Monthly Archives: July 2018

Causes of the Civil War

(July 18, 2018) In a PBS interview seven years ago historian and Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War. “Historians are pretty united on the cause of the Civil War being slavery,” she said and elaborated by adding, . . . “when the various states announced their plans for secession, they uniformly said that the main motivating factor was to defend slavery.”

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But she commits two errors. First, only five of the first seven states to secede cited slavery in their secession ordinances and declarations of causes. Additionally, the four upper-South states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas remained Union-loyal until President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to coerce the seven Gulf states back into the Union—a compulsion that the upper-South states considered to be unconstitutional. Once they joined, however, they doubled the Confederacy’s white population and her territory east of the Mississippi River. Second, but foremost, Faust falsely equates the reasons the Northern states chose to fight a war with the reasons Southern states seceded.

She fails to consider that Northerners could have let the cotton states leave in peace, thereby avoiding a Civil War altogether. The original seven-state Confederacy was so weak that many believed her component states might end up humbly asking to be readmitted to the Federal Union. According to historian David Potter: “No one was much impressed with the Gulf Coast Confederacy. No one was convinced that it would be economically or politically viable.”[1]

Moreover, many Northern leaders were prepared to “Let the erring sisters go in peace.” Among them was abolitionist Horace Greeley, then editor of The New York Tribune, which was America’s largest newspaper. Greeley wrote, “We have repeatedly said . . . that if the slave states choose to form an independent nation, they have the right to do so.” President James Buchanan added that many Republicans shared Greeley’s opinion when he wrote: “Leading Republicans everywhere scornfully exclaimed ‘Let them go;’ ‘We can do better without them;’ ‘Let the Union slide,’ and other language of the same import.” Ohio lawyer and future Republican President Rutherford Hayes was satisfied to let the free states remain alone as his January 4, 1861 diary entry reveals: “The [twenty] free states alone . . . will make a glorious nation . . . scarcely inferior in real power to the thirty-three states we had on the first of November.”[2] Similarly, President Lincoln’s future War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, said, “Oh, I would let the South go; they will be clamoring to get back in three years.”

Faust made a second error by ignoring the reasons that Northerners chose to fight and instead concentrated only on the reasons the South seceded. She could have, for example, examined resolutions passed by at least six Northern state legislatures in response to the first wave of seceding states. All six suggested that they were prepared to fight a war in order to “preserve the Union.”[3]

The elephant in the Civil War history classroom

It is impossible to conclude that the resolutions of any of the six states even hint of a Northern holy war to free Southern slaves. Moreover, the vague abstractions for wanting to preserve the Union, such as the “freedom,” “prosperity,” and “happiness” presumably enabled by the Federal Union, suggest that they may be nothing more than obfuscations designed to camouflage the true goal of aborting the economic consequences of disunion. Even historian Gary Gallagher who accepts the platitudes at face value, concedes that the average Northerner was preoccupied “then, as now, [by] economic concerns.”[4] A truncated Union separated from its Southern states would likely face two significant economic problems.

First, it could not hope to maintain a favorable balance of payments. The South accounted for about 80% of America’s exports on the eve of the Civil War. Thus, without the South’s export economy, America would become a perpetual debtor nation forever at the mercy of its stronger trading partners that would deplete her gold supply in order to settle the persistent trade imbalances.

Second, since the Confederate constitution outlawed protective tariffs, her lower tariffs would confront the remaining states of the abridged Union with two consequences. First, since ninety percent of Federal taxes came from tariffs, the government’s revenue loss would be sizable. Articles imported into the Confederacy from Europe would divert tariff revenue from the North to the South. Second, and even more importantly, a low Confederate tariff would induce Southerners to buy manufactured goods from Europe as opposed to the Northern states where prices were inflated by protective tariffs.

In January 1861 The Philadelphia Press editorialized, “It is the enforcement of the revenue laws [tariffs], not the coercion of [South Carolina] that is the question of the hour. If those laws cannot be enforced, the Union is clearly gone.” In When in the Course of Human Events author Charles Adams reasons:

If trade were to shift to the Southern ports because of a free trade zone, or extremely low duties relative to the North, then [the] great cities [of the Northeast] would go into decline and suffer economic disaster. The image painted by these editorials [from newspapers of Northeastern cities] is one of massive unemployment, the closing of factories and businesses, followed by unrest, riots, and possibly revolution. The inland cities of the North would also go into decline, like Pittsburgh, where duty-free British steel and iron products would cripple the American steel industry.

Consider the iron-producing state of Pennsylvania, which was among the most vigorous advocates of protective tariffs. As the railroad industry boomed for decades after construction started on the transcontinental railroad during the Civil War, tariffs on imported steel rails sometimes approached 100%. Thus, while Pennsylvanians proclaimed that they did not want to interfere with the Southern slavery, they undeniably wanted generous tariff protection.[5]

The false equivalency between the reasons that the South seceded and the reasons that the North chose to fight a war rather than let the seven cotton states depart peaceably is the ignored elephant in the history classroom.

*       *       *

[1] David Potter, The Impeding Crisis (New York: Harper Colophon, 1976), 505
[2] Hayes miscounted. At the end of January 1861 there were only nineteen free states.
[3] New York, Maine, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota
[4] Gary Gallagher, The Union War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 42, 44
[5] Jack Beatty, Age of Betrayal (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2007), 67; Samuel Bostaph, Andrew Carnegie: An Economic Biography (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 137; Ludwell Johnson, Division and Reunion (New York: Wiley, 1978), 64

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New York Replies to Southern Secession

(July 16, 2018) As noted in the four previous posts, desires to protect slavery expressed in the secession documents of selected Southern states contribute significantly to the popular notion that Northerners entered the Civil War to free the slaves.  Nonetheless, official resolutions of the four Northern states examined so far (Minnesota, Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) undeniably show that their chief goal was to keep the Union intact. None of the Northern documents indicate an intent to free Southern  slaves. To the contrary, they typically included resolutions denying that the federal government had such authority. Today’s post analyzes the January 11, 1861 joint resolutions of the New York General Assembly. By that date only four of the eventual eleven states that would join the Confederacy had yet seceded.

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New York summed its perspective in only three resolutions. The third merely stated that the document would be distributed to political leaders in other states. The second expressed support for the citizens of selected slaves states that had not yet seceded and who where urging their states to remain Union-loyal.

But the first proclaimed New York’s readiness to go to war to preserve the Union. Specifically, the legislators resolved that they were “profoundly impressed with the value of the Union and determined to preserve it unimpaired.” They regarded the Union as valuable because “it conferred prosperity and happiness on the American People.” Finally, they concluded that New York was prepared to provide “whatever aid in men and money [President Buchanan] may require to enforce the laws and uphold the authority of the Federal Government.”  It fails to even hint that New Yorkers wanted to free Southern slaves.

Like the resolutions of other Northern states, New York’s provide only vague reasons for wanting the Union preserved, such as the “prosperity” and “happiness” it provided to all Americans. Such abstractions are not convincing explanations and may be deliberate obfuscations. Even historian Gary Gallagher who accepts the platitudes at face value, concedes that the average Northerner was preoccupied “then, as now, [by] economic concerns.” Blacks represented only about one percent of the population in the Northern free states where they were largely irrelevant to the affairs of the typical white man.*

No spot north of the Mason-Dixon Line worried more about the potential economic consequences of disunion than New York City. According to historians John and Charles Lockwood,  “Much of the South’s cotton exports passed through New York, and the city’s merchants took 40 cents of every dollar that Europeans paid for Southern cotton through warehouse fees, shipping, insurance and profits. Cotton—and hence slavery—helped build the new marble-fronted mercantile buildings in lower Manhattan, fill Broadway hotels and stores with customers, and build block after block of fashionable brownstones north of 14th Street. If seceding Southern states formed their own nation, New York merchants could expect to lose much of that lucrative trade.”

As a result, on January 7, 1861 Mayor Fernando Wood formally suggested that the city’s governing council declare Manhattan independent from both the state and the federal Union. He envisioned the city becoming an independent city-state similar to the seaport free cities of northern Germany. His proposal came less than three weeks after South Carolina seceded and two days before Mississippi became the second state to secede.

Wood’s idea was not as surprising as it might seem today. In 1861 New York was both America’s largest and wealthiest city. At a time when tariffs represented ninety percent of federal revenues, two-thirds of them were collected at the Port of New York. As an independent city state, New York could keep that tariff revenue for itself. “As a free city,” Wood said, “with but nominal duty on imports, her local Government could be supported without taxation upon her people. Thus we could live free from taxes, and have cheap goods nearly duty free.” Although the council failed to adopt the mayor’s proposal the city’s businessmen desperately wanted to avoid the economic consequences of disunion.

 

*Gary Gallagher, The Union War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 42, 44

New Jersey Replies to Southern Secession

(July 15, 2018) Partly because some of the Southern states formally cited the protection of slavery as their chief reason for seceding, today’s public generally believes that the North entered the Civil War to free the slaves. But the pre-war resolutions of Northern states replying to secession examined so far (Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Ohio) undeniably show that the principal reason they opposed secession was “to preserve the Union”* and not to free the slaves. Today’s post analyzes the January 25, 1861 joint resolutions of the New Jersey General Assembly. On that date only five of the eventual eleven Confederate states had yet seceded.

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Similar to the resolutions of the other Northern states analyzed so far, New Jersey’s principal aim to “sustain the Union” is stated in the first of nine resolutions. The second asserts the illegality of secession and the sixth calls upon all states having adopted ordinances of secession to repeal them. Only the fourth even mentions slavery and it is coupled with the third, fifth, seventh, and eighth, which are pleas for compromise and expressions of New Jersey’s eagerness to promote such compromise  in order “to permanently settle the question of slavery.”

In order to permit more white males to remain in the state, in the second half of the war New Jersey recruited black soldiers as substitutes.

Most significant is the fourth resolution. It endorses the proposed “Crittenden Compromise,” which would amend the constitution in two basic ways. First, it would forever forbid federal abolition or interference with slavery in the states where it was then legal. And, futhermore, the amendment would specify that it could never be changed or repealed. Second, another provision would allow slavery in the Western territories below the latitude of Missouri’s southern border. Thus, the future states of New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arizona would enter the Union as slave states whereas the other thirteen states that joined after the Civil War started would have been admitted as free states. (Any territories hypothetically acquired from Mexico or nations farther South might also be admitted as slave states.)

Although New Jersey’s resolutions imply she would go to war to preserve the Union, there’s no indication that she wanted to free the slaves. To the contrary, the state explicitly supported a compromise that would forever keep them in bondage in the states where slavery was then legal, unless the applicable states chose to abolish slavery themselves. It would also permit slavery in America’s present day Southwest.

New Jersey failed to cite concrete reasons for wanting to “sustain the Union of the States.” Much like Ohio and Pennsylvania she asserted that an undivided federal Union was the “main pillar” supporting the “tranquility,” “prosperity” and “liberty” of the people of New Jersey. Since there is no explanation about why a mere alteration in the national borders would change any of those abstractions, historians should more thoroughly investigate why the Northern states chose to fight instead of letting the cotton states leave in peace. As explained in earlier posts, there’s considerable evidence suggesting that Northerners wanted to “preserve the Union” in order to avoid the economic consequences of disunion.

 

*  Contemporary Southerners interpreted the Northern war-motivating expression “to preserve the Union” as a euphemistic translation for “coercing the seceded states back into the Union.” Since “preserving the Union” is presently the dominant description among historians, their choice underscores the ancient wisdom that winners write the history.

Ohio Replies to Southern Secession

(July 14, 2018) Partly because some of the Southern states formally cited the protection of slavery as the chief reason for seceding, today’s public generally believes that the North entered the Civil War to free the slaves. But the pre-war resolutions of Northern states replying to secession examined so far (Minnesota and Pennsylvania) at Civil War Chat undeniably show that the principal reason they opposed secession was to preserve the Union and not to free the slaves. Today’s post analyzes the January 12, 1861 joint resolutions of the Ohio General Assembly. On that date only four states had yet seceded.

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The Ohio resolutions make only a single indirect, but unmistakable, reference to slavery. Instead of urging an end to slavery, however, they indicate that slavery is a matter for the states to decide individually. Specifically, the fourth resolution states that Ohioans “are inflexibly opposed to intermeddling with the internal affairs and domestic relations of the other states of the Union.” The resolution’s language is similar to that of the fourth plank in Lincoln’s Party platform, although it fails to “denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any state or territory, no matter under what pretext . . .” as does (ironically) the Republican plank.

As with the Minnesota and Pennsylvania proclamations the rest of Ohio’s resolutions generally condemn secession and assert the perpetuity of the Union. Although indicating that Ohio was prepared to support a federal invasion of the seceding states  to coerce them back into the Union, they only provide abstract reasons for wanting to preserve the Union. The first resolution, for example, states that the people of Ohio “believing that the preservation of the Unity of [the federal] Government . . . is essential to . . . their safety [and] prosperity . . . are firmly . . .  attached to . . . the Union of the States.” They fail to mention a specific reason for opposing Southern secession such as Minnesota’s objection that it might enable a new nation to disrupt navigation in the lower Mississippi Valley. Nonetheless, Ohio reveals her threat of war in the second resolution that proclaims “the General Government cannot permit the secession of any state.”

Unlike Pennsylvania, Ohio historically opposed protective tariffs, which were generally levied on the imports competitive to the manufactured goods produced in the Northeast. But the state was also a major wool producer. The number of sheep in the Union-loyal states, excluding the Far West, increased from 15 million in 1860 to 35 million in 1867 and twenty percent were in Ohio.  By 1863 the state’s wool growers started laying plans to join with the eastern mills to obtain tariff protection for all components of the industry’s supply chain.  In exchange for supporting tariffs on finished woolen goods Ohioans would get tariffs on unprocessed wool commonly imported from low cost producers in New Zealand and Australia. In fact, wool would become one of the first major domestically produced raw materials to get a protective tariff.* Like Minnesotans, Ohioans may have also wanted to keep the lower Mississippi Valley in the United States in order to avoid potential trade disruptions to the South and export markets through New Orleans.

While it would be helpful if the Ohioans had explained concretely why they felt preservation of the Union was essential to their “prosperity” their resolutions unmistakably show that the state did not go to war to free the slaves.

*Howard K. Beale, “The Tariff and Reconstruction,” American Historical Review V.35, N. 2 (January 1930), 283-86; Howard K. Beale The Critical Year (New York: Frederick Unger Publishing, 1958), 270

 

Why Pennsylvania Chose Civil War

(July 13, 1861) As noted in yesterday’s post, modern historians typically point  to the formal resolutions of selected Southern states such as South Carolina and Mississippi as “proof” that slavery was the Civil War’s dominant cause. But the statements were explanations for secession, not war. The careful student will investigate whether it’s proper to equate the reasons the South seceded with the reasons the Northern states chose to militarily coerce them back into the Union. It is the presumption of equivalency that leads to the currently popular notion that the North fought to end slavery and the South to preserve it.

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However, Northern acceptance of peaceful separation could have avoided war.  There was, after all, little danger that Southern states would militarily invade the North. In fact, a number of prominent Republicans concluded that the South should be allowed to leave peaceably and remain a familiar, but independent, neighbor.*

To understand why the outcome of the secession crises was Civil War instead of peaceable separation, students should consider Northern reaction to disunion in addition to Southern reasons for secession. Just as some Southern states issued formal explanations for secession, a number of Northern states released official reactions to Southern secession. This post evaluates the six resolutions jointly approved by Pennsylvania’s legislature on January 24, 1861. Although five Southern states had seceded by that date,  South Carolina’s “declaration of . . . causes” the previous month prompted Pennsylvania’s reaction.

Unlike Minnesota’s resolutions examined yesterday, Pennsylvania’s specifically address slavery but none suggest that the Keystone State wanted to free Southern slaves. To the contrary, the second resolution affirmed “the Constitutional rights of the people of the slaveholding states, to the uninterrupted enjoyment of their own domestic institutions,” meaning slavery.

The first and third resolutions assert the illegality of secession. In a allusion to South Carolina’s use of artillery to deter a supply ship headed for Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, the fifth one condemns “warlike demonstrations” against federal authority. It is the fourth resolution that threatens war by asserting federal authority to coerce seceding states back into the Union and Pennsylvania’s pledge to “support such measures” as “may be required” to do so. The sixth merely states that copies of Pennsylvania’s resolutions will be distributed to political leaders outside the state.

Thus, like Minnesota, Pennsylvania’s major goal was to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves. Although the resolutions don’t explain why the state desired to keep the Union intact, it’s likely that they wanted to avoid the economic consequences of disunion—just as did Minnesota and other Northern states. As President-elect Lincoln well knew, Pennsylvania’s iron producers depended upon high protective tariffs. At the Republican convention the previous May, his operatives incorporated a protective tariff plank in the Party’s platform in order to win the state’s delegates, which were considered necessary to getting Lincoln the presidential nomination.**

Due to their focus on slavery, many of today’s historians minimize the adverse consequences of disunion for tariff-protected industries. If the Confederacy were to survive as a separate country its import tariffs would certainly have been much lower than those of the federal union. President Jefferson Davis announced in his inaugural address, “Our policy is peace, and the freest trade our necessities will permit. It is . . . [in] our interest, [and those of our trading partners] that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon interchange of commodities.”

Low Confederate tariffs would confront the remaining states of the abridged Union with two consequences. First, since ninety percent of federal taxes came from tariffs, the government’s revenue loss would be sizable. Articles imported into the Confederacy from Europe would divert tariff revenue from the North to the South. Second, and even more importantly, a low Confederate tariff would induce Southerners to buy manufactured goods from Europe as opposed to the Northern states where prices were inflated by protective tariffs.

In January 1861 The Philadelphia Press editorialized, “It is the enforcement of the revenue laws [tariffs], not the coercion of [South Carolina] that is the question of the hour. If those laws cannot be enforced, the Union is clearly gone.” In When in the Course of Human Events author Charles Adams reasons:

If trade were to shift to the Southern ports because of a free trade zone, or extremely low duties relative to the North, then [the] great cities [of the Northeast] would go into decline and suffer economic disaster. The image painted by these editorials [from newspapers of Northeastern cities] is one of massive unemployment, the closing of factories and businesses, followed by unrest, riots, and possibly revolution. The inland cities of the North would also go into decline, like Pittsburgh, where duty-free British steel and iron products would cripple the American steel industry.

Increasingly influenced by its growing iron and steel industries, Pennsylvania was perhaps the most vigorous supporter of protective tariffs. As the railroad industry boomed for decades after construction started on the transcontinental railroad during the Civil War, tariffs on imported steel rails sometimes approached 100%. Thus, while Pennsylvanians did not want to interfere with the “domestic institutions of the Southern states, they undeniably wanted liberal tariff protection for the Keystone State.***

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*Among such leaders was abolitionist Horace Greeley who was the editor of The New York Tribune, then one of America’s two most influential newspapers. Greeley wrote, “We have repeatedly said . . . that if the slave states choose to form an independent nation, they have the right to do so.” President James Buchanan added that many Republicans shared Greeley’s opinion when he wrote: “Leading Republicans everywhere scornfully exclaimed ‘Let them go;’ ‘We can do better without them;’ ‘Let the Union slide,’ and other language of the same import.” Ohio lawyer and future Republican President Rutherford Hayes was satisfied to let the free states remain alone as his January 4, 1861 diary entry reveals: “The [twenty] free states alone . . . will make a glorious nation . . . scarcely inferior in real power to the thirty-three states we had on the first of November.” Similarly, President Lincoln’s future War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, said, “Oh, I would let the South go; they will be clamoring to get back in three years.”

** David Donald, Lincoln (London:  Jonathan Cape, 1995), 246; David Potter, The Impeding Crisis (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 423-24

*** Jack Beatty, Age of Betrayal (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2007), 67; Samuel Bostaph, Andrew Carnegie: An Economic Biography (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 137

 

 

Why Minnesota Chose Civil War

(July 12, 2018) Formal resolutions explaining why selected Southern states such as South Carolina and Mississippi elected to secede are often cited as “proof” that slavery was the Civil War’s dominant cause. Nonetheless, the statements were explanations for secession, not war. The great fallacy of the presently dominant James McPherson school of Civil War history is to equate the reasons the South seceded with the reasons the Northern states chose to militarily coerce them back into the Union. The overly-simplified interpretation leads to the currently popular opinion that the North fought to end slavery and the South to preserve it.

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In truth, however, few contemporaries believed that a Southern Confederacy militarily threatened the Northern states. It was, for example, unlikely to invade the North.  Therefore, a number of prominent Yankees concluded that the South should be allowed to leave peaceably and remain a familiar, but independent, neighbor. Among them was abolitionist Horace Greeley who was the editor of The New York Tribune, then one of America’s two most influential newspapers. Greeley wrote, “We have repeatedly said . . . that if the slave states choose to form an independent nation, they have the right to do so.” President James Buchanan added that many Republicans shared Greeley’s opinion: “Leading Republicans everywhere scornfully exclaimed ‘Let them go;’ ‘We can do better without them;’ ‘Let the Union slide,’ and other language of the same import.”

To understand why the result was Civil War, students should consider Northern reaction to disunion as well as Southern reasons for secession. Just as some Southern states issued formal explanations for secession, a number of Northern states released official reactions to Southern secession. This post evaluates the eight resolutions jointly approved by Minnesota’s legislature on January 19, 1861 after five Southern states had seceded. Future posts will look at other states.

Minnesota’s resolutions unmistakably affirmed that the state would provide “resource(s)” for the federal government to militarily force the South back into the Union. Most condemned Southern secession as being “without excuse or justification.” But in sum the resolutions show that Minnesotans chiefly desired to preserve the Union. They made no statement about wanting to free Southern slaves. In fact, none of the resolutions even mention slavery.

Not until the seventh resolution does the Minnesota legislature provide a concrete explanation for wanting to preserve the Union:

7. Resolved, That we never will consent or submit to the obstruction of the free navigation of the Mississippi river, from it source to its mouth, by any power hostile to the Federal Government.

Thus, Minnesota’s true reasons for opposing the Confederacy seem to center on worries about the economic impact of disunion. Such concerns about trade disruption were common among most Northern states. As explained in this post, the avoidance of such consequences appears to be the chief reason the Northern states chose to inaugurate Civil War.