When I was in junior high school, one of my football coach-cum-history teachers asked us why we thought the South had seceded from the Union at the beginning of the Civil War. We went through all the usual reasons we’d heard: slavery, Dred Scott, slavery, John Brown, and slavery. When we’d finally run out of ideas, our teacher leaned his chair back on two legs, folded his arms, and announced smugly, “No. It was the rise of Southern nationalism.”
I’ve done a considerable amount of reading since then, studied it a few more times, and even taught it one year. I still think it was slavery, because every conflict for decades between the North and South that drove another nail into the coffin of American unity was connected in some way to slavery. Had there been no slavery, there would have been no Civil War.
It’s now 2011, the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War, and Americans can expect more chatter in the next few years as battle anniversaries pass and historians, amateur historians, and just plain folks resume haggling about its causes. It seems that there are still plenty of myths circulating about the reasons why the South seceded from the Union, and the Washington Post recently published an article on five of these myths. They include states’ rights, tariffs and taxes, the fact that most white Southerners didn’t own slaves (and so must have had other reasons for supporting the war), the claim that Abraham Lincoln went to war to end slavery, and the claim that the South couldn’t have lasted long as a slave society. The article’s author, James W. Loewen (author of Lies My Teacher Told Me), debunks these myths with relevant facts and historical information, some of which I knew, and some of which were new to me. Loewen points out that the South made a lot of noise about states’ rights when it concerned their own interests, but objected when Northern states exercised their rights, such as New York’s ban on “slavery transit,” which meant that Southerners who spent their summer vacations in Saratoga could no longer take their cooks, maids, valets, and other domestics with them. The tariff in effect in 1857 was written by Southerners, and had the lowest rates since 1816. The majority of white Southern farmers who did not own slaves probably may have held out out hope of someday being able to afford them, and besides, most Southerners recognized that they were a minority in their own states and this fact, combined with the slave rebellions in Haiti and the South, made them fear being murdered in their beds, all the more so if their control over the slave population were wrested from them. Lincoln personally hoped to see slavery end at some point, but his primary goal as President was to keep the Union together, as reflected in his August 22, 1862 letter to the New York Tribune in which he wrote, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” And as for slavery being on its way out, Loewen disagrees. In 1860, he writes, “the South produced almost 75 percent of all U.S. exports. Slaves were worth more than all the manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. No elite class in history has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. Moreover, Confederates eyed territorial expansion into Mexico and Cuba. Short of war, who would have stopped them—or forced them to abandon slavery? … To claim that slavery would have ended of its own accord by the mid-20th century is impossible to disprove but difficult to accept. In 1860, slavery was growing more entrenched in the South. Unpaid labor makes for big profits, and the Southern elite was growing ever richer. Freeing slaves was becoming more and more difficult for their owners, as was the position of free blacks in the United States, North as well as South. For the foreseeable future, slavery looked secure. Perhaps a civil war was required to end it.”
The beauty of history for me is that no matter how much I read of it, there is always something new. Weird, innit?