Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Something that always depresses me about the causes of the Civil War

It comes up tangentially in Gene's comment section, so here's a thought.
Thought one: I think it's right to say that slavery was "the cause" of the Civil War. It's not "the cause" in quite the simple way that a lot of people try to make it. States' rights did matter a great deal. But they only mattered because slavery mattered, and they only really mattered because of Southern paranoia. None of the measures actually taken or threatened (fights over the Fugitive Slave Act, restricting expansion of slavery into the territories) actually threatened states' rights by any reasonable definition of states' rights. So the point is, let's not act like states' rights is some goofy idea - it's not. But it was invoked in an unthoughtful way because of paranoia over a very bad cause, which is of course slavery.

Thought two, and I think over the different scenarios with this one a lot: Virginia, along with North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas were not unthoughtful invokers of states' rights or paranoid in the way that South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, etc. were. If the Union had just marched on under Lincoln with these states in tow, slavery would have probably died out even quicker and the deep South would have become even more backwards a backwater than it actually did become. But then "the Union" and the Constitution that cemented it wouldn't mean all that much. So one of the most tragic facets of all of this for me is this between-a-rock-and-a-hard place situation with Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas who I think it's always important to remember were a part of the Confederacy for different reasons than the deep South.

Thought three, which is incredibly cliche and probably fairly careless for a non-historian to bandy about, but I do get uncomfortable when people act as if Confederate opinion was homogenous, particularly among the rank and file. That strikes me as nonsense, and even if you can find enough letters from soldiers including enough pro-slavery lines to cobble together an article about how the rank and file were big time supporters too, it's not clear to me at all that they aren't pawns for the most part or that they bear the same sort of moral culpability as the leadership of the deep South. People are impressionable. In and of itself that's not a very ringing endorsement, but it's just to say that under different circumstances (perhaps, as I alluded to above, circumstances where Virginia and other states stayed in the Union) these same rank and file could very easily have been sitting in their own homes muttering about how ugly an institution slavery was and how foolish the deep South was to march out of the Union over it.

Anyway, this whole period is extraordinarily depressing to me, which is why I prefer to read about things that went on before or after it myself. That's probably not the best solution, but it's my solution.


  1. OK, now my own riff on Gene's comment thread has driven me to watching Gods and Generals while I write.

    And speaking of that excellent movie, here is practically the definition of quality casting and quality acting: to this day I can't read or hear about General Lee or Stonewall Jackson without imagining Robert Duvall and Stephen Lang.

    1. I've always thought Robert Duvall made Martin Sheen look like some kid in a school play, he was so good. That says something because I always thought Sheen did a pretty good job until I saw Gods and Generals.

  2. Wait, weren't several Northern US states, such as Maryland, slave states before and during the Civil War? It does contradict the slavery angle a bit.

    Anyway, I am sure your views on this matter are very nuanced, and I am sure I don't fully know the deeper aspects of it. Either way, we don't have to be pacifists to believe there is some use in the political process, in compromise, and in trying to accept a less than desirable solution than go for all out war.

    Instead of war, couldn't sanctions, diplomatic talks, offers of concessions, and other such political means have been used to abolish slavery? It wouldn't have had the effect of total abolition.

    But every part of the world abolished slavery without war, except Haiti, Tibet, and US. Even Saudis ended slavery without violent conflict. If an absolute monarchy and an un-republican society such as Saudi Arabia can abolish slavery with politics and compromise, then why couldn't US?

    1. I think this is right, but I think this highlights the way in which the "cause" was slavery.

      Slavery caused secession, secession caused war. Maybe many other nations managed emancipation without violence, but I'm guessing the share of countries who went through secession without violence is much larger.

    2. I am a direct descendant of one of the prime movers of the Civil War. We have his private papers and speeches, never published. He remained committed to slavery until his death ca 1900, giving his last interview to the Chicago Tribune in 1897, advocating still for slavery.

      The civil war was about preserving slavery from the start to the finish. The South was not about, ever, to end slavery.

      You are writing and speculating about a subject of which you have no knowledge. You have not read enough or considered all the steps taken to protect slavery, including all the political machinations that went into Dred Scott.

    3. Anonymous -
      First, particularly if you're going to get into arguments on here (which is fine), don't comment anonymously. I'd also prefer you not be so presumptuous about people you don't know.

      Second, I hope you're not referring to me because I've said a couple times now that slavery was the cause of the war. I've reread Prateek too and he doesn't seem to deny the point. So I'm not clear exactly who you're getting bent out of shape about here.

      Third, I'm curious who your ancestor is - could you enlighten us? One of the points I'm trying to make is that there was a range of views, North and South, about all aspects of the war. Surely you can see that the fact that your ancestor held one view is not in any way evidence against that claim. I'm sure there were lots of people like your ancestor, defending and even advocating slavery decades after the war. I don't think any of the claims anyone has been making here have denied that point.

    4. the particular ancestor to whom I am referring is William C. Price, Treasurer of the United States under Buchanan from Springfield, Missouri.

      The pro-slavery efforts of him, his father, his cousin Sterling Price, and other members of the family were typical and stunning to someone as uninformed by you. These were awful, evil people.

      They were from a slave owning family in Western Virginia, who choose to migrate to Missouri (and keep their slaves), rather than to Indiana, Iowa, Ill, Wis, or MN. You need, for starters, to deeply consider people who wanted to raise rocks in the Ozarks v. corn in any of the choices.

      In 1850, Price joined the core group of the people like Jefferson who were so committed to Slavery that they wanted to leave the Union. The meeting, as I recall, took place in New Orleans, but there were others, including in Nashville, etc.

      You, again, have no idea about the conspiracy and efforts in the South throughout the 1850s to prepare for leaving the Union.

      Price, a lawyers, was the intellectual force behind Bloody Kansas, driving Benton out as Missouri's Senator, and the arguments that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. You may recall that the Dred Scott cases originated in Missouri. There are good reasons for believing or at least considering the possibility that Price and others worked the case as a set-up, to go to the Supreme Court for a pre-agreed ruling. His reward was to be appointed Treasurer of the United States (from Springfield, MO).

      I am really serious. Your views are incredibly naive and uninformed. The South didn't just happen. It was a sophisticated political effort that went back to the First Congress, when Madison (under the control of Jefferson) went back on his word to Washington to support Hamilton's plan on the National Debt. You forget that Washington and Jefferson and Madison hardly spoke during most of his Presidency, the hatred was so deep.

      From before the Constitutional Convention, the Country was divided into 2 camps. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery. Lead by Jefferson, the Pro-Slavery camp was committed to doing anything and everything necessary to preserve slavery.

      For example, everyone knows the story of Jefferson supporting the Univ. of Va. Immediately, thereafter, all the Southern States formed state universities. SC, for example, built a beautiful campus in 1804. It soon dawned on everyone that a great state university could not co-exist with slavery, so after 1820 +/-, SC and all the other Southern States de-funded their universities, because they knew that people with an education would oppose slavery. Read the history of the U. of S.C. before the Civil War, sometime.

      A better understanding of Lee's intellectual attitudes is that he went to West Point, not that he was from Virginia as opposed to Arkansas or some silly argument you made a day or two ago.

      I post anon. because of the need, often, to tell you bluntly that you are so wrong, you are not even wrong. I mean this seriously, you need to read Thinking Fast and Slow, again and again, as a constant reminder to yourself that you are about 99% uninformed bias and prejudice.

      You are wholly wrong about the South. The only thing that would end slavery was what did, a War.

    5. Dude, I said the cause of the Civil War was the dispute over slavery.

      That seems like it's your position too - so why do you insist on being such an asshole?

      Yes, I'd personally wait on more evidence for some of your conspiracy theories. Yes it's all plausible. Lot's of conspiracy theories are plausible.

      And I still think you're asking too much of your ancestors papers as evidence.

    6. This is probably a useless suggestion to someone that's clearly more interested in anonymously trolling the internet and being an asshole to people, but you really should consider publishing those papers.

    7. 1. If you thought that, regardless of whether Obama wins or looses this fall, there was a 95% chance this fall that we would fall into a Depression last 7 to 10 years that will leave 95% of Americans living in poverty, what attitude would you have in your posts?

      2. My choice of the word, "conspiracy" is probably a poor one.

      3. I cannot write well enough and the papers are not complete enough on their own to tell a comprehensive story.

      4. Besides, it is not a story that needs telling.

      It ought to be a matter of common sense understanding that the South didn't just decide on its course of action in the 3 or 4 weeks after Lincoln's election to leave the Union. One just has to know how people and politics operate and one will understand the South, easily. The existence of the Missouri Compromise meant that the Federal Government could regulate slavery and therefore could abolish slavery. Accordingly, to preserve Slavery, the South was desperate that the the Supreme Court declare the Missouri Compromise Unconstitutional. Taney was the South's lead on the Supreme Court. The issue wasn't even presented in the case but, nonetheless, he declared the Compromise unconstitutional. Lincoln's promise, 3 years later in the 1860 Election, was that he would find a means or method to restore Federal power over slavery, if elected. The South left the Union because, even with Dred Scott to their favor, they knew that Lincoln could and would end slavery.

      Because all conflict is moral, the South knew from the election of Lincoln, that while in winning Dred Scott they had one a battle they had in fact lost the moral war. Accordingly, they left the Union in one last desperate attempt to preserve Slavery, knowing that hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children would die. These were evil people; the Cause is a horrible myth. In sum, Confederates were nothing more or less than 19th Century Nazis.

  3. Confederate opinion was homogenous, particularly among the rank and file

    Daniel, one can certainly say never bother you with facts.

    If Confederate opinion wasn't homogenous, then why didn't the South give up after Shiloh? Any fool could see how it was going to end, from that day on.

    1. I think you're expecting your great great grandad's papers to prove too much.

      Stop commenting anonymously.

      You insult me again and I'm just going to delete your comments.

      And what the hell does homogeneity of opinion have to do with the duration of a war as directly as you're suggesting here?

    2. The British, I suppose, objected to Common Sense as being anon.

      I don't care whether you delete my comments or not. I only care if you read them and are forced to consider why you are wrong.

      I post anon. because of the need for self-protection from all the right wing Zombie Confederates and will continue to do such.

    3. "self-protection from all the right wing Zombie Confederates"

      My understanding is that there's a movie coming out about that.

    4. Oh, because being against slavery is such a difficult stance to take in 2012. Really, you think there's a significant Confederate constituency among Daniel's followers? Just how paranoid are you?

      You are trying to conjure up controversy where there is none. Daniel never suggested that the Confederacy wasn't an unbelievably backward tyranny intent on preserving slavery. Nobody here is saying "Well, it was mostly about cultural identities, economic interests and states' rights, it's just that some bad apple racists in the South liked owning slaves too." No, the no. 1 reason South went to war was slavery. You are right. Fuck the Confederacy.

      What is being disputed is the notion that all Southerners, including the ones who lived in the border states of the Confederacy, were enthusiastic supporters of slavery. Even if most Virginians did support slavery (I don't know the demographics), that goes to the point Daniel was trying to make - people are impressionable. I'm pretty sure that if I lived in 1930's Germany, I'd be a clueless anti-Semite. If the strategic measures taken by the belligerents had been different, the attitudes of many people in the very volatile border states would likely have been somewhat different too.

  4. Two points of disagreement.

    The "states' rights" argument is nonsense. The Slave Power Democrats used "states rights" rhetoric opportunistically. They did not believe it any more than people who invoke it today.

    The South sought to force slavery on a state whose population opposed it, Kansas.

    The Dred Scott ruling overturned the northern states' rights make slavery illegal.

    In the late 1850s, the same fire-eaters who supported secession also rejected Stephen Douglas's "popular sovereignty" argument, making explicit their belief in forcing slavery on the populations of states that didn't want it. This was in the platform of the Democratic Party in 1860.

    And the conflict was not really about the existence of slavery in the south, but about the fate of the west, whether slavery would be an arcane regional institution or dominate North America. (Incidentally, economist Henry Carey, adviser to the Republicans, believed that slavery would die naturally because the west's climate would not support it. Here, as elsewhere, he was probably overoptimistic).

    Your statement about the south not being homogenous is an understatement. Several of the confederate states had populations that were clearly opposed to secession, and it was certainly controversial in the middle states. There is a fantastic passage in Grant's memoirs making this point.

    1. As I read your comment you say "two points of disagreement", but I find myself agreeing with all of it. Not sure what you think you're disagreeing with.

      If it's easy to point me to the passage that would be great - I'd appreciate it.

    2. I tried to copy and paste the section of Grant's memoirs into the comments. It contained too many characters to be accepted.

      The passage is in chapter 16 of the book. It begins "There is little doubt in my mind now that the prevailing sentiment of the South would have been opposed to secession in 1860 and 1861..." It ends "They convinced themselves, first, of the divine origin of the institution and, next, that that particular institution was not safe in the hands of any body of legislators but themselves."

      Since the book is in the public domain, that should hopefully be enough.

    3. Wonderful - thanks for going to the trouble of doing that.

  5. Grant's memoirs

    will read


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