Tag Archives: Causes of Civil War

Book Review: A Disease in the Public Mind

(March 28, 2020)
Thomas Fleming (1927-2017)
Da Capo Press (2013)
Hardcover, $27 (370pp) 

This book investigates the origins of the Civil War by tracing its roots to the republic’s earliest days when two factors quickly became evident: secession and slavery. George Washington addressed both frankly. During his presidential farewell address he urged future leaders to avoid all political posturing that would endanger the Union and upon his death he freed his slaves. His actions were not enough. 

Ironically, New England threatened secession as early as did Westerners and Southerners. Three months before the convention that wrote our present constitution convened, the Boston Independent Chronicle urged that its region create “a new nation . . . of New England.” As America’s maritime leader, the Bay State was responding to an offer from Spain—then controlling Louisiana—to open key ports to New England shipping if they would oppose Westerners and Southerners who objected to Spain’s restrictions on Mississippi Valley trade.After President Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory in 1803, partly to gain control of the Mississippi, New Englanders again threatened secession because they feared losing national influence as new Western states joined the Union. New England gradually ignored an 1807 Federal trade embargo designed to avoid a second war with Great Britain thereby requiring President James Madison to declare war in 1812 as a reluctantly-adopted way of fulfilling America’s aims. The region again threatened secession.


When President John Adams pushed through the 1798 alien and sedition acts that made it situationally a crime to speak ill of the Federal government, many Americans felt that governmental power was getting too centralized. Among them was Thomas Jefferson who promoted States Rights. Thereafter, the matter of secession increasingly split between the followers of Adams, on one hand, and Jefferson on the other.

Although when writing the constitution some Northerners preferred a Union without slave states, they compromised by accepting some in order to create a viable country. Their preference never vanished. To the contrary, it grew stronger. Jefferson initially favored abolition and pushed through a Continental Congress bill that outlawed slavery in the states north of the Ohio River. He also tried to get his home state of Virginia to abolish it. Ultimately, however, he concluded that the states of the Deep South were too worried about a massacre of whites—as had happened in Haiti during Jefferson’s presidency—if blacks were given freedom.

Thus, emerged two Diseases in the Public Mind, which was a phrase originated by President Buchanan in response to John Brown’s raid. First, was abolitionism that increasingly demonized white Southerners and steadily became more intolerant of other viewpoints. Abolitionists went beyond arguing that slavery was morally wrong, they argued that white Southerners were uniquely depraved, as if New Englanders had never profited from slave trade and the molasses/rum trade tied to it. Second, was the Southerners’ fear of slave uprisings. Although they were rare, Southerners increasingly believed such uprising were the abolitionists’ true objective as John Brown’s 1859 Harpers Ferry attempt seemed to confirm. Although Brown was a murderer and ne’er-do-well, evidence found in his possession suggested that he was backed by at least six abolitionists including the wealthy William Garrett. Although Frederick Douglass declined to join the adventure, Douglass kept it secret.

Initially false perceptions between Northerners and Southerners grew to become realities. Generally, abolitionists did not seek Southern slave rebellions. They just wanted slavery to end—after they had profitably divested themselves of their own slaves. Conversely, Southerners did not seek to dominate America. In fact, Madison urged from the start that the infant industries of the North be insulated from foreign competition with protective tariffs, even at the expense of the South’s wealthier export economy. Exaggerated fear of slave uprisings coupled with resentment over the Northern hatred directed at them motivated Southerners. Conversely, exaggerated fears about Southern objectives—such as those implied in Lincoln’s “all-slave-or-all-free” House Divided speech—motivated Northerners.

Fleming suggests that Congressman and ex-President John Quincy Adams might have prevented the war. During the 1830s and 1840s he was a powerful abolition advocate. He might have been an effective mediator. Instead he spread paranoia about Southerners, labeling their region “The Slave Power.” He might, for example, have originated a bill—like one submitted shortly after his death by Congressman Abraham Lincoln—that offered slaveowners compensation for abolition. According to Fleming, “Adams had the potential to alter the debate and remind Americans of the 1830s and 1840s of the heritage they were endangering. . . Among the might-have-beens on the twisted road to Civil War . . . the hidden failure of [Adams] was one in which a change in [his] mind might have made a huge difference.” By 1860 it was too late


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The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh
Trading With the Enemy by Philip Leigh
Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh
Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh
The Devil’s Town: Hot Springs During the Gangster Era by Philip Leigh

Northern Response to Southern Secession

(September 22, 2019) Most modern Civil War historians cite some of the Cotton State secession documents as “proof” that the Civil War was chiefly about slavery. As documented here, at least four of the initial seven Confederate states that seceded before President Lincoln’s April 15, 1861 call for 75,000 troops to coerce them back into the Union cited slavery as an important reason for secession. The additional four upper-South states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded only after Lincoln’s call for troops.

Most of today’s historians, however, make three errors in judging the secession Declaration of Causes as “proof” that the war was all about slavery. First, they ignore the fact that the four upper-South states with half the white population of the eleven-state Confederacy only seceded after Lincoln forced them to choose between invading the sovereignty of the Cotton States, or fighting to prevent the invasion. They had remained Union-loyal while the Cotton States were seceding because they concluded that their own secession was unnecessary to protect their rights. Second, the historians fail to consider the reasons mentioned in the corresponding general assembly resolutions of Northern states in response to Southern secession.  Third, they equate the reasons for secession with the reasons for the war, even though secession need not have led to war.

Regarding the second point, the general assemblies of at least the ten Northern (free) states listed below passed resolutions opposing secession. None sought to end slavery. New Jersey even recommended the Crittenden Compromise, which would have forever protected slavery from federal action. The main goal of the resolutions was to avoid disunion, which generally led the ten states to regard secession as “treason” or “rebellion.” Since none wanted to end slavery, it is illogical to argue that the war was all about slavery merely because some of the first seven seceding Cotton States considered secession a way to protect slavery.

Free States With General Assembly Resolutions Against Southern Secession
(January-February 1861)
(None wanted to end slavery)

  1. Indiana
  2. Maine
  3. Massachusetts
  4. Michigan
  5. Minnesota
  6. New Jersey
  7. New York
  8. Ohio
  9. Pennsylvania
  10. Wisconsin

Regarding the third point, the reason why there is not necessarily an equivalency between secession and war is because the North could have let the South leave in peace. There was no danger that the South would militarily invade the North. In fact, many Republican and Democrat Northern leaders were prepared to at least acquiesce to Southern secession. Examples include George McClellan, Horace Greeley and Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s future War Secretary.

Significantly, the resolutions from Northern states above show that they would fight to “preserve the Union.” The cited reasons, such as the “freedom,” “prosperity” and “happiness” allegedly enabled by the Federal Union, are vague abstractions that may be mere obfuscations designed to camouflage a real goal to avoid the economic consequences of disunion.

A truncated Union separated from its Southern states, for example, would likely face two significant economic problems.

First, it could not hope to maintain a favorable balance of payments. The salve states accounted for about 70% of America’s exports on the eve of the Civil War. Thus, without the South’s export economy, America might 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 more importantly, a low Confederate tariff would induce Southerners to buy manufactured goods from Europe as opposed to the Northern states where prices were artificially inflated by protective tariffs. Tariffs in 1860 amounted to $54 million, but the import-protected goods and trading revenues in the North associated with Southern trade totaled $200 – $400 million (Southern Wealth & Northern Profits Kettell).

If modern historians had taught students about the anti-secession resolutions from the Northern states together with the secession cause declarations, the true difference between the two regions would be more discernible. The South wanted self-determination and peace whereas the North wanted economic hegemony.

*     *     *

To learn how the Confederacy nearly won its independence during the six months from June to December 1862, consider reading:

The Confederacy at Flood Tideby Philip Leigh


Indiana: Laws of the State of Indiana, (J. P Chapman, 1861), 188
Maine: State of Maine Website
Massachusetts: History of the 5th Massachusetts, p. 29
Michigan: Acts of the Michigan Legislature, 1861, p. 579
Minnesota: Journal of the Senate of Missouri, 1861, p. 194
New Jersey: Journal of the Assembly of New York, 1861, p. 231
New York: Revised Statutes of New York, 1863, p. 107
Ohio: Journal of Ohio Senate, 2nd Session, 1861, p. 19
Pennsylvania: Journal of Wisconsin Assembly: 1861, p. 206
Wisconsin: General Acts of Wisconsin Legislature, 1861, p. 345

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.

New Life in Tariff Argument

(March 9, 2018) Many of today’s historians are frustrated that they cannot eradicate the “myth” that sectional differences over tariffs even secondarily contributed to the Civil War. They like to label tariffs as “The Great Civil War Lie” and insist that slavery was the solitary cause of the war. Yet the strong opposition to President Trump’s recent shift in American tariff policy suggests that they should reevaluate one their key arguments.

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Specifically, they argue that Southerners had no reason to object to tariff hikes on the eve of the Civil War because rates had steadily declined over the previous fifteen years and were the lowest in at least forty years. As the table below shows, the tariff on dutiable items dropped from thirty-five percent in 1846 to nineteen percent in 1861, translating to a decline of about fifty-five percent.

But current loud objections to President Trump’s initiative suggests that tariff opponents will fight against higher rates even if they have been dropping for years. The table above shows that modern-era American tariffs have been declining since the end of World War II. Specifically, rates on dutiable items dropped from thirty-two percent in 1947 to about five percent currently, translating to a decrease of about eighty-five percent.

Although slavery may have been the leading cause of North-South differences, tariff policy was at least a secondary one. For example, even as the Confederate constitution legalized slavery it also outlawed protective tariffs. In order to sharply increase rates, in 1860 the U. S. House of Representatives passed the Morrill Tariff seven months before any Southern state seceded. The Senate passed it less than a year later after the initial seven Southern states formed the Confederacy. (The senators would likely have passed it within a matter of months anyway because new Republican senators had been elected and would soon take their seats.) Every Republican senator voted for the tariff. Thereafter rates on dutiable items averaged forty-five percent until the Republicans lost the White House to Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Wilson cut rates to a low of eighteen percent but Republicans increased them again to a high of almost sixty-percent in 1932.

From the end of the Civil War to the end of World War II, Republicans generally kept tariffs high in order to protect Northern industry from overseas competition at the expense of the South’s export economy. Southerners of the era consistently opposed high tariffs—as did their antebellum ancestors—for two reasons.

First, protective tariffs artificially inflated the cost of Northern manufactured goods as well as competitive goods from overseas. Second, such tariffs made it hard for European industrial economies to earn the American exchange credits needed to buy Southern cotton thereby giving the Europeans an incentive to buy cotton from other countries. Since half of the South’s cotton was purchased in Europe as late as 1940 America’s protective tariffs were a provocation to the South’s biggest customer for a long time.

Centennial Wars

Fifty years ago the master narrative of the Civil War Centennial failed to synchronize with the momentous 1960s Civil Rights movement. It minimized the roles of slavery and race. Instead the War was characterized as a unifying ordeal in which both sides fought heroically for their sense of “right”, thereby becoming reconciled through mutual sacrifice. Slavery was considered only one of several causes of the War.

Thereafter, most historians began rejecting the Centennial interpretation. Yale professor David Blight explains that historians who came of age during the 1920s economic boom, ensuing crash, and Great Depression were chiefly responsible for shaping the twentieth century understanding of the War’s causes – until the 1960s. Such historians “tended to see the world through the frame of the Great Depression” and interpreted sectional differences as more important than differing ideologies on slavery per se.

His signature example was Charles Beard who “saw the South and North as essentially two economies . . . [U]ltimately the Civil War, in Beard’s view, wasn’t really about any particular ideology . . . it was two economic systems living together in . . . the same nation, and coming into conflict with one another in insolvable ways; forces meeting at a crossroads and they had to clash. Beard is laden with inevitability, as any great economic determinist usually is.”

If Blight correctly reasons the accepted causes of the Civil War fifty years ago were distorted because the Great Depression personally affected influential authors, it is reasonable to examine whether the Civil Rights movement similarly impacted Sesquicentennial historians. Princeton’s James McPherson is a good place to start. He won a 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom, which was his historical interpretation of disunion and the War. His influence is evident from the book’s massive popularity as a text in American colleges. Moreover, he’s repeatedly confessed that the 1960s Civil Rights movement molded his study of the War. The affect was evident as early as his dissertation selection:

  • …[T]he selection of a dissertation topic was one of the most difficult experiences during my four years at Johns Hopkins from 1958–1962. . . . My adviser…encouraged me to write . . . on Alabama Reconstruction. . . [T]he Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and I knew (presumed?) that as a Yankee (born in North Dakota and raised in Minnesota) I might be less than welcome in Alabama. The prospect…left me considerably less than ecstatic. . . Meanwhile, I had become fascinated with the abolitionists… My empathy with these civil rights activists generated more excitement than…Alabama.

Additionally, McPherson echoes Blight’s criticism of Beard by writing “As Beard viewed it, slavery and emancipation were almost incidental to the real causes and consequences of the war. The sectional conflict arose from the contending economic interests.” On the eve of the Sesquicentennial McPherson opined that Beard’s once popular economic-centric explanation had been nearly universally rejected by contemporary historians, who define slavery as the overarching cause: “Probably 90 percent, maybe 95 percent of serious historians of the Civil War would agree on…what the war was about . . . which was the increasing polarization of the country between the free states and the slave states over issues of slavery, especially the expansion of slavery.”

After winning the Pulitzer, McPherson steadily attracted followers. While nearly all emphasize slavery as the reason for the secession of the cotton states, they generally fail to explain why the North declined to let the South depart peacefully. After all, if the South quietly left the Union, slavery would cease in the United States. It was precisely what prominent abolitionists frequently advocated prior to the War. Examples include William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Beecher, Samuel Howe, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Clark, Gerrit Smith, Joshua Giddings, and even Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner who would become a leading war hawk. For years Garrison described the constitutional Union as “a covenant with death and agreement with hell.”

Moreover, Lincoln continually rejected emancipation for the first seventeen months of the War. During the first year, he overruled Generals Hunter and Fremont when each attempted to emancipate slaves in their districts. As late as August 1862, he famously replied in a letter to publisher Horace Greely’s call to free the slaves, “My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it and if I could do it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” In short, “preserving the Union” was really a slogan to avoid the consequence of disunion. The reasons are chiefly linked to economics, not abolitionism.

A surviving independent Confederacy would undoubtedly employ much lower tariffs than the United States. In his inaugural address President Jefferson Davis stated, “Our policy is peace, and the freest trade our necessities will permit. It is . . . [in] our interest, and that of [our trading partners], that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon interchange of commodities.” Similarly Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin later offered France a special tariff exemption “for a certain defined period” in exchange for diplomatic recognition.

A low Confederate tariff presented the remaining states of the Union with two consequences. First, the federal government would lose the great majority of its tax revenue. Articles imported into the Confederacy from Europe would divert tariff revenue from the North to the South. Additionally, the Confederacy’s low duties would encourage Northern-bound European imports to enter in the South, where they could be smuggled across the Ohio River into Midwestern states to evade US duties. Tariff compliance would nearly vanish, thereby inducing a collapse in federal tax revenue. Second, given the Confederacy’s lower tariffs its residents would likely buy more manufactured goods from Europe rather than from the Northern states, where prices were inflated by protective tariffs.

It was quickly realized that such concerns were not mere abstractions. In March 1861 New Yorkers were panicked to read a dispatch from St. Louis in a Manhattan newspaper: “Every day…our importers are receiving, by way of New Orleans very considerable quantities of goods, duty free…If this thing is to become permanent, there will be an entire revolution in the course of trade and New York will suffer terribly.” Cincinnati also reported that goods were arriving from New Orleans tariff-free. Three months earlier the Philadelphia Press editorialized, “It is the enforcement of the revenue laws, not the coercion of the [Rebel] state[s] that is the question of the hour. If those laws cannot be enforced, the Union is clearly gone.” Historian Charles Adams explains:

  • 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 Pittsburg, where duty-free British steel and iron products would cripple the American steel industry.

States northwest of the Ohio River had additional economic reasons to fear dissolution of the Union. Specifically, they were apprehensive that the Confederacy would jeopardize free trade to the mouth of the Mississippi River. The concern was sufficiently acute that some Midwesterners toyed with the notion of forming a Northwest Confederacy of states to be allied with the Southern Confederacy. Although the Davis government promised that the river would be open to free trade, many Midwesterners regarded such assurances as mere paper guarantees. They remained worried that the Confederacy may impose fees and import duties at some future date.

Finally, after the opening guns at Fort Sumter many Northern capitalists reasoned that a war would be good for business. Wall Street looked at disunion as a menace to their investments. Government bond quotations dipped with every incident of federal indecision. But the demand for war goods was correctly expected to lift the economy. Since hostilities would block much of the Mississippi River trade, eastern merchants reasoned that they could monopolize commerce with the Midwest. Manufacturers would get many profitable military supply contracts. The Midwestern states would supply Union armies with provender. Such conclusions proved to be valid. From 1860 to 1865, the gross national product increased from $4.3 billion to $9.9 billion, which translates to an 18 percent compounded annual growth rate. Since the economy in the South was shrinking, the rate applicable to the Northern states was probably well above 20 percent annually.

Consequently, during the past fifty years numerous authors apparently competed with one another to devalue everything about the Confederacy to the point of absurdity. E. L. Doctorow’s fictional account of Sherman’s March to the Sea entitled The March became a best seller, won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, and was made required reading at a Yale University Civil War history course, while portraying every male Southerner in the story as a reprehensible person. Characteristic of the dogma that typically depicts Southern failures as resulting from stupidity or arrogance, modern Antietam scholars conclude that Lee’s invasion of the North after Second Bull Run was driven by overconfidence. Yet they fail to even consider an important aspect of his viewpoint, which was the fact that Beauregard and Johnston were castigated in Richmond about a year earlier for failing to try what Lee attempted. Annapolis students are taught the consensus of historians agree that Grant was the War’s best general. Bruce Levine portrays as undisputed fact a dubious allegation denied by Lee that he whipped a female slave. The list goes on and on.

Critics of the Centennial storyline have successfully placed slavery and race at the center of the Sesquicentennial narrative. Some have over compensated to a point where blacklisted historians are attacked as “neo-confederates.” One example is Gary Gallagher. Despite agreeing that slavery was “central to the coming of the War and the conflict itself” his most important books focus on Confederate topics thereby leaving him feeling compelled to explain, “Don’t dismiss me as a ‘neo-Confederate’…As a native of Los Angeles who grew up on a farm in southern Colorado, I can claim complete freedom from any…special pleading…[and] not a single ancestor fought in the war.”

Those who worry that the moonlight and magnolias version of Civil War history holds much public influence fear a ghost. By capturing a 71% share of the TV audience the race-centered narrative of the “Roots” miniseries has surely been as influential as the countervailing account provided by “Gone With the Wind.” It has been 37 years since “Roots” shifted Hollywood’s Civil War perspective. By comparison, the interval between “Gone With the Wind” and “Roots” was 38 years. It’s time to give up the ghost.