The Spirit That Drove Us to Civil War Is Back: A Spirit that Made Slavery Its Priority


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    I’m developing this series* on the important ways in which our present political crisis can be seen as a replay of the run-up to the Civil War with two purposes in mind: 1) To help us perceive more clearly the nature of the force we’re up against in these dangerous times; and 2) To help illuminate some important – and perhaps hitherto unrecognized – ways that the human world works.

    In order to validate the general thesis of this series — that the spirit that’s damaging America today is a re-incarnation of the spirit that drove the nation into Civil War — it’s important to perceive accurately the spirit at work in each of the two eras, a task made more difficult by the false picture presented in each case.

    Let’s begin with a proposition concerning the nature of the conflict in the era of the Civil War.  This proposition is controversial in America but should not be, because the evidence is clear: The root of the conflict was not states’ rights but slavery.

    Here’s a relevant passage from an article in the April 12, 2001 issue of the New York Review of Books, written by one of the foremost historians of the Civil War, James McPherson, professor emeritus at Princeton:

    When Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, at the end of four years of civil war, few people in either the North or the South would have dissented from his statement that slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war.”

    The Confederate vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, had said in a speech at Savannah on March 21, 1861, that slavery was ‘the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution’ of Southern independence. The United States, said Stephens, had been founded in 1776 on the false idea that all men are created equal. The Confederacy, by contrast,

    is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

    Unlike Lincoln, Davis and Stephens survived the war to write their memoirs. By then, slavery was gone with the wind. To salvage as much honor and respectability as they could from their lost cause, they set to work to purge it of any association with the now dead and discredited institution of human bondage. In their postwar views, both Davis and Stephens hewed to the same line: Southern states had seceded not to protect slavery, but to vindicate state sovereignty. This theme became the virgin birth theory of secession: the Confederacy was conceived not by any worldly cause, but by divine principle.

    Lying about its motivations, as McPherson describes here, is an integral part of the modus operandi of this spirit-then and now. (More on the pattern of dishonesty later in this series.)

    Even though there is a sense in which the war was fought over “states’ rights,” that’s not true in any way that detracts from the basic truth that conflict was about slavery.

    The spark for the war was disagreement over the right of the states to secede: The Confederacy claimed that right, and attempted to exercise it; the Union, under Lincoln, denied that right and fought to preserve the Union.

    But the whole reason the issue of secession arose — the dispute behind all the political battles that had worked over the course of more than a decade to split the nation into two parts ready to fight one another — was slavery.

    What does it say about a spirit if it drives people to kill or die for the right of some people to treat other people as property?

    It was a war, incidentally, not over whether slavery would be abolished. Lincoln, who thought slavery a moral wrong, said that he believed the Constitution required him to protect slavery where it already was, and he repeatedly promised that as president he would do so.

    No, the political conflict throughout the 1850s and leading into the Civil War, was over whether slavery would expand its dominion into the new territories that would become states in the future, and then, with the reasoning of the Dred Scot decision, perhaps even into states that were and wanted to remain free.

    The war, then, was over an issue on which the South was on the offensive, not the defensive. As this suggests, it was the South — far more than the North — that determined that the long-difficult issue of slavery would be settled through strife, not — as it had been in earlier times — by compromise.

    That tendency — to choose conflict over compromise or cooperation – will be the subject of future entries in this series. But first, let’s follow how the spirit that inflamed people to fight for slavery has manifested itself in the century and a half since slavery was abolished, all the way up to America’s current political battles.


    * This article is the fourth in the series.  The first three have been The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back: Introduction, The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back: The Wolves’ Version of Liberty , and The Spirit That Drove Us to Civil War Is Back: Looking Closer at that National Nightmare.

    Andy Schmookler, recently the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia’s 6th District, is an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher.  His books include The Parable of the Tribes:  The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.   His website is at .


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