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The Heart of the Matter

Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War

by Michael A. Morrison
University of North Carolina Press, 396 pp., $49.95

Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War

by Maury Klein
Knopf, 496 pp., $30.00

The Confederate War

by Gary W. Gallagher
Harvard University Press, 218 pp., $24.95

Two issues that have generated the most animated debates among historians of the American Civil War are the causes of the war and the causes of Confederate defeat. Indeed, these are among the most important questions in all of American history. If the war had never happened, or if it had occurred but the Confederacy had won its independence, the United States would be an incalculably different country today. As Mark Twain put it a few years after Appomattox, the war “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.”1 Five generations later, historians are still trying to measure its influence and explain its origins and outcome.

In his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln looked back over four years of war that had cost 620,000 lives. Everyone recognized, he said, that the institution of slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war.”2 Most historians have agreed with Lincoln. Fifty years after the war the leading Civil War historian of his day, James Ford Rhodes, expressed this consensus: “Of the American Civil War it may safely be asserted that there was a single cause, slavery.”3 Three quarters of a century later, Ken and Ric Burns’s enormously popular PBS television documentary The Civil War and the accompanying book made the same point. Slavery was the “one issue that more than any other divided North from South,” they wrote. Slavery “is the heart of the matter in any explanation” of the decision by Southern leaders for secession and war.4

Yet from the first some of Lincoln’s contemporaries and some historians have resisted this thesis. Most of them have been white Southerners. The president and vice-president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis and Alexander H. Stephens, set the tone for these dissenters. In books written soon after the war, both made the same point: Southern states did not secede and go to war to protect slavery, but to vindicate state rights. The Confederacy, Davis insisted, fought solely for “the defense of an inherent, unalienable right…to withdraw from a Union into which they had, as sovereign communities, voluntarily entered…. The existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.”5 Stephens likewise insisted that “Slavery, so called, was but the question on which these antagonistic principles… of Federation, on the one side, and Centralism, or Consolidation, on the other…were finally brought into… collision with each other on the field of battle.”6

When Davis and Stephens wrote these apologias, slavery was a dead and discredited institution. To concede that the Confederacy had broken up the United States and launched a war that killed 620,000 Americans in a vain attempt to keep four million people in slavery would not confer honor on their lost cause. But in 1861, when slavery flourished and was considered by most Southern whites to be divinely ordained, they had spoken differently. Then Jefferson Davis, a large slaveholder himself, had justified secession as an act of self-defense against the new Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln, whose policy of excluding slavery from the territories would make “property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless…thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars.”7 And in a famous speech at Savannah in March 1861, Stephens proclaimed the Republican threat to the future survival of slavery to be “the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution” of Confederate independence. The old Union had been founded on the false idea that all men are created equal. The new Confederacy, said Stephens,

is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.8

Over the years since the war many Southern whites have preferred to cite Davis’s and Stephens’s post-1865 writings rather than their claims of 1861. After watching The Civil War on PBS, a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans complained about its emphasis on slavery. “The cause [of the war] was secession,” he said, “and the cause of secession could have been any number of things. This overemphasis on the slavery issue really rankles us.”9 Anyone who has spoken before such groups as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Civil War Round Tables in the South, and the like can offer anecdotal evidence of their insistence that slavery had little to do with secession and the Confederacy. For them the cause of secession was “any number of things”: the tariff, state rights, Northern aggression, defense of home and hearth, tragic misunderstanding—anything but slavery.

It is not hard to understand the reluctance of Southern whites to believe—or at least to admit—that the noble Cause for which their ancestors fought might have included the defense of slavery. That is why they have embraced other interpretations of the origins of sectional conflict that have flourished at one time or another. From the 1920s to the 1940s the “Progressive school” dominated American historiography. This school posited a clash between economic interest groups and classes as the central theme of American history: industry vs. agriculture, capital vs. labor, producers vs. consumers contending over such issues as tariffs, taxes, land policy, subsidies, and the like. According to this interpretation, the Civil War transferred to the battlefield the long-running contest between plantation agriculture and industrializing capitalism. Slavery happened to be the principal form of labor for plantation agriculture, but the real struggle was not freedom against slavery but a manufacturing economy against an agricultural one.

The principal sponsor of this thesis was the midwestern Yankee Charles Beard, but because his sympathies lay with the planters and farmers who lost the war rather than the industrial robber barons who won it, Southern whites latched onto Beard’s interpretation as a godsend. None stated his support more forcefully than Frank Owsley, an Alabaman and one of the most influential historians of the South from the 1920s to the 1950s. The Civil War, wrote Owsley in 1930, resulted from the “fundamental differences” between the “agrarian South and the commercial and industrial North.” Slavery

was part of the agrarian system, but only one element and not an essential one…. The fundamental and passionate ideal for which the South stood and fell was the ideal of an agrarian society…the old and accepted manner of life for which Egypt, Greece, Rome, England, and France had stood.

Such a civilization stood in the way of Northern capitalism with its “doctrine of intolerance, crusading, standardizing alike in industry and in life. The South had to be crushed out; it was in the way; it impeded the progress of the machine. So Juggernaut drove his car across the South.”10

It was no coincidence that this interpretation flourished during the same years that the novel and movie Gone With the Wind were becoming the greatest popular successes of all time. History and popular culture on that occasion marched hand in hand. Gone With the Wind still evokes rebel yells and tears of nostalgia in certain quarters. But few serious historians share that viewpoint any more. The primacy of the slavery issue—in particular the issue of the expansion of slavery into new territories and states after 1845—has reemerged in modern historiography as the principal cause of secession.

Michael A. Morrison’s Slavery and the American West shows in exhaustive detail just how the controversy over the expansion of slavery grew increasingly bitter and divisive until it provoked the departure of the lower-South states in response to Lincoln’s election in 1860 on a platform of containing slavery. But the distinction drawn by the spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans between the causes of secession and the cause of the war is a valid and important one. Maury Klein’s new study of the background to the Fort Sumter crisis shows how the secession of seven states transformed the main question from freedom vs. slavery to union vs. disunion.

The density of Morrison’s treatment of the territorial issue is both a weakness and a strength. His speech-by-speech account of congressional debates and political campaigns from 1844 to 1861 makes the book hard going for even the most dogged reader. But this heavyweight presentation of evidence certainly supports the author’s conclusion that “the issues of expansion and slavery extension were critical to the destruction of Whiggery, the resonance of Republican and fire-eater appeals, the disruption of the Democracy, the election of Lincoln, and the secession of the South.” From the election of 1848, when an Illinois Whig observed that “nothing is talked of—but Slavery—free territory—& the Wilmot Proviso,” to the fateful election of 1860 when it was “the only question entering the canvass,” according to a Kentucky Democrat, the issue of slavery in the territories drove a wedge between the free states and slave states that finally split them in twain.

Nor was the territorial controversy an abstraction—a quarrel over “an imaginary Negro in an impossible place,” as historians who dismissed the substantive importance of the issue once maintained. Between 1803 and 1845 the United States nearly tripled in size with the Louisiana Purchase, the acquisition of Florida, and the annexation of Texas. Thomas Jefferson, who began this process, expected the new lands to become an Empire for Liberty. But every state that came into the Union by 1845 from these territories was a slave state: Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas plus the southern portions of Alabama and Mississippi. The acquisition of California and the Southwest from Mexico in 1848 opened a vast new region to American settlement and provoked corrosive debates over slavery in these and the Louisiana Purchase territories where slavery was made possible by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. While slavery seemed unlikely to take root in Nebraska or Oregon, it did become legal for a few years in the territories of Kansas, New Mexico, and Utah and in Indian Territory (most of present-day Oklahoma). And one reason for diehard Southern opposition to the admission of California as a free state in 1850 was a conviction that slavery could flourish in the mines and agriculture of that region.

A key to understanding the substantive urgency of the territorial debate in the 1850s is a recognition that it concerned not only the boundaries of the existing United States but also potential future acquisitions. Many Americans in 1850 had seen the size of the country quadruple in their own lifetimes. There was little reason for them to expect this process to stop. The most likely direction for future expansion was to the south. Southern Democrats pressed for the acquisition of Cuba in the 1850s. If they had succeeded, another 400,000 slaves would have entered the Union. Southern adventurers also invaded Nicaragua and northern Mexico in efforts to aquire these regions for the United States—and slavery. In 1856 the Tennessee native William Walker proclaimed himself president of Nicaragua and issued a decree reestablishing slavery there before he was overthrown and driven out. Although none of these schemes succeeded, they exacerbated the slavery controversy more than Morrison acknowledges in his brief and inadequate reference to the matter.

  1. 1

    Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age (New American Library, 1969), pp. 157-158.

  2. 2

    Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 volumes (Rutgers University Press, 1953-1955), VIII, 332.

  3. 3

    James Ford Rhodes, Lectures on the American Civil War (Macmillan, 1913), p. 2.

  4. 4

    Geoffrey C. Ward with Ric Burns and Ken Burns, The Civil War: An Illustrated History (Knopf, 1990). The second quotation is from the essay in this volume by Don E. Fehrenbacher.

  5. 5

    Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, 2 volumes (D. Appleton and Co., 1881), I, v, 80; II, 764.

  6. 6

    Alexander H. Stephens, A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States, 2 volumes (National Publication Co., 1868-1870), I, 10.

  7. 7

    Dunbar Rowland, editor, Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers and Speeches, 10 volumes (Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923), V, 72.

  8. 8

    Augusta Daily Constitutionalist, March 30, 1861.

  9. 9

    Newsweek, October 8, 1990, pp. 62-63.

  10. 10

    Frank Owsley, “The Irrepressible Conflict,” in Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand (Harper and Brothers, 1930), pp. 68-91.

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