25 July 2012

Factors in the Civil War

The Civil War is one of those perpetual historical events about which constant controversy swirls even 150 years later. And rightly so. The period surrounding the Civil War and Reconstruction marks the time when the culture and political thought of the United States changed most drastically. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that after the Civil War the Founding Fathers would not have recognized the United States of America as the same Republic they had created from the colonies.

The perennial question is, of course, “Was the Civil War caused by slavery?” If we’re talking about the motive of the South for seceding, it is impossible to say that the issue of slavery was not at the forefront for most of the movers and shakers. Just read some of the declarations of the causes of secession. At the same time, it is clear from Lincoln’s speeches that his intention in the war was not to end slavery. In his first inaugural address he said, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.”

Slavery was certainly a necessary cause of the Civil War; that is to say, without slavery the war could not and would not have happened. However, slavery was not a sufficient cause of the Civil War; the issue alone would not spark a war. For evidence of this just look to the dozens of countries around the world who ended slavery peacefully in the 1800s. Had slavery been the only issue on the table, it would have been ended peacefully in the United States as it was everywhere else. So if you want to really understand the Civil War, why it happened and what its legacy is, there are a few things you need to understand first. To that end, allow me to present you with:

5 things you need to understand in order to be able to discuss the Civil War


1. Nationalism:
It is vitally important to understand the seeds of nationalism that were planted by Rousseau, watered by the French Revolution and broadcast across Europe by Napoleon Bonaparte. The nationalization of France as well as the ensuing wars of Italian consolidation and German consolidation clearly demonstrate the spirit of the age. When one understands that the Republicans and Abraham Lincoln had the same nationalistic vision as people like Guiseppe Garibaldi, Victor Emmanuel II, and Otto von Bismark, the reason the American Civil War was fought begins to make a lot more sense. The victory of Nationalism in the Civil War also explains why people used to be proud of their regional accents, but we now consider there to be only one right way to speak the English language.

2. Federalism vs Anti-Federalism. It is vitally important to understand the differences between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. Anti Federalists were opposed to the new Constitution on the grounds that it would create a national and not a federal government. Incidentally the fact that you might not know the difference between a national and a federal government just shows how effective the Civil War was in pushing these issues from the realm of public discourse. The word “federal” comes from the Latin word “foedus” meaning a covenant, league or alliance. The articles of Confederation were a federal document, laying out an alliance between the various states. Each state had sovereignty and independence but each was also bound up in covenant with the other states; sort of like the UN. The anti-Federalists were worried that the Constitution, by giving many more powers to the federal government was actually creating a national government in which all people were individually part of a nation rather than being part of a state which was in turn part of a federation of states. Patrick Henry especially objected to the opening words of the Constitution, “We the People.” Why not “We the States”?

The Federalists, on the other hand, thought it most important that the government be efficient and powerful. (See Federalist Paper 15 for example). As such, the irony of history is that the Anti-Federalists were the ones arguing for a truly federal government and the Federalists were the ones arguing rather for a national government. The fact that most of the Federalists were northerners and most of the anti-Federalists were southerners would have ramifications far beyond the ratification of the Constitution.

3. Alexander Hamilton’s Financial Policies.
After the Constitution was signed there were still problems. The Continental Congress had sold chits to speculators in order to fund the revolutionary war. Many of these chits had not been paid off. Likewise many of the states had run up significant debts in the past. Hamilton’s idea was to replace the chits with interest bearing bonds. This meant that the investors, mostly northern speculators, were getting interest paid to them by the federal government. Many southerners saw this as tax money being redistributed to the North. Likewise Hamilton called on the federal government to assume the debts of the states and pay it from tax money as well. The only problem with this is that, all said and done, about 80% of this debt was in the northern states. By assuming the state debts into the federal government, many southerners saw, again, their tax money being shipped north.

4. The Tariff of Abominations. In 1828, Congress passed a tariff on all foreign goods in order to get people to buy American made products. However, the economy of the south was largely based on trade with Europe. The British wanted the cotton produced in the south, and the south in turn was able to buy manufactured goods cheaply from Great Britain. The tariff of 1828 reduced exports to Britain and forced southerners to pay the higher prices for northern manufactured goods, thus hitting the southern economy with a double whammy. For this reason the tariff became know in the south as the “Tariff of Abominations”. This led directly to the resignation of John C. Calhoun as Vice President and the Nullification Crisis.

5. John Brown. John Brown is often wrongly held up as an example of a good Christian man opposing slavery. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dragging people from their homes and hacking them to death with swords is not a picture of a good Christian opposing slavery. Seizing an arsenal and attempting to initiate a mass rebellion is also not a picture of a good Christian opposing slavery. For a picture of a good Christian man opposing slavery one would need to look over the pond to William Wilberforce who was a godly man and a great hero of the faith. The fact that the terrorist John Brown was held up as a hero by abolitionists in the north baffled southerners and only made them feel more cut off from rest of the country.

So there you have it folks. The list could go on and on, but hopefully these 5 things have given you a better picture of how the tension between north and south escalated into the most bloody conflict ever fought on American soil.

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