Civil War In this meeting of the Southern Historical Association great emphasis has been placed upon a re-examination of numerous phases of our history relating to the Civil War. While several papers have dealt with certain forces which helped bring about the Civil War, none has attempted a general synthesis of causes. This synthesis has been the task assumed by the retiring president of the Association. Before attempting to say what were the causes of the American Civil War, first let me say what were not the causes of this war. Perhaps the most beautiful, the most poetic, the most eloquent statement of what the Civil War was not fought for is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
That address will live as long as Americans retain their love of free government and personal liberty; and yet in reassessing the causes of the Civil War, the address whose essence was that the war was being fought so that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth is irrelevant. Indeed, this masterpiece of eloquence has little if any value as a statement of the basic principles underlying the war. The Civil War was not a struggle on the part of the South to destroy free government and personal liberty nor on the part of the North to preserve them. Looked at from the present perspective of the world-wide attempt of the totalitarians to erase free governments and nations living under such governments from the face of the earth, the timeworn stereotype that the South was attempting the destruction of free government and the North was fighting to preserve it seems very unrealistic and downright silly. In the light of the present-day death struggle between freedom and the most brutal form of despotism, the Civil War, as far as the issue of free government was involved, was a sham battle. Indeed, both northern and southern people in 1861 were alike profoundly attached to the principles of free government.
A systematic study of both northern and southern opinion as expressed in their newspapers, speeches, diaries, and private letters, gives irrefutable evidence in support of this assertion. Their ideology was democratic and identical. However, theoretical adherence to the democratic principles, as veil we know all too well in these days of plutocratic influences in our political life, is not sufficient evidence that democratic government exists. I believe that I shall not be challenged in the assertion that the economic structure of a section or a nation is the foundation upon which its political structure must rest. For this reason, therefore, it will be necessary to know what the economic foundations of these sections were.
Was the economic structure of the North such as to support a political democracy in fact as well as in form? And was the economic structure of the South such as to permit the existence of free government? Time does not permit an extended treatment of this subject; it will be possible only to point out certain conclusions based upon recent research. By utilizing the county tax books and the unpublished census reports a group of us conducting a cooperative undertaking have been able to obtain a reasonably accurate and specific picture of wealth structure of the antebellum South, and to some extent that of the other sections. We have paid particular attention to the distribution of capital wealth and the ownership of the means of production. As has been generally known the Northwest was agricultural and its population predominantly small farmers, though a considerable minority were large farmers comparable with the southern planters. It seems that in 1860 about 80 percent of the farmers in the Old Northwest were landowners.
A fairly large fraction of the remaining farm population in that area were either squatters upon public lands or were the members of landowning families. Only a small per cent were renters. In those areas farther west the ownership of land was not as widespread because the farmers had not yet made good their titles to the lands that they had engrossed. Taken as a whole the people of the Northwest were economically self-sufficient. They could not be subjected to economic coercion and, hence, they were politically free.
Their support of free government-as they understood it-was effective. The northeastern section of the United States had already assumed its modem outlines of a capitalistic-industrial society where the means of production were either owned or controlled by relatively few. That is to say, New England and the middle states were fast becoming in essence a plutocracy whose political ideology was still strongly democratic; but the application of this democratic ideology was being seriously hampered by the economic dependence of the middle and lower classes upon those who owned the tools of production. The employee unprotected by government supervision or by strong labor organizations was subject in exercising his political rights to the undue influence of the employer. To sum up: the economic structure of the Northwest was an adequate foundation for free government; but that of the East, though still supporting democratic ideals, was often too weak to sustain these ideals in actual government. Turning to the South which was primarily agricultural we find the situation completely contradictory to what has usually been assumed.
While the plutocracy of the East owned or controlled the means of production in industry and commerce, the so-called slave oligarchy of the South owned scarcely any of the land outside the black belt and only about 25 per cent of the land in the black belt. Actually, the basic means of production in the black belt and in the South as a whole was well distributed among all classes of the population. The overwhelming majority of southern families in 1860 owned their farms and livestock. About 90 per cent of the slaveholders and about 70 per cent of the non-slaveholders owned the land which they farmed. The bulk of slave holders were small farmers and not oligarchs.
While taken together they owned more slaves and more land than the big planters, taken individually the majority of slaveholders owned from one to four slaves and less than three hundred acres of land. The non-slaveholders, 70 percent of whom, as we have noted, were landowners, were not far removed economically from the small slaveholders to whom we have just referred. While the majority of slaveholders owned from one to three hundred acres of land, 80 per cent of the landowning non-slaveholders owned from one to two hundred acres of land and 20 per cent owned from two hundred to a thousand. Let me repeat: the basic fact disclosed in an analysis of the economic structure of the South, based upon the unpublished census reports and tax books, is that the overwhelming majority of white families in the South, slaveholders and non-slaveholders, unlike the industrial population of the East, owned the means of production. In other words, the average southerner like the average westerner possessed economic independence; and the only kind of influence that could be exercised over his political franchise by the slave oligarchy was a strictly persuasive kind.
The South then, like the Northwest, not only held strongly to the democratic ideology but also had a sound economic foundation for a free government. If the destruction of democratic government by the South and its preservation by the North were not the causes of the Civil War, what then were the causes? The surface answer to this question is that in 1861 the southern people desired and attempted to establish their independence and thereby to disrupt the old Union; and that the North took up arms to prevent the South from establishing this independence and to preserve the Union. Looking immediately behind this attempt of the South to establish a separate government, and of the North to prevent it, we discover a state of mind in both sections which explains their conduct. This state of mind may be summed up thus: by the spring of 1861 the southern people felt it both abhorrent and dangerous to continue to live under the same government with the people of the North. So profound was this feeling among the bulk of the southern population that they were prepared to fight a long and devastating war to accomplish a separation.
On the other hand, the North was willing to fight a war to retain their reluctant fellow citizens under the same government with themselves. The cause of that state of mind which we may well call war psychosis lay in the sectional character of the United States. In other words, the Civil War had one basic cause: sectionalism. But to conclude that sectionalism was the cause of the Civil War, and at the same time insist -as has usually been done-that the Civil War was the climax of an irrepressible conflict, is to seem to accept a pessimistic view of the future of the United States. For if the antebellum conflict was irrepressible and the Civil War unavoidable, we are faced with future irrepressible conflicts, future civil wars, and ultimate disintegration of the nation into its component sections.
I say this because I do not see anyway save some cosmic cataclysm by which sectionalism can be erased from the political, economic, racial, and cultural maps of the United States. Our national state was built, not upon the foundations of a homogeneous land and people, but upon geographical sections inhabited severally by provincial, self-conscious, self-righteous, aggressive, and ambitious populations of varying origins and diverse social and economic systems; and the passage of time and the cumulative effects of history have accentuated these sectional patterns. Before accepting the possibility of future wars and national disintegration as inevitable because of the irrepressible conflict between permanent sections, let me hasten to say that there are two types of sectionalism: there is that egocentric, destructive sectionalism where conflict is always irrepressible; and there is that constructive sectionalism where good will prevails-two types as opposite from one another as good is opposite from evil, as the benign is from the malignant. It was the egocentric, the destructive, the evil, the malignant type of sectionalism that destroyed the Union in 1861, and that would do so again if it existed over a long period of time. Before discussing that destructive sectionalism which caused the Civil War, some observations should be made of the constructive type, since, as I have suggested, the very nature of the American state makes one or the other type of sectionalism inevitable.
The idea of either good or bad sectionalism as an enduring factor in American national life has received scant consideration by historians as a rule, either because they, who have usually been of the North, have desired to justify the conduct of their section on occasion as being the manifestation of nationalism when in truth it was sectionalism writ large; or because, and more important, they have apparently been unable to reconcile sectionalism with nationalism. Since sectionalism from the very nature of our country must remain a permanent and basic factor in our national life, we should look it in the face and discriminate between the good and the bad features. Above all else, we should recognize the fact that sectionalism when properly dealt with, far from being irreconcilable with nationalism, is its strongest support. It is only the malignant, destructive type that conflicts with nationalism or loyalty to the national state or empire. Great Britain once failed to make this distinction and to grasp the fact that the American colonials could be good Americans and good British at the same time, and the result was the loss of the American colonies.
After the lesson learned from the American Revolution, the British mind grasped the fact that good Canadians or good Australians are all the better British because of their provincial or-may I say?-sectional loyalty. Provincialism, dominionism, and, in the case of the United States, sectionalism, far from excluding nationalism, when properly recognized and not constantly frowned upon, and the interests of sections ignored and their ambitions frustrated, are powerful supports of nationalism. Such provincialism or sectionalism becomes a national asset. It is a brake upon political centralization and possible despotism. It has proven and will prove to be, if properly directed, a powerful force in preserving free institutions.
It gives color, variety, and vitality to all segments of the national state. Because of this vitality in all its parts, the United States, unlike France whose lifeblood seems to flow entirely through Paris, would prove a difficult country to subjugate by a foreign enemy, and its government and society more difficult, if not impossible, to Overthrow by violent revolution. It is because Great Britain has, as the result of her lesson learned from the American Revolution, fostered a good sectionalism within her empire, that she has baffled the orderly mind of the Germans and defied conquest. By loosening the ties that bind the component parts of this straggling union of colonies and dominions, Great Britain has made these bonds all the stronger. She and her commonwealth of nations thus live in all their parts.
Tragically’ the American people failed to learn adequately the very lesson that they so thoroughly taught Great Britain: that local differences and attachments were natural, desirable, and formed the very rootbed of patriotism; indeed, that such differences, when given decent recognition, greatly strengthened nationalism and the national state. It was this failure to recognize or respect local differences and interests, in other words, the failure to recognize sectionalism as a fundamental fact of American life, that contributed most to the development of that kind of sectionalism which destroyed national unity and divided the nation. There were three basic manifestations of that egocentric sectionalism which disrupted the Union in 1861. First, was the habit of the dominant section-that is, the section which had the larger share in the control of the Federal government-of considering itself the nation, its people the American people, its interests the national interests; in other words, the habit of considering itself the sole possessor of nationalism, when, indeed, it was thinking strictly in terms of one section; and conversely the habit of the dominant section of regarding the minority group as factional, its interests and institutions and way of life as un-American, unworthy of friendly consideration, and even the object of attack. The second manifestation of this egocentric sectionalism that led to the Civil War was the perennial attempt of a section to gain or maintain its political ascendancy over the Federal government by destroying th …