(September 4, 2019) Nearly all modern historians agree with Professor James McPherson’s conclusion that the Civil War was caused by Southern objections to the 1860 Republican Party’s resolve to prohibit slavery’s extension into any of the federal territories that had not yet been organized as states. The resolution originated with the Wilmot Proviso fourteen years earlier before the infant GOP had even been formed. In 1846 Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot introduced a rider to a $2 million appropriation intended for use in a negotiated settlement to end the Mexican War. The rider stipulated that the money could not be used to purchase land that might be acquired in the treaty if slavery was allowed in such territories. After considerable wrangling, the bill passed without the rider.
Contrary to first impressions, the Proviso had little to do with sympathy for black slaves. Its purpose was to keep blacks out of the new territories so that the lands might be reserved for free whites. As Wilmot put it, “The negro race already occupy enough of this fair continent . . . I would preserve for free white labor a fair country . . . where the sons of toil, of my own race and color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.”
The same attitude prevailed during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln readily admitted that his September 1862 Emancipation Proclamation was a necessity of war. Major General George McClellan, who then commanded the North’s biggest army and would become Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 presidential elections, believed it was a deliberate attempt to incite Southern slave rebellions. Lincoln was himself aware that such uprisings might result. Nine days before he issued the Proclamation he told a group of visiting Chicago abolitionists that he “would urge [no] objections of a moral nature” to abolitionism even “in view of possible consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South.”
During the first secession wave when seven states left in December 1860 and the first months of 1861, at least six Northern state legislatures adopted resolutions opposing secession. None mentioned a desire to end slavery. Instead, all indicated they were prepared to fight in order to “preserve the Union.” Similarly, on his first day in office President Lincoln stated that he only wanted to bar the extension of slavery into the territories, not to end it. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Less than five months later the U. S. Congress almost unanimously adopted a joint resolution stating that their only war aim was to reunify the country thereby signaling they had no intent to free slaves.
When large numbers of freedmen began drifting into Union lines after the victorious armies occupied Southern lands, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas tried to relocate some to Northern free states. His efforts were promptly rejected by those states. In spring 1863 he wrote: “It will not do to send [black refugees] . . . into the free states, for the prejudices of the people of those states are against such a measure and some . . . have enacted laws against the reception of free negroes.” Even Massachusetts, the cradle of abolitionism, refused to accept black refugees. Famous abolitionist, Horace Greeley, advocated that occupied Southern lands be given to freedmen in order to avoid black migration into the North. After the war ended Massachusetts Congressman George Boutwell proposed that South Carolina and Florida be reserved exclusively for blacks in order to keep them far South of the Mason-Dixon line.
Admittedly, at least some of the original seven cotton states seceded due to objections over the Republican-proposed limitation on slaveholder rights. It is, however, a mistake to equate the reasons for secession with the reasons for war. Since there was no danger that the South would invade the North, Northerners could have let the initial seven cotton states peacefully leave.
In point of fact, many Northern leaders were prepared to do just that. Among them was Mr. 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 and 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.”
War began only after Lincoln called for 75,000 military volunteers to coerce the seven cotton states back into the Union. The call caused the four upper South states—Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas—with half of the eleven-state Confederacy’s white population to join the other seven. Since the four had previously been Union-loyal it cannot be said that they seceded because of slavery.
In reality, the North chose to fight in order to avoid the anticipated economic consequences of disunion. 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 70% of America’s exports on the eve of the Civil War. Thus, without the South’s export economy, America could 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 Union with two consequences. One would be a shrinkage in tariff revenues. Articles imported into the Confederacy would divert the applicable import duties from the North to the South. Since tariffs represented ninety percent of all Federal taxes such a drop was significant. 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. Consequently, the market for Northern manufactured goods in the South might nearly vanish.
Notwithstanding the above facts, the myth persists that the North fought to end slavery and the South fought to perpetuate it. Gore Vidal’s 1984 novel, Lincoln, may offer one explanation for the myth’s endurance. Instead of a martyr whose life is sacrificed for a noble cause, according to Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, Vidal’s Lincoln “seems to will his own murder as a guilt ridden inadequate atonement for all the blood spilled.” In an interview, Vidal himself said, “I always thought Lincoln was wrong. I always thought the South had every right to go. If Lincoln had a high moral purpose—which has now been invented for him, posthumously, as the abolition of slavery—I’d say, well it’s illegal but it’s morally worthy.” At the time, however, his motivations were to preserve the Union and centralize power in Washington. “Why,” Vidal adds, “kill 600,000 young men for a notion of the Union, which nobody had thought much of before then?”
If Vidal’s insight is valid, the myth abides because it provides the victors a noble excuse for starting a war of conquest and following it with a century of economic exploitation. A hundred years after the war eight of the ten states with the lowest per capita income were former Confederate states. Southern poverty was obvious to any Northerner traveling through the region. He could absolve his ancestors of responsibility by blaming the victims, which he might label variously as hillbillies, crackers, rednecks, bubbas, hayseeds, bigots and hicks. Most academic historians increasingly came under the same influence and falsely justified his viewpoint. After the 1960s Civil Rights movement he moved beyond merely blaming the South and began demonizing it. Southerners became deplorables, with no redeeming virtues. Northern historians moved into Southern colleges where they eradicated nearly all dissenting voices.
Nonetheless, during an era when slaves were neither American voters nor citizens, the South was fighting for self government, which most free men regard as an inalienable right. Even Lincoln said so in an 1848 congressional address, “Any people anywhere being inclined and having the power have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.” Yet the North crushed the Southern movement more ruthlessly than the Soviet Union did the one in Hungary in 1956.
In 1962 historian Edmund Wilson concluded that, Lincoln, Bismarck, and Lenin were the great “centralizers” of government. “Each established strong central governments over hitherto loosely coordinated peoples . . . and each paid a heavy price. Lincoln was assassinated . . . [Lenin] was shot by a political opponent . . . [and] social revolutionaries” twice attacked Bismarck’s official Emperor. “[A]ll of these acts of violence were gauges of the weight of repression that [Lincoln, Bismarck, and Lenin] had been imposing, or were assumed to be responsible for imposing. . . Each of these men . . . became an uncompromising dictator.”
They, and their successors, neutered distributed self-government as it had been previously known. Among other offenses Lincoln violated the First Amendment by muzzling opposing newspapers and acquiescing when mobs of supporters physically destroyed others. In contrast, Jefferson Davis never took such action despite much opposition in the press. He regarded freedom of speech as sacred. Yet, Davis’ statues are taken down and Lincoln is defied.
Historian Wilson continued:
The action of the Washington government in preventing the South from seceding was not prompted by the motives that have been often assumed. The myth that it was fighting to free the slaves is everywhere . . . except in the South; and it is true that slavery in the Southern states was an embarrassment to many people in the South as well as the North; but many other people thoroughly approved of it—in the North as well as the South.
Abolitionists like Whittier and Garrison were not in such mortal danger as they would have been in South Carolina, but both were mobbed in New England. . . These fanatics were handled rather gingerly by the anti-South Republicans, and exploitation of the wickedness of the planters became later a form of propaganda like the alleged German atrocities in Belgium at the start of the First World War. . . [Slavery] supplied the militant Union North with the rabble rousing moral issue which is necessary in every modern war to make the conflict appear as a melodrama.
Those who destroyed the South have been loath to admit that a confederated government might succeed. Even today, however, Switzerland is such an example. Switzerland is not only a confederation, it also happens to have one of the World’s highest per capita incomes. The country is composed of 26 Cantons. They are analogous to our states, but more independent. The central government is responsible for foreign policy, customs, the monetary system, the military, and social insurance programs. Legislative power rests with the bicameral Federal Assembly. Much of the legislation, however, is determined directly by the people who vote several times as year on initiatives and referenda. Voters may also call a referendum to challenge any law passed by the Federal Assembly by obtaining 50,000 signatures within 100 days of passage.
The executive branch is headed by a seven member board. The presidency rotates among the members annually, and each councillor presides over a federal department. Every able-bodied male is drafted into the Swiss army. After active duty they remain a ready militia and keep army-issued weapons in their homes. Partly because of the militia, Switzerland has a long history of neutrality beyond its borders and a distributed self-government within them.
Without the checks contained in the constitutions of the Swiss federation and the defunct American Confederacy, representative government tends to become centralized under the control of the cultural elite. They’re like magicians who use slavery as a way to deflect attention away from the truth that the Civil War was one of conquest and that an ever-growing centralized government is a threat to freedom and self government.
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