HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES
WHY THE CIVIL WAR CAME
THERE are very definite reasons why the Civil War came at the exact time it did, and not a century earlier or a decade later. These reasons are not found either in the wickedness of chattel slavery, nor the growing moral consciousness of the North. It is probable that the slaves were as well, if not better, treated in 1860 than at any time in the history of slavery. They were more valuable, and masters were more interested in their welfare. It is certain that the general moral conscience of the North had seldom been lower than in the years when competitive capitalism was gaining the mastery in American industrial life. Sectional antagonism has always existed in the United States, and has many times led to threats of secession. New England proposed to secede because of opposition to the War of 1812. South Carolina was ready to leave the Union to escape the tariff in 1830, although she had favored a tariff little more than ten years before. The West had repeatedly threatened secession and intrigued for an alliance with Spain, and had even taken steps to organize a trans-Allegheny empire when it felt itself oppressed by the Eastern states. It would be hard to find a state a majority of whose inhabitants had not at some time prior to 1860 favored secession. Finally,
the Abolitionists were, in the beginning, the most rabid secessionists. This fact should be ample proof that the Civil War was not caused by a fervent love for the abstract idea of union and a corresponding hatred of the principle of secession.1
A series of questions present themselves to any student of this period that are
not answered by any of the conventional explanations of the cause of the war
between the North and the South. The explanation that it was caused by hostility
to slavery fails to explain why Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison were
mobbed in Boston, and why Lovejoy was lynched and Stephen A. Douglas sent to the
United States Senate by the State that furnished Lincoln. Neither does it
1 Pollard, "The Lost Cause," p. 52: " In the North there was never any lack of rhetorical fervor for the Union; its praises were sung in every note of turgid literature, and it was familiarly entitled `the glorious.' But the North worshipped the union in a very low commercial sense, it was a source of boundless profits; it was productive of tariffs and bounties, and it had been used for years as a means of sectional aggrandizement." The attitude of the Abolitionists is shown freely in their literature. No. ii of the Anti-Slavery Tracts is "Disunion our Wisdom and Duty," by Rev. Charles E. Hodges. It is published by the American Anti-Slavery Society, and is an argument for dissolving the Union. Wendell Phillips' "Speeches, Lectures and Letters," Vol. I, p. 343 et seq., containing his speech on "Disunion," delivered January, 1861, after secession had already taken place, contains these sentences : "`The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice.' `The covenant with death' is annulled; `the agreement with hell' is broken to pieces. The chain which has held the slave system since 1787 is parted. Thirty years ago northern abolitionists announced their purpose to seek the dissolution of the American union. Who dreamed that success would come so soon ? " Later, in August, 1862, Phillips wrote a letter to the New York Tribune in which he said: "From 1843 to 1861 I was a disunionist . . . Sumter changed the whole question. After that peace and justice both forbade disunion."
help us to understand why slavery was not a political issue until it suddenly blazed into such a fierce fire, nor why the victory of the Republican party in the nation necessarily led to civil war when that party had never suggested abolition, and finally, why that war should have come in spite of the most earnest pledges of the government of Lincoln that slavery would not be disturbed. There is always a tendency to read the present into the past, until historians write as if the people of 1840 acted with a full foreknowledge of the coming secession, Civil War, and emancipation, if not of negro enfranchisement and reconstruction.
The attitude of the various sections of the country toward chattel slavery has always been determined directly by the dominant economic interests of the section in question. Massachusetts abolished slavery at an early date, and we have it on the authority of John Adams that : -
Argument might have had some weight in the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, but the real cause was the multiplication of laboring white people, who would not longer suffer the rich to employ these sable rivals so much to their injury.1
1 A work by a writer using the name of "Barbarossa," entitled "The Lost Principles of Sectional Equilibrium," published in 1860, has this statement (p. 39, note) : "In the Congress of 1776 John Adams observed that the number of persons were taken by this article (on taxation) as the index of the wealth of the state, and not as subjects of taxation. That as to this matter, it was of no consequence by what name you called your people, whether by that of freemen or of slaves. That in some countries the laboring poor were called freemen ; in others they were called slaves : but that the difference was imaginary only. What matters it whether a landlord employing ten laborers on his farm gives them annually as much as will buy the necessaries of life, or gives them those necessaries at first hand?" Williams, "History of the Negro Race in America," p. 209, quotes from a report of a committee appointed by the Massachusetts Council in 1706, stating that negro slavery should be abolished because "white servants" were cheaper and more profitable to the colony.
At the time when Jackson was President there were a number of Abolitionist societies, but these were nearly all in the northern tier of slave-holding states, although one or more such societies could be found in every state in the Union except a few extreme Southern states, Indiana, and those of New England.1
About this time sentiment began to change, and a fierce hostility to Abolitionism arose, not only in the South, but through almost the entire North, with the exception of the Middle Atlantic states,2 We find the cause of this in the fact that the value of the cotton crop raised by slave labor was increasing as perhaps few crops have ever increased,3 New England was weaving this cotton, or carrying it to foreign ports, and the Middle West was supplying the food for the slaves and farm animals for the plantations upon which the cotton was raised. Only in the iron and steel manufacturing region and in the district dependent upon the Great Lakes was there developing a population deriving no material benefit from chattel slavery.
So long as the various sections of the country were mutually complementary and
not competitive, there was no deep-seated antagonism. "King Cotton" and "King
Cotton Goods" had no quarrel until their interests began to move in opposite
1 Albert Bushnell Hart, "Slavery and Abolition," p. 161.
2 Ibid., pp. 245-246.
3 Charles H. Peck, "The Jacksonian Epoch," p. 268.
There was a series of these antagonistic interests that culminated about 1860, any one of which might have produced a civil war, all of which could scarcely avoid causing an armed conflict.
There was a conflict of territory. Both the wage system and chattel slavery require constant expansion. When the wave of population crossed the Mississippi and began to climb the eastern slope of the Rockies, a struggle arose over the question of which system should possess the level plains that lay on the border between the two social systems. Then came the "Nebraska War," the "Missouri Compromise," and "Bloody Kansas." The system of small capitalism required that land should be divided into small freeholds and distributed to settlers in the form of homesteads. Chattel slavery demanded auction sales of great strips for plantations.
The rise of the factory system and the coming of foreign immigration, with the development of cities, all a part of the society based upon the wage system, created a social and individual psychology so wholly different from that based upon chattel slavery as to be sure to give rise to mutual distrust and hostility. This social system could not arise in the North until factory production and railroad transportation had given a unity to its social life.
The South had to learn that chattel slavery was largely confined to the cotton belt, and that therefore it could never hope to rival in size and power the wage-slave territory, which had no narrow geographical bonds. It was to try to force itself and its system into new territories until further expansion was almost impossible before it realized the existence of an "inevitable conflict."
Even more significant than any of these, although to a large extent growing out of them, was the antagonism arising from the attempt of the two social systems to use the national government in opposite ways for the furtherance of their respective interests. During the period prior to 1850 this need was not sharply felt by either section. This largely accounts for the political chaos, and utter lack of even a semblance of principles in national elections. Both the Whig and the Democrat parties, in the generation prior to the above date, had sought only to win offices, and had represented no clear class interests of national scope. As Northern capitalism grew stronger, wider in its scope, more definite in its objects, more united in its interests, more in need of national action to protect these interests both at home and abroad, it developed a political party to express those interests. That party found itself in sharp opposition to the interests of the system based upon chattel slavery.
When that party obtained control of the national government, the chattel slave interests, realizing that no social system can hope to prosper within a government which it does not control, felt that secession was necessary. The growth of these divergent and antagonistic interests and their clash for power will be the subject of the next three chapters.