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8-08-2015, 23:21

From Settlement to Secession

AMERICANS HAVE disagreed about almost every aspect of the Civil War, including even what to call it. Though "the Civil War" is now generally accepted, in the years immediately after it ended it was often called "the War of the Rebellion," as in the publication of the official records. Southerners tended to like "the War of Southern Independence," which created parallels with the American Revolution, and some northerners, though not many, preferred "the War to Free the Slaves." This never really gained much popular support, because southerners denied that they were fighting to keep the slaves from being freed, and the majority of northerners denied that they were fighting to free them. The term "Civil War" is in fact a fairly neutral one, which carries little tangential baggage, while any of these other names carries too much implication as to causes and motivations, and is thus unacceptable to one segment or another of opinion. What then were the root causes of the Civil War? Scholars and citizens alike have argued that question ever since the war ended, defending different points of view, and it would be bold to the point of foolhardiness to assert that any one problem, or any specific series of problems to the exclusion of others, caused the war. There were all sorts of difficulties, yet it may be said that the difficulty that most of the others centered around, that came to subsume all the other dissatisfactions, and that focused the national anger, was the issue of slavery and its preservation, limitation, or extension. Lincoln himself remarked that the war was about slavery pure and simple, and he should have known. Slavery was not a problem when the original colonies were first settled in the seventeenth century. In that era slavery was a simple fact of life. The African slave trade was already well established in the Caribbean and in Latin America. One of the great humanitarians of the Catholic Church, Bartolome de las Casas, nicknamed "the Apostle of the Indians," had written against American Indian enslavement, but his alternative solution to Spain's labor problems was the importation of African slaves to take the place of the Indians. The English and northern Europeans broke into the trade in the 1570s, and the first Africans brought to the new colony of Virginia were "twenty negars" sold by a Dutch ship in 1619. Slavery as an institution was not confined solely to Africans, however. At the time of the English Civil War, in the 1640s, there were still several thousand legal serfs, slaves in all but name, living in England, and during the mid-century, thousands of English were sent out to the plantations of the West Indies as slaves, transported convicts, indentured servants, or in various other unfree conditions. The two important differences between these Europeans and Africans were that, first, the Europeans were slaves as a result of some act they had committed, or were supposed to have committed, and there were still some legal constraints on how they might be treated, while the Africans were regarded simply as property, bought and sold; and more importantly, Europeans tended to die rapidly in the living and working conditions of the tropics, while Africans managed to survive them. Very gradually, Africans supplanted whites as slaves, and eventually slave labor became almost entirely African. By the mid—eighteenth century, African slave labor was an integral part of the economic system of the southern American colonies, and considered absolutely essential in those climates where tobacco, rice, and, a little later, cotton were grown. There were slaves in all the colonies, of course; many northern merchants and shipowners brought home a slave or two for household use, but the northern climate and economy were such that slavery there was always marginal rather than vital. Even the slave trade itself, southern polemicists to the contrary, was never more than a small segment of the northern shipping business. From very early days, slavery introduced an uneasy relationship in southern life. There was always the underlying threat of revolt. This was more imagined than real, because of the peculiar conditions of southern American life: slaves never made up more than about one third of the population, and they were relatively isolated in small groups and subsumed within the larger white community on farms and plantations, most of which were fairly small holdings with fewer than fifty slaves. Nonetheless there was a constant subterranean fear among white southerners, and in fact, one authority counts at least two hundred attempted slave plots or risings in the century and a half before the Civil War. One result of this was a perpetual ambivalence in white southern life and attitudes, well illustrated in such writings as the famous Civil War diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut: the slaves are warm-hearted, loyal people—yet they might rise up and murder their owners; the slaves are far more trouble and need far more care than they are worth—yet the South cannot function without them; southerners are kind and caring masters—yet southern men constantly abuse slaves and have forced sexual relations with slave women, a fact which Mary Chesnut, though a good nineteenth-century lady, acknowledges surprisingly openly, with particular disdain. White southerners thus did not like living with slaves, but became convinced they could not live without them. By the time of the American Revolution and the formative, constitution- making years of the new republic, slavery was a fixed institution. It is often pointed out ironically that the stirring words in the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" were written by the slave owner Thomas Jefferson. White Americans ignored the role played by blacks in their revolution, and in creating a free republican society they again tried to ignore that they possessed in the midst of it an indigestible lump of servitude. When they came to write a constitution, they could neither avoid slavery nor get rid of it, so they achieved a compromise which defied logic and had as its only justification the fact that it was acceptable to the writers. For purposes of enumeration and apportionment of representatives, they treated a slave as three fifths of a person, even though, in almost every other context, they treated slaves as property rather than as persons. To make this compromise acceptable to northern members of the Constitutional Convention, from areas where there were few slaves, they agreed to forbid further importation of slaves after 1808. Beyond that, when most of the framers of the Constitution contem- plated the problem of slavery, they seem simply to have hoped it would gradually go away. This hope was disappointed by several different developments. Americans expanded south and west, and the Gulf Coast was opened up to settlement and to slave agriculture. The biggest cause of the continuation of slavery, however, was the population explosion in Europe and the concurrent advent of the Industrial Revolution. The immediate agent of change was a gifted Yankee tinkerer named Eli Whitney. Working in Georgia as a tutor, he developed a little machine that would pick the seeds out of cotton, a hitherto laborious process done by hand. He not only made a fortune for himself, he also made a fortune in cotton production for thousands of southerners: "You cannot make war on Cotton! Cotton is King!" And of course, a totally inadvertent by-product of King Cotton was the continuation, and the expansion, of slavery. So much for the vague hope that the problem would go away. Since it refused to go away, Americans were then faced with the question of what to do about it. To that question alone they might conceivably have found an answer, but human questions seldom exist in isolation. For the United States, one of the fastest-growing and most dynamic societies of its day, there were a great many other questions to be answered as well, and the pace of change was almost staggering. Indeed, one thing that made the slavery issue assume ever-increasing importance was that change was distributed unevenly. For a variety of reasons, the northern part of the country was changing more rapidly than the southern. The American Industrial Revolution, a spin-off from the European one, began on the rivers of New England, when Yankee traders took their money and began putting it in cotton mills and other large "factories" on the Merrimack and the Connecticut and the Housatonic rivers. Then came the era of canal building, soon to be followed by the railroads. Though it did not look so on the map, the most efficient access to the interior of America ran through New York City, up the Hudson and across to the Great Lakes, and then out to the old Northwest Territory, what we would now call the Midwest and the Great Lakes states. As the rocky hillside farms of New England gave out, sons moved west to Ohio or Illinois, and the wave of westward migration lapped to and across the Alleghenies and into the great central basin of the continent. The same process of migration occurred in the South, too, and southerners moved to the Louisiana Purchase area, and pushed beyond that into Texas. So Indiana entered the union in 1816, Mississippi in 1817, Illinois in 1818, and Alabama in 1819. Problems arose with the admission of new states. Southerners developed the first sense that they were being threatened, that there was a danger of them becoming a minority in the running of their own government, that their interests were to be disregarded by a more rapidly growing and larger whole. This sense, becoming a fear, led to a series of compromises in the construction of the nation. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise admitted Maine as a "free" state, and Missouri as a "slave" state, in an attempt to preserve the balance between the two types; in addition, an amendment barred slavery from any territory in the Louisiana Purchase north of latitude 36°30'. The compromise was a triumph at the time, but it set the pattern for subsequent deals; from now on, southerners would demand that the slave and free states match each other in numbers; this would necessitate that slavery be legal even in places where it was an impractical form of labor. The union would finally be wrecked on the rock of a hypothetical right. From the 1820 compromise to the 1850s, affairs went manageably, perhaps even smoothly. The twenties were dominated by tariff questions, with northern manufacturers wanting high tariffs to shelter them from better and cheaper British goods, and southerners wanting low tariffs so they could trade their agricultural produce for imported finished goods. South Carolina was so incensed at what it considered northern bullying that it adopted a doctrine of "nullification," announcing it had the right to override federal legislation if it chose to do so. President Jackson threatened to use force against the recalcitrant state, but eventually another compromise was reached, and the issue slowly faded. What did not fade, however, was the problem of who had the power to do what. In other words, what was the true sovereign authority, the individual state or the federal union? It was a peculiarity of the American system that that question had not been satisfactorily answered in the constitution. Originally the states had regarded themselves as being independent, sovereign entities; several, in joining the federal union, had explicitly said so, and had even reserved the right to get out again if they thought it in their best interest to do so. New England, for example, had discussed withdrawal from the union at the time of the War of 1812. But in the years since then the feeling had grown that it was really the federal union that was the repository of ultimate authority, that the United States was one nation rather than a mere conglomeration of several little nations. At least that feeling had developed for some people, most notably those who had most to gain from such a sense. There were areas where men felt not heartened but threatened by the growth of such central power; in the Old Northwest states, there was a good deal of resentment at being held in thrall to the manufacturing power of the East. And in the South, of course, there was the fear that the section, which hitherto had more or less dominated the national life—five of the first fifteen presidents had been from Virginia alone—was now doomed to minority status. Southerners began to feel increasingly besieged in their own country. And feeling so, they went on the offensive. It was a confusing time, for the country was on the whole doing well economically. Southern cotton producers fattened on the neverending demand for their product, northern manufacturers found ever more profitable schemes to invest in. By 1840 there were more than twice as many miles of railroad in the United States as there were in Great Britain, the home of the railroad. Cotton was the leading industry in the country, and immigration was growing in a steady stream. Yet the problems, the imbalances, the feelings of dislocation, persisted. No sooner was one issue resolved than another one cropped up. In 1833, for example, the Nullification Crisis finally ended in the spring with a new tariff bill drawn up by Henry Clay. In December the American Anti-Slavery Society was organized in New York, dedicated to the abolition of slavery. There had been abolitionists around for some time, of course, and the most outspoken of them, William Lloyd Garrison of Newburyport, Massachusetts, had already been publishing his newspaper, The Liberator, for two years. Most people, even in the North, regarded the abolitionists as dangerous radicals, the lunatic fringe on the whole question of slavery. Garrison himself was nearly lynched in Boston in 1835; he was doomed to twenty more years of thundering in the wilderness, but his day would come. All the issues that faced the growing country came increasingly to be defined in terms of slavery, and how they affected the balance between slave and free. When Texas revolted against Mexico, and won its independence, the Texans sent a delegation to Washington to demand either admission to the union or recognition as a new nation. President Jackson, just as he left office, chose to recognize their independence, because Texas was a slave territory, and to admit it as a state would upset the balance in Congress, and give a majority to the slaveholding side. In the 1840s the central government, especially under President Polk, adopted an aggressively expansionist stance; it went to war with Mexico over the southwestern frontier, and threatened war with Britain over the northwest. Some Southerners began fantasizing about the "Golden Circle," a great and highly imaginary slave-holding empire that should encompass the entire Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico; it was indeed fantasy, though filibusters such as William Walker played at making it reality—it was more than play for Walker; he was shot in I860—but it would return in another form to haunt the Union as a subversive organization during the Civil War. Henry Clay of Kentucky, "the Great Compromiser," both one of the great statesmen and one of the great schemers of his era, bought the country a few more years of troubled peace with the Compromise of 1850. He introduced in the Senate a bill that he thought would resolve all of the existing questions about slavery, admission of new states, and the balance of sections. Opposition was prolonged and vigorous; Senator Seward of New York did much to ruin his subsequent chances of becoming president by denouncing slavery and proclaiming that "there is a higher law than the Constitution." On the other side, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina told the North that it must both agree to the extension of slavery and stop agitation about the issue. Thus the lines were clearly drawn, and it was a measure of Clay's ability that he managed to push his compromise through in a series of five acts. Yet even that brought the country closer to division, for one of the five, a sop to the South, was a strong law for apprehending fugitive slaves. The issue simply defied efforts to make it go away. To Southerners, a slave might be three fifths of a person when it came to counting him for representation in Congress, but a slave was all property, like a stray cow or a runaway horse, if he tried to flee to the North or to Canada. Southerners bitterly resented that northerners—actually, a minuscule number of them—helped slaves escape, and the whole issue was one of those matters clouded in mythology. Very few slaves did manage to escape; there was indeed an "underground railway," but it was far less organized than the term implies, and what there was, was mostly a matter of sympathetic and helpful free blacks rather than whites. Most of the abolitionists had little or nothing to do with it. The new Fugitive Slave Act that came out of the Compromise of 1850, however, empowered federal commissioners to catch runaway slaves, denied the blacks any judicial recourse, and penalized citizens for refusing to support the authorities. Northerners felt shamed by the sight of blacks led off in chains, and many states passed personal freedom laws that virtually contradicted the federal law—playing, in other words, the same game of nullification as South Carolina had done twenty years earlier. By its insistence on its "rights," the South was giving increasing ammunition to the abolitionist cause. Even more ammunition came from an unlikely source. In 1851, in response to the new laws, a woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe, the wife of a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine, began publishing Uncle Tom's Cabin as a newspaper serial. Issued as a book in 1852, it sold 300,000 copies in the first year, and seven million eventually. It was a literary phenomenon—by contrast, Herman Melville's entire output in his life was just over 50,000 copies—and for many people it turned slavery from an abstract legal question into a burning moral drama. On meeting Stowe in 1861, Abraham Lincoln remarked, "So this is the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war." Bitterly resented in the South, the book inflamed the sectional rivalries becoming ever more important in American life. But so did everything else. Next on the list was the issue of a transcontinental railroad and the route it should take. Fortunes would be made and lost on the choice, and, at least indirectly, blood would be shed, for the railroad question led to the fateful problem of Kansas. Senator Stephen A. Douglas wanted the western railroad to run from Illinois, his own state, and to get that, he moved to organize the territory of Nebraska and bring it in as a state. Southerners objected; Nebraska was north of 36°30\ and would therefore be a free state, and upset the precarious congressional balance. All right, said Douglas; split it in two, call the southern part Kansas, and bring it in as a slave state; Douglas could be pretty flexible on such matters. Others could not; the proposed Kansas was still north of 36°30', so bringing it in as a slave state violated the time-honored Missouri Compromise. All right, said Douglas again, let the inhabitants decide for themselves whether they wanted to be a free or a slave state. To him it was a matter of deals and accommodations, but this new specter he rather casually conjured up—Popular Sovereignty—doomed Kansas to a bloody pe- riod of violence, split the country, helped split his party, focused sectional antagonisms, and in short, did much to cause the eventual breakup of the union. Kansas itself became "Bleeding Kansas," a territory of mobs and gangs, of lynchings, shootings at night, rigged elections, and literally murderous rivalries. It finally had two legislatures, one "slave" and one "free," and two constitutions, and the issue was not resolved until the Civil War itself subsumed it. Blood in Kansas, and blood on the floor of the Senate. In May of 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an outspoken antislavery radical, delivered a slashing speech on the Kansas issue. Three days later Preston Brooks, U.S. representative from South Carolina, marched into the Senate chamber and fiercely beat Sumner with his cane. The Yankee senator was permanently crippled, and did not return to the Senate until 1859- Northerners and sympathetic southerners alike were appalled, but Brooks also received hundreds of canes in the mail from enthusiastic supporters. The next year the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the famous Dred Scott case, which had dragged on in one form or another for years. It was argued that Scott, a slave, had been effectively freed when his master took him north of the 36°30' line. ChiefJustice Roger B. Taney wrote a convoluted decision denying that a black could be a citizen, and ruling that an American citizen—that is, Scott's master — could not be deprived of his property by the simple act of moving from one part of the country to another, a decision that made the whole Missouri Compromise, and the entire edifice of accommodation built since 1820, unconstitutional. In other words, according to Taney, slavery was legal—anywhere and everywhere in the United States. Again there was a howl of southern triumph and a storm of northern protest. The pro-slavery interests seemed everywhere to be on the offensive, and in Congress, in the White House, in the Supreme Court, they appeared to be carrying the day. The ironic, indeed tragic, element in all this was that the more successful they were, the more demanding the slavery interests became. They not only wanted to have their way, they wanted everyone else to agree willingly that they should have their way. And every time they met opposition, they responded by threatening secession. Very few slaves were going to be taken to Kansas, yet they wanted Kansas to be a slave state; even fewer were going to be taken to New Mexico, but they wanted that to be slave territory, too. No southerners at all were going to move to Wisconsin and set up a slave plantation, yet the logical implication of the Dred Scott decision was that they should be able to do so, in the impossible event that they should want to. In pursuit of such hypothetical rights, they sundered the national institutions that had held the country together, and eventually they sundered the country as well. The Democratic Party was the last of these great national institutions to go. The other national party, the Whigs, was moribund, a pale ghost of the strong force it had been for a generation. After 1852 it split, and those of its members willing to accommodate slavery, the "cotton Whigs," moved into the Democratic ranks, while those opposed, the "conscience Whigs," became Republicans. The Democrats held together through the 1856 election, putting Buchanan in office in the face of a surprisingly strong showing by John C. Fremont, the Republican challenger, but that was about as far as they got. Historian Kenneth Stampp contends that the year 1857 was decisive; between Kansas, Dred Scott, and a host of lesser problems, the Democrats began to come apart. Douglas, the leading man of the party, and Buchanan, the president he helped elect, quarreled. By 1858 it was becoming increasingly obvious that there were really two Democratic parties, a northern one, in great disarray, and a southern one, ever more dominant and ever more demanding that its views be accepted by the whole. Thus as the decade of the fifties neared its end, there appeared both less and less room for compromise, and fewer and fewer institutions capable of bringing it about. The extremists were more vocal than ever. Early in 1859 the Southern Commercial Convention called for the reopening of the African slave trade, an idea occasionally bruited in the South for about twenty-five years but seldom given serious consideration. And later in the year, on the other side, John Brown tried to raise a slave revolt. Brown, from Connecticut, was a fanatical abolitionist; he had taken part in the fighting in Kansas, and under normal conditions, would have been tried and convicted of murder. Now, with the support of wealthy and frustrated abolitionists, some of whom knew what he was doing, others of whom were careful not to know, he decided that further violence was the only answer. To this end, he and some twenty followers seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on the night of October 16. Overrun within a day by troops commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee, Brown was tried for treason. Before he was executed, he turned the trial into a showcase for his opinions. No one has ever been able to show definitively whether Brown was crazy or sane, or how much he was of either. Like many similar people, he was able to conduct a clever defense, and to appear, to those predisposed to regard him as such, as a martyr. To pro-slavery people he looked like the Fiend incarnate, the personification all of that was evil in the North, and the realization of their worst fears. Personification and fear were indeed a large part of the problem. When Lincoln, in the closing paragraph of his inaugural address, appealed to "the better angels of our nature," he was invoking an attitude that had been largely submerged by the stresses and strains of the last few years. One should not think that sectionalism, slavery, and states' rights were the only matters claiming Americans' attention; there was a bank panic in 1857; the North was torn by anti-immigrant feeling, producing the Know-Nothing Party and anti-foreign legislation in such states as Massachusetts; the Mormons were in near revolt in Utah; gangs fought in the streets in New York City. But again and again the country came back to the split between North and South, and under repeated assault, the national consensus was breaking apart. Faced with this, northerners and southerners developed a largely fictitious picture, a stereotype, of each other. To northerners, the typical southern male was a hard-drinking, hard-riding wastrel, living off the sweat of the slave, boastful, bullying, threatening, fiscally and morally irresponsible, at best a romantic fool and at worst a sadistic beast. The northerner was just the opposite: he was mature, conscientious, careful, rational—a modern man. The southerner, by contrast, saw himself as religious, chivalrous, sensitive, a responsible steward of his people, white and black, and a proud guardian of his state's heritage. But he saw the northerner as a mean-spirited, hypocritical, money-grubbing capitalist, whining about the poor black slaves while keeping his own workers in conditions worse than slavery, determined to grind the South down through tariffs and to have his own way with the nation. All of these pictures were of course ridiculous, and it would be equally absurd to assert that all Americans held these views of other Americans. But enough Americans held them to give some credence to the statement that the sections of the country were indeed breaking apart, and that people in any section were in the process of mythologizing and thus dehumanizing the people in another section. And de- humanizing your enemy is the first step in the process of killing him. Most people, of course, simply wanted to live their lives and get on with their affairs. The abolitionist of the North remained a marginal rather than a dominant figure. Few northerners were willing to fight to free the slaves; indeed, relatively few northerners cared a hoot about the slaves, and to the extent that people did care, it was largely the feckless actions of the South that made them aware of the issue. Well into the war itself, Lincoln had to be very careful of how he handled abolition, for the fear of what support any firm advocacy of it might cost him. The southern situation was even more complex. Most southerners were in fact not slaveholders, so the section was actually in thrall to a dominant minority, those who owned slaves or had a vested interest in supporting the slave system. That system had trapped the South in a time warp; immigrants came to the North because only there could they make headway; free labor of the type most immigrants could do was unable to compete with southern slave labor. Southerners said they preferred not to have the immigrants anyway, but in so doing, they denied their section the dynamic forces of free labor and investment capital that were transforming the North and leaving the South behind. There, finally, lay the root of the problem. The United States as a whole was expanding and evolving very rapidly into a modern mixedeconomy mid-nineteenth-century society, and the South was not keeping up. Because it was not, its traditional domination of the national scene, especially in politics, was slipping. Faced with that, southern leaders developed a siege mentality; threatened by external forces they could neither fully understand nor readily adapt to, they responded with repeated threats: Give us our way or we shall leave. For many years, they successfully staved off the future, and they did get their way. But in the process, they eroded the national will to compromise and ultimately destroyed the institutions capable of achieving further accommodation. When the last of those institutions, the Democratic Party, split into northern and southern factions in I860, the election of Abraham Lincoln as the first Republican president was all but assured. And southerners already knew what they would do if that happened. But they did not know what the result of their action would be.

 

 

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