Aaron Astor teaches history at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee. He is the author of Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri, 1860-1872 (LSU Press, 2017). Over at his Facebook page, Astor reflects on how he begins conversations with people about the causes of the Civil War. It’s a great post (especially in light of this) and I appreciate Astor’s willingness to let me post it here. (And thanks to John Craig Hammond for bringing it to my attention). Enjoy! –JF
I speak and write regularly about the causes of the American Civil War, to both academic and popular audiences. Engaging with different people who hold different assumptions about the Civil War and its legacies today has forced me to develop a set of priming points that I use to begin the conversation. Here are some of the key ones. If you find them useful, feel free to share them.
1. People in the 19th century thought about the world differently than we do today. This is especially true for matters of race, slavery, labor, freedom, economic class, gender and citizenship. We need to understand what people back then thought and avoid the temptation to impose our 21st century values upon 19th century people.
2. People in the past did not know how their stories would end. They made choices they did based on what they valued, what they knew at the time, what they were able to do, and what they hoped or feared would happen. We should respect the drama of their uncertainty as we evaluate their actions.
3. Just as we cannot impose 21st century values back into the 19th century, we cannot and should not teleport our ancestors of the 19th century into our own time. Our ancestors certainly passed down cultural baggage to the following generations and thenceforward through the decades on to us. But that does not mean we should be defined today by plucking people out of the past and using them to make us good or bad people today.
4. If we wish to honor our ancestors, the best way to do so is to learn about them and their lives, their worlds, their hopes and fears, and in their own historical contexts. If we wish to draw inspiration from them, we should look at how they confronted or transcended their own times.
5. Getting to the causes of the Civil War now, we need to think about HOW 19th century white Americans argued about slavery and how those arguments came to dominate politics. That means looking beyond the purely moral arguments advanced by abolitionists, white and black, most of which were bitterly rejected across the North. Those arguments were certainly critical to advancing the anti-slavery cause, but we must be careful not to assume that those who opposed slavery in 1860 agreed with Frederick Douglass or William Lloyd Garrison that slavery should be immediately abolished.
6. There is what I like to call the “Northern myth” of the Civil War: that ordinary white Northerners opposed slavery because they believed in racial equality. (And as evidence, every Northern town has a station stop on the Underground Railroad supposedly run by some important white family). The reality is that this view was held by a tiny, though vocal and active minority. Far more important to antislavery as a political position was the view held by men like David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, who said, “I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, nor morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause of the rights of white freemen.” He, and the majority of white Northerners who came to oppose slavery and consequently voted for the Republican Party in 1860 did so because they thought slavery was bad for whites. Yes, they thought slavery was bad in the abstract too – Lincoln spoke of the right of a man to the “bread he has earned with the sweat of his brow.” But what animated white antislavery thought was the damage slavery did to white Northerners, not what it did to black Southerners (or black Northerners).
7. White Northerners developed an ideological opposition to slavery as a social and economic system that they felt encouraged laziness, inefficiency, aristocracy, haughty arrogance and entitlement. The presence of slavery meant that labor was to be viewed as a curse. Two direct consequences came from this: slaveholders would occupy the best lands in Kansas and crowd out good white Northern farmers who wanted free soil to labor upon freely. Thus the slavery extension question was critical. Another problem white Northerners identified was the tendency of slaveholders to violate the rights of free speech, freedom of conscience and religion, and freedom to petition in the North. No matter how much ordinary white Northerners disliked abolitionists in their midst, they bitterly resented Southerners’ insistence that Northerners become slave catchers under the 1850 Federal Fugitive Slave Act, or abstain from peacefully agitating on matters of conscience. They felt that the “Slave Power Conspiracy” was violating the rights of free white Northerners.
8. Turning to what I call the great “Southern myth,” we need to think about what the majority of white Southerners who did not own slaves thought about slavery. While there were free soil-style objections (and occasional outright abolitionist) sentiments among white Southerners in the early 19th century, by the 1840s and 1850s very few white Southerners expressed anything like opposition to slavery as a whole. They might bitterly resent the planter class. But if they publicly rejected the slave system, on either moral (like John Fee of Kentucky) or economic (like Hinton Rowan Helper of North Carolina) grounds, they were hounded out as dangerous traitors. Non-slaveholding whites supported slavery because it shielded them from falling into the true bottom of the social order (Herrenvolk Democracy), buttressed the entire economic order (slaves as labor and as valuable chattel property), provided employment as overseers, and prevented the prospect of a Haiti-style violent insurrection. Slaveholders absolutely dominated the political system, both regionally and nationally in the 1850s, and non-slaveholders looked to them for assistance in bad harvests, or aspired to join them and become slaveholders. While not every white person objectively benefited from or defended slavery equally, the vast, vast majority of non-slaveholding white Southerners viewed the prospect of abolition with horror. Note here that even in East Tennessee, future Unionists like Andrew Johnson and William Parson Brownlow vigorously defended slavery right up through 1860.
9. Turning now to the Civil War itself, the immediate turn to war in April 1861 had to do with preserving the Union. Remember that seven Deep South states (SC, MS, AL, LA, FL, GA and TX) seceded after Lincoln’s election. Eight other slave states rejected secession at that time. Only after Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s troop call-up did four Upper South states (VA, NC, AR and TN) join the Confederacy. Four remaining border slave states (MO, KY, MD and DE) remained in the Union. Preserving the Union militarily helped convinced the second tier states to secede. But as Lincoln pointed out in his First Inaugural, to fail to keep the Union intact at that point would have meant the death of the experiment of self-government (something European autocrats celebrated) and the likely disintegration of what remained of the Union. Lincoln termed secession a kind of breach of contract, wherein both sides never agreed together to allow for secession. National self-preservation is always the first task of any government. One can argue against these claims today and may did so back then. But the logic of the war-for-Union argument was compelling and obvious. Just as the American colonies did not expect to be allowed to break from Great Britain peacefully, neither did the secessionists believe the Union would really let the Southern states go peacefully. The secessionists figured a war would come. They just thought they would win that war.
10. Secessionists were clear about why they seceded upon Lincoln’s election. They felt the Republican Party would not defend slavery in the territories, would not crack down future John Browns, would create an anti-slavery party within the less-enslaved parts of the South, and would turn foreign policy toward anti-slavery. Slavery was stronger than ever in 1860. Secession was an act of overconfidence. And secession, as the multiple ordinances and declarations of causes showed, was designed explicitly to protect slavery and white supremacy.
11. Finally, individuals who joined the Confederate (or Union) army had multiple reasons for doing so. But if we are talking about the causes of the Civil War, we must look to the causes of secession and the reason the antislavery Republican Party emerged victorious in the 1860 election.