Blog #58 – Discuss causes of the Civil War
One of the main things that I hope that I have taught you over the past couple of weeks (going back to the Mexican War controversy) is that asking the question “What caused the Civil War?” is not a good question. The question seems to indicate that there’s only ONE cause that can be found among all of the political compromises, peoples’ actions, economic forces, and differing social / cultural norms of the North and the South. This oversimplification insults the intelligence of anyone who has studied the CW like we have, because there is no single, simple answer.
In the past, historians have tried to blame the war on agitators – the abolitionists or the Slave Power conspiracies. Both sides had radical “fire-eaters” who were unwilling to accept compromise and wanted it the Frank Sinatra way, “I did it my way!” Also, past historians have tended to blame it on economic forces or states’ rights. The threat of losing slavery meant the loss of billions of dollars of investment in people and land for the southern economy, and so the Deep South states pushed it to the brink to be left alone from federal interference (though Lincoln wasn’t going to interfere, he claimed that he just wanted to stop the spread of slavery out west). This dove tails nicely with the idea that Stephen Douglas and others had championed – it was up to the states to decide what to do with slavery b/c the federal government (Congress) was prohibited from interfering with slavery. Therefore, it was a state’s right to do with slavery what it wished since the federal government had its hands tied by the Dred Scott decision in 1857.
Other historians, more recently, have placed the blame for the CW squarely on the shoulders of slavery. Many Northerners felt that slavery was on its decline or would be limited in its area of growth by the Missouri Compromise (1820), but with the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, Compromise of 1850, and Kansas Nebraska Act, that small area had quickly expanded over the course of 35 years. Then the Dred Scott decision seemed to say that slavery could exist anywhere within the country. Those Northerners were now angry (for many different reasons, racism being one of them) that their politicians seemed to betray them. This anger might explain the popularity of the Republican Party in the 1850s, an avowed anti-slavery party that appealed to many Northerners by 1860. At the center of all this anger and controversy is the volatile subject of slavery and its spread.
Modern historian Edward Ayers, a Southerner, has divided up these historians into two camps: the fundamentalists who claim that the Civil War was a struggle over the future of the United States between slavery and freedom, and the revisionists who say that the Civil War was caused by the disintegration of the Democrats, the failure of compromise, and the election of Abraham Lincoln (the first Northern president elected who wasn’t pro-slavery since John Quincy Adams in 1824). For the fundamentalists, slavery is the main cause, while for the revisionists, slavery is buried beneath layers of white ideology and politics. Ayers feels that slavery was a crisis of immense magnitude but didn’t lead to war. He said that the “war came through misunderstanding, confusion, miscalculation. Both sides underestimated the location of the fundamental loyalty in the other. Both received incorrect images of the other in the partisan press. Political beliefs distorted each side’s view of the other’s economy and class relations. Both sides believed the other side was bluffing, and both sides believed that the other’s internal differences and conflicts would lead it to buckle” (134). He wraps it up by saying that Southern whites didn’t fight for slavery, they fought for a new nation based upon slavery. Northerners didn’t fight to end slavery, but they did fight to preserve the integrity of the Union.
Question: Where do you find yourself when it comes to the cause(s) of the Civil War? Do you find yourself in the fundamentalist camp or with the revisionists? Why? Do you think that slavery, economics, or states rights was the primary cause of the war? Why?
Your answer is due Monday, December 9 by class time. Minimum of 300 words, please.