remain protected by the Constitution; these split into some who thought slavery should not extend into the west (because this provoked antislavery protests) and those who thought it should. Then there were antislavery Americans who did not support abolishing slavery—slavery could still exist in the U.S.—they just wanted to keep it hemmed in in the southern states where it already existed and keep it out of the west. Antislavery people differed from proslavery Americans in that they did not claim that slavery was a terrific benefit for the enslaved and a mandate from God, as proslavery Americans did. Antislavery Americans would have liked to see slavery disappear but did not want the newly freed black Americans to stay in the country, and since there seemed to be no way to get rid of them all, were content to live with the status quo (which meant stopping the westward expansion of slavery).
Abolitionists wanted to get rid of slavery. They divided into immediatists, who wanted slavery ended immediately, by any means necessary, no matter what, and gradualists who wanted to wait until a good plan to deal with newly freed people could be agreed upon by all. Gradualists would have been happy with a state-by-state progress of states deciding to abolish slavery in their own good time. Immediatists would not accept this, and embraced charges that they would bring about a race war or, even worse in the eyes of proslavery supporters, interracial marriage by immediately freeing black Americans.
In her book Varon describes how each group described disunion over time as, variously,
—a prophecy: proslavery Americans predicted that antislaveryites and abolitionists were bringing about disunion with their attacks on slavery, while antislaveryites foresaw a future where proslaveryites had caused disunion. Prophecy disunion prevailed mostly in the early part of our 1789-1860 time period, when real civil war seemed very unlikely, and was referred to as part of a distant, dystopian future that could never come to pass.
—a threat: proslaveryites were constantly threatening to secede from the Union in response to perceived ”attacks” on slavery. If the Constitution was going to be trampled, they said, then there was no valid Union to support. Antislavery Americans swung between fear at these threats and bored eye-rolling at the states who cried secession once too often. On the other hand, immediatist abolitionists in the 1830s began to make their own threats of disunion, saying that any Union that protected slavery was no Union and should be immediately destroyed and a new nation brought forth in true freedom. Angry accusations that they would bring about civil war were happily accepted by these immediatists. Threat disunion came on the scene in the 1820s with the Nullification Crisis and picked up steam after the Mexican Cession in 1848, which brought huge western lands under U.S. control and made the question of spreading slavery into the west the hottest issue of the day. Immediatists threatened disunion if slavery did go west, proslaveryites threatened it if slavery did not go west.
—an accusation: Each of the three sides accused the others of bringing about disunion with their radical talk or stubborn ways. Sometimes the accusation was that one side was unknowingly provoking disunion, sometimes that a side was deliberately and premeditatedly weakening the nation. Accusation, like threat language, picked up after the Mexican Cession as Americans battled fiercely to make the new western states slave or free, and John C. Calhoun’s “Southern Address” is a good example of this language.
—a process: Americans recognized that slavery was an issue carving out factions in the nation, and making the divide of regional sectionism more and more impassable. Whether they supported slavery or wanted it limited or abolished, all Americans saw that the process of debating slavery was creating a deadly us v. them mentality that could only lead to civil war. The process of arguing about slavery had made disunion nearly inevitable, and this was the feeling from the Cession on. Republican Senator William Seward’s “irrespressible conflict” speech is a classic example of process disunion language.
—a program: This was for those Americans, of all sides, who saw the wheels of disunion already in motion because of the evil actions of the other sides. Those who began to favor disunion (the immediatists and proslaveryites) promoted disunion processes as necessary and ultimately for the greater good of the new nation that would be formed once the old Union was torn apart. Program talk was also more common after the Cession and especially in the 1850s.
Next we’ll look at the ways the proslavery stance and its language changed over these decades.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
As always, when history is being made in the present, or the present is clearly marked in a historical cycle, we delve into it here on the HP.
In this case, it is the debate in Congress over whether to raise the debt ceiling or default. The main sticking point has been the refusal of a sizable minority of Republicans, mostly belonging to the Tea Party faction, to allow the federal government to collect tax revenue. This group demands tax breaks for the wealthy, including corporations, and the maintenance of tax loopholes that allow millions of dollars of tax revenue to go uncollected.
This is not the place to go into the details of their platform, or the response by moderate Republicans and Democrats. Here, the issue is the extreme instransigence of the Republican minority on the issue of taxation. It has become, to them, a crime for the government to raise taxes or even to collect taxes. To them, there is no compromise on taxation: you are either for it (and therefore un-American) or against it. Again, we’ll leave aside for this post the historical fallacy of anti-tax advocates calling themselves “Tea Party”; read about that here. For now, we’ll focus on the black-and-white issue they have turned taxation into. It’s hard to think of a time when Congress was so completely divided, so unwilling and unable to compromise on an issue; when you look back at our history, only one comparable time comes up—the slavery debates of the late 1850s.
You could not compromise on slavery during those Congresses. You were for it or against it, and this divide worked its way into many other, seemingly unrelated issues, and the uncompromisable issue of slavery could not be resolved. Congress could no longer function to govern the country, and civil war ensued at the 1860 election.
Today, Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on taxation is quite similar to those Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on slavery. But there are two key differences: first, the American people were becoming just as divided over slavery as their representatives; second, slavery really is an issue you can’t seriously compromise on.
Americans in the 1850s didn’t want to fight a war over slavery, but they were rapidly becoming more polarized over it. Even those who didn’t particularly want abolition for morality’s sake blamed slavery for all of America’s ills, and would have gotten rid of it for economic or political reasons. Their representatives’ furor over slavery was not out of line, then, with Americans’ feelings about slavery. It does not seem accurate to make that claim today. Many Tea Party Congress members have said their constituents contacted them to say it’s okay to raise taxes to avoid default, but those members refused to do so out of principle. The extreme polarization in Congress today does not really have its roots in how Americans are feeling.
And taxation is not slavery. It’s not a black-and-white, moral issue that no one can take a moderate stance on. The government raises taxes in order to provide services. It’s a very simple and fundamental tenet of government. We have representation to our government to decide what services and how much taxation, not to stop the collection of tax revenue.
The taxation issue is part of a larger move to reduce the federal government to a negative function: the federal government will not provide social services (no Medicare, Social Security, Head Start, etc.), will not regulate business (protect the environment, police Wall Street, etc.), will not really legislate (instead, Constitutional Amendments will be put in place to handle social issues), amd will not extend civil rights to immigrants, gay people, etc. All it would do under this plan, apparently, is fund wars.
No one really wants to live in that world. It is undemocratic, and unself-sustaining. This experiment with such negative chaos is a dangerous one. The first experiment ended in civil war; it remains to be seen where we are headed in the next 20 years.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Just a day late to join the many people commemorating the start of the Civil War on April 12, 1861, when South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter. I noticed that many of the news stories focused on whether we are “still fighting the Civil War” today (since there is still racism), and one story harped irritatingly on the misguided idea that many enslaved black Americans fought for the Confederacy.
The show (NPR’s The Takeaway) had a few black Americans in to talk about ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. I was about to post here in despair, in an attempt to set the record straight, but thankfully, the show brought in the wonderful Kevin Levin, author of the Civil War Memory blog, to set it straight himself. You can hear the interview here.
Here’s what Kevin had to say later on his blog:
“Unfortunately, the time [on the show] went by way too fast. I would have been happy to listen to any number of people on this issue, but of course, I am pleased that they asked me to join them this morning. For additional reading, I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War and Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. You may also want to take a look at my Black Confederate Resources page, which provides an overview of what I’ve written on the subject on this blog. You will also find a great deal of commentary on this site about Earl Ijames, who was mentioned in the course of the interview. Click here for the post on Ijames and Henry L. Gates.”
I pass these resources along to readers of the HP, and pass along my thanks once again to Kevin for his tirelessly objective and valuable work.
On the other points, I think it’s hard to say we’re still fighting the Civil War; I think the Civil War was one watershed event in the history of acknowledging racism as an evil. We fought the Civil War as one battle in the war on racism. We’re still fighting that war, but not the Civil War.
Finally, there were many predictable claims that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but states’ rights. This began life immediately after the war, when Confederate leaders and supporters immediately began a spin campaign to put their actions in the best possible light. They claimed they had never fought for slavery, that the Constitution and states’ rights were the be-all and end-all of the Cause. This was debunked thoroughly over the years, notably by Charles Dew in his book Apostles of Disunion (see “Slavery leads to secession, secession leads to war” for more).
Once it was clear that southern leaders were 100% in their desire to fight the war to protect slavery, the argument shifted: now revisionists said that while powerful southerners fought for slavery, the average Confederate in the trenches was a poor man who didn’t own any enslaved people, who only fought because his homeland was invaded. Most notable in spreading this idea was Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civi War, who quotes a Confederate telling a Union soldier that he fought “because you are down here.”
And this is the argument put about now—that the average Confederate soldier did not fight for slavery, and therefore bears no shame for his part in the war. But why was the Union “down there” in the first place? Because the southern states had seceeded so they could continue slavery. From the moment the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, January 1, 1863, the Union was fighting to end slavery, and even before that date, many Union soldiers had that as a personal aim.
If the average poor Confederate really did resent the rich whites who hired substitutes to fight for them, why fight their war? Why fight and die so those rich whites could continue to control society and politics, have slaves, and keep poor white people poor?
No war is simple. There’s no one reason why poor southern men fought for the Confederacy. They fought, as all people do, for a mix of reasons; in this case, fear and anger at being invaded, a sense of having no choice but to enlist once war began, wanting to join their friends in the army, loyalty to rich white leaders in their own towns and counties, excitement at the prospect of war, resentment of the North’s “anti-southern” policies, and a host of other, private reasons. Union soldiers had the same mix, and many of the same inducements.
But no matter why they fought, they fought, and they fought for the Confederacy, to preserve its slave society. There’s nothing noble about that.
The one way we’re still fighting the Civil War is in our unending attempts to understand what it was about, in all its complexity. But a few concrete facts must guide that understanding, and the fact that it was a war fought for slavery, even by the lowliest Confederate soldier, is one of them.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Part the last of our series on interesting facets of the Mexican War concludes with the 1848 peace Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which gave the United States full ownership of Texas, with its western border at the Rio Grande, and the modern States of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, almost all of Arizona, Colorado, and part of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming (the rest of Arizona and New Mexico would be acquired through the 1853 Gadsden Purchase). In return, Mexico received a little over $18 million in compensation and forgiveness of $3.25 million owed by Mexico to the U.S.
Immense as the territories ceded by Mexico were, there were a number of U.S. Senators who urged Congress to take advantage of Mexico’s internal political chaos and force it to also give up its states of Nuevo León, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas, in today’s northeastern Mexico. This would have extended the U.S. hundreds of miles beyond Texas’ current southern border. Partly because there was growing opposition to the war in the U.S. (Illinois Rep. Abraham Lincoln was opposed), and partly because the parts of Mexico that the U.S. had so long desired, particularly California, were already handed over, Congress declined to pursue the war any longer, and this plan was dropped.
The Mexican Cession was at once a great acquisition for the U.S. and the end of the U.S. as it had been. The new lands made the slavery debate impossible to resolve through political compromise. The 1820 Missouri Compromise would have allowed slavery in New Mexico, Arizona, and the southern half of California, but not in Colorado, Utah, Kansas, or Wyoming. But anti-slavery Americans were not about to let California, the greatest prize of them all, the one that held out the most promise to small farmers and free labor, become a slave state (since a state could not be half-free, half-slave, California ran the risk of becoming a full slave state). Pro-slavery Americans knew that New Mexico and Arizona were not lands that lent themselves to plantation farming, and determined more fiercely than ever to have California, and the farmland that would become Kansas, too.
Free-Soil, free-labor, anti-slavery, and abolitionist Americans said now was the time to contain slavery altogether—to see the new territories not in the context of the north-south line of the Missouri Compromise, but as The West, a new entity that was not bound by the north-south politics or agreements of the eastern states. Keep slavery out of The West, they said, and keep it contained in the southern states until slave states were so outnumbered by free states, and slavery such an anomaly in the country, that slavery itself would die out.
Pro-slavery Americans had been ready for this fight for years. The nation had expanded along the Missouri Compromise line for nearly 30 years, it was the law of the land, there was no reason to change it, and any anti-slavery agitation in The West would be illegal, and punishable by law.
The problems the Mexican Cession caused would have to be quickly hammered out in the Compromise of 1850, a five-part piece of legislation that tried to create true compromise between anti- and pro-slavery Americans, not along purely geographical lines, but more philosophically. Slavery was not banned in the West (1), but California would enter the Union as a free state, end of story (2). Each of the remaining western territories that wanted to become a state would decide on its own whether to come in as slave or free: popular sovereignty let the people in the territory vote on their status before applying for statehood (3). The Fugitive Slave Act was introduced, which allowed slaveholders to violate the personal liberty laws in free states (4), and slavery would remain a feature in the capital, Washington, DC (5).
This Compromise would be short-lived. As settlers poured into all regions of the Cession, the stakes became higher and higher on both sides of the slavery issue. Pro-slavery Americans needed numbers; they couldn’t allow slavery to be restricted to the existing southern states or their needs would never be met in Congress, where free-state Representatives and Senators would far outnumber slave. Anti-slavery Americans also needed numbers, to reduce slavery to a regional curiosity of a small number of states, rendered economically useless. The battles over how western states would come into the Union led to vote-rigging, where people from outside a territory would pour in when it came time to vote slave or free, making a mockery of the concept of popular sovereignty. The violence that ensued in these situations was made legendary in Bloody Kansas.
In short, the Mexican War was most important both for expanding the U.S. and for hastening the coming of the Civil War. Both events made the nation greater, one geographically, one morally. It was a dress-rehearsal for the Civil War in that so many men who fought together in the Mexican War fought against each other in the Civil War, including both Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee. And it nearly completed the U.S. conquest of the continent between Canada and what was left of Mexico (the last bits settled in the Gadsden Purchase). The discovery of gold in California the year after the war ended spurred not only Californian settlement but the western rush of pioneers that dominated American demographics until the end of the 19th century. It also left the United States as the undisputed great power of the western hemisphere—a great deal of impact for a war that is often skipped over as students of U.S. history move from the Revolutionary War directly to the Civil War.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
The New York Times’ interesting series on the Civil War, “Disunion”, continues with “How Lincoln undid the Union”. Join the series and get even more on Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism and the unfolding of the Civil War here at the HP.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Often historians talking about the secession of southern states after Lincoln’s election to the presidency will stop to wonder just why it even happened. Not all the states were on board with secession after Lincoln’s win—the major southern states, including North Carolina and Virginia, were against it. There had been secession scares before, and most southerners believed the hysteria would blow over and they would go back to doing what they had always done: fighting for slavery in Congress and the courts. They had been very successful at this, and there was no reason to suppose that would change. In fact, with Lincoln in the White House and Republicans in the Congress, the south would have to fight harder and even more cleverly to protect and spread slavery, and that was a challenge most southern legislators were likely up for.
So the immediate secessions of the seven Lower South states was no guaranty at all that the rest of the south would go, and southern public opinion was divided, to say the least. So why did it happen? Why did the dominoes fall?
It’s a good question. In fact, it’s been pondered over in a completely different arena: World War I.
The similarities are striking: one nation declares war over an act of violence, the other side declares war back; a tense waiting period in which frantic diplomacy is employed to defuse the situation; the majority of the public against war, or at least neutral; and then the rest of the dominoes fall. Ever since the summer of 1914, people have been asking how this happened when it was so far from being inevitable and there was so much to lose on all sides by going to war.
I don’t have the answer, of course; I’m just noting, for the first time that I know of, the similarity of the two situations. I suppose there’s something always to be said for the human desire to act, and to react in kind. If one country or leader is violent, it/he can expect a violent reaction. And there’s always the need to be part of your group: if your ally declares war, you will likely follow suit, no matter what misgivings you have, because the relationship impacts your honor, your sense of yourself, and your public image. And then it’s just easy to go to war; when a situation is difficult, maybe impossible to untangle, you can always run a sword through it. Last, a declaration of war is a powerfully emotional moment that it is very easy to get swept up in: an unthinking, heady, exciting, join-or-die, shoot-now-and-ask-questions-later moment.
If anyone has a good idea of how to answer the question of 1861 and 1914, let us know!Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
I was rereading David Potter’s timeless book The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861 and thinking about how it sounds to us today to read that some Americans valued union over abolition.
It sounds awful. It sounds like cavilling, cowardice, inhumanity, and loathsome empty-headed pseudo-patriotism.
But that is because this is not 1850, or 1858, or any point antebellum. It’s so hard to forget or to avoid the impact of hindsight on historical vision. We know that the Civil War did not end in permanent disunion, that the United States continued, grew, and thrived after 1865. But as Americans before 1861 contemplated the possibility that slavery might cause a civil war, they did not know any of this. They only knew that a civil war might erupt over slavery.
Think of it this way: what if right now, as you sit reading this, the United States was in danger of civil war. Some group of states had actually written up papers outlining how they would secede, and they had the power and the foreign backing to do it. Imagine that every week you read about how these states–let’s say 15 western states–were ready to actually sever their ties to the U.S., and leave the nation with 35 states and a big hole.
It’s impossible for us to really imagine this. We are faced daily with serious threats to our economy intellectual political unity–there’s constant talk about red and blue states and how the coasts hate the middle and vice-versa, etc.–but we cannot imagine this translated into a threat to our actual political unity. We can’t picture facing the possibility that civil war would break out over these issues and that the United States as we know it would cease to exist.
And all over one political and social issue. An important issue, to be sure, but not one that you thought could destroy the United States. Say it was illegal immigration. It’s been simmering for decades, but it’s begun to boil in the past 10 years, and people’s emotions are getting stronger about it. What do you think will happen in this situation?
Well, you expect it to keep dragging along as a divisive issue that will someday get enough minor legislation to die down, and be replaced by something else. Inertia or a solution, those are the options.
You never expect it to cause an actual civil war, with people in your state fighting people from another state. You don’t expect to see armies formed in the western U.S. states to fight the U.S. amed forces. You don’t expect to have your home destroyed by battle next year.
And that’s the way Americans viewed slavery in the antebellum years. It was a divisive issue, and was getting hotter after 1848, but civil war? Really?
Once it became frighteningly clear that the southern states really were prepared to secede, and really were gathering an army to fight the rest of the U.S., many Americans clung to union as a sacred obligation in order to forestall war. And you can see why, if this thought experiment has worked. If our nation were about to actually go to war over illegal immigration right now, wouldn’t you protest that union was more important than this issue? that the issue could surely be worked out legislatively instead?
Of course, illegal immigration is not truly like slavery, but the conditions many illegal immigrants work and live in here in the U.S. can approach slavery. And the hatred and revulsion some Americans feel for these people is equal to the hatred and revulsion some Americans had for enslaved black Americans. And, like free black Americans, even legal immigrants are in many cases mistreated and denied equal access to the law. Still, could we possibly go to civil war over it?
Americans felt the same way in the antebellum period: yes, slavery was a big issue, but it was just one of a half-dozen big issues. Why go to war over slavery? It seemed irrational. It seemed much less of a sacred cause than union, the great union of states that shone the light of democracy over the world.
This is just an attempt to really put ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors. When we do so, we can better understand why the cry of “union!” was stronger for many Americans than the cries of secession or abolition. Only when we truly try to put ourselves in those shoes can we begin to understand the seemingly incomprehensible decision to support union over abolition that many of our ancestors made.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Here we are at the last post of my Truth v. Myth series on Lincoln and slavery.
With the Emancipation Proclamation, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Abraham Lincoln finally abolished slavery in the United States. By which I mean to say, slavery was finally abolished, someone finally acted to end it, and Lincoln finally lived up to his principles. “Finally” seems harsh to apply to someone whose actions and convictions changed so radically in just four years (1858 to 1862). “[Viewed] from the abolition ground, [Lincoln was] tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent… Measuring him by the sentiment of his country… he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined,” said Frederick Douglass. Abolishing slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation “is the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century,” Lincoln said. [Guelzo, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, 250, 186]
So how can it be that Lincoln is called a proslavery racist so often today? Lincoln was, of course, slowly but surely tarnished by education in this country after the Civil War, when he slipped from hero to villain as southern Confederate sympathizers rewrote his motives and actions to make him a fool. Texas and Florida are two of the largest textbook markets in America, and their textbook committees made sure the “right” information was published in their American history books throughout the 20th century.
And as the dream of true equality seemed to slide farther and farther away from black Americans during Jim Crow, Lincoln’s deeds and promises did seem hollow. By the 1960s, when the horrors of violence inflicted on black civil rights protesters and leaders had been witnessed by the entire nation, a few key black scholars and leaders rejected all white efforts on behalf of race equality as empty, including Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation. Lerone Bennett’s work, naming Lincoln as “a reactionary white supremacist” was particularly damaging.
But this kind of treatment of Lincoln was just an early symptom of Americans losing faith in America. “The withdrawal from Lincoln by African-Americans has moved in step with the emergence of a profound nihilism in the minds of many Americans who see no meaning in American freedom and no hope for real racial progress,” Allen Guelzo says, and I think he is right. [Ibid. 248] I also agree with him when he says that “It would be special pleading to claim that Lincoln was in the end the most perfect friend black Americans have ever had. But it would also be the cheapest and most ignorant of skepticism to deny that he was the most significant.” [Ibid. 11]
Myth: The Civil War was not fought over slavery.
Truth: It was, and deliberately so.
Damage done when we believe in a myth: Guelzo has it cold: when we believe the absolute worst of myths, we see—and are part of—“the emergence of a profound nihilism in the minds of many Americans who see no meaning in American freedom and no hope for real racial progress”. There is meaning in the Civil War when it comes to racial progress, and if there was hope that was realized in 1863—in the middle of a nightmare war, after 203 years of entrenched slavery—then there is hope today.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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