Sunday, March 13, 2016

Causes of the
American Civil War
A Brief Note

Image of Battle From the American Civil War

Debates about the causes of the American Civil War have been going on since it was over and have not died down since it was over because sadly the causes of the American Civil War are not just past history they are also contemporary history and concerns.

In the USA the past in terms of the Civil War resonates even now with the whole witches brew of contemporary issues; most especially those related to the issue of race.1

The result is that the causes of the American Civil War cannot be discussed without impinging on contemporary reality. However in many respects this is very much a post Civil War creation because before and at the time the Civil War was being fought there was little debate about the causes of the conflict.

The modern debate about the causes of the American Civil War emerged in the aftermath of the conflict and originated from what can be called the poor South school of history. In this school of historical thought the idea was born that the Civil War was born out of Northern hatred of the South. In particular the fantasy was that New Englanders out of sheer malice against the South went out of their way to crush the South and destroy her. Thus the poor innocent South was a victim of the evil malicious hatred of New England. This theory / fantasy has it's believers to this day.2 According to this piece of paranoia things like slavery were mere thinly disguised excuses to justify a deep abiding hatred of the poor innocent South by a North led by a hate filled New England.

Thus the South was a poor calumniated, insulted section of the USA under constant attack and all of it's behaviour acts of desperate self defence.  Aside from the transparent one sidedness of this mythos it achieves the obvious purpose of removing the dreaded issue of slavery from consideration except has a mere excuse by New Englanders to attack the poor South.

Also it replicates perfectly pre-Civil War arguments by many Southerners and pro-Southerner individuals that so-called attacks on the South were nearly entirely motivated by malicious hatred of the South and attacks on slavery were merely a screen for this hatred.3

The notion that emerged after the Civil War of the poor South went hand in hand with the rejection of the notion that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, or even a cause. Why? Well because defeat in the Civil War forever blackened the notion of slavery has a "good" thing and championing it after the Civil War was just unacceptable.4

So anything was given has a cause of the Civil War, Tariffs, States Rights, Northern hatred of the innocent South, irresponsible agitators etc. Thus there emerged a large school of so-called "Revisionists"  who moved mountains in a desperate effort to avoid attributing the Civil War to slavery, mainly because slavery made the South look bad.

This started right after the Civil War when former Confederate politicians carefully crafted apologias to justify and excuse their actions and of course blame a evil despotic North for crushing them. Thus we get Jefferson Davis' and Alexander Stephen's post war writings denying slavery was the cause or even a cause. It was according to them a mere excuse for the deeper, "truer" issue of States Rights.5 Those are just two examples of a huge flood of material making similar claims that issued from former Confederates. And it is all a collection of post-hoc lies.

During and before the Civil War what did so many Southerners including those mentioned above talk about and dispute about and claim was the source of the dispute. Why slavery! Stephens in his infamous Cornerstone speech6 made it absolutely clear that the dispute was indeed about slavery and so do the various documents justifying succession issued by the different states that seceded from the Union. What so many of the former Confederate politicians etc., did after the war was over and they lost and slavery was discredited was to quite consciously and deliberately lie. And along with the lie that it wasn't about slavery but some absurd abstract principle they created the mythos of the poor victimized South which recapitulated pre-Civil War beliefs about the South under attack by a evil North and more especially a hate filled New England.7

All in a effort to remove slavery has a cause and to of course blacken their opponents in the struggle has hate filled, evil people motivated by jealous malice. If this acceptance and spreading pre-war polemic wasn't enough, along with the rejection of slavery has a cause there was added the fantasy that slavery wasn't so bad and nothing much to get excited about anyway.8

Of course what makes this truly fascinating is that both in the North and South in the antebellum period there was the near universal belief that slavery was unfathomably wicked, a incredible abomination! There was a catch this only applied to White people. For Black people so many both North and South thought it was just fine, mainly because so many Whites, both North and South didn't think of Blacks has fully human. And bluntly that mindset existed in both North and South. Racism played a powerful role in preserving and maintaining slavery. If racism in the North had been significantly less opposition to slavery would have been much greater. And we read in the writings of the Confederate politicians after the war much that reflects this racist attitude even after slavery had been killed.9

The later Revisionists reflect this attitude, which amounts to slavery was nothing much to get excited about because it involved enslaving Black people, and that is just not worth getting excited about. This attitude invites well deserved contempt.

And of course the purveyors of the poor South view of the crisis make every effort to blame the evil North. Thus Lincoln is blamed for starting the Civil War by manoeuvring the South to attack Fort Sumter. Like Lincoln put a gun to Jefferson Davis' head and forced him to order the cannon to fire on Fort Sumter. Nope; Davis did it of his own volition Lincoln didn't force him at all.10 Then there is the fantasy view that after the attack on Fort Sumter Lincoln should not have called on the states to provide troops to quell insurrection / rebellion. That this behaviour forced 4 states to join the Confederacy11 and caused a bloody civil war. Utter nonsense. First of a nation state splitting up by definition creates the conditions for a civil war to start. Yugoslavia for example.12 By seceding the South was risking a civil war, secondly since when is an armed response by a state to an attack somehow illegitimate?

By embracing succession the Southern states were deliberately courting civil war. But again the purpose of this type of fantasy is to turn the South into the victim of the evil North. But then the whole onus of this sort of thinking is to shift the blame onto someone else. So of course slavery must be down graded has a cause because a war in defence of that vile institution cannot in the post war situation be justified so it is magically wished away. And somehow the North must be blamed for the war itself when it is plainly obvious that there was joint responsibility.

At the time the Civil War was happening it was clear to all that slavery was at the heart of the struggle and a reason  if not the sole reason for the conflict. Before the war neither side made much effort to hide this fact. After the war it became politically and morally convenient to deny what was obvious before and during the war. So with the powerful assist of the fabrications / lies of surviving Confederate politicians the lie that slavery was not a "real" cause of the struggle was propagated and during the late 19th early 20th century with the so-called Revisionists propagandized for this erroneous notion.13

One of the tropes of the Revisionists was the notion that irresponsible politicians whipped up animosity and thus created the situation that resulted in war. Thus in the Revisionistic school the wicked, irresponsible Abolitionists by their agitation created a defensive response by the South and disrupted sectional harmony. Also the Republicans whipped up hysteria over non-existent unimportant issues like slavery expansion. It was evil anti-slavery agitation that created the crisis and except for that terrible - out of the blue agitation harmony would have reigned.14

Of course this approach largely ignored the hysterical Secessionists, (The so-called Fire Eaters.), of the South and of course served the useful purpose of shifting the blame to the evil North and once again it was the poor South being the innocent victim.

Of course what this approach amounted to was wishing that the 19th century never happened. The bottom line was Abolitionism and Anti-Slavery of some sort was a common belief and position in the Western World during the 19th century. British Abolitionism was quite similar to American for example. What the Revisionists were demanding was that a 19th century style Abolition movement not emerge in America and has such they were doing the equivalent of wishing that it not rain in a rain forest.15

And what "provoked" the Abolitionists? Well the notion that slavery was headed for destruction, "naturally" and that in fact the Abolitionists by upsetting Southerners prolonged slavery's life is so much stuff and nonsense. Slavery in most of the South was a flourishing, successful institution generating vast wealth for the slave owners. They were holding on to it because it was making them wealthy and many others looked to owning slaves has a means of getting rich themselves. Except in a few parts of the South slavery was definitely NOT dying. In fact the disappearance of manumission societies in the South etc., had everything to do with the fact many, many people were getting rich off the system. In the South anti-slavery voices, even before Abolitionism were becoming quieter and quieter until they virtually ceased because the institution was making so many rich and powerful.16

The Abolitionist attack caused such upsets not so much because it insulted Southerner's sense of their Honour but because it was viewed as an attack on their pocketbooks and thus threatened to reduce the value of their present and future "investments". If slavery had been a declining institution it would not have provoked such a violent defence.17

To get to what provoked the Abolitionists? It was the survival, expansion and continued growth of the institution and the fact it looked like it would continue to expand and prosper into the far distant future instead of the gradual decline that had been hoped for several generations, that provoked the Abolitionists and that expansion etc., was in direct contradiction to one of the chief intellectual currents in the Western World of those times.

In other words Abolitionism in some form was virtually inevitable not some macabre accident and it was "provoked" by the survival and expansion of slavery in America.18

That so many Southerners were unwilling to part with so much of their material wealth or to undercut what they thought was the basis for their current and future wealth is hardly surprising so the willingness of Southerners to succeed and go to war had less to do with abstract principle and more to do with crass material concerns. Abolitionists were viewed as threatening their wealth and prosperity now and in the future. So they had to be silenced. Also the Republican party was threatening the wealth of Southerners by threatening the long range prosperity of slavery by it's credo of confining it to the states in which it was legal has of 1860.19

The bottom line is that it was the survival and expansion of slavery in the USA that "provoked" the so-called "Abolitionist onslaught", and the Southern defence was so adamant precisely because the institution was so vibrant and successful at generating wealth. If the institution had been in decline the Southern reaction to Abolitionism would have been vastly less vehement.

But then the above has to be ignored in the traditional poor South view of the causes of the Civil War.

None of the above should in anyway be taken to mean that the Civil War was inevitable. It most definitely was not. However some sort of sectional conflict over slavery was in my opinion virtually inevitable and not the result of "irresponsible agitators" or "reckless politicians". And to argue such is to argue against reality.

The poor South notion of the causes of sectional conflict and the Civil War needs to be retired forever it is both distorted and frankly a lie.

The Progress of the Union Armies During
the American Civil War

1. See McPherson, James A, Battle Cry of Freedom, Oxford University Press, New York, 1988.

2. See Fleming, Thomas, A Disease in the Public Mind, Da Capo, Boston, 2013, for an example of poor South mentality.

3. IBID.

4. See Dew, Charles B., Apostles of Disunion, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville VA, 2001, pp. 4-21.

5. See Stampp, Kenneth M., The Imperiled Union, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1980, pp. 199 -211.

6. Which I talk about Here. See also Stephens, Alexander Hamilton, A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States, 2 volumes, National Publishing Company, Philadelphia PA, 1868-1870, and Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, 2 volumes, D. Appleton and Co., New York, 1881.

7. See Ashworth, John, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, v. 1, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp. 192-285, See also Footnote 5. Also Potter, David M., The Impending Crisis, Harper & Row Pub., New york, 1976, pp. 121-144.

8. See Stampp, The Imperiled Union, pp. 221-222.

9. See Ashworth, v. 1, pp. 216-228.

10. see Stampp, Kenneth M., And the War Came, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago ILL, 1950, pp. 272-288, and The Imperiled Union, pp. 163-188, and Potter, pp. 555-583. 

11. The four states were Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia.

12. See for Yugoslavia Rogel, Carole, The Breakup of Yugoslavia and Its Aftermath. Greenwood Publishing Group, New York, 2004.

13. See Footnote 5.

14. IBID, pp. 218-220.

15. IBID., pp. 223-224.

16. IBID., pp. 228-230, Cooper, William J., Liberty and Slavery,
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1983, pp. 223-247, and Huston, James L., Calculating the Value of the Union, University of North Carolina Press, Capel Hill NC, 2003. pp. 24-66.

17. IBID, and Stampp, Kenneth M., The Peculiar Institution, Vintage, New York, 1956, pp. 383-418.

18. Stampp, The Imperiled Union, pp. 223-231.

19. See Cooper, pp. 248-281, Ashworth, John, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, v. 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007, pp. 145-172.

Pierre Cloutier

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