In the century and a half since the war’s end, historians, politicians, and laypeople have debated the causes of the U.S. Civil War: what truly led the Union to break up and turn on itself? And, even though it seems like the obvious answer, does a struggle over the future of slavery really explain why the south seceded, and why a protracted military struggle followed? Can any one explanation do so satisfactorily?
Historian George B Forgie has been researching this question for years. In the second half of this two-part podcast, he’ll walk us through five common–and yet unsatisfying–explanations for the most traumatic event in American history.
- George B. ForgieDistinguished Teaching Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin
- Henry Alexander WiencekIndependent Scholar
Slavery had existed in what is now the United States for about 200 years before the south seceded. And, indeed, if you think about it, for the hundreds of years now that we have in American history, freedom for African-Americans occupies a minority of that time, only 150 years. So, African-Americans in this country were slaves much longer than they have been free.
My point is that over hundreds of years, slavery had worked its way into the fabric of American life, the American economy, American culture, American life generally, so the question would be: All right, why now? The union was formed in 1787 under the constitution, with slavery there — and indeed, the constitution protects slavery not by using the name, but by using euphemisms, but it clearly protects slavery. It didn’t prevent the union from being created, so why should it now lead to the union falling apart?
The argument goes on: Northerners, white northerners, people say, were just as racist as white southerners, and they oppressed blacks too, not by owning them but by segregating them. So, the argument goes that there’s just not a great division among the American people on the issue of race. And, then, when Abraham Lincoln became president, despite his willingness to say in public that slavery was wrong and must someday die, Abraham Lincoln on the day he was inaugurated–and this is a fact that I find is just not very well known–he alluded in his inaugural address to a constitutional amendment that had just been passed by Congress in the days leading up to the inauguration, and that constitutional amendment, by its own terms, protected slavery forever, in the states that wanted to have it, from federal interference. Lincoln was willing to write that into the constitution explicitly, and furthermore that amendment, by its terms, was unamendable.
Now, just imagine if that had gotten into the constitution. So, you can see that if you list out all of these things, and then by the way, you add in that slavery in the south was confined to a rather narrow elite–only one-third of southern white families owned slaves, and only about 12% of southern white families owned more than 20 slaves, putting them in the planter class. Most white southerners didn’t own slaves. It doesn’t stand to reason that they would go to war to fight for something that didn’t concern them or didn’t involve them.
So, when you put all of these things together, you can see why people can be dubious about slavery as an explanation of secession.
Now, you asked about why this has a certain about of tension in this discussion and what’s at stake here. I think people in the southern part of the United States, people whose ancestors were confederates, have a stake in defending what their ancestors did. They have a certain pride in what their ancestors did. And they want to think that what their ancestors did was based on a loftier cause than the ownership of other human beings, and if I were one of those people I would probably be inclined to make the same argument, to try to explain away the role of slavery in bringing about disunion, and I would reach for one of these other explanations. But as we’re saying here is that if you reach for those other explanations, you find flaws in them as well.
Earlier you alluded to one explanation, it’s called the “two divergent societies” interpretation. Could you get into that a little bit, and how that explains the causes of disunion?
Just to go back for a second, the argument is not just in terms of owning slaves or not owning slaves or broader economic issues or not understanding the constitution–these are symptoms of a much larger phenomenon, which is that, over time, northern civilization and southern civilization, northern society and southern society had diverged. A lot of this has to do with natural factors: the geography, the topography, the growing season, the rainfall amounts; giving rise to different kinds of economies and different personalities and different characters and different cultures. Not that they need be hostile to one another, but they are different. It’s not unnatural, then, for them ultimately go to their separate ways.
Now, you can imagine how people would think of northerners and southerns, white northerners and white southerners being different. Everybody’s read Gone With the Wind or seen the movie; it’s impossible to imagine that taking place in Massachusetts, and it’s impossible to see the Lowell Textile Mills operating in South Carolina. It make sense to us. We can think of the Yankee clerk sitting at his desk with his visor, scrawling numbers on a pad, and we can think of the ebullient South Carolina or Georgia planter out riding around, living outdoors, being hospitable and being gregarious — different personality types. But, these are stereotypes.
Stereotypes usually have a life and an energy that keeps them alive because there’s some truth connected to them. But, here’s the problem with the “two societies” explanation. The American population was overwhelmingly English speaking, much more so than it is in 2013. Homogeneous language. The American population in 1860 was overwhelmingly Protestant, much more so than it is now. And, specifically Evangelical Protestant, in both sections. Despite what we’ve been talking about in economic differences, and this is a striking fact–two thirds of white adults males in the North, and two thirds of white adult males in South were farmers of corn and products like that, on family farms, without slaves and without hired hands.
How different is a farmer of corn in Illinois from a farmer of corn in Arkansas or Alabama? Same language, same religion, same occupation for the most part–same beliefs and principles, such as the principle of right to own property, the right to get ahead in the world, the same belief in principle that founded this nation: government by consent of the governed. A common history, especially the history of the American revolution when northerners fought in South Carolina, and George Washington began his career as the commander of the Continental Army in Massachusetts. It just seems very strange to say that these are two separate peoples.
And then finally in this connection, once you’ve explained the difference, even if you can accept that these sections were different, you haven’t explained why they want to go. Think of relationships in our society that are different, men and women. I think you could argue that they’re different, but nevertheless they seem to managed to hold their relationships together as often as not. So, once you’ve identified a difference, if you can, you haven’t explained antagonism–and, by the way, once you’ve explained antagonism, you haven’t explained killing.
I ask my students, “How many of you have ever been in a romantic relationship?” and most of the hands will go up. “And how many of you have been, at one point or another, broken up in that relationship?” and most of the hands will go up. I’m analogizing here the south leaving the union. And then I’ll say, “And how many of you have then murdered the person who was in the relationship with you?” And no hand goes up.
Well, that’s good!
<laughs> In other words, ending the relationship doesn’t explain the violence that ensues, to go back to where we came in. So, that’s one reason why the two societies explanation–it’s had its vogue, it’s had its backers, but it doesn’t get the traction that puts it at the top of the heap here in competing explanations.
Finally, the last explanation that has been forwarded, and a very provocative phrase, is the “Blundering Generation.” Could you talk about that?
Yes. This explanation of secession–that there were no broad, underlying conditions or circumstances or historical forces that were washing over the American people that explain succession; it was the short-term, short-sighted decisions of a generation of blunderers that led us over the edge.
And this school of thought flourished especially after the American people came back from the First World War and asked themselves what that was all about. This terrible, terrible struggle–and people had a hard time explaining what it was all about. And so historians, who always take their cue, even if not fully consciously, from the lives they’re living, looked to the past and begin to think, “Could the same thing be said about the Civil War?” And, sure enough, according to some, it could.
The argument goes like this. It ticks off, as we have done, the problems with the extant interpretations, they’re not satisfactory. It says, for example, that slavery was a dying institution, that it’s hard to imagine that people would fight over the fate of that. That the economic differences weren’t crucial, and so forth. The backers of this position clear the field–or think they have–of other interpretations, and say you have to look at the decisions that individuals make.
It begins with the point that, when Jefferson Davis makes the decision to fire on Fort Sumpter in May 1861, the hand that pulls the trigger could decide not to pull the trigger. Abraham Lincoln had many chances to avoid what happened–the first one, of course, is that he could have stayed out of politics and not challenged Stephen Douglas in 1858–but he could have compromised with the south over slavery in the territories, which this school of thought, by the way, the question of slavery in the territories is the focal question of slavery–but this school of thought of thought finds it rather bizarre that people would fight so hard and take such drastic steps to see whether slavery would go into what is now Utah or Nevada or Montana, where slavery, according to them, had no future anyway.
What they’re driving at here is that somehow or another, the ambitious politicians played on the emotions of the people over slavery and elevated those emotions beyond any rational basis. And led these hyper-emotionalized people into this war that no one wanted and was needless. And they did it, in part, because they didn’t think that’s what would happen after they did what they did. They assumed that there would be another compromise and we would go on as we had done before.
The strength of this view is that, of course, whatever else is at work in history, finally you come down to individuals on a given day deciding that they’re going to do things. It makes sense, if you think about what you’ve done today or what you did yesterday, that you could decide to go down a different street. Or open a different door. I can remember during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s or 60s that there were many people who thought that they were going to get into a terrible, terrible war, probably a nuclear war, with the Soviet Union. To some people it seemed inevitable. But day by day, because people did or didn’t do various things, it got postponed and got postponed and postponed until finally it becomes, it’s not going to happen at all.
And that’s what this school of thought thinks was possible, if people had just been more sensible. Now, it has a certain plausibility in that respect. The problem with it is, that it’s a judgement on history as well as an explanation of it. That is to say, it’s looking back on the 19th century involvement in discussion about slavery, and it’s essentially saying, “You fools. You were concerned about something that you shouldn’t have been concerned about because it was going to take care of itself, and it was going to die.” And we, in the 20th century in our infinite wisdom would never have allowed ourselves to be carried away by something like that.
Ultimately, that kind of judgement from the future, looking back with hindsight, is probably not going to win the approval of a field of historians and others who are trying to come to an explanation about these matters.
So, you’ve outlined some of the main explanations of disunion. I was wondering if you could assess the state of the field as it stands today?
One of the reasons this subject fascinates me is that you have this tremendous event that occurred in our history, perhaps the most tremendous, and naturally you want to explain it. And there are several plausible explanations and interpretations, and yet each one of these has something about it that leads people to say, “no, no, that’s not it.” And, what comes out of that is that this is an endless discussion. I would be much less interested in this subject if it was cut and dry and all settled. It’s not. The discussion goes on.
And that connection, and I say this to my students, I say the best book, the most persuasive book, on the reasons for secessions, the origins of secession and civil war is yet to be written, and I want to hold out to them the prospect that maybe one of them will write it.