Today in History:

1860-1868 Chapter I CAUSES OF THE WAR





It was a mistake to refer the great Rebellion, for ultimate source, to ambiguity in the Constitution or to the wickedness of politicians or of the people. It was simply the last resort in an "irrepressible conflict" of principle--in the struggle for and against the genius of the world's advance. Economic, social, and moral evolution, resulting in two radically different civilizations, had enforced upon each section unfaithfulness to the spirit and even to the letter of its constitutional covenant.


The South was not to blame that slavery was at first profitable; and if it deemed it so too long and even thought of it as a good morally, these convictions, however big with ill consequences to the nation, were but errors of view, not strange considering the then status of slavery in the world.

The South's pride, holding it to the course once chosen, was also no indictable offence. Nor could the North on its part be taxed with crime for its "higher law fanaticism," which was simply the spirit of the age; or for seeing early what all believe now, that slavery was a blight upon the land. Much as was "nominated in the bond" of the Constitution, neither law nor equity forbade free States to increase the more rapidly in numbers, wealth, and other elements of prosperity; and northern congressmen must have been other than human, if, seeing this increase and being in the majority, they had gone on punctiliously heeding formal obligation against manifest national weal.

And when, in 1854, the great sacred compact of 1820 was set aside by the authority of the South itself, the North felt free even from formal fetters. All talk of extra-legal negotiations and understandings touching slavery was now at an end. The northern majority was at last united to legislate upon slavery as it would, subject only to the Constitution. The South too late saw this, and fearing that the peculiar institution, shut up to its old home, would die, sought separation, with such chance of expansion as this might yield.

The South had come to love slavery too well, the Constitution too little. Upon conserving slavery all parties there, however dissident as to modes, however hostile in other matters, were unconditionally bent. The chief argument even of those opposing disunion was that it endangered slavery. Our new government, said Alexander H. Stephens, soon to be vice-president of the Southern Confederacy, is founded, its cornerstone rests, upon the great physical, philosophical, and moral truth, to which Jefferson and the men of his day were blind, that the negro, by nature or the curse of Canaan, is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is, by ordination of Providence, whose wisdom it is not for us to inquire into or question, his natural and normal condition.


As the apostle of such a principle the South could not but abjure the old establishment, whose genius and working were inevitably in the contrary direction. Many confessed it to be the essential nature of our Government, and not unfair treatment under it, against which they rebelled.

Slavery had also bred hatred of the Union indirectly, by fostering anti-democratic habits of thought, feeling, and action. "The form of liberty existed, the press seemed to be free, the deliberations of legislative bodies were tumultuous, and every man boasted of his independence. But the spirit of true liberty, tolerance of the minority and respect for individual opinion, had departed, and those deceitful appearances concealed the despotism of an inexorable master, slavery, before whom the most powerful of slave-holders was himself but a slave, as abject as the meanest."


Over wide sections, untitled manorial lords, "more intelligent than educated, brave but irascible, proud but overbearing," controlled all voting and office-holding. Congressional districts were their pocket-boroughs, and they ignored the common man save to use him. The system grew, instead of statesmen, sectionalists, whom love for the "peculiar institution" rendered callous to national interests.

The vigorous secession movements in the South at once after Lincoln's election, raised a question of the first magnitude, which few people at the North had reflected upon since 1833, viz., whether or not non-revolutionary secession was possible. Almost unanimously the North denied such possibility, the South affirmed it. This was at bottom manifestly nothing but the old question of state sovereignty over again. The South held the Union to be a state compact, which the northern parties thereto had broken.


To prove the compact theory no new proof was now adduced. Rather did the southern people take the assertion of it as an axiom, with a simplicity which spoke volumes for the influence of Calhoun and for the indoctrination which the South had received in 1832.

Not alone Calhoun but nearly every other southerner of great influence, at least from the day of the Missouri Compromise, had been inculcating the supreme authority of the State as compared with the Union. The southern States were all large, and, as travelling in or between them was difficult and little common, they retained far more than those at the North each its original separateness and peculiarities. Southern population was more fixed than northern; southern state traditions were held in far the deeper reverence. In a word, the colonial condition of things to a great extent persisted in the South down to the very days of the war. There was every reason why Alabama or North Carolina should, more than Connecticut, feel like a separate nation.


This intense state consciousness might gradually have subsided but for the deep prejudices and passions begotten of slavery and of the opposition it encountered from the North. Their resolution, against emancipation led Southerners to cherish a view which made it seem possible for them as a last resort to sever their alliance with the North. It was this conjunction of influences, linking the slave-holder's jealousy and pride to a false but natural conception of state sovereignty, which created in southern men that love of State, intense and sincere as real patriotism, causing them to look upon northern men, with their different theory, as foes and foreigners.

A very imposing historical argument could of course have been built up for the Calhoun theory of the Union. The Union emerged from the preceding Confederacy without a shock. Most who voted for it were unaware how radical a change it embodied. The Constitution, one may even admit, could not have been adopted had it then been understood to preclude the possibility of secession.

Doubtless, too, the gradual change of view concerning it all over the North, sprung from the multiplication of social and economic ties between sections and States, rather than from study of constitutional law. We believe that the untruth of the central-sovereignty theory in no wise follows from these admissions, and that its correctness might be made apparent from a plenitude of considerations.

Champions of the northern side deemed it the less necessary to expatiate upon this question, since, admitting the South's basal contention, the right in question depended upon sufficiency of grievance. As, in the South's view, the case was one of sovereigns one party of whom, without referee, was about to break a compact without the other's consent, the adequacy of the grievance should, to excuse the step, have been absolutely beyond question. On the contrary it was subject to the gravest question.


The South's only significant indictment against the North was the one concerning the personal liberty laws. Moderates like Stephens, indeed, stoutly condemned this plea for secession as insufficient; but, believing in the State as sovereign, they had perforce to yield, and they became as enthusiastic as any when once this "paramount authority" had spoken. "Fire-eaters," at first a small minority, saw this advantage and worked it to the utmost. On its complaint touching the personal liberty legislation the South's case utterly broke down, theorizing the Union into a rope of sand, not "more perfect" but far less so than the old, which itself was to be "perpetual." According to the Calhoun contention States were the parties to a pact, and it was a good way from clear that any northern State as such, even by personal liberty legislation, had broken the alleged pact. The liberty laws were innocent at least in form, and at worst had never been endorsed in any state convention. Buchanan himself testified that the fugitive slave law had been faithfully executed, and its operation is well known never to have been resisted by any public authority.

It was suspicious that no State ventured upon secession alone. It was equally remarkable that the Gulf States were the readiest to go, and made most of the personal liberty laws as their pretext, accounting this cry, as was ingenuously confessed, a necessary means for holding the border States solidly to the southern cause. Weak enough, indeed, was the complaint of "consolidationist" aggression, of which certainly no party to the so-called pact was or could have been guilty. But the deeps of folly were sounded when northern "persecution" of the South was mentioned, or Lincoln's election as threat of such. This was simply the election as President, in a perfectly constitutional way, of a citizen, honest and unambitious, who was pledged against touching slavery in States. Having become President, he was unable to procure minister, law, treaty, or even adequate guard for his own person save by the consent of the party hitherto in power.


Lincoln had failed of a popular majority by a million. Both Houses of Congress were against him at the time of his election, and, but for the absence of southern members, they would, it is likely, have continued so through his entire term. It was the South's bad logic on these points which gave the war Democrats their excellent plea for drawing sword on the northern side.

But even supposing secession technically justifiable, how strange that it should have been judged rational, prudent, or in the long run best for the South itself. Could aught but frenzy have so drowned in Americans the memories of our great past; or launched them upon a course that must have ended by Mexicanizing this nation, wresting from it the lead in freedom's march, and crushing out, in the breast of struggling patriotism the world over, all hope of government by and for the people! The South ought at least to have spared itself. Either its alleged horror at the advance of central-sovereignty sentiment at the North was sheer pretence, or it should have been certain that this section would not hesitate, as Buchanan so illogically did, to coerce "rebellious" state-bodies.


James Buchanan

James Buchanan.

From a photograph by Brady.

If the North believed the totality of the nation to be the "paramount authority," Lincoln would surely imitate Jackson instead of Buchanan, and in doing so he would not seek military support in vain.

Quite as sure, too, must the final result have appeared from the census of 1850, had people been calm enough to read this. By that census the free States had a population fifty per cent. above the population of the slave states, slaves included, and the disparity was rapidly increasing. Their wealth was even more preponderant, being, slaves apart, nearly one hundred per cent. the larger. Their merchant tonnage was five times the greater--even young inland Ohio out-doing old South Carolina in this, and the one district of New York City the whole South.

The North had three or four times the South's miles of railway, all the sinews of war without importation, and mechanics unnumbered and of every sort. And while champions of the Union would fight with all the prestige of law, national history and the status quo on their side, Europe's aid to the South, or even that of the border slave States, was more than problematical, as was a successful career for the Confederacy in case its independence should chance to be won. Events proved that the very defence of slavery had best prospect in the Union, and it seems as if this might have been foreseen by all, as it actually was by some.