Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters. ~African Proverb
For years I’ve had an abiding interest in the underlying causes of that watershed event in U.S history, the American Civil War of 1861-1865 – also known as the War of the States or the War of the Rebellion. As a military study it is no less fascinating: a grand sweeping saga of tragedy and triumph replete with the old world charms of another age. Yet it is the political intrigues, the motives and the unfolding clash of two New World cultural identities under one constitution that interest me most. In pursuit of a greater understanding of the events my habit is to search for truths often obfuscated by what the “Readers Digest” condensed version of official history invariably presents to the general public. Given this rule it would serve no purpose to be anything but totally objective if I am to arrive at honest conclusions. No expert or panel of scholars can ever provide a definitive analysis of such a complex event let alone a lay observer like me. However an outsider’s impressions combined with an impartial approach to research may, hopefully, produce something a bit different; another way of looking at the subject. I have called this blog post, Abraham Lincoln and the “Confederate War of Independence” for a very specific reason that – if I haven’t bored you to death with Sainter speak – will soon become clear. 🙂
Slavery has long been considered the root cause of the American Civil War by mainstream historians and the popular press even when all other factors have been taken into account. In my opinion a closer examination from a different perspective suggests otherwise. Here it is not my intention to expound on the repugnance of slavery and its inherant racism – it is obvious to all of us in this day and age – but it does make sense to review past attitudes towards servitude as a whole, not only in the South but especially the North. To do this we need to explore a few harsh realities of 18th and 19th century America.
Though the slave trade was officially abolished throughout the U.S in 1807, slaveholding still existed domestically here and there in some Northern states up until the 1840s, with New Jersey the last to effectively emancipate in 1865 when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed that year. It should ne noted that both whites and free negroes used slave labour. Further to this the slave trade historically was not an all black and white affair. White indentured “servants” – slavery by another name – provided the main source of labour for the growing colonies, continuing well into the 19th century.
Redemptioners, also known as unfree labour, were forced to pay their passage to the U.S in wageless labour on arrival. These “White Cargo” servants were in the main of English, Scottish, Irish and German stock under the age of 21. Redemptioners accounted for an estimated 80% of the total British and continental emigration to America prior to 1776. Abuse of the system caused many to die before either their 7 year contract was up or debt was paid. Some believe that at this time the term Redneck – akin to Redshanks or Redlegs in the Caribbean – came into usage to mock Irish indentured servants as “niggers turned inside out” because they’d been in the sun too long.
For the ordinary man in the street or on the farms, North or South, servitude was part of the fabric of their world. Secular and religious expediency saw to it that the future of the American colonies would be built on back breaking labour under brutal conditions, for black or white. In fact up until the 19th century, slavery (from the word Slav) was widely believed to be sanctioned by God in accordance with Old Testament scripture. The general attitude to negro slavery was thus, in truth, ambivalent, with the ordinary working class Protestant poor more concerned with large scale Catholic immigration or eking out their own meagre living. If a minority of Northern lower class whites backed black freedom it was generally out of self interest given that slave labour took jobs from free labourers and indentured servants. Slavery as a growing moral issue thus fell to a mixed minority of social reformers and upper class business elites – the Abolitionists – with backing from the Quakers and Baptists. The Abolitionist’s cause was noble but their motives were less so – only 30 years prior they had been exploiting the slave trade for profit. As Pennsylvanian historian and author, Douglas Harper, points out:
Early 19th century New Englanders had real motives for forgetting their slave history, or, if they recalled it at all, for characterizing it as a brief period of mild servitude. This was partly a Puritan effort to absolve New England’s ancestors of their guilt. The cleansing of history had a racist motive as well, denying blacks — slave or free — a legitimate place in New England history. But most importantly, the deliberate creation of a “mythology of a free New England” was a crucial event in the history of sectional conflict in America. The North, and New England in particular, sought to demonize the South through its institution of slavery; they did this in part by burying their own histories as slave-owners and slave-importers.
He goes on to say…..
Having solved its slavery problem by a very gradual emancipation, and by aggressively proscribing the rights of its free black minority, the North was content. Its ships continued to carry slaves to Southern ports, and slave-grown cotton to Europe. The North reaped the profits of the Southern plantations, and the federal government collected the tariffs. Any further effort made in the North toward resolving the slavery issue generally went into the pipe-dream of colonization and to making sure Southern blacks stayed there, or at least did not come north.
Historian Edgar J. McManus, author of A History of Negro Slavery in New York also wrote of motivating factors behind Abolitionism:
“Upper-class whites were motivated by idealism, and their attitude toward the Negro was philanthropic and paternalistic. Members of the upper class supported Negro charities and schools much more generously than they supported organizations assisting poor whites.” This idealism, however, “had no counterpart in the lower classes, among whom could be found neither sympathy for the Negro nor understanding of his problems. From its inception, slavery had been detrimental to the working class. On the one hand, the slave system excluded whites from jobs pre-empted by slaves; on the other, it often degraded them socially to the level of the slaves with whom they had to work and compete in earning a livelihood.”
The salient point from those quotes is the clear divide in interests between the upper and lower classes. Abolitionism as proposed by a Northern patrician class was actually a vested interest not as altruistic as has been portrayed. Slavery as a factor in the conflict is not in doubt but it was far from being the sole motivator. As is nearly always the case in historic upheavals, trade and profit was also a major factor. In making this case the following extracts prove the folly of simplying the complex for the sake of a comfortable national mythology.
- From an article in the Washington Times by the African American economics professor, Walter Williams of George Mason University: Most historical accounts portray Southern blacks as anxiously awaiting President Abraham Lincoln’s “liberty-dispensing troops” marching south in the War Between the States. But there’s more to the story. Black Confederate military units, both as freemen and slaves, fought federal troops. Louisiana free blacks gave their reason for fighting in a letter written to New Orleans’ Daily Delta: “The free colored population love their home, their property, their own slaves and recognize no other country than Louisiana, and are ready to shed their blood for her defense. They have no sympathy for Abolitionism; no love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana. They will fight for her in 1861 as they fought in 1814-15.”
- And this statement by Abraham Lincoln made in a speech in 1858 at Charleston Illinois while debating Senator Steven Douglas before a crowd of 15,000 people: “I am not now, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social or political equality of the white and black races. I am not now nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarriages with white people. There is a physical difference between the white and the black races which will forever forbid the two races living together on social or political equality. There must be a position of superior and inferior, and I am in favor of assigning the superior position to the white man.”
Cometh the Taxman
Even from the time of Independence the U.S economies of both the North and South were becoming increasingly polarised, the North tagging onto the Industrial revolution while the South remaining largely agricultural. In the years leading up to the Civil War the main source of income for the federal government were taxes in the form of import tariffs – income tax did not exist. Import tariffs as an economic tool could be used in a variety of ways to benefit various sectors depending on tariff levels and who assumed the burden as a percentage of federal internal revenue. They also became an effective form of protectionism against cheaper products from overseas – mainly from Great Britain.
In the tariff of 1816, tariff structure changed from revenue producing to protectionist to assist the industrialization of the North. It was aimed at the lucrative Southern market. By 1832, and to protect Northern manufacturers from cheaper products being purchased by the South from overseas, the U.S federal government had introduced a series of tariffs on many imported goods needed by the Southern business sector, effectively forcing the South to pay much higher prices while at the same time penalizing British industry. By this time the Southern states – 25% of the population – accounted for 87% of federal tariff revenue. Inevitably the tariff “war” came to a head with the introduction of the infamous Morrill tariff of 1861. Columnist for the Times Examiner Mike Scruggs explains the effects on the economy of the South:
U. S. tariff revenues already fell disproportionately on the South, accounting for 87% of the total. While the tariff protected Northern industrial interests, it raised the cost of living and commerce in the South substantially. It also reduced the trade value of their agricultural exports to Europe. These combined to place a severe economic hardship on many Southern states. Even more galling was that 80% or more of these tax revenues were expended on Northern public works and industrial subsidies, thus further enriching the North at the expense of the South.
In the 1860 election, Lincoln, a former Whig and great admirer of Henry Clay, campaigned for the high protective tariff provisions of the Morrill Tariff, which had also been incorporated into the Republican Party Platform. Lincoln further endorsed the Morrill Tariff and its concepts in his first inaugural speech and signed the Act into law a few days after taking office in March of 1861. Southern leaders had seen it coming. Southern protests had been of no avail. Now the South was inflamed with righteous indignation, and Southern leaders began to call for Secession.
On the other side of the Atlantic, British trade with the South was being seriously affected. Charles Dickens, then the publisher of a news magazine called The All Year Round, published the following perspective, further validating the view that the War Between the States was in reality a tax burden and profit issue:
If it be not slavery, where lies the partition of the interests that has led at last to actual separation of the Southern from the Northern States? …Every year, for some years back, this or that Southern state had declared that it would submit to this extortion only while it had not the strength for resistance. With the election of Lincoln and an exclusive Northern party taking over the federal government, the time for withdrawal had arrived … The conflict is between semi-independent communities [in which] every feeling and interest [in the South] calls for political partition, and every pocket interest [in the North] calls for union … So the case stands, and under all the passion of the parties and the cries of battle lie the two chief moving causes of the struggle. Union means so many millions a year lost to the South; secession means the loss of the same millions to the North. The love of money is the root of this, as of many other evils… [T]he quarrel between the North and South is, as it stands, solely a fiscal quarrel.
The “fiscal quarrel” would therefore appear to be the primary cause of the Civil War – the case that has often been put forward by the Southern side of the debate – except for one snag: the fact that the South’s economy was inexorably tied to slave labour, and that the States and Confederacy constitutions all included amendments invariably specifying that “…citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired”.
Effectively, slavery and tariffs are bound together. The Southern States seceded to protect their standards of living (justified) but based on the institution of slavery (not justified). Unfair tariffs as an issue proved to be the greater of the two but it is fundamentally inseparable from slavery as the one issue. However, in my conclusion I put forward that there was something even more profound and elemental to the lives and sensibilities of the men and women of the Confederacy that ultimately caused them to take up arms, and that profound feeling is still evident today in the resentment the South has towards the North and the Federal Government: the sovereign right to self determination.
Up to this point I’ve said little about Abraham Lincoln and nothing at all about the military conflict. The war itself is a vast subject on it’s own and I don’t propose to get into it here, but Lincoln should be explored given his pivotal role before and during the war, but without going into too much detail as so much has already been written about him.
Abraham Lincoln has been described as everything from the Great Emanicipator and the saviour of the Union to a dictator and a monster. I don’t subscribe to such extreme views of the man either way. Lincoln was a politician first and foremost who typically mixed lies with the truth to achieve a political end – there’s never been a politician born who wasn’t hypocritical at some time in his or her career.
Lincoln was a man of his time: patriarchal, parochial, pragmatic. Convinced of the white man’s supremacy. He had no love of people of colour, believing they were morally and intellectually inferior to the white race. Nevertheless this didn’t stop him from taking up the abolitionist cause – a fair contradiction it would seem. These character traits say plenty about the man and will always be of historical interest, but they aren’t all that relevant when asking the fundamental question of the Civil War: was the war justified.
I believe that Lincoln was right insofar as wanting to preserve the Union for unity’s sake and the dream of a prosperous future. I believe such a vision is vindicated by the greatness of the United States today. But I do not believe his prosecution of the war was justified. In fact it could have been avoided all together by either letting the Confederate States go or reaching a fair and equitable economic compromise. On the issue of slavery, Lincoln could have waited until the South abolished it of its own free will. Lincoln may have preserved the Union in a political and geographical sense but from my perspective he went about it the wrong way – parochially advantaging the North to satisfy powerful business interests and Republican Party economic ideals to the ultimate detriment of the South. Lincoln became a captive of ulterior motives that had nothing to do with the emancipation of slaves and everything to do with generating national wealth via the Industrial North.
I am of the view that political pressures from all sides affected his judgement, leading to a war that cost the lives of 620,000 soldiers and countless Southern civilians. Time was what Lincoln had on his side and he didn’t use it. A more equitable tariff arrangement was within his power but he didn’t explore it. Lincoln’s gravest mistake was not putting the whole of the country’s welfare first – rather, he saw the nation’s interests through the myopic prism of Northern industrialisation, believing it to be the appropriate avenue to future strength and prosperity. This by extension meant favouring Northern interests. Not a monster, nor an emancipator, but a fatally flawed politician who’s legacy in the pantheon of American presidents has been air brushed and manicured for the sake of establishing a mainstream, populist mythology.
There is another matter that must be taken into account: the United States Constitution – whether the U.S was (and still is) a consolidated and permanent federation or a league of sovereign states who’s own constitutions can legally nullify federal statutes. Did the South legally or illegally secede? Was it a revolution? I wonder, does it really matter? Should the complex world of constitutional legalities take precedence over the spirit of freedom that underpins the constitution? What happens to the unalienable right to self determination as the core principle of liberty? Perhaps the greatest loser of the war was liberty itself.
As I write this conclusion a rhetorical question keeps going through my mind: what is freedom. Is freedom the right to liberate a people by subjugating an entire population? Is freedom the right to enslave a people while bemoaning the loss of one’s own freedom? Is it right to disregard one freedom in the pursuit of another kind of freedom? It seems to me that liberty as envisioned by the American founding fathers is immutable; a right that is beyond negotiation or convenient interpretation. If freedom is a person’s birthright then surely it is the birthright of a people. Liberty is explicitly the unalienable right to self determination; to find one’s own way in the world in search of a more enlightened, just, equitable society – the very thing that the colonies fought for during the American Revolution.
The self evident proof of Liberty should not be confused with causes and motives in the name of freedom. If Liberty is reduced to a political device then the case can be made that Adolph Hitler was justified in annexing Czechoslovakia because a small minority of Germans lived under Czech rule. We must not accept that liberty is good for one but not the other. Just as servitude in the North was wrong, and slavery in the South was wrong, so too was the obstruction of the South’s right to secede. Liberty must be perpetual, fixed, sancrosanct. As a duty we should resolve never to pevert it. If we allow the exploitation of Liberty to accomodate partisan, political ideology then we stand for nothing. And no one is free. No one is free because we remain chained to the same arrogance of “I know what is best for you” that is at the very root of all the mistakes that have gone before and are destined to be made forever.
Elsewhere in my blog I have referred to the self righteous “moral superiority” of elite minority views that insist on what is best for us; those who believe that “my way is the right way”. No matter the assumed righteousness of the cause, even with the benefit of hindsight, we cannot allow one side to ride roughshod over the other side. Consensus comes not from the intransigence of two polarized opposites but from the middleground working outward in search of commonalities. Without the one taking the other by the hand then liberty loses and self righteousness wins. Consider that most quintessential of Southerners, Robert E. Lee. General Lee, who openly and publicly stated that he detested slavery as a “moral evil”, nevertheless fought with great distinction on the side of the South. Why? Because he refused to “raise a hand against my family” who’s sovereign right to self determination was being taken away.
Time is not of the essence when the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are at stake. By 1890, slavery and indentured unfree labour had been abolished throughout the Americas: Brazil, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, West Indies, Cuba…everywhere. It was done peacefully, and there was no segregation because of bitter resentment over a civil war. This would have been the fate of the South too.
While researching I luckily stumbled across a site with the first pages of the reminiscences of a Confederate officer. Written in 1903 by Major-General John B. Gordon, it is refreshing for it’s measured fairness and lack of bitterness. Written in the beautiful language of the old South it conveys a highly pertinent message for the reader to reflect on. I will end this rather long blog essay with an extract. Thankyou for reading my post. – Wayne
The causes of the war will be found at the foundation of our political fabric, in our complex organism, in the fundamental law, in the Constitution itself, in the conflicting constructions which it invited, and in the institution of slavery which it recognized and was intended to protect. If asked what was the real issue involved in our unparalleled conflict, the average American citizen will reply, “The negro”; and it is fair to say that had there been no slavery there would have been no war. But there would have been no slavery if the South’s protests could have availed when it was first introduced; and now that it is gone, although its sudden and violent abolition entailed upon the South directly and incidentally a series of woes which no pen can describe, yet it is true that in no section would its reestablishment be more strongly and universally resisted. The South steadfastly maintains that responsibility for the presence of this political Pandora’s box in this Western world cannot be laid at her door….
…slavery was far from being the sole cause of the prolonged conflict. Neither its destruction on the one hand, nor its defence on the other, was the energizing force that held the contending armies to four years of bloody work. I apprehend that if all living Union soldiers were summoned to the witness stand, every one of them would testify that it was the preservation of the American Union and not the destruction of Southern slavery that induced him to volunteer at the call of his country. As for the South, it is enough to say that perhaps eighty per cent. of her armies were neither slave-holders, nor had the remotest interest in the institution. No other proof, however, is needed than the undeniable fact that at any period of the war from its beginning to near its close the South could have saved slavery by simply laying down its arms and returning to the Union.
During the entire life of the Republic the respective rights and powers of the States and general government had furnished a question for endless controversy. In process of time this controversy assumed a somewhat sectional phase. The dominating thought of the North and of the South may be summarized in a few sentences.
The South maintained with the depth of religious conviction that the Union formed under the Constitution was a Union of consent and not of force; that the original States were not the creatures but the creators of the Union; that these States had gained their independence, their freedom, and their sovereignty from the mother country, and had not surrendered these on entering the Union; that by the express terms of the Constitution all rights and powers not delegated were reserved to the States; and the South challenged the North to find one trace of authority in that Constitution for invading and coercing a sovereign State.
The North, on the other hand, maintained with the utmost confidence in the correctness of her position that the Union formed under the Constitution was intended to be perpetual; that sovereignty was a unit and could not be divided; that whether or not there was any express power granted in the Constitution for invading a State, the right of self-preservation was inherent in all governments; that the life of the Union was essential to the life of liberty; or, in the words of Webster, “liberty and union are one and inseparable.”
To the charge of the North that secession was rebellion and treason, the South replied that the epithets of rebel and traitor did not deter her from the assertion of her independence, since these same epithets had been familiar to the ears of Washington and Hancock and Adams and Light Horse Harry Lee. In vindication of her right to secede, she appealed to the essential doctrine, “the right to govern rests on the consent of the governed,” and to the right of independent action as among those reserved by the States.
There were those, a few years ago, who were especially devoted to the somewhat stereotyped phrase that in our Civil War one side (meaning the North) “was wholly and eternally right,” while the other side (meaning the South) “was wholly and eternally wrong.” I might cite those on the Southern side of the great controversy, equally sincere and fully as able, who would have been glad to persuade posterity that the North was “wholly and eternally wrong”; that her people waged war upon sister States who sought peacefully to set up a homogeneous government, and meditated no wrong or warfare upon the remaining sister States. These Southern leaders steadfastly maintained that the Southern people, in the exercise of the freedom and sovereign rights purchased by Revolutionary blood, were asserting a second independence according to the teachings and example of their fathers.
But what good is to come to the country from partisan utterances on either side? My own well-considered and long-entertained opinion, my settled and profound conviction, the correctness of which the future will vindicate, is this: that the one thing which is “wholly and eternally wrong” is the effort of so-called statesmen to inject one-sided and jaundiced sentiments into the youth of the country in either section. Such sentiments are neither consistent with the truth of history, nor conducive to the future welfare and unity of the Republic. The assumption on either side of all the righteousness and all the truth would produce a belittling arrogance, and an offensive intolerance of the opposing section; or, if either section could be persuaded that it was “wholly and eternally wrong,” it would inevitably destroy the self-respect and manhood of its people.
Truth, justice, and patriotism unite in proclaiming that both sides fought and suffered for liberty as bequeathed by the Fathers–the one for liberty in the union of the States, the other for liberty in the independence of the States.
While the object of these papers is to record my personal reminiscences and to perpetuate incidents illustrative of the character of the American soldier, whether he fought on the one side or the other, I am also moved to write by what I conceive to be a still higher aim; and that is to point out, if I can, the common ground on which all may stand; where justification of one section does not require or imply condemnation of the other–the broad, high, sunlit middle ground where fact meets fact, argument confronts argument, and truth is balanced against truth.