Daily Archives: June 3, 2009

Did the Civil War cause itself?

A recent guest post by Douglas Harper at Old Virginia Blog challenges the notions “that the Southern Confederacy was a nation based on, and fighting for, slavery,” and that “the Civil War was ‘about’ slavery.”  The Upper South, as he notes, “was willing to stay, till it saw the course of the Lincoln Administration with regard to force, not to slavery.”  In other words, Union coercion of the Deep South is what drove the Upper South out of the Union, so slavery wasn’t the only factor.  The Upper South left after Ft. Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops.

It seems to me that this argument is missing something.  Harper quite rightly draws our attention to the role of Lincoln’s call for troops in convincing the Upper South to secede.  He reminds us that there were different periods of secession—before the outbreak of war, and then again after.  And therein lies the problem.  When Lincoln called up volunteers to defeat the rebellion, it marked the outbreak of war.  If the war had already started, then we’re no longer talking about causes of the war.  We’re talking about the Upper South’s decision to secede, which came after the war was already a going concern.  This line of thought adds another layer to the issue of secession, but not to the causes of the war, which came about as a result of previous secession movements that had already taken place.

It’s sort of like the case of a woman who spends too much time in the tanning bed and develops skin cancer as a result.  The cancer spreads to her internal organs, and the doctor tells her, “Well, Mrs. Jones, your tanning habit has finally caused you to develop cancer inside your body.” 

She replies, “Don’t give me that nonsense.  It was the skin cancer spreading that did that.”  In the same way, explaining secession and the war by looking at the Upper South’s withdrawal seems to be an argument that secession and the war caused themselves.

The original Confederate states in the Deep South didn’t need Ft. Sumter or Lincoln’s call for volunteers to convince them to leave the Union.  They seceded on the election of Abraham Lincoln—the first president from a party made up of a coalition to stop the spread of slavery.  The issue of the Upper South’s secession still leaves this matter of the Deep South open, and therefore it doesn’t really address the causes of the actual shooting war.  We’re still left with the original Confederacy and the role of slavery in their decision to secede.

Mr. Harper offers what looks like a persuasive challenge to the role of slavery in decision-making: “And if you insist that every slave-holder, or slave-holding state, must make choices solely on the basis of interest in slavery, then I will argue that the Border State [sic] that remained in the Union did so to protect their slaves. Why else would slaveholders fight for the Union?”

But who’s arguing that every slave-holder, or slave-holding state, made every decision solely on the basis of an interest in slavery?  We’re talking about a single (but momentous) decision on the part of the original Confederate States to withdraw from the U.S., and the contention of most historians is that a desire to safeguard the institution of slavery was the primary cause. 

Mr. Harper also argues that, from a rational point of view, the Upper South’s slaves should have led these states to remain in the Union, not secede from it:

Virginia, Tennessee, even North Carolina, with a hostile anti-slavery United States on their frontier, could never hope to maintain slavery as a viable economic and social institution. Their pre-war complaints about fugitives prove they knew it. The mere presence of ‘free’ states nearby in the 1850s exerted an economic pressure that was rapidly draining slavery out of the Border States.

All excellent points, all reasonably argued.  But, as historians like Bernard Bailyn and Richard Hofstadter have demonstrated, political decisions aren’t made solely on the basis of reason.  Mr. Harper draws an analogy to the American colonies: “What moved the colonists to break the ties with the ‘mother country?’ Taxes? Tea?”  In a sense, yes.  These were the issues at hand.  And on the face of it, they seem minor.  But they’re not as minor when your prevailing political rhetoric leads you to see them as conspiracies by government officials who are bent on expanding their own power and enslaving you.  This was, in fact, what American colonists thought was happening.  The problem wasn’t the nature of the immediate issue at hand, but the colonists’ interpretation of the issue, and England’s response.

In the same way, there was more than cold, rational, political calculation at work when the Deep South seceded.  And so even while Lincoln was repeatedly assuring the Deep South that he had no intention to take away their human property, many southerners argued that Lincoln was out to do exactly that, and to implement racial equality in the bargain.  Reams of secession-era speeches, letters, essays, editorials, articles, and other material invoke these convictions.  Mr. Harper isn’t very fond of this sort of evidence, arguing that it denotes laziness in research.  It allows the historian to assemble “a hatful of quotes and you’re done. The Confederate leaders and documents supply them in abundance.”  This strikes me as a little odd.  If you can’t use contemporary sentiments to get a sense of what people were thinking, what in the world can you use?  Harper, in fact, employs a number of quotes in the post, and also cites Republicans’ “private correspondence.”

Drawing attention to the role of the war’s outbreak in convincing the Upper South to secede is a worthwhile endeavor.  But it still leaves an important question unanswered.  Why was there a Confederacy in place for the Upper South to join?

(Broadside from Armed Forces History, Division of History of Technology, National Museum of American History)

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