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The great American tragedy is raising its ugly head once more, as it does occasionally. People on both sides are viciously accused by people on opposite sides, sometimes justly, sometimes not, as America divides along fault lines remarkably similar to the one that ruptured in 1861. My contention is that the horrible war could only be justified by the victorious side by making it a moral war. Was it?
In GFHandle’s piece, “Should We Honor Lee?,” several of us discussed that question, i.e., whether slavery was the cause. I contend that, in fact, the American Civil War was a cultural war, a refight of the English Civil War of the 1630s. Members of each side fled England to escape the other during the seventeenth century, one side to Massachusetts to seed northern culture, the other to Virginia to seed southern culture — and maintained both their cultures and their animosities to such an extent that they would fight again in the 1860s.
During the discussion, I promised a longer piece defending my assertion that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. As promised, here it is, but focused on America, not the English antecedents to that war. Though discussed on the other thread, I also don’t get into the fact here that the reason the slave-owning plantation elite in the South opposed secession (a fact generally ignored by slavery-as-cause advocates) was because that would end the Fugitive Slave Laws, without which slavery would certainly die on its own. There was nothing moral about the anti-secession position of the plantation elite. They simply recognized that Union protected slavery so they supported Union in order to protect their livelihood.
Over two centuries had passed since Puritans and Cavaliers had fled each other – Puritans to Massachusetts and Cavaliers (along with Borderers) to Virginia – around the time of the English Civil War. A century and three-quarters had passed since that first civil war had culminated in the Glorious Revolution – glorious because it was relatively peaceful, revolutionary because it made the Rights of Man, not those of king or tyrant, the ruling principles of government. Nine decades had passed since those principles had united Puritans, Cavaliers, and Borderers in a fight for freedom on a new continent. And now, a second Puritan-Cavalier war had just ended, like the first, in total victory for the educated mercantilist Puritan side over the hierarchical agricultural descendants of Cavaliers and Borderers.
While the founding generation still led the nation, revolutionary fervor kept the Enlightenment ideals of the Glorious and American Revolutions burning strong both north and south. But with the second and third generations, ancient prejudices began to reassert themselves. Authoritarianism within the ruling classes strengthened in each section and set the two parts against each other. In terms of geography, the Puritan North gravitated more towards Hamilton’s Federalist Party, while the Borderer South gravitated towards Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party. In terms of class, the rulers, north and south, gravitated towards Hamiltonian Whigs; while shippers, workers, and free farmers, north and south, gravitated towards the Jeffersonian Democrats.
Party names would change, but the Hamilton-Jefferson split would define American politics throughout the nineteenth century. The Hamiltonian parties (Federalist, then Whig, then Republican) would support the authoritarian ideals of a strong centralized government dedicated to a mercantilist/corporatist state. The Jeffersonian parties (Democratic-Republican, then shortened first to Republican and then to Democratic) would support the libertarian ideals of a weak decentralized government dedicated to the protection of rights.
However, as the parties could not survive as purely sectional parties, each nurtured strong constituencies in both sections in order to remain viable national parties. Federalist-Whigs were strongest in the North, but had solid southern support. Democrats were strongest in the South, but had solid northern support. Liberty-loving New England shippers and upcountry small farmers, for example, went Democratic, partially balancing the strength of puritan industrialists, who sought government protection of their interests. Liberty-loving small farmers in the South likewise went Democratic, partially balancing the same Federalist-Whig desire for control among the slaveholding elite.
Neither party, however, was uniform in beliefs throughout the nation. Democrats of the North supported, along with their southern brethren, states’ rights, small decentralized non-obtrusive government, and super-low or non-existent taxes. But, fearing the competition of slave labor, they opposed it’s spread to territories; while southern Democrats, though generally non-slaveholders, supported its expansion as a psychological bulwark against the puritan oppression they could almost feel breathing down their necks. (However, they stopped supporting slavery in the territories when they migrated, say, to California, and had the chance to farm without competition from slave labor.)
Southern Whigs shared with northern Whigs an ideology of support for government-business collusion and authority, but they wanted power firmly in the hands of state governments dominated by themselves, large slaveholders. They saw the strong centralized national government of northern Whigs as a threat to their feudalistic fiefdoms.
In 1854, the Whig Party imploded. The northern remnants combined with disaffected antislavery Democrats, antislavery but anti-black Free Soilers, and anti-Catholic/anti-immigrant Know-Nothings from the North to form the Republican Party. These reincarnated Whigs were now stronger than ever in the North, but they were no longer a national party. Anti-southernism was almost one of the new Republican Party’s founding tenants. Southern Whigs could in no way join the new party and still call themselves Southerners, so they joined either a new party for southern Whigs – the Constitutional Union party – or switched to the Democrats.
Democrats also split into northern and southern factions. That was the opening the Republicans needed. Despite winning less than 40 percent of the national popular vote and being absent from the ballot throughout much of the South, the new Republicans were able to take the presidential election in an electoral landslide against two regional Democratic parties and the Constitutional Union Party.The five Gulf States, plus South Carolina and Georgia, reacted to having an anti-Southern party lead the Union by voting to leave it. The more populous and prosperous Upper South also voted on secession, but all chose to remain in the Union.
At first, northern mercantilists were giddy with the possibilities. With half the obstructionist southern states departed, crony capitalists in favor of government-business collusion were in firm control of the national government. Right off the bat, Congress passed sky-high tariffs, the centerpiece of an activist agenda that would protect northern industries and finance the public works they were certain national greatness depended on.
Euphoria was short-lived, however, killed by a shocking realization. The Confederacy’s constitution made the new nation a virtual free trade zone. Economics would dictate that Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans would replace Boston, New York, and Philadelphia as gateways to the continent. This would not only cripple the northern economy but make the fine new tariffs almost worthless. Mercantilist puritans had at last securely grasped the ring of political power, but at the cost of economic power.
And then came war. Modern historical understanding makes slavery the cause of the war. It was not. You could make a case that slavery caused secession, at least in the Deep South. Slavery-as-the-cause advocates, though, conveniently forget that secession is not war; causing one does not equal causing the other. Slavery-as-the-cause advocates also ignore the fact that the Upper South chose against secession so neither slavery nor tariffs were the cause of secession, or of war, in the Upper South. Secession there came later, and clearly for a different reason.
The South had no interest in making war on the North. If there was to be war, the North would have to wage it against the South. Yes, the Southern attack on Fort Sumter was the technical beginning, but only because the North wanted war. If it had not, that nearly bloodless battle would not have been enough. A peacemaker like, say, Martin Van Buren, would have found a way to peace, even after the attack. Debaters, lawyers, and war-makers use events that are technically true in order to win their case, and getting the other side to fire the first shot is a key technicality often used by war-makers. But simply being right on technicalities is not enough to justify war. That war was impossible unless, for whatever reason, the North wanted war.
In 1861, though the North wanted war, it had no desire to make war over slavery. So slavery can hardly be called the cause of war for the North, either. The North made war for something else. You could call that something else Unionism. Unionism was certainly supported by more people than abolitionism – but not by enough people, at first, to push the nation to war. The upsurge in Unionist sentiment strong enough to lead to war followed straight on the heels of the realization of what a free trade South would mean to northern industry. A simplified version of the cause of war, then, would look like this:
First, the Deep South seceded over slavery.
Then the North made war over free vs. protected trade.
Then the Upper South seceded over states’ rights.
This sequence of events is hard to deny. Rather than even try, modern historians prefer to ignore it. They take simplification one step beyond reason and say slavery caused the war. History, though, shows that the North made war on the South, and not over slavery. Lincoln’s dilemma at the beginning of his term was how to preserve his agenda in the face of a free trade South. His solution was a war that would, as a side effect, destroy slavery. But, as we are now seeing once again, it didn’t destroy it cleanly and left multiple legacies that America is still struggling with.
One of those legacies is that the war is still being fought, and war always involves a search for good guys and bad guys. Proponents of the Northern Explanation make the North good and the South bad; proponents of the Southern Explanation make the South good and the North bad, or at least mitigate southern culpability. They are both wrong. There are no good guys in this story. It was a struggle between warmongers in the North and slave drivers in the South, each side intent on preserving personal power and wealth, with the common man serving once again as cannon fodder.
Liberal history is generally quite cynical (and rightly so!) about the causes of war, often finding economic motivations. But they make exceptions. War conducted by fellow liberals for liberal agendas, i.e., for centralized government and governmental solutions, is generally given a noble veneer. The only way to make the Civil War noble is to make slavery the cause. It’s a tough trick, though, that can only be accomplished by tying war and secession into a single indivisible lump. But it’s only a trick. War and secession are not the same, and the cause of one is not automatically the cause of the other.
If, for simplicity’s sake, you insist on a single cause for the war, there actually is one, an exceedingly common one. The Civil War was a war about money and power. The ruling northern elite wanted tariffs for the sake of money and power. The ruling southern elite wanted slavery for the sake of money and power. Once secession had been effected, that desire by the two power elites left no solution short of war.