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THE NOT-PC TRUTH ABOUT THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES

by Carole E. Scott

Political correctness in the history textbooks I read when I was in school included the following:

1. Slavery was unprofitable.

2. The South started the War.

3. The North fought in order to eliminate slavery.

4. Only Southerners believed that the states had the right to secede.

5. In large part, the South lost the War because it was relatively unindustrialized.

6. The banking system that existed before the War was a disaster; so the new system established during the War was a big improvement.

7. The War promoted economic growth.

8. The South fought in order to preserve slavery.

Well, these PC conclusions have in recent years been pretty well discredited. Let's see how one by one:

1. Slavery was unprofitable: The political historians who believed this lacked the common sense I had as a child. How can a privately-owned enterprise continuously lose money? In recent years data gathered by economic historians has shown that slavery was profitable, and that its profitability was comparable to that of alternative endeavors. (One antebellum bank in North Georgia was closed because its owner said he could earn more in planting.)

2. The South started the War.Although the South fired the first shots, it is clear that it did not start the War. To believe this is to believe it wasn't the guy that spit in another man's face that started a fight; instead, it was the man spit on when he hit the spitter.

Unwilling to give up the tariff revenues the U.S. collected in Southern ports, Abraham Lincoln decided to keep the handful of forts not surrendered during President Buchanan's administration. He planned to station U.S. Navy ships outside Southern ports to collect tariffs. Certainly Lincoln knew that no sovereign nation could tolerate this, as the Confederate Constitution declared that the states composing it were sovereign and independent.

Because, unlike the North, the Confederacy supported free trade, the Confederate Constitution did not empower the government to impose protective tariffs, grant subsidies, or finance internal improvements. Northerners. feared that the lack of tariffs in the Confederacy would cause its ports to lose business to Southern ports.

3. The North fought in order to eliminate slavery: There is no question but that Lincoln believed labor should be free and wished to prevent the expansion of slavery, however, before he was inaugurated, Abraham Lincoln agreed to President Buchanan's suggestion that the South be told that, if it would remain in the Union, an unamendable amendment would be added to the U.S. Constitution that would prohibit interference with slavery. (Instead of a 13th amendment that preserved slavery being passed, after the War a 13th amendment abolishing slavery was passed!)

"My paramount object in this struggle," Lincoln said, "is to save the Union and it not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it..." In his first inaugural address he declared that, "I have no purpose directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."

The incoming Congress denied that the government was waging war for the purpose of eliminating slavery. Instead, it claimed, its purpose was to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union.

"As an excuse for civil war," says Jeffrey Rogers Hummel in Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, A History of the American Civil War, "maintaining the State's territorial integrity is bankrupt and reprehensible....Yet this justification holds only if war was indeed necessary. No abolition was completely peaceful, but the United States and Haiti are just two among twenty-odd slave societies where violence predominated."

The London Spectatordismissed Lincoln's 1863 proclamation freeing only the slaves behind Confederate lines because it "...liberated the enemy's slaves as it would the enemy's cattle, simply to weaken them....The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States."

By the1850s, the Declaration of Independence's assertion that all men are created equal had become Abraham Lincoln's "ancient faith," the "father of all moral principles," and an "axiom" of a free society. But while he turned to it for support of the Union cause, Southerners, too, turned to it for justification, citing its declaration of the right of people to "dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another."

In instructing their delegates to the Continental Congress, Southerners pointed out, state after state had noted that they retained the exclusive right of defining their domestic institutions. Also, one of the complaints about British actions included in the Declaration was King George III's exciting "domestic insurrections amongst us." Lincoln dealt with this by saying that the nation's founders had permitted the continued existence of slavery as a matter of necessity. "We could not secure the good we did if we grasped for more," he said. "But that did not destroy the principle that is the charter of our liberties."

Slavery was doomed, Hummel believes, even if Lincoln had allowed the South to peacefully leave the Union. His reasoning is the same as that of Joseph Rogers Underwood, a Kentucky Congressman who in 1842 declared that "the dissolution of the Union was the dissolution of slavery" because "just as soon as Mason and Dixon's line and the Ohio river become the boundary between independent nations, slavery ceases to exist in the border states." This is because slaves could obtain their freedom by crossing that border. Sooner or later, Underwood declared, "this process would extend itself farther and farther south, rendering slave labor so precarious and uncertain that it could not be dpended upon; and consequently a slave would become almost worthless; and thus the institution itself would gradually, but certainly, perish."

4. Only Southerners believed that a state has the right to secede:Because they opposed going to War in 1812, some New England states considered seceding. For its tolerance of slavery, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, a New Englander, denounced the U.S. Constitution as "...a covenant with death and an agreement with hell." During a 4th of July celebration, he burned a copy of the Constitution proclaiming: "So perish all compromises with tyranny." As a result, he advocated the North secede from the Union. However, abolitionist Lysander Spooner, who before the War had no objection to slaves violently rising up to secure their liberty, said that the North fought for the principle that "...men may rightfully be compelled to submit to, and support, a government they do not want; and that resistance, on their part, makes them criminals and traitors....Political slavery," he believed, had taken the place of "chattel slavery."

"Insofar as the war was fought to preserve the Union," says Hummel, "it was an explicit rejection of the American Revolution....[A]s a revolutionary right, the legitimacy of secession is universal and unconditional. That at least is how the Declaration of Independence reads. 'Put simply,' agrees William Appleman Williams, 'the cause of the Civil War was the refusal of Lincoln and other northerners to honor the revolutionary right of self-determination--the touchstone of the American revolution.'"

5. In large part, the South lost the War because it was relatively unindustrialized: When the War began, not a gun, pistol, saber, shot, or shell was produced in the South. Only in Richmond were powder or cannon produced. During the War the South's huge armies were substantially supplied with all these by domestic production. Established in Augusta was the second largest powder works in the world. By 1864, despite the occupation of much of North Alabama by Union troops, Alabama was producing four times more iron than had any state, North or South, before the War. Government-forced industrialization played a major role in assuring that the Confederate army always had adequate arms and ammunition. (This does not mean, of course, that the North's greater industrial capability did not give it an advantage.)

6. The banking system that existed before the War was a disaster; so the new system established during the War was a big improvement:In recent years, several economic historians have shredded the claim that the antebellum banking system was a disaster. It has also been obseerved that the chief reason for forming the new, much praised national banking system was to help the North finance the War.

Early in the War the Lincoln administration was very dissatisfied with the level of loan support given the federal government by state chartered banks--the only type of banks existing when the War began; so a new, national banking system was created. The amount of paper money the new, federally-chartered national banks were allowed to issue was dependent upon how much they loaned the government. In those days banks could issue paper money, and when they made loans they usually gave the borrower paper money, rather than a checking account as they do today. A tax was levied on the paper money issued by state-chartered banks that forced them to give up issuing them.

7. The War promoted economic growth: "Modern historians," says Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, "have discovered that the Civil War in fact retarded economic growth. The 1860s saw the American economy's worst performance of any decade between 1840 and 1930, with real income per capita falling by 3 percent. Some of this loss stemmed from [the tremendous] wartime destruction in the South. But if the North is considered in isolation, the Civil War still hampered prosperity."

What Were They Fighting For?

8. The South fought in order to preserve slavery: While the previous examples of winner-written history are pretty easy to disprove, it is not as easy to dispose of this claim. South Carolina's secession convention, for example, declared in its Declaration of Causes that the Republican victory in the 1860 presidential election threatened slavery. A man, it observed, had been elected to the high office of the President of the U.S. "...whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery." The Black Republicans who had taken control of the government intended to wage a war against slavery until it shall cease to exist throughout the United States.

There was good reason for Southerners to believe that the victory of a sectional party founded by abolitionists was a threat to slavery. (The Republican Party was the nation's first sectional party.) Although Lincoln was a moderate, his vice president was a radical, and so were some of the members of his cabinet. In Lincoln's cabinet was William Seward, the most prominent member of the Party when Lincoln was nominated. In 1858, he declared that the Union was moving from a loose confederation of states towards a consolidated nation. Buy bringing the antagonistic systems of the North and South into closer contact, collision was resulting.

"Shall I tell you," he said, "what this collision means? They who think that it is accidental, unnecessary, the work of interested or fanatical agitators, and therefore ephemeral, mistake the cause altogether. It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later become entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation." Lincoln agreed, saying a house half-free and half-slave could not survive.

Although he opposed slavery, Lincoln said "...that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races." He opposed blacks voting, holding public office, or marrying whites. While the two races live together one must take the superior position, he believed, and he was for that role being assigned to whites. In light of this and the fact that black workers would lower whites' wage rates, his preference was to colonize blacks outside the United States. (In 1861, some Midwestern states prohibited blacks from living within their borders, and only in Massachusetts could they vote.)

As a result of Lincoln's election, the Republican party gained control of federal patronage, the postal service, military posts, and judicial appointments. Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown believed that the latter would result within 25 years the courts making slavery illegal. (He told non-slaveowers it would be wrong for them to sit idly by while slaveowners' property was taken away from them.)

Alexander H. Stephens, a Georgia U.S. Congressman who served as the Confederacy's vice president, claimed that slavery was "...the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution." Observe that Stephens said "immediate cause." Differences in the Confederate Constitution from from the U.S. Constitution are indicative of other causes. It omitted the general welfare clause that has been used to justify the U.S. federal government doing whatever it wants to do. In addition to denying the government the right to levy tariffs, grant subsidies, or finance internal improvements, it prohibited Congress from initiating constitutional amendments, and it made it easier for states to initiate them. All appropriations had to be passed by a two-thirds vote, unless they were explicitly requested by the executive branch. The president was granted a line-item veto. (Only recently has the U.S. president been granted this right.) The post office was required to be financially self-sufficient. (It was well into this century before this was true in the U.S.) It made it possible for officials of the central government to be impeached by both state legislatures and the House of Representatives.

As in other matters, Southerners were in agreement with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1798 that "Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare but only those specifically enumerated." In 1828, South Carolina Senator William Drayton observed that "If Congress can determine what constitutes the general welfare and can appropriate money for its advancement, where is the limitation to carrying into execution whatever can be effected by money?" (In the 1930s the Supreme Court essentially told Congress that it has the power to spend money on whatever it believes promotes the general welfare.)

It is clear that many Southerners did not consider preserving slavery to be their primary objective. As early as 1863, an editorial in the Jackson Mississippiandeclared that slavery should not be "...a barrier to our independence. If it is found in the way--if it proves an insurmountable object of the achievement of our liberty and separate nationalism away with it! Let it perish....The first duty of the patriot...is to save ourselves from the rapacious North, whatever the cost."

Confederate General Patrick Cleburne said, "It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties." Ultimately the Confederacy took his and other soldiers' advice, including General Lee, and in March 1865, the Confederate Congress authorized the recruitment of 300,000 slaves, promising them full emancipation.

The editor of the Daily Constitutionalist in Augusta, Georgia, James Gardner, probably pretty well reflected the views of many of those who advocated the enlistment of slaves in the Confederate Army: "As between reunion...[and] submission to the Yankee and the entire obliteration of negro slavery; individually we should say slavery must go."

When Lincoln asked for troops to bring down the Confederacy, several states (Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas) that had previously been unwilling to secede, did so. Clearly, they chose to fight for the ideal of a voluntary Union; not the preservation of slavery. (If Lincoln had not dispatched troops into them, thrown elected officials out of office, arrested Confederate sympathizers, and held elections at gun point, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, too, might have left the Union.)

Southerners had other complaints besides the threat to slavery the election to the presidency of a member of a party favoring abolition presented. The federal government imposed protective (high) tariffs, paid subsidies, and financed internal improvements, and it was a high tariff that first led the South to threatened to secede during the Jackson administration. In recent years economic historians have shown that Southerners were right to believe that tariffs, subsidies, and federal financing of internal improvements benefitted the North at the expense of the South.

Northern immigrants who opposed slavery for moral reasons and/or fear of competing with slave labor dominated the states most recently admitted new to the Union. As a result, they did not permit slavery. So, by 1860, even in the Senate the slave states were outnumbered, and there seemed to be no hope this would ever be reversed. Since the adoption of the Constitution a Southern slaveholder had held the office of president for 49 out of 72 years. Twenty-four of 36 speakers of the House and 25 of 36 presidents pro tem of the Senate had been Southerners. Twenty of 35 Supreme Court Justices had come from the slave states. Feared by the South was what would result from this loss of this power.

Copyrighted by Carole E. Scott, 1997

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