Seceding from the Nation

Eric Foner is a major historian of the mid-19th century USA and a regular contributor to The Nation magazine.  In a recent issue, he reviewed two books about politics in the South during and after the Civil War, Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning and Victoria Bynum’s The Long Shadow of the Civil War.  This paragraph of Foner’s got me thinking:

McCurry begins by stating what should be obvious but is frequently denied, that the Confederacy was something decidedly odd in the nineteenth century: “an independent proslavery nation.” The Confederate and state constitutions made clear that protecting slavery was their raison d’être. Abandoning euphemisms like “other persons” by which the US Constitution referred to slaves without directly acknowledging their existence, Confederates forthrightly named the institution, erected protections around it and explicitly limited citizenship to white persons. McCurry implicitly pokes holes in other explanations for Southern secession, such as opposition to Republican economic policies like the tariff or fear for the future of personal freedom under a Lincoln administration. Georgia, she notes, passed a law in 1861 that made continuing loyalty to the Union a capital offense, hardly the action of a government concerned about individual liberty or the rights of minorities.

I can certainly understand Foner’s exasperation with neo-Confederates who see the Old South as a proud symbol of liberty and elide the role of slavery in the Civil War.  In the legal documents he cites, the Confederate States of America advertised its cause as the defense of slavery.  In prominent speeches delivered at the outbreak of the war, such southern leaders as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and Confederate President Jefferson Davis said openly that the cause which justified secession was the threat that the newly ascendant Republican Party would free blacks from slavery.  While Stephens and Davis each spent a great deal of time after the war trying to explain his earlier remarks away and argue that he had been motivated by concern for something other than the maintenance of human bondage, it is hardly unreasonable to attach greater weight to the contemporary documents and to say that in the Civil War, the South fought to defend slavery. 

What is less reasonable is to leave it at that, with the implication that the North fought to abolish slavery.  The evidence would suggest that when the United States armed forces were sent to quash secession, the men who sent them had little interest in emancipating anyone.  Emancipation came later, propelled by the exigencies of war.  As Davis and Stephens would shift their public statements from prewar calls to defend slavery to postwar invocations of the rights of the states, so too did the leaders of the North change their stands very substantially as the war went on.  The most obvious example may be the contrast between Abraham Lincoln’s two Inaugural Addresses.  Lincoln delivered his First Inaugural Address in March of 1861, when the war had not yet broken out.  The Second Inaugural Address was delivered in March of 1865, a few weeks before the end of the war.  Lincoln spends much of the First Inaugural Address vowing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and leave slavery alone in all the states where it was a legal institution.  In the Second Inaugural Address, he looks back on the war as a struggle to emancipate the slaves and declares that it would only be just were God to decree that the war should “continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” 

In the First Inaugural, Lincoln capitulates to every demand the South could possibly make in regard to slavery.  Time and again, of course, Lincoln would declare his belief that people whose ancestors came from Africa could not live among whites except in conditions of subjugation, and he rarely missed a chance to distance himself from Abolitionists.   These facts do not mean that the South was not fighting to keep blacks enslaved.   Seeing that the Republicans, a party which did include a sizeable antislavery bloc, could elect as president a candidate who did not receive a single vote in the ten states south and west of Virginia, slaveholders might well have drawn the conclusion that their grip on the national government was permanently broken and that some future president would lead the push for abolition.  While Lincoln himself might not in 1861 have had the inclination to take that task on, proslavery southerners may well have thought that it would have been unwise to wait for the crisis they feared.

What the First Inaugural does show, however, is that whatever the South may have been fighting for, the North was not at the outset of the war fighting against slavery.  Why did the North fight to keep the South in the Union?  Why for that matter did so many Northerners vote for Lincoln when it should have been clear that the election of a purely regional candidate would trigger secession?  I suspect Foner’s dismissal, in the paragraph above, of the tariff as a cause for the war applies only to the motivations of the South.  The South opposed a protective tariff because it wanted equal access to the products of industry in the North and in England.  Indeed, the South wanted Northerners to bid competitively with English interests for Southern cotton.  Since the chief goal of US policy since 1776 had been to get the British out of North America, the idea that the southern states of the USA would form an economic relationship with English industry that might very well lead to their absorption into the British Empire could hardly be expected to meet with general approval in the rest of the country.   

The Second Inaugural is among the most widely read of all Lincoln’s writings, certainly the most widely read of his state papers.  That is no surprise.  Not only is it an extraordinary specimen of eloquence, but it also flatters Americans’ national self-esteem.   The Second Inaugural caters to Americans who want to look at the Civil War and see a moral awakening to the evils of human bondage and to the possibility that black and white might live together in equality.  Beyond that; it also allows us to cast that moral awakening as a drama in which our enlightened twenty-first century selves have the leading role.  The Civil War, Lincoln invites us to believe, was fought so that later generations of Americans could be untainted by the guilt of slavery.  In other words, the dead had to die, so that we could look down on them.

If, instead of reading the Second Inaugural and congratulating ourselves on our superiority to our ancestors, we Americans read the First Inaugural and put the Civil War in the context of international Realpolitik, we might shed some of our national narcissism and be warier next time some group of con artists try to sell us another war.  We wouldn’t necessarily be any less proud of our country- opposing the British Empire was a mighty project in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it isn’t every country that would have the patience to stick with such a project until the UK’s prime minister openly declares his country to be the USA’s junior partner in world affairs.  But we might learn to express pride in our country without pretending that the country itself has some divine commission to institute a world order based on pure justice.

Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: