Wednesday, June 13, 2012

More on "the cause" of the Civil War

Here, Prateek raises the issue of the border states. This is a good point, but I don't think it does much to inform the "cause" of the war. It's fairly widely accepted that the Union itself was not especially concerned with abolishing slavery. In other words, the motivations weren't necessarily symmetric.

A better point to raise, I think, is the Confederate discussions of emancipation during the war. These discussions didn't come to anything substantial, but it does raise important questions about how important a war aim slavery really could have been to a society discussing abandoning it. I've heard discussions about how this doesn't really prove anything because even the advocates still envisioned and were trying to defend a post-war South governed by white privilege. I'm not particularly impressed with that answer. After all, the entire country - North and South - envisioned a society governed by white privilege. The fact that Southerners felt that way too hardly tells you anything about war aims (few Northerners, abolitionist or otherwise, didn't envision their own society as being governed by white privilege).

I think what the Confederate emancipation plans point to is simply the heterogeneity of Confederate opinion. Some considered the institution of slavery considerably more important to the South than others.

Oh... and worth noting.

Where were the proponents of emancipation from? Cleburne was from Arkansas, Lee was from Virginia.

Where were the opponents of emancipation from? Davis was from Mississippi and Walker was from Georgia.

If you think this is a coincidence, I think you are being foolish.


  1. That's a pretty interesting thing to raise.

    Contrary to what us non-US outsiders sometimes believe, US really can't be reduced to stereotypes. There is a lot more heterogeneity within American groups than what meets the eye. Southerners weren't necessarily a group of racial oppressors and Northerners weren't necessarily a progressive-minded forward-looking people.

  2. "I think what the Confederate emancipation plans point to is simply the heterogeneity of Confederate opinion. Some considered the institution of slavery considerably more important to the South than others."

    Heterogeneity of opinion is certainly an important point to make about the South- people have been making the same point about the North for years. That opinion on the issue lines up so neatly with how important the slave economy was to each person's state is both expected and a little surprising that it lines up so well.

    I'd also like to add that I don't think dividing the conflict into being strictly North and South always works since we're talking about heterogeneity. There were many important Southern officers for the Union like George Thomas and even entire regions that resisted Confederate rule for the whole period of its existence which, non-coincidentally, have been some of the few places in the South that have consistently been Republican for almost the entirety of the party's post-civil war history. This isn't to say these areas were heavily abolitionist or anything, people certainly stayed with the Union for very different reasons, but its another point for looking at the South as something other than a monolith.

    Personally I'm skeptical that the Confederate abolition plans would have ever amounted to much (speaking in an alternate reality where the Confederacy actually had a chance of course), but again its an interesting point to raise.

  3. Informative about the causes of the war is the comparison of the constitutions. How serious emancipation talks were when the Constitution thoroughly enshrined slavery?

  4. And how about a posting on the unsung "causes" of the American Revolution?

    -The dastardly English attempt to force hard-money policies on the fiat-currency-loving colonists

    -The Quebec Act, which colonists interpreted as the crown giving the continent over to the Papists

    -The same sort of paranoid view of events that prevailed in the deep south leading into the Civil War.

    -This one is probably minor, but the English officers didn't help by being a jerk to George Washington when they were fighting the French and Indian War, making clear that they saw him as just a hick colonist. Messing with George Washington was not wise.

    1. English officers probably didn't like Washington for his incompetence, as he caused English soldiers to die when he wrongly ordered a firing on them when he confused them for French soldiers.


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.