The Spirit That Drove Us to Civil War Is Back: A Spirit that Made Slavery Its Priority (polished version of fourth installment)

[This will be the last time I post entries twice –once an early draft, then a polished draft– because now that I’m clear that I’m going to polish these pieces, I won’t go public at all with the earlier drafts.]

I a??m developing this series* on the important ways in which our present political crisis can be seen as a replay of the run-up to the Civil War with two purposes in mind: 1) To help us perceive more clearly the nature of the force we’re up against in these dangerous times; and 2) To help illuminate some important –? and perhaps hitherto unrecognized –?? ways that the human world works.

In order to validate the general thesis of this series — that the spirit that’s damaging America today is a re-incarnation of the spirit that drove the nation into Civil War — it’s important to perceive accurately the spirit at work in each of the two eras, a task made more difficult by the false picture presented in each case.

Let’s begin with a proposition concerning the nature of the conflict in the era of the Civil War. This proposition is controversial in America but should not be, because the evidence is clear: The root of the conflict was not states’?? rights but slavery.

Here’??s a relevant passage from an article in the April 12, 2001 issue of the New York Review of Books, written by one of the foremost historians of the Civil War, James McPherson, professor emeritus at Princeton:

When Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, at the end of four years of civil war, few people in either the North or the South would have dissented from his statement that slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war.”

The Confederate vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, had said in a speech at Savannah on March 21, 1861, that slavery was “??the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution of Southern independence.” The United States, said Stephens, had been founded in 1776 on the false idea that all men are created equal. The Confederacy, by contrast,

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.

Unlike Lincoln, Davis and Stephens survived the war to write their memoirs. By then, slavery was gone with the wind. To salvage as much honor and respectability as they could from their lost cause, they set to work to purge it of any association with the now dead and discredited institution of human bondage. In their postwar views, both Davis and Stephens hewed to the same line: Southern states had seceded not to protect slavery, but to vindicate state sovereignty. This theme became the virgin birth theory of secession: the Confederacy was conceived not by any worldly cause, but by divine principle.

Lying about its motivations, as McPherson describes here, is an integral part of the modus operandi of this spirit — then and now. (More on the pattern of dishonesty later in this series.)

Even though there is a sense in which the war was fought over “states’?? rights,”? that’??s not true in any way that detracts from the basic truth that conflict was about slavery.

The spark for the war was disagreement over the right of the states to secede: The Confederacy claimed that right, and attempted to exercise it; the Union, under Lincoln, denied that right and fought to preserve the Union.

But the whole reason the issue of secession arose — the dispute behind all the political battles that had worked over the course of more than a decade to split the nation into two parts ready to fight one another — was slavery.

What does it say about a spirit if it drives people to kill or die for the right of some people to treat other people as property?

It was a war, incidentally, not over whether slavery would be abolished. Lincoln, who thought slavery a moral wrong, said that he believed the Constitution required him to protect slavery where it already was, and he repeatedly promised that as president he would do so.

No, the political conflict throughout the 1850s and leading into the Civil War, was over whether slavery would expand its dominion into the new territories that would become states in the future, and then, with the reasoning of the Dred Scot decision, perhaps even into states that were and wanted to remain free.

The war, then, was over an issue on which the South was on the offensive, not the defensive. As this suggests, it was the South — far more than the North -?- that determined that the long-difficult issue of slavery would be settled through strife, not — as it had been in earlier times — by compromise.

That tendency — to choose conflict over compromise or cooperation â?? will be the subject of future entries in this series. But first, let’??s follow how the spirit that inflamed people to fight for slavery has manifested itself in the century and a half since slavery was abolished, all the way up to America’s current political battles.


* This article is the fourth in the series. The first three have been * The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back: Introduction, The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back: The Wolves’ Version of Liberty , and , and The Spirit That Drove Us to Civil War Is Back: Looking Closer at that National Nightmare.

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8 Responses to “The Spirit That Drove Us to Civil War Is Back: A Spirit that Made Slavery Its Priority (polished version of fourth installment)”

  1. Carol Says:

    Agreement here in Atlanta. I recently left a facebook page which was to share memories of our early lives and formative years. I few instigators threw in matches which lit fires…old fires. Seething hatred and old family held prejudices surfaced through the keyboards of privileged, white kids raised with all they needed, served by now gone “maids buses”. My mother broke tradition by paying $14 per day when the neighborhood rate was $8….early 1960s. Atlanta now has the largest population of middle class and wealthy African Americans to be found. We arrived here after the bombing of The Temple on Peachtree by J.B. Stoner…and the deaths of the children in Birmingham. Dr. King was taking to the streets. There were still separate water fountains….something I’d never seen up north. Atlanta seemed to change. The highly esteemed African American community has people who also thrive on racism, materialism, and who keep hatred alive and cash flowing. Infrastructure is falling apart. 19th century sewer system in Atlanta. Bridges crumbling like other places. Lots of talk and no leadership anywhere. Children are killed by gunshots at an alarming rate. The city wants convention money so blindness is encouraged……………..I have commented to others that I can detect that same spirit you speak of, newly revived and invigorated. We have two heavily armed camps in Atlanta – conservative right – mostly white – wing and a certain large group of blacks. Not hearing voices or reason…but lots of news of murder, meyhem, armed invasions, drive by bullets finding sleeping children, robberies…….Blessed are the peaceMAKERS.

  2. David R Says:

    I went through Atlanta years ago on the way to Tennessee from Florida. But the Atlanta Carol describes has come about since then, the early 60s. Why is this taking place now in ‘liberal’ run cities ? Or is this the case ? So we keep hearing . .

  3. David R Says:

    Lincoln was addressing the moment. As for secession to maintain the right to own slaves, largely so but secession for political reasons. If new states would be coming into the Union as Free States it is obvious that the Senate would changed then the Supreme Court and soon Slavery would no longer be the law of the land and the Planter economy of the Deep South, without the necessary labor, would be devastated.

    The forming of the initial Confederacy was a railroad job without the consent of the majority right from the start.(reference and details on request) It was an economic decision not about owning human beings per se. And many boys were conscripted, fought, suffered and died who never dreamed of owning a plantation.

  4. Andrew Bard Schmookler Says:

    You are right, David R., that there was political power at stake. The South had dominated the national political system since the beginning, and that was already slipping away for several reasons– the most immediate of which was that the Northern politicians that had done the slave power’s bidding were either getting defeated or were turning away from having been bullied and mistreated. Another reason was that population and production were both growing more quickly in the North than in the South. And finally the future reason that you allude to: that admitting more free states without also creating more slave states, which is what Lincoln would have wanted with the territories, would change the balance of power.

    But none of this would have changed the constitutional protections for slavery where it already existed. Dominance would have been over. But survival of the system was not, realistically, at stake in the politics of that time. Nonetheless, just as the Republicans seem to fear –without any good reason– that America is about to become Socialist, that we’re about to come under the rule of Sharia law, and a variety of other delusory fears, it is true that by the time of secession, the South was filled with all kinds of overblown fears that were not realistic, but were nonetheless –as fears– part of the reality as they perceived it, however unfounded they were.

    And yes, you’re right also about the majority of Southerners not having the same economic interests as the slaveholders. If one watches how the slaveholders managed to get that majority to fight and kill and die in that war, one gets a glimpse of a pattern of exploitative propaganda that bears a resemblance to how the re-incarnated spirit of the South in that era has induced millions of good, God-fearing Americans to support a power that’s stealing their wealth and power, and robbing their children of their birthright.

  5. Andrew Bard Schmookler Says:

    One important thing to add, regarding the idea that the issue was political power and not “just” slavery.

    The whole notion of power in this instance was not power in some general sense, but power specifically for issues regarding slavery.

    For all other issues, there’s no particular reason to believe that the admission of western states as free would mean that the South would be in a minority position, unable to protect its interests. If the issue was tariffs, would not the farm states of the Midwest be as likely to side with the South as with the Northeast? Likewise on the issue of national banks, which was another of the big issues of the first half of the 19th century.

    Concern about free states outnumbering slave states was a concern relevant only to the issue of slavery.

    So in this respect, also, it is slavery once again that is the root and foundation of the whole matter.

  6. David R Says:

    Now why the war ?

  7. Andrew Bard Schmookler Says:

    This was installment # 4, David R. Installments 6 and 7 will be on whose responsibility was it that war came.

  8. Kimc Says:

    Can we unfight the Civil War? Let’s go back and change our minds and let the Confederacy go its own way.

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