Jun 062013
 

Thomas DiLorenzo: More on the Myth of Lincoln, Secession and the ‘Civil War’

With Anthony Wile

Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo

The Daily Bell is pleased to present this exclusive interview with Thomas DiLorenzo.

Introduction: Thomas DiLorenzo is an American economics professor at Loyola University Maryland. He is also a senior faculty member of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and an affiliated scholar of the League of the South Institute, the research arm of the League of the South, and the Abbeville Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Virginia Tech. DiLorenzo has authored at least ten books, including The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (2003), Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Arch Enemy Betrayed the American Revolution and What It Means for Americans Today (2009), How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold History of Our Country, From the Pilgrims to the Present (2005), Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe (2007) and most recently, Organized Crime: The Unvarnished Truth About Government (2012). Thomas DiLorenzo is a frequent columnist for LewRockwell.com, lectures widely and is a frequent speaker at Mises Institute events.

Daily Bell: Remind our readers about one of your central intellectual passions, which is confronting academic “Lincoln revisionism.” Who was Lincoln really and why have you spent so much of your career trying to return Lincoln’s academic profile to reality?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Lincoln mythology is the ideological cornerstone of American statism. He was in reality the most hated of all American presidents during his lifetime according to an excellent book by historian Larry Tagg entitled The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: America’s Most Reviled President. He was so hated in the North that the New York Times editorialized a wish that he would be assassinated. This is perfectly understandable: He illegally suspended Habeas Corpus and imprisoned tens of thousands of Northern political critics without due process; shut down over 300 opposition newspapers; committed treason by invading the Southern states (Article 3, Section 3 of the Constitution defines treason as “only levying war upon the states” or “giving aid and comfort to their enemies,” which of course is exactly what Lincoln did). He enforced military conscription with the murder of hundreds of New York City draft protesters in 1863 and with the mass execution of deserters from his army. He deported a congressional critic (Democratic Congressman Clement Vallandigham of Ohio); confiscated firearms; and issued an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice when the jurist issued an opinion that only Congress could legally suspend Habeas Corpus. He waged an unnecessary war (all other countries ended slavery peacefully in that century) that resulted in the death of as many as 850,000 Americans according to new research published in the last two years. Standardizing for today’s population, that would be similar to 8.5 million American deaths in a four-year war.

Lincoln was deified by the Republican Party, which monopolized the government for half a century after the war. The Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Robert Penn Warren wrote in his book, The Legacy of the Civil War, that all of this mythology created an ideology of “false virtue” that was (and is) interpreted by the American state to “justify” anything it ever did, no matter how heinous and imperialistic. The truth about Lincoln and his war “must be forgotten,” said Warren, if one is to believe in this “false virtue,” which also goes by the slogan of “American exceptionalism.”

Lincoln was a nationalist and an imperialist. He was the political son of Alexander Hamilton who, as such, advocated a government that would serve the moneyed elite at the expense of the masses. Hence his lifelong advocacy of protectionist tariffs, corporate welfare, and a central bank to fund it all. This was called “mercantilism” in the previous centuries, and was the very system the American colonists fought a revolution over.

Daily Bell: What did you think of the recent Steven Spielberg movie about Lincoln? Are defenders of Lincoln getting increasingly desperate?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Yes, the Lincoln cult is getting desperate. Spielberg hired Doris Kearns-Goodwin, a confessed plagiarist, as his advisor on the movie (See my LewRockwell.com article entitled “A Plagiarist’s Contribution to Lincoln Idolatry“). The main theme of the movie is exactly the opposite of historical truth. The main theme is that Lincoln used his legendary political skills to help get the Thirteenth Amendment that ended slavery through the Congress. But if one reads the most authoritative biography of Lincoln, by Harvard’s David Donald, one learns that not only did Lincoln not lift a finger to help the genuine abolitionists; he literally refused to help them when they went up to him and asked him for his help. Lincoln did use his political skills to get an earlier, proposed Thirteenth Amendment through the House and Senate. It was called the Corwin Amendment, and would have prohibited the federal government from ever interfering with Southern slavery. Even Doris Kearns-Goodwin writes about it in her book, Team of Rivals, discussing how the amendment, named after an Ohio congressman, was in reality the work of Abraham Lincoln.

Daily Bell: Why should that be so? Is the myth of Lincoln a central one to the larger and continued myth of modern US exceptionalism? Who propagates these myths and who benefits?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Yes, the Lincoln myth is the ideological cornerstone of “American exceptionalism” and has long been invoked by both major political parties to “justify” anything and everything. President Obama quoted and paraphrased Lincoln in a speech before the United Nations last September, and in his second inaugural address, to support his agenda of waging more aggressive wars in Syria, Iran, and elsewhere. Specifically, he repeated the “All Men are Created Equal” line from the Gettysburg Address to make the case that it is somehow the duty of Americans to force “freedom” on all men and women everywhere, all around the globe, at gunpoint if need be. This is the murderous, bankrupting, imperialistic game that Lincoln mythology is used to “justify.”

Daily Bell: Put Lincoln in context. Why is continued mythology so important to the current power structure of the Anglosphere?

Thomas DiLorenzo: The state cannot tell the people that it is bankrupting them and sending their sons and daughters to die by the thousands in aggressive and unconstitutional wars so that crony capitalism can be imposed at gunpoint in foreign countries, and so that the military-industrial complex can continue to rake in billions. That might risk a revolution. So instead, they have to use the happy talk of American virtue and American exceptionalism, the “god” of democracy,” etc. And the average American, whom the great H.L. Mencken referred to as part of the “booboisie,” believes it.

Daily Bell: Let’s try to clear up a few more myths. Did Lincoln issue greenbacks in defiance of British “money power“? In other words, was his war waged as an act of rebellion against European colonialism? From our point of view, Lincoln was likely in thrall to the New York banking establishment. How do you see it?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Lincoln spent his entire life in politics, from 1832 until his dying day, as a lobbyist for the American banking industry and the Northern manufacturing corporations that wanted cheaper credit funded by a government-run bank. He spent decades making speeches on behalf of resurrecting the corrupt and destabilizing Bank of the United States, founded originally by his political ancestor, Hamilton. No member of the Whig Party was more in bed with the American banking establishment than Lincoln was, according to University of Virginia historian Michael Holt in his book on the history of the American Whig party. The Whig agenda, which was always Lincoln’s agenda, was described brilliantly by Edgar Lee Masters (Clarence Darrow’s law partner) in his book, Lincoln the Man. The agenda was to champion “that political system which doles favors to the strong in order to win and keep their adherence to the government.” It advocated “a people taxed to make profits for enterprises that cannot stand alone.” The Whig Party “had no platform to announce,” Masters wrote, “because its principles were plunder and nothing else.” Lincoln himself once said that he got ALL of his political ideas from Henry Clay, the icon and longtime leader of the Whig Party.

Daily Bell: Let’s ask you some tough questions that will be of interest to our readers and our critics alike. Charges have been leveled from some (disreputable) quarters that you are somehow conspiring historically with a Jesuit faction to promote historical inaccuracies regarding Lincoln since you are a professor at Loyola. Could you please explain these charges more comprehensively and then use this form to rebut them?

Thomas DiLorenzo: I don’t usually answer “when did you stop beating your wife”-type questions since they always come from people with I.Q.s in the single digits. These are people who do not have the mental capacity to learn real economics, so they blabber on about crazy conspiracy theories. The Jesuits at Loyola actually hate me with a passion since they are, with one or two exceptions, Marxist ideologues and I am a libertarian, i.e., the devil. Read my LewRockwell.com article entitled “Tales from an Academic Looney Bin” if you want to learn of my contempt for the Jesuits who run Loyola University Maryland.

Daily Bell: Thanks for the insights. Now, on to another more serious matter, which has to do with the role of Jefferson Davis as President of the Southern Secession. Let’s preface this by proposing it has been proposed that both the Russian Revolution and Germany’s rise to power were apparently funded at least in part by Wall Street and British “City” money – especially via Swiss banks. Can you comment on this perspective as it may well have a bearing on Civil War funding? Is it true, for instance, that many wars including the Civil War are not exactly what they seem and that what we call Money Power benefits by backing both sides and profiting from the conflict itself?

Thomas DiLorenzo: War is always destructive to a nation’s economy regardless of whether it wins or loses the war. War is the opposite of capitalism. Capitalism is a system of peaceful, mutually-advantageous exchanges at market prices based on the international division of labor. War destroys the international division of labor and diverts resources from peaceful, capitalistic exchange to death and destruction. However, there are always war profiteers – the people who profit from selling and financing the military. One doesn’t need to invent a conspiracy theory about this: War profiteering is war profiteering and has always existed as an essential feature of all wars.

Daily Bell: There are even questions raised about Napoleon Bonaparte and whether Money Power utilized the French general’s bellicosity for their own purposes. Can you comment? Is it possible the US Civil War was also arranged and funded by those in Europe that had an agenda to diminish the United States’s exceptionalism and vitiate its republicanism?

Thomas DiLorenzo: I prefer not to answer anonymous questions like this. Who says this, and what is his or her credibility? Any credentials? Have they written anything I can read to judge their thinking ability? Any crank can say any crazy thing and suggest any weird conspiracy theory on the Internet. Besides, “American exceptionalism” did not become a tool of American imperialism until AFTER the Civil War.

Daily Bell: Money Power is a banking phenomenon and much of the banking power was located in Britain during Lincoln’s time, as today. New York banks had extensive relationships with British banking power. And from what we can tell, Lincoln derived an extensive funding and power base from these same banks. So here is another question that goes to the heart of this funding issue: Why did Britain supposedly back the South? Is it possible that this is a historical ruse? Was the British banking establishment pro-North even though the aristocracy was pro-South? Did it suit British banking interests to perpetuate this confusion?

Thomas DiLorenzo: There is no such thing as “Britain” that backed or did not back the South. There were prominent British individuals like Charles Dickens who sided with the South in their writings, but there were also those with similar stature who backed the North. I recommend the book by Charles Adams entitled Slavery, Secession, and Civil War: Views from the United Kingdom and Europe, 1856-1865. Since the South continued to trade with England during the war, there were British banks that financed a lot of this trade and would therefore have supported the South for that reason. At the end of the war the British government was scared to death that Sherman would take his army across the Atlantic as an act of revenge for this collaboration.

Daily Bell: Is it possible that the British banking establishment didn’t care which side won the war, as the US would be irreparably weakened no matter who triumphed? Were British bankers expecting this weakening would encompass a loss of freedom and a rise of governmental authoritarianism? It certainly did, didn’t it?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Since bankers are bankers and not journalists and writers, there is no way of knowing their views on this question without a written record. Anyone who claims to know this without any such record is simply blowing smoke and wasting your time. British intellectuals like Lord Acton understood and wrote about how the result of the war would be a US government that would become more tyrannical and imperialistic. To the extent that some British bankers read such literature and tended to agree with Lord Acton, then that would have been their opinion. Nineteenth-century British bankers were not omniscient, Wizard-of-Oz orchestrators of world events any more than you and I are.

Daily Bell: Here is an even tougher question to answer and a thoroughly speculative one. Is it possible that Jefferson Davis also had a relationship to British Money Power? One salient fact stands out: Davis served as President Franklin Pierce’s war secretary and while Pierce was an ardent states’ rights advocate, it was also widely reported that he had relations with a powerful US secret society – the Knights of the Golden Circle. Can you comment on the Knights of the Golden Circle and what their agenda might have been? We’ve written about this issue here: “Thomas James DiLorenzo on Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Authoritarianism and Manipulated History.”

Here’s a brief description from a book on the Knights entitled, The Mysterious and Secret Order of the Knights of the Golden Circle … “Few people know of the Knights of the Golden Circle and even fewer know about the purpose for which it existed. It is probably the greatest untold story today in the history of the United States. … It has been said of them that they were one of the deadliest, wealthiest, most secretive and subversive spy and underground organizations in the history of the world … The group was heavy on ritual, most of which was borrowed from the Masonic Lodge and later from the Knights of Pythias. Some were also members of the Rosicrucians.” To what end was Jefferson Davis involved with the Knights? Was he in a sense set up to fail? Did he willingly participate? Was he a patsy?

Thomas DiLorenzo: I have no idea. How would anyone know anything about this if it was a “secret” society, as you say? Jefferson Davis was a brilliant and highly educated man who spent a long career in national politics and wrote a great book, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. It is unimaginable that any American politician since could have performed such an amazingly insightful piece of genuine scholarship. This is not the type of man who would have been easily duped by the local Masonic Lodge.

Daily Bell: Are these fair questions? Jefferson was President of the Southern Secession but he proved an ineffective leader and his policies in many ways sabotaged the South and its quest to secede. Was his incompetence entirely genuine, in your view?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Davis was not a dictator. He had a lot of help losing the war, especially from his generals who insisted on the Napoleonic battlefield tactics they were taught at West Point and which had become defunct because of the advent of more deadly military technology by the middle of the nineteenth century. One of his biggest failures was waiting until the last year of the war to finally do what General Robert E. Lee had been arguing from the beginning – offering the slaves freedom in return for fighting with the Confederate Army in defense of their country.

Daily Bell: A final question. It was Davis who set the war in motion, inexplicably, by declaring formal hostilities, so why didn’t he and his generals fight a guerrilla war that they would have been almost certain to win? General Lee insisted on formal engagements with the North but had neither the resources nor the men to win a war of attrition of this sort. Why didn’t he pursue well-known guerilla tactics that would have produced a victory or at least a stalemate?

Thomas DiLorenzo: No, it was Lincoln who launched an invasion of the Southern states. Davis’s declarations were just words. Giving guerilla fighters like John Singleton Mosby and Nathan Bedford Forrest more resources may well have won the war for the South, but Mosby was kicked out of VMI and Forrest was almost totally uneducated formally. The Confederate military establishment was controlled by West Point graduates who knew little or nothing about guerilla warfare. When asked after the war who his most effective subordinate was, Lee said it was a man named Forrest.

Daily Bell: Certainly the arc of Davis’s career after the war does little to contradict the hypothesis that there was more to Davis’s role than history records. He never served a long jail sentence, visited England later in life and was supported by a wealthy widow, Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey, who was a primary member and literary representative of Southern aristocracy with its many European connections. This would also seem to show that Davis had deep connections to the British power structure. Is all this merely frivolous supposition?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Yes.

Daily Bell: Okay, let’s turn to your recent book, False Virtue: The Myths that Transformed America From A Republic to an Empire. Can you explain what this is about to our readers and why you wrote it?

Thomas DiLorenzo: That’s something that I’m still working on. I plan on putting into book form the story of how the Lincoln myth has been used for the past 150 years or so to prop up American foreign policy imperialism.

Daily Bell: What are you working on now, if anything?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Besides this, I’m working on a book on the politics and economics of war.

Daily Bell: Do you still believe that secession is in the offing for several or more of “these united States”? Will it come without bloodshed?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Thank God for the former serfs of the Soviet empire that they only had a totalitarian communist like Gorbachev to deal with and not a Lincoln. Peaceful secession is the only way out of the new slavery for the average American, and it will only happen if we have a president who is more like Gorbachev than Lincoln. That is one more reason why the Lincoln myth needs to be destroyed.

Daily Bell: Are hostilities deepening between Fedgov and US states?

Thomas DiLorenzo: The booboisie in America for the time being seems happy to endure whatever additional enslavements the federal government proposes for them. That may change, however, when there is hyperinflation and their healthcare system is destroyed by Obama’s socialized medicine, or if one of the tiny and relatively defenseless countries that the US government is perpetually picking on figures out a way to retaliate in a big way. That just might cause the booboisie to finally ask such questions as: “Do my children really have to be sacrificed and sent to their deaths so that people in Syria can be ruled by a different dictator chosen by the CIA?”

Daily Bell: Isn’t secession a lawful, constitutional right?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Article 7 of the Constitution explains that the document was to be ratified by the “free and independent states,” as they are called in the Declaration of Independence. The union of the founders was voluntary, and several states reserved the right to withdraw from the union in the future if it became destructive of their rights. Since each state has equal rights in the union, this became true for all states. That is why, at the outset of the Civil War, the overwhelming majority of Northern newspapers editorialized in favor of peaceful secession. Most of them quoted Jefferson from the Declaration saying that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and when that consent is withdrawn it is the peoples’ duty to abolish that government and form a new one.

Lincoln thus destroyed the voluntary union of the founding fathers and replaced it with a Soviet-style coerced union held together with the threat of total war waged on the civilian population of any state in the future that attempted to make Jefferson’s argument and act on it. It is telling that on the eve of the Civil War several federal laws were proposed to outlaw secession. This occurred because everyone at the time understood that secession was perfectly legal and constitutional.

Might does NOT make right, so yes, secession is a right that the people of any free society should have.

Daily Bell: Is the Internet helping to create an upsurge of freedom-consciousness among the US electorate?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Yes, without a doubt. That’s why some of the most obnoxious and tyrannical of our politicians, like Obama, Lieberman, McCain and Schumer, seem to be constantly conniving to somehow censor or shut down the internet “for national security reasons.”

Daily Bell: How many real “nations” does the US encompass?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Time will tell. Jefferson believed there were at least seven or eight regions that could be created as independent American nations during his time, and he wrote that he would wish them all well as they would all be, as Americans, “our children.”

Daily Bell: What about Europe? Will it also see a fracturing of the euro and perhaps of the EU itself?

Thomas DiLorenzo: I think we are seeing the collapse of the EU and the Euro along with the European welfare state. We should all pray that it happens a thousand times faster.

Daily Bell: How about China?

Thomas DiLorenzo: China is now more capitalist than the US and its government is less tyrannical than the government in Washington, DC.

Daily Bell: Is the Internet helping to cause these “devolutions”?

Thomas DiLorenzo: When the AFL-CIO conspired with the Catholic Church in Poland to subvert communism they smuggled fax machines into the country so that the anti-communists could plot and communicate. The internet makes all of this infinitely easier to accomplish.

Daily Bell: Is the 21st century more hopeful than the 20th and 19th when it comes to large-scale wars and manipulation of various electorates in the West and elsewhere?

Thomas DiLorenzo: One virtue of the 19th century was that the public school brainwashing bureaucracy was not yet very well developed. It certainly is today, which is why America has become such a nation of statist sheep.

Daily Bell: Is the current system of Fiat Money Power on the way out? If so, what will take its place?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Yes. That’s what all the economic turmoil in Europe is about. I’d like to see a return to a gold standard. This will have to happen if we are to avoid worldwide economic collapse similar to the Great Depression.

Daily Bell: How does the Lincoln mythology play out today in light of all these circumstances?

Thomas DiLorenzo: It is still the ideological cornerstone of American statism, but we are making progress.

Daily Bell: Will the US revert to a freer, more self-sufficient model?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Only if peaceful secession is allowed to occur.

Daily Bell: Is the pre-Civil War US model a template for a more viable society in the future?

Thomas DiLorenzo: Minus slavery, of course. The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were far superior to the Constitution that replaced them (and which omitted the world “perpetual”).

Daily Bell: Can we ever go back? Is history linear or cyclical?

Thomas DiLorenzo: I don’t believe in such determinism. We can correct mistakes. We DID deregulate oil and transportation in the 1980s; socialism DID collapse worldwide in the late ’80s/early ’90s and was replaced by more market-oriented regimes.

Daily Bell: Any other comments or predictions?

Thomas DiLorenzo: The Republican Party will continue to become more and more irrelevant and powerless; the Democratic Party establishment will finally strip off their masks and reveal themselves as the totalitarian socialists that they have always been; and the political future will belong to the young Ron Paulians.

Daily Bell: Thanks for your time once again.

Thomas DiLorenzo got a little irritated with us because we harped on the Jesuit issue (see interview). But we did so because a malicious minority of what we can only call Neo-Nazi “social” and “mutual creditors” have attacked him for being influenced by the Jesuit educational establishment for which he works.

Money is power and those who challenge the status quo are dangerous to the internationalist impulse. Thus, globalists claim DiLorenzo has attacked Lincoln because he wanted to undermine Lincoln’s use of government Greenbacks as effective money.

Money is a complex system. It is not mathematically reducible. Only the free-market itself, the Invisible Hand, can organize money within the context of the complex relationships that exist in a modern society (though admittedly such relationships could and should be simplified).

But according to some, only the state, properly guided by responsible politicians, can provide the money society needs. DiLorenzo has also been attacked by this socialist faction because he named Lincoln for what he was: the father of US Empire.

Before Lincoln, it was common belief that any state could secede from the Union. After Lincoln, it was clear no state could secede without facing military action. That situation continues today.

DiLorenzo is a consequential writer. He has advanced our understanding of who Lincoln really was and where American exceptionalism took a wrong turn. The attacks of his critics notwithstanding, he is an original and courageous historian, and we look forward to reading more of his work.

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Apr 292013
 

True Causes of the Civil War

Irreconcilable Differences

Simmering animosities between North and South signaled an American apocalypse

Any man who takes it upon himself to explain the causes of the Civil War deserves whatever grief comes his way, regardless of his good intentions. Having acknowledged that, let me also say I have long believed there is no more concise or stirring accounting for the war than the sentiments propounded by Irish poet William Butler Yeats in “The Second Coming,” some lines of which are included in this essay. Yeats wrote his short poem immediately following the catastrophe of World War I, but his thesis of a great, cataclysmic event is universal and timeless.

First Slaves brought to America

It is probably safe to say that the original impetus of the Civil War was set in motion when a Dutch trader offloaded a cargo of African slaves at Jamestown, Va., in 1619. It took nearly 250 eventful years longer for it to boil into a war, but that Dutchman’s boatload was at the bottom of it—a fact that needs to be fixed in the reader’s mind from the start.

Of course there were other things, too. For instance, by the eve of the Civil War the sectional argument had become so far advanced that a significant number of Southerners were convinced that Yankees, like Negroes, constituted an entirely different race of people from themselves.

It is unclear who first put forth this curious interpretation of American history, but just as the great schism burst upon the scene it was subscribed to by no lesser Confederate luminaries than president Jefferson Davis himself and Admiral Raphael Semmes, of CSS Alabama fame, who asserted that the North was populated by descendants of the cold Puritan Roundheads of Oliver Cromwell—who had overthrown and executed the king of England in 1649—while others of the class were forced to flee to Holland, where they also caused trouble, before finally settling at Plymouth Rock, Mass.

Southerners on the other hand, or so the theory went, were the hereditary offspring of Cromwell’s enemies, the “gay cavaliers” of King Charles II and his glorious Restoration, who had imbued the South with their easygoing, chivalrous and honest ways. Whereas, according to Semmes, the people of the North had evolved accordingly into “gloomy, saturnine, and fanatical” people who “seemed to repel all the more kindly and generous impulses” (omitting—possibly in a momentary lapse of memory—that the original settlers of other Southern states, such as Georgia, had been prison convicts or, in the case of Louisiana, deportees, and that Semmes’ own wife was a Yankee from Ohio).

How beliefs such as this came to pass in the years between 1619 and 1860 reveals the astonishing capacity of human nature to confound traditional a posteriori deduction in an effort to justify what had become by then largely unjustifiable. But there is blame enough for all to go around.

From that first miserable boatload of Africans in Jamestown, slavery spread to all the settlements, and, after the Revolutionary War, was established by laws in the states. But by the turn of the 19th century, slavery was confined to the South, where the economy was almost exclusively agricultural. For a time it appeared the practice was on its way to extinction. Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson probably summed up the attitude of the day when he defined the South’s “peculiar institution” as a necessary evil, which he and many others believed, or at least hoped, would wither away of its own accord since it was basically wasteful and unproductive.

Then along came Eli Whitney with his cotton gin, suddenly making it feasible to grow short-staple cotton that was fit for the great textile mills of England and France. This in turn, 40 years later, prompted South Carolina’s prominent senator John C. Calhoun to declare that slavery—far from being merely a “necessary evil”—was actually a “positive good,” because, among other things, in the years since the gin’s invention, the South had become fabulously rich, with cotton constituting some 80 percent of all U.S. exports.

But beneath this great wealth and prosperity, America seethed. Whenever you have two people—or peoples—joined in politics but doing diametrically opposing things, it is almost inevitable that at some point tensions and jealousies will break out. In the industrial North, there was a low, festering resentment that eight of the first 11 U.S. presidents were Southerners—and most of them Virginians at that. For their part, the agrarian Southerners harbored lingering umbrage over the internal improvements policy propagated by the national government, which sought to expand and develop roads, harbors, canals, etc., but which the Southerners felt was disproportionately weighted toward Northern interests. These were the first pangs of sectional dissension.

Then there was the matter of the Tariff of Abominations, which became abominable for all concerned.

This inflammatory piece of legislation, passed with the aid of Northern politicians, imposed a tax or duty on imported goods that caused practically everything purchased in the South to rise nearly half-again in price. This was because the South had become used to shipping its cotton to England and France and in return receiving boatloads of inexpensive European goods, including clothing made from its own cotton. However, as years went by, the North, particularly New England, had developed cotton mills of its own—as well as leather and harness manufactories, iron and steel mills, arms and munitions factories, potteries, furniture makers, silversmiths and so forth. And with the new tariff putting foreign goods out of financial reach, Southerners were forced to buy these products from the North at what they considered exorbitant costs.

Smart money might have concluded it would be wise for the South to build its own cotton mills and its own manufactories, but its people were too attached to growing cotton. A visitor in the 1830s described the relentless cycle of the planters’ misallocation of spare capital: “To sell cotton to buy Negroes—to make more cotton to buy more Negroes—‘ad infinitum.’”

Such was the Southern mindset, but the tariff nearly kicked off the war 30 years early because, as the furor rose, South Carolina’s Calhoun, who was then running for vice president of the United States, declared that states—his own state in particular—were under no obligation to obey the federal tariff law, or to collect it from ships entering its harbors. Later, South Carolina legislators acted on this assertion and defied the federal government to overrule them, lest the state secede. This set off the Nullification Crisis, which held in theory (or wishful thinking) that a state could nullify or ignore any federal law it held was not in its best interests. The crisis was defused only when President Andrew Jackson sent warships into Charleston Harbor—but it also marked the first time a Southern state had threatened to secede from the Union.

The incident also set the stage for the states’ rights dispute, pitting state laws against the notion of federal sovereignty—an argument which became ongoing into the next century, and the next. “States’ rights” also became a Southern watchword for Northern (or “Yankee”) intrusion on the Southern lifestyle. States’ rights political parties sprang up over the South; one particular example of just how volatile the issue had become was embodied in the decision in 1831 of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Gist (ironically from Union, S.C.) to name their firstborn son “States Rights Gist,” a name he bore proudly until November 30, 1864, when, as a Confederate brigadier general, he was shot and killed leading his men at the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee.

Though the tariff question remained an open sore from its inception in 1828 right up to the Civil War, many modern historians have dismissed the impact it had on the growing rift between the two sections of the country. But any careful reading of newspapers, magazines or correspondence of the era indicates that here is where the feud began to fester into hatred. Some Southern historians in the past have argued this was the root cause of the Civil War. It wasn’t, but it was a critical ingredient in the suspicion and mistrust Southerners were beginning to feel about their Northern brethren, and by extension about the Union itself. Not only did the tariff issue raise for the first time the frightening specter of Southern secession, but it also seemed to have marked a mazy kind of dividing line in which the South vaguely started thinking of itself as a separate entity—perhaps even a separate country. Thus the cat, or at least the cat’s paw, was out of the bag.

All the resenting and seething naturally continued to spill over into politics. The North, with immigrants pouring in, vastly outnumbered the South in population and thus controlled the House of Representatives. But the U.S. Senate, by a sort of gentleman’s agreement laced with the usual bribes and threats, had remained 50-50, meaning that whenever a territory was admitted as a free state, the South got to add a corresponding slave state—and vice versa. That is until 1820, when Missouri applied for statehood and anti-slavery forces insisted it must be free. Ultimately, this resulted in Congress passing the Missouri Compromise, which decreed that Missouri could come in as a slave state (and Maine as a free state) but any other state created north of Missouri’s southern border would have to be free. That held the thing together for longer than it deserved.

In plain acknowledgement that slavery was an offensive practice, Congress in 1808 banned the importation of African slaves. Nevertheless there were millions of slaves living in the South, and their population continued growing. Beginning in the late 18th century, a small group of people in New England concluded that slavery was a social evil, and began to agitate for its abolition—hence, of course, the term “abolitionist.”

Over the years this group became stronger and by the 1820s had turned into a full-fledged movement, preaching abolition from pulpits and podiums throughout the North, publishing pamphlets and newspapers, and generally stirring up sentiments both fair and foul in the halls of Congress and elsewhere. At first the abolitionists concluded that the best solution was to send the slaves back to Africa, and they actually acquired land in what is now Liberia, returning a small colony of ex-bondsmen across the ocean.

By the 1840s, the abolitionists had decided that slavery was not simply a social evil, but a “moral wrong,” and began to agitate on that basis.

This did not sit well with the churchgoing Southerners, who were now subjected to being called unpleasant and scandalous names by Northerners they did not even know. This provoked, among other things, religious schisms, which in the mid-1840s caused the American Methodist and Baptist churches to split into Northern and Southern denominations. Somehow the Presbyterians hung together, but it was a strain, while the Episcopal church remained a Southern stronghold and firebrand bastion among the wealthy and planter classes. Catholics also maintained their solidarity, prompting cynics to suggest it was only because they owed their allegiance to the pope of Rome rather than to any state, country or ideal.

Abolitionist literature began showing up in the Southern mails, causing Southerners to charge the abolitionists with attempting to foment a slave rebellion, the mere notion of which remained high on most Southerners’ anxiety lists. Murderous slave revolts had occurred in Haiti, Jamaica and Louisiana and more recently resulted in the killing of nearly 60 whites during the Nat Turner slave uprising in Virginia in 1831.

During the Mexican War the United States acquired enormous territories in the West, and what by then abolitionists called the “slave power” was pressing to colonize these lands. That prompted an obscure congressman from Pennsylvania to submit an amendment to a Mexican War funding bill in 1846 that would have prevented slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico—which became known, after its author, as the Wilmot Proviso. Even though it failed to pass into law, the very act of presenting the measure became a cause célèbre among Southerners who viewed it as further evidence that Northerners were not only out to destroy their “peculiar institution,” but their political power as well.

In 1850, to the consternation of Southerners, California was admitted into the Union as a free state—mainly because the Gold Rush miners did not want to find themselves in competition with slave labor. But for the first time it threw the balance of power in the Senate to the Northern states.

By then national politics had become almost entirely sectional, a dangerous business, pitting North against South—and vice versa—in practically all matters, however remote. To assuage Southern fury at the admission of free California, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made Northerners personally responsible for the return of runaway slaves. Contrary to its intentions, the act actually galvanized Northern sentiments against slavery because it seemed to demand direct assent to, and personal complicity with, the practice of human bondage.

During the decade of the 1850s, crisis seemed to pile upon crisis as levels of anger turned to rage, and rage turned to violence. One of the most polarizing episodes between North and South occurred upon the 1852 publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which depicted the slave’s life as a relentless nightmare of sorrow and cruelty. Northern passions were inflamed while furious Southerners dismissed the story en masse as an outrageously skewed and unfair portrayal. (After the conflict began it was said that Lincoln, upon meeting Mrs. Stowe, remarked, “So you are the little lady who started this great war?”)

In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act, sponsored by frequent presidential candidate Stephen A. Douglas, overturned the Missouri Compromise and permitted settlers in the Kansas Territory to choose for themselves whether they wanted a free or slave state. Outraged Northern abolitionists, horrified at the notion of slavery spreading by popular sovereignty, began raising funds to send anti-slave settlers to Kansas.

Equally outraged Southerners sent their own settlers, and a brutish group known as Border Ruffians from slaveholding Missouri went into Kansas to make trouble for the abolitionists. Into this unfortunate mix came an abolitionist fanatic named John Brown riding with his sons and gang. And as the murders and massacres began to pile up, newspapers throughout the land carried headlines of “Bleeding Kansas.”

In the halls of Congress, the slavery issue had prompted feuds, insults, duels and finally a divisive gag rule that forbade even discussion or debate on petitions about the issue of slavery. But during the Kansas controversy a confrontation between a senator and a congressman stood out as particularly shocking. In 1856, Charles Sumner, a 45-year-old Massachusetts senator and abolitionist, conducted a three-hour rant in the Senate chamber against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, focusing in particular on 59-year-old South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, whom he mocked and compared to a pimp, “having taken as his mistress the harlot, Slavery.” Two days later Congressman Preston Brooks, a nephew of the demeaned South Carolinian, appeared beside Sumner’s desk in the Senate and caned him nearly to death with a gold-headed gutta-percha walking stick.

By then, every respectable-sized city, North and South, had a half-dozen newspapers and even small towns had at least one or more; and the revolutionary new telegraph brought the latest news overnight or sooner. Throughout the North, the caning incident triggered profound indignation that was transformed into support for a new anti-slavery political party. In the election of 1856, the new Republican Party ran explorer John C. Frémont, the famed “Pathfinder,” for president, and even though he lost, the party had become a force to be reckoned with.

In 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its infamous Dred Scott decision, which elated Southerners and enraged Northerners. The court ruled, in essence, that a slave was not a citizen, or even a person, and that slaves were “so far inferior that they [have] no rights which the white man [is] bound to respect.” Southerners were relieved that they could now move their slaves in and out of free territories and states without losing them, while in the North the ruling merely drove more people into the anti-slavery camp.

Then in 1859, John Brown, of Bleeding Kansas notoriety, staged a murderous raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., hoping to inspire a general slave uprising. The raid was thwarted by U.S. troops, and Brown was tried for treason and hanged; but when it came out that he was being financed by Northern abolitionists, Southern anger was profuse and furious—especially after the Northern press elevated Brown to the status of hero and martyr. It simply reinforced the Southern conviction that Northerners were out to destroy their way of life.

As the crucial election of 1860 approached, there arose talk of Southern secession by a group of “fire-eaters”— influential orators who insisted Northern “fanatics” intended to free slaves “by law if possible, by force if necessary.” Hectoring abolitionist newspapers and Northern orators (known as Black, or Radical Republicans) provided ample fodder for that conclusion.

The 1850s drew to a close in near social convulsion and the established political parties began to break apart—always a dangerous sign. The Whigs simply vanished into other parties; the Democrats split into Northern and Southern contingents, each with its own slate of candidates. A Constitutional Union party also appeared, looking for votes from moderates in the Border States. As a practical matter, all of this assured a victory for the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who was widely, if wrongly, viewed in the South as a rabid abolitionist. With the addition of Minnesota (1858) and Oregon (1859) as free states, the Southerners’ greatest fears were about to be realized—complete control of the federal government by free-state, anti-slavery politicians.

With the vote split four ways, Lincoln and the Republicans swept into power in November 1860, gaining a majority of the Electoral College, but only a 40 percent plurality of the popular vote. It didn’t matter to the South. In short order, always pugnacious South Carolina voted to secede from the Union, followed by six other Deep South states that were invested heavily in cotton.

Much of the Southern apprehension and ire that Lincoln would free the slaves was misplaced. No matter how distasteful he found the practice of slavery, the overarching philosophy that drove Lincoln was a hard pragmatism that did not include the forcible abolition of slavery by the federal government—for the simple reason that he could not envision any political way of accomplishing it. But Lincoln, like a considerable number of Northern people, was decidedly against allowing slavery to spread into new territories and states. By denying slaveholders the right to extend their boundaries, Lincoln would in effect also be weakening their power in Washington, and over time this would almost inevitably have resulted in the abolition of slavery, as sooner or later the land would have worn out.

But that wasn’t bad enough for the Southern press, which whipped up the populace to such a pitch of fury that Lincoln became as reviled as John Brown himself. These influential journals, from Richmond to Charleston and myriad points in between, painted a sensational picture of Lincoln in words and cartoons as an arch-abolitionist—a kind of antichrist who would turn the slaves loose to rape, murder and pillage. For the most part, Southerners ate it up. If there is a case to be made on what caused the Civil War, the Southern press and its editors would be among the first in the dock. It goes a long way in explaining why only one in three Confederate soldiers were slaveholders, or came from slaveholding families. It wasn’t their slaves they were defending, it was their homes against the specter of slaves-gone-wild.

Interestingly, many if not most of the wealthiest Southerners were opposed to secession for the simple reason that they had the most to lose if it came to war and the war went badly. But in the end they, like practically everyone else, were swept along on the tide of anti-Washington, anti-abolition, anti-Northern and anti-Lincoln rhetoric.

To a lesser extent, the Northern press must accept its share of blame for antagonizing Southerners by damning and lampooning them as brutal lash-wielding torturers and heartless family separators. With all this back and forth carrying on for at least the decade preceding war, by the time hostilities broke out, few either in the North or the South had much use for the other, and minds were set. One elderly Tennessean later expressed it this way: “I wish there was a river of fire a mile wide between the North and the South, that would burn with unquenchable fury forevermore, and that it could never be passable to the endless ages of eternity by any living creature.”

The immediate cause of Southern secession, therefore, was a fear that Lincoln and the Republican Congress would have abolished the institution of slavery—which would have ruined fortunes, wrecked the Southern economy and left the South to contend with millions of freed blacks. The long-term cause was a feeling by most Southerners that the interests of the two sections of the country had drifted apart, and were no longer mutual or worthwhile.

The proximate cause of the war, however, was Lincoln’s determination not to allow the South to go peacefully out of the Union, which would have severely weakened, if not destroyed, the United States.

There is the possibility that war might have been avoided, and a solution worked out, had there not been so much mistrust on the part of the South. Unfortunately, some of the mistrust was well earned in a bombastic fog of hatred, recrimination and outrageous statements and accusations on both sides. Put another way, it was well known that Lincoln was anti-slavery, but both during his campaign for office and after his election, he insisted it was never his intention to disturb slavery where it already existed. The South simply did not believe him.

The Lincoln administration was able to quell secession movements in several Border States—Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and what would become West Virginia—by a combination of politics and force, including suspension of the Bill of Rights. But when Lincoln ordered all states to contribute men for an army to suppress the rebellion South Carolina started by firing on Fort Sumter, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina also joined the Confederacy rather than make war on their fellow Southerners.

“Because of incompatibility of temper,” a Southern woman was prompted to lament, “we have hated each other so. If we could only separate, a ‘separation a l’agreable,’ as the French say it, and not have a horrid fight for divorce.”

Things had come a long way during the nearly 250 years since the Dutchman delivered his cargo of African slaves to the wharf at Jamestown, but in 1860 almost everyone agreed that a war wouldn’t last long. Most thought it would be over by summertime.


Article originally published in the September 2010 issue of America’s Civil War.

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Causes Of The Civil War

The Northern and Southern sections of the United States developed along different lines. The South remained a predominantly agrarian economy while the North became more and more industrialized. Different social cultures and political beliefs developed. All of this led to disagreements on issues such as taxes, tariffs and internal improvements as well as states rights versus federal rights.

Slavery

The burning issue that led to the disruption of the union, however, was the debate over the future of slavery. That dispute led to secession, and secession brought about a war in which the Northern and Western states and territories fought to preserve the Union, and the South fought to establish Southern independence as a new confederation of states under its own constitution.

The agrarian South utilized slaves to tend its large plantations and perform other duties. On the eve of the Civil War, some 4 million Africans and their descendants toiled as slave laborers in the South. Slavery was interwoven into the Southern economy even though only a relatively small portion of the population actually owned slaves. Slaves could be rented or traded or sold to pay debts. Ownership of more than a handful of slaves bestowed respect and contributed to social position, and slaves, as the property of individuals and businesses, represented the largest portion of the region’s personal and corporate wealth, as cotton and land prices declined and the price of slaves soared.

The states of the North, meanwhile, one by one had gradually abolished slavery. A steady flow of immigrants, especially from Ireland and Germany during the potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s, insured the North a ready pool of laborers, many of whom could be hired at low wages, diminishing the need to cling to the institution of slavery.

The Dred Scott Decision

Dred Scott was a slave who sought citizenship through the American legal system, and whose case eventually ended up in the Supreme Court. The famous Dred Scott Decision in 1857 denied his request stating that no person with African blood could become a U.S. citizen. Besides denying citizenship for African-Americans, it also overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had restricted slavery in certain U.S. territories.

States’ Rights

States’ Rights refers To the struggle between the federal government and individual states over political power. In the Civil War era, this struggle focused heavily on the institution of slavery and whether the federal government had the right to regulate or even abolish slavery within an individual state. The sides of this debate were largely drawn between northern and southern states, thus widened the growing divide within the nation.

Abolitionist Movement

By the early 1830s, those who wished to see that institution abolished within the United States were becoming more strident and influential. They claimed obedience to “higher law” over obedience to the Constitution’s guarantee that a fugitive from one state would be considered a fugitive in all states. The fugitive slave act along with the publishing of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped expand the support for abolishing slavery nationwide.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabins was published in serial form in an anti-slavery newspaper in 1851 and in book format in 1852. Within two years it was a nationwide and worldwide bestseller. Depicting the evils of slavery, it offered a vision of slavery that few in the nation had seen before. The book succeeded at its goal, which was to start a wave of anti-slavery sentiment across the nation. Upon meeting Stowe, President Lincoln remarked, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

The Underground Railroad

Some abolitionists actively helped runaway slaves to escape via “the Underground Railroad,” and there were instances in which men, even lawmen, sent to retrieve runaways were attacked and beaten by abolitionist mobs. To the slave holding states, this meant Northerners wanted to choose which parts of the Constitution they would enforce, while expecting the South to honor the entire document. The most famous activist of the underground railroad was Harriet Tubman, a nurse and spy in the Civil War and known as the Moses of her people.

The Missouri Compromise

Additional territories gained from the U.S.–Mexican War of 1846–1848 heightened the slavery debate. Abolitionists fought to have slavery declared illegal in those territories, as the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had done in the territory that became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Advocates of slavery feared that if the institution were prohibited in any states carved out of the new territories the political power of slaveholding states would be diminished, possibly to the point of slavery being outlawed everywhere within the United States. Pro- and anti-slavery groups rushed to populate the new territories.

John Brown

In Kansas, particularly, violent clashes between proponents of the two ideologies occurred. One abolitionist in particular became famous—or infamous, depending on the point of view—for battles that caused the deaths of pro-slavery settlers in Kansas. His name was John Brown. Ultimately, he left Kansas to carry his fight closer to the bosom of slavery.

The Raid On Harper’s Ferry

On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and a band of followers seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), in what is believed to have been an attempt to arm a slave insurrection. (Brown denied this at his trial, but evidence indicated otherwise.) They were dislodged by a force of U.S. Marines led by Army lieutenant colonel Robert E. Lee.

Brown was swiftly tried for treason against Virginia and hanged. Southern reaction initially was that his acts were those of a mad fanatic, of little consequence. But when Northern abolitionists made a martyr of him, Southerners came to believe this was proof the North intended to wage a war of extermination against white Southerners. Brown’s raid thus became a step on the road to war between the sections.

The Election Of Abraham Lincoln

Exacerbating tensions, the old Whig political party was dying. Many of its followers joined with members of the American Party (Know-Nothings) and others who opposed slavery to form a new political entity in the 1850s, the Republican Party. When the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the 1859 presidential election, Southern fears that the Republicans would abolish slavery reached a new peak. Lincoln was an avowed opponent of the expansion of slavery but said he would not interfere with it where it existed.

Southern Secession

That was not enough to calm the fears of delegates to an 1860 secession convention in South Carolina. To the surprise of other Southern states—and even to many South Carolinians—the convention voted to dissolve the state’s contract with the United States and strike off on its own.

South Carolina had threatened this before in the 1830s during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, over a tariff that benefited Northern manufacturers but increased the cost of goods in the South. Jackson had vowed to send an army to force the state to stay in the Union, and Congress authorized him to raise such an army (all Southern senators walked out in protest before the vote was taken), but a compromise prevented the confrontation from occurring.

Perhaps learning from that experience the danger of going it alone, in 1860 and early 1861 South Carolina sent emissaries to other slave holding states urging their legislatures to follow its lead, nullify their contract with the United States and form a new Southern Confederacy. Six more states heeded the siren call: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Others voted down secession—temporarily.

Fort Sumter

On April 10, 1861, knowing that resupplies were on their way from the North to the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, provisional Confederate forces in Charleston demanded the fort’s surrender. The fort’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, refused. On April 12, the Confederates opened fire with cannons. At 2:30 p.m. the following day, Major Anderson surrendered.

War had begun. Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the Southern rebellion. Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee, refusing to fight against other Southern states and feeling that Lincoln had exceeded his presidential authority, reversed themselves and voted in favor of session. The last one, Tennessee, did not depart until June 8, nearly a week after the first land battle had been fought at Philippi in Western Virginia. (The western section of Virginia rejected the session vote and broke away, ultimately forming a new, Union-loyal state, West Virginia. Other mountainous regions of the South, such as East Tennessee, also favored such a course but were too far from the support of Federal forces to attempt it.) Learn more about the battle of Fort Sumter