Most of what the average person knows about history consists of a series of very superficial headlines. With each passing decade I find myself less placated by these headlines and more motivated to dig for the ‘real truth’. Each time I do, I find that there is a larger canvas to be viewed, deeper issues to be considered, and a much greater understanding to be gained about the world we live in today. This short article is the result of my investigation into the American Civil War and the expanded view I now have of it.
The very existence of slavery in the United States, a nation founded on principles of equality and liberty, is perplexing to say the least. On the other hand, the founding fathers didn’t extend equality and liberty to women either. In a world embroiled in aggressive economic imperialism and colonial exploitation though, there was simply no precedent for universal equality. Securing such a prize, if only for Caucasian men, was a monumental undertaking in and of itself at the time.
All of the founding fathers expressed at least some distaste for slavery and most of them found it abhorrent. Ironically though, most of them also owned slaves. As would eventually be proven though, a rapidly emancipated slave population would require a great deal of social adjustment. They likely chose the most stable course of action by first establishing their nation and then trying to end slavery through legislative compromises. Unfortunately they could never have foreseen the calamity this would cause, and how caustic a test it would become for their fledgling nation.
Overtime, slavery was abolished in the northern states but not in the southern states. The reasons for the disparity go far beyond what I am prepared to discuss here, but were initially, to some degree, rooted in the differences between industrial and agricultural economies and would eventually be firmly rooted in these economic differences.
With some states being ‘free states’ and others being ‘slave states’, social tensions began to rise. In particular, there was a collection of legal paradoxes created in a nation where slavery represented a property right in one state and a crime in another. If a slave could run across the border into a free state, did he cease to be property? Would pursuing him and dragging him back be a prosecutable kidnapping? Would assisting him constitute theft, or perhaps destruction of property?
The United States was founded as a confederation of member states that were not only self governing, but also bound to a national congress where they could maintain some homogenous principles. One by one, various legal paradoxes were encountered, and one by one they were answered with less than appeasing compromises. Social tensions grew further and the national congress grew more divided.
One of the greatest catalysts of unrest was western expansion. In the first place, some had to question whether or not western expansion might not represent some form of economic imperialism; an ideology that was very distasteful to those who had fought to escape its grip. Others saw it in the more classical sense of imperial expansion, the virtuous spread of civilization, even manifest destiny. No one seemed interested in consulting with the American Indian population on the matter.
In terms of slavery, western expansion raised the issue of whether or not newly created states would be free states or slave states. For northerners, it seemed logical to contain slavery to the states where it already existed and ensure that all new states would establish free soil worked by free men. Southerners argued that such restrictions were undemocratic and that new states should decide the matter for themselves – democratic sovereignty. At one point it was even suggested that an imaginary line be drawn from east to west, establishing a northern border to slavery.
In the midst of all this turmoil, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin – a device that exponentially increased the volume of raw cotton that could be processed. The huge tracts of land available in the new southern states were suddenly transformed into veritable gold mines that required huge labour inputs. A new economic frenzy of slave trading ensued, creating a stronger drive than ever to expand slavery. To make matters worse, these new and profound labour requirements increased the mistreatment of slaves to levels of depravity never before witnessed.
Slavery came to represent something far more pressing to the average American than moral repugnancy; it came to represent the balance of power. Each new state gained representation in the national congress and it seemed that if free states couldn’t be added as fast as slave states then the captains of slavery would in fact gain control of the nation itself. Even worse, many prominent politicians began to believe that the slave states were using their wealth to influence the bureaucracy of the government itself. Prominent judges were suspected of having southern sympathies. The White House administration was eyed with mistrust. Northern politicians who continued to engage in compromise with the South were called ‘dough faces’.
This subversion of the very system of government itself became known as the Slave Power Conspiracy. Before becoming president himself, Abraham Lincoln openly declared that he felt President James Buchanan and his predecessor Franklin Pierce to part of a plot to nationalize slavery. It was this fear of corruption far more than any concern for the enslaved Negro that ultimately provided the impetus for tearing the country in two and setting it to war against itself.
The civil war succeeded in freeing the slaves but that freedom must have been rather bitter in a nation that was far less than eager to accept them as equals. Perhaps Lincoln would have done more to establish civil rights, but he was assassinated and his successor, Andrew Johnson, vetoed all civil rights bills that crossed his desk. It would take another hundred years to see ground breaking progress on behalf of African American civil rights.
The immediate impact of the civil war, however, was very profound to the shape that the nation would take from then on. The national congress was no longer a place for placating member states with compromises. American federalism was established and there was no turning back. The stage was set for various interest groups to bypass state interests and press their own interests at a federal level. The precedent for infiltrating the bureaucracy had been set, and the example was no doubt an inspiration for a host of future influential institutions.
Although the context for the Civil War cannot be framed without slavery at its center, the factors leading up to it, and the ramifications resulting from it, have far wider reaching implications.