Civil War1 Term Paper

This essay has a total of 4888 words and 18 pages.


Civil War1




In this meeting of the Southern Historical Association great emphasis has been placed upon
a re-examination of numerous phases of our history relating to the Civil War. While
several papers have dealt with certain forces which helped bring about the Civil War, none
has attempted a general synthesis of causes. This synthesis has been the task assumed by
the retiring president of the Association.

Before attempting to say what were the causes of the American Civil War, first let me say
what were not the causes of this war. Perhaps the most beautiful, the most poetic, the
most eloquent statement of what the Civil War was not fought for is Lincoln's Gettysburg
Address. That address will live as long as Americans retain their love of free government
and personal liberty; and yet in reassessing the causes of the Civil War, the address
whose essence was that the war was being fought so "that government of the people, by the
people and for the people shall not perish from the earth" is irrelevant. Indeed, this
masterpiece of eloquence has little if any value as a statement of the basic principles
underlying the war.

The Civil War was not a struggle on the part of the South to destroy free government and
personal liberty nor on the part of the North to preserve them. Looked at from the present
perspective of the world-wide attempt of the totalitarians to erase free governments and
nations living under such governments from the face of the earth, the timeworn stereotype
that the South was attempting the destruction of free government and the North was
fighting to preserve it seems very unrealistic and downright silly. In the light of the
present-day death struggle between freedom and the most brutal form of despotism, the
Civil War, as far as the issue of free government was involved, was a sham battle. Indeed,
both northern and southern people in 1861 were alike profoundly attached to the principles
of free government. A systematic study of both northern and southern opinion as expressed
in their newspapers, speeches, diaries, and private letters, gives irrefutable evidence in
support of this assertion. Their ideology was democratic and identical. However,
theoretical adherence to the democratic principles, as veil we know all too well in these
days of plutocratic influences in our political life, is not sufficient evidence that
democratic government exists. I believe that I shall not be challenged in the assertion
that the economic structure of a section or a nation is the foundation upon which its
political structure must rest. For this reason, therefore, it will be necessary to know
what the economic foundations of these sections were. Was the economic structure of the
North such as to support a political democracy in fact as well as in form? And was the
economic structure of the South such as to permit the existence of free government? Time
does not permit an extended treatment of this subject; it will be possible only to point
out certain conclusions based upon recent research. By utilizing the county tax books and
the unpublished census reports a group of us conducting a cooperative undertaking have
been able to obtain a reasonably accurate and specific picture of wealth structure of the
antebellum South, and to some extent that of the other sections. We have paid particular
attention to the distribution of capital wealth and the ownership of the means of
production. As has been generally known the Northwest was agricultural and its population
predominantly small farmers, though a considerable minority were large farmers comparable
with the southern planters. It seems that in 1860 about 80 percent of the farmers in the
Old Northwest were landowners. A fairly large fraction of the remaining farm population in
that area were either squatters upon public lands or were the members of landowning
families. Only a small per cent were renters. In those areas farther west the ownership of
land was not as widespread because the farmers had not yet made good their titles to the
lands that they had engrossed. Taken as a whole the people of the Northwest were
economically self-sufficient. They could not be subjected to economic coercion and, hence,
they were politically free. Their support of free government-as they understood it-was
effective.

The northeastern section of the United States had already assumed its modem outlines of a
capitalistic-industrial society where the means of production were either owned or
controlled by relatively few. That is to say, New England and the middle states were fast
becoming in essence a plutocracy whose political ideology was still strongly democratic;
but the application of this democratic ideology was being seriously hampered by the
economic dependence of the middle and lower classes upon those who owned the tools of
production. The employee unprotected by government supervision or by strong labor
organizations was subject in exercising his political rights to the undue influence of the
employer.

To sum up: the economic structure of the Northwest was an adequate foundation for free
government; but that of the East, though still supporting democratic ideals, was often too
weak to sustain these ideals in actual government.

Turning to the South which was primarily agricultural we find the situation completely
contradictory to what has usually been assumed. While the plutocracy of the East owned or
controlled the means of production in industry and commerce, the so-called slave oligarchy
of the South owned scarcely any of the land outside the black belt and only about 25 per
cent of the land in the black belt. Actually, the basic means of production in the black
belt and in the South as a whole was well distributed among all classes of the population.
The overwhelming majority of southern families in 1860 owned their farms and livestock.
About 90 per cent of the slaveholders and about 70 per cent of the non-slaveholders owned
the land which they farmed. The bulk of slave holders were small farmers and not
oligarchs. While taken together they owned more slaves and more land than the big
planters, taken individually the majority of slaveholders owned from one to four slaves
and less than three hundred acres of land. The non-slaveholders, 70 percent of whom, as we
have noted, were landowners, were not far removed economically from the small slaveholders
to whom we have just referred. While the majority of slaveholders owned from one to three
hundred acres of land, 80 per cent of the landowning non-slaveholders owned from one to
two hundred acres of land and 20 per cent owned from two hundred to a thousand. Let me
repeat: the basic fact disclosed in an analysis of the economic structure of the South,
based upon the unpublished census reports and tax books, is that the overwhelming majority
of white families in the South, slaveholders and non-slaveholders, unlike the industrial
population of the East, owned the means of production. In other words, the average
southerner like the average westerner possessed economic independence; and the only kind
of influence that could be exercised over his political franchise by the slave oligarchy
was a strictly persuasive kind. The South then, like the Northwest, not only held strongly
to the democratic ideology but also had a sound economic foundation for a free government.

If the destruction of democratic government by the South and its preservation by the North
were not the causes of the Civil War, what then were the causes? The surface answer to
this question is that in 1861 the southern people desired and attempted to establish their
independence and thereby to disrupt the old Union; and that the North took up arms to
prevent the South from establishing this independence and to preserve the Union. Looking
immediately behind this attempt of the South to establish a separate government, and of
the North to prevent it, we discover a state of mind in both sections which explains their
conduct. This state of mind may be summed up thus: by the spring of 1861 the southern
people felt it both abhorrent and dangerous to continue to live under the same government
with the people of the North. So profound was this feeling among the bulk of the southern
population that they were prepared to fight a long and devastating war to accomplish a
separation. On the other hand, the North was willing to fight a war to retain their
reluctant fellow citizens under the same government with themselves.

The cause of that state of mind which we may well call war psychosis lay in the sectional
character of the United States. In other words, the Civil War had one basic cause:
sectionalism. But to conclude that sectionalism was the cause of the Civil War, and at the
same time insist -as has usually been done-that the Civil War was the climax of an
irrepressible conflict, is to seem to accept a pessimistic view of the future of the
United States. For if the antebellum conflict was irrepressible and the Civil War
unavoidable, we are faced with future irrepressible conflicts, future civil wars, and
ultimate disintegration of the nation into its component sections. I say this because I do
not see anyway save some cosmic cataclysm by which sectionalism can be erased from the
political, economic, racial, and cultural maps of the United States. Our national state
was built, not upon the foundations of a homogeneous land and people, but upon
geographical sections inhabited severally by provincial, self-conscious, self-righteous,
aggressive, and ambitious populations of varying origins and diverse social and economic
systems; and the passage of time and the cumulative effects of history have accentuated
these sectional patterns.

Before accepting the possibility of future wars and national disintegration as inevitable
because of the irrepressible conflict between permanent sections, let me hasten to say
that there are two types of sectionalism: there is that egocentric, destructive
sectionalism where conflict is always irrepressible; and there is that constructive
sectionalism where good will prevails-two types as opposite from one another as good is
opposite from evil, as the benign is from the malignant. It was the egocentric, the
destructive, the evil, the malignant type of sectionalism that destroyed the Union in
1861, and that would do so again if it existed over a long period of time.

Before discussing that destructive sectionalism which caused the Civil War, some
observations should be made of the constructive type, since, as I have suggested, the very
nature of the American state makes one or the other type of sectionalism inevitable. The
idea of either good or bad sectionalism as an enduring factor in American national life
has received scant consideration by historians as a rule, either because they, who have
usually been of the North, have desired to justify the conduct of their section on
occasion as being the manifestation of nationalism when in truth it was sectionalism writ
large; or because, and more important, they have apparently been unable to reconcile
sectionalism with nationalism.

Since sectionalism from the very nature of our country must remain a permanent and basic
factor in our national life, we should look it in the face and discriminate between the
good and the bad features. Above all else, we should recognize the fact that sectionalism
when properly dealt with, far from being irreconcilable with nationalism, is its strongest
support. It is only the malignant, destructive type that conflicts with nationalism or
loyalty to the national state or empire. Great Britain once failed to make this
distinction and to grasp the fact that the American colonials could be good Americans and
good British at the same time, and the result was the loss of the American colonies. After
the lesson learned from the American Revolution, the British mind grasped the fact that
good Canadians or good Australians are all the better British because of their provincial
or-may I say?-sectional loyalty. Provincialism, dominionism, and, in the case of the
United States, sectionalism, far from excluding nationalism, when properly recognized and
not constantly frowned upon, and the interests of sections ignored and their ambitions
frustrated, are powerful supports of nationalism. Such provincialism or sectionalism
becomes a national asset. It is a brake upon political centralization and possible
despotism. It has proven and will prove to be, if properly directed, a powerful force in
preserving free institutions. It gives color, variety, and vitality to all segments of the
national state. Because of this vitality in all its parts, the United States, unlike
France whose lifeblood seems to flow entirely through Paris, would prove a difficult
country to subjugate by a foreign enemy, and its government and society more difficult, if
not impossible, to Overthrow by violent revolution. It is because Great Britain has, as
the result of her lesson learned from the American Revolution, fostered a good
sectionalism within her empire, that she has baffled the orderly mind of the Germans and
defied conquest. By loosening the ties that bind the component parts of this straggling
union of colonies and dominions, Great Britain has made these bonds all the stronger. She
and her commonwealth of nations thus live in all their parts. Tragically' the American
people failed to learn adequately the very lesson that they so thoroughly taught Great
Britain: that local differences and attachments were natural, desirable, and formed the
very rootbed of patriotism; indeed, that such differences, when given decent recognition,
greatly strengthened nationalism and the national state. It was this failure to recognize
or respect local differences and interests, in other words, the failure to recognize
sectionalism as a fundamental fact of American life, that contributed most to the
development of that kind of sectionalism which destroyed national unity and divided the
nation.

There were three basic manifestations of that egocentric sectionalism which disrupted the
Union in 1861. First, was the habit of the dominant section-that is, the section which had
the larger share in the control of the Federal government-of considering itself the
nation, its people the American people, its interests the national interests; in other
words, the habit of considering itself the sole possessor of nationalism, when, indeed, it
was thinking strictly in terms of one section; and conversely the habit of the dominant
section of regarding the minority group as factional, its interests and institutions and
way of life as un-American, unworthy of friendly consideration, and even the object of
attack.

The second manifestation of this egocentric sectionalism that led to the Civil War was the
perennial attempt of a section to gain or maintain its political ascendancy over the
Federal government by destroying the sectional balance of power which, both New England
and the South maintained, had been established by the three-fifths ratio clause in the
Federal Constitution.

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