Archive for December 2007
The final post of my series Exploring Causes of the Civil War (which you can read here) titled “The Debate Over the War’s Inevitability,” has spawned some interesting debate over both the inevitability of the Civil War and the idea of “inevitability” itself. Blogger Elektratig not only provides some insightful comments to my post, but expounds upon those in a post titled “Historical Inevitability” on his own blog here. He provides a good argument that rather than “inevitability,” we should speak of “probability.”
John Maass (a fellow wordpress.com blogger at A Student of History) enters the discussion with the assertion that looking at historical events as “inevitable” is amateurish history (see comments on both my original post and on Elektratig’s) and is particularly dangerous in the field of military history because of the contingencies that can come into play during war.
It promotes a teleological view of history that is simply far too unsophisticated and “cookie cutter” for an accurate look at the past. Anyone can go back into the chronicle of the past and see lots of events and add them all up to “prove” that a subsequent event was inevitable or foreordained. Historians don’t do this, or at least they shouldn’t.
“Teleologic” comes from the noun “teleology” which has to do in the philosophical sense (as I believe John intended it) with the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes. In the theological sense, it refers to the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.i
Both meanings I find interesting in that, as I mentioned in my last post, I’m preparing a research proposal to study the impact of historian George Bancroft on 19th century historiography. Bancroft has been criticized for his views about America’s destiny being pre-ordained. Frank Freidel captured it well in his work, The Golden Age of American History.
Bancroft saw a divine shaping of American destinies, from the founding of the individual colonies through the successful culmination of the struggle for independence, and beyond to his own day. He wrote in his preface in 1834, “It is the object of the present work to explain how the change in the condition of our land has been brought about; and, as the fortunes of a nation are not under the control of blind destiny, to follow the steps by which a favoring Providence, calling our institutions into being, has conducted the country to its present happiness and glory.”ii
As the new “scientific history” began to emerge, this position received considerable challenge.
My thanks to both commenter’s for their excellent discussion.
Photo above of Creation of the Sun and Moonby Michelangelo, face detail of God. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain).
i Oxford Pocket American Dictionary of Current English, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 835.
iiFrank Freidel, The Golden Age of American History [book on-line] (New York: G. Braziller, 1959, accessed 30 December 2007), 70; available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=4419028; Internet.
The class is Historiography so the research isn’t to be about the development and proof of a thesis. It’s more about research into the history of how history was written.
For my research paper, I plan to explore the influence of historian George Bancroft (right) on Antebellum, Civil War, and Postbellum American history. I may need to shave this down a bit depending on how much material I find.
Bancroft was one of the best known American historians of the 19thcentury. While Harvard educated (he entered at 13 and graduated at 17!), he is considered a “literary historian,” who wrote in a style popular with the public. His primary work was the multi-volume History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, which he began writing in 1830. [Picture left of remaining vHe published the first three volumes over that decade. The final set would be ten volumes. A first revision was completed and published as six volumes in 1876 as part of the national centennial.
Perhaps less known is that Bancroft, while Secretary of the Navy, created the Naval Academy. He was also chosen by Congress to eulogize Abraham Lincoln. The New York Times reprinted that Eulogy on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the event in 1915. It, along with drawings of the event, can be seen in their entirety here.
I have located the index to his papers housed on microfiche at Cornell University and two biographies which leverage that material. The first, a two volume set 1971 reprint of M.A. DeWolfe Howe’s 1908 work The Life and Letters of George Bancroft, I was able to find on the Amazon Marketplace in almost pristine shape. The second, George Bancroft: Brahmin Rebel, was written by Russel B. Nye and published in 1945. It’s on order. There are other large collections of Bancroft materials in holdings by the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. I’m beginning in earnest a search for articles that deal with his contributions to American history as well.
As a follow-up at some later point, I think it would be very interesting to contrast the style and impact of George Bancroft with Charles and Mary Beard. As a historian friend of mine said, “you’d be hard pressed to find two more different expositors on the American experience than Bancroft and Beard. Bancroft was an unabashed patriot and advocate of democracy, to a degree that would be considered embarrassing in most academic settings today. Still, he was indeed the most articulate and widely-read of our early historians, and his writings both reflected and helped to create the sense of American exceptionalism that has prevailed for most of our history as a nation.”
You might recall that Charles and Mary Beard were the first to suggest that the Civil War was the second American revolution as was mentioned in my previous post here.
The exceptional oil on canvas portrait above of Bancroft in later life was painted by Gustav Richter, a German painter (1823 – 1884). It is a part of the Harvard University Portrait Collection and is on display at Memorial Hall.
More as I get into my research.
Photo of George Bancroft in middle age taken by Mathew Brady, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Photo of painting above: The President and Fellows of Harvard College.
A review of the literature reveals – not surprisingly – a lack of agreement over whether the American Civil War was inevitable. Given the fact that it did occur, the question under consideration might be better stated as “at what point in time” did the American Civil War became unavoidable.
Some would argue that war became predestined at the point when the slave trade was first introduced to the colonies. Others have suggested that civil war became preordained when the founding fathers created a Constitution that professed freedom for all but failed to deal with the country’s practice of chattel slavery (image left of slave auction at Richmond). But portions of the country had demonstrated a willingness to move away slavery. And there was some indication that even slave owners in the south did not expect the practice to go on indefinitely. Certainly the rise of King Cotton, made feasible by the invention of the cotton gin and cotton varieties more suited to the southern climate, slowed the inclination to move away from slavery. Even so, the country had opportunity and demonstrated an ability to find compromise on the issues surrounding slavery time and again and could have conceivably continued to do so had other factors not pushed the country to war.
Sectional differences, well evident even in colonial days, had the potential to make civil war predestined but historian Avery Craven suggests otherwise. “Physical and social differences between North and South did not in themselves necessarily imply an irrepressible conflict. They did not mean that civil war had been decreed from the beginning by Fate.”[i] He points out that the federal system created by the founding fathers had room for differences and that England herself adopted the model of American federalism and used it to manage widely disparate regions.[ii]
Kenneth Stampp in his work, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink, suggests that “…1857 was probably the year when the North and South reached the political point of no return — when it became well nigh impossible to head off a violent resolution of the differences between them.”[iii] Stampp identified three primary factors that catapulted the country toward disunion within that twelve month period.
The first was the increase in sectional conflict centered on Kansas.
The second was President Buchanan’s fall from grace among most of the Northerners who had voted for him after he supported the Lecompton Constitution and thus broke his pre-election promises. This sparked one of the most vicious debates in Congress and led to…
the third happening which was the crisis that occurred in the national Democratic Party from which “it did not recover until after the Civil War.”[iv] That schism in the party opened the way for Abraham Lincoln’s candidacy for the presidency which in turn raised sectional tensions between North and South to new heights.
Civil War historiographer Gobar Boritt suggests that the American Civil War only became inevitable after the attack on Fort Sumter (pictured right after surrender) and with this I agree. “The popular uprising, North and South, that followed the fight over Sumter, combined with willing leadership on both sides, made the Civil War inevitable. It was not that before.”[v] Boritt acknowledges that “the probability of war” continued to grow in the 1850s, but that “the country’s fate was not sealed until the ides of April, 1861.”[vi]
My conclusion is that the American Civil War was not inevitable but was, rather, the result of a confluence of factors which – taken in aggregate and flared by extremists – resulted in a war unwanted by the majority of Americans. Contributory to the war was the influence of specific individuals – not the least of which was Abraham Lincoln himself. Other politicians, by their action or inaction at critical moments, also had part to play in the circumstances that led to war. Debate over the war’s inevitability has been and will continue to be rigorous.
This post concludes a series on Exploring Causes of the Civil War. Other posts can be read by clicking on any of the following links: Part I: Introduction, Part II: Antebellum America, Part III: The Antebellum South, Part IV: The Antebellum North, Part V: The Rise of Sectional Disputes, Part VI: The Contribution of Constitutional Ambiguity, Part VII: Political Discord, Slavery, and the Fight for Political Control, and Part VIII: The Influence of the Individual.
As always, I invite your comments.
© 2007 L. Rene Tyree
Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1830. [Source: University of Virginia. Imaged reference: Bourne01. George Bourne, Picture of slavery in the United State of America. . . (Boston, 1838).
Cotton – England’s God [Pictorial envelope] [LOC CALL NUMBER PR-022-3-14-19]
Fort Sumter after evacuation, flagpole shot away twice. [Stereograph], 1861. [LOC CALL NUMBER PR-065-798-22
[i] Avery Craven. The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 1.
[iii] Stampp, Kenneth M. America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink. Vers. [book on-line] Internet. Questia.com.New York: Oxford University Press. 1990. available from questia.com, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=24268497 (accessed September 1, 2007), viii.
[v] ” ‘And the War Came’? Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 6.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m taking a course in Historiography this term. I’m heavily into Ernst Breisach’s Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. So far, the focus has been on the emergence of Greek and Roman historiography and I have a small essay contrasting the two due this weekend. This is the kind of reading that “wets your whistle” (do people still say that?). We are given a glimpse of the broad picture – a sweeping brush across the centuries before the birth of Christ as men began slowly to understand the value of recorded history and commentary. But we are also introduced to bits of information that are hard to not pursue further. Case in point – a Roman civil war that occurred between 88 and 82 B.C. It was fought between the populares (“favoring people”) under Gaius Marius and the optimates (“the best of men”) under Lucius Cornelius Sulla.i
Romans killed and exiled Romans on a large scale. The Republic lived on as a mere shell in which the ambitions of men like Sulla, Pompey, and eventually Caesar governed events, often to the detriment of the Republic. For the first time Romans became aware that their life differed greatly from that of their ancestors and that the continuity of Roman tradition had been broken. That experience proved extremely disturbing. How did the past, seen as glorious and ideal, fit with the troubled present? Historical and quasi-historical works were written under the spell of this question.ii
What were the issues over which the bloodbath occurred?
The grasping for political power between factions supporting democratic versus republican ideals, and
Hmmm…. I’ll let you draw your own parallels to our own Civil War.
Of interest, it was Gaius Marius (left) who reformed the Roman Legion by turning it into a professional army open to men of any class. Volunteers signed up for twenty years and the promise of a pension (land grant) and spoils. Soldiering as a profession was born. The allegiance of the legionnaire shifted from country to commanding general as the awarding of a pension was dependent upon the persuasiveness of the general (not by law).
I’ll be adding several links to ancient military history…. including several sections in Bill Thayer’s LacusCurtius (good primary sources like Polybius: The Histories). He has also transcribed to the web The Histories of Appian which chronicle the Appian Civil Wars.
i, ii Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, 2nd Edition. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 52.
This post continues a series on Exploring Causes of the Civil War. Other posts can be read by clicking on any of the following links: Part I: Introduction, Part II: Antebellum America, Part III: The Antebellum South, Part IV: The Antebellum North, Part V: The Rise of Sectional Disputes, Part VI: The Contribution of Constitutional Ambiguity, and Part VII: Political Discord, Slavery, and the Fight for Political Control.
Civil War scholar Gabor Boritt posits a fascinating theory that the impact of an individual can, in fact, be more influential in the determination of history’s direction than the long confluence of time.[i] “…It may be declared with confidence that a giant in the earth, or a crucial moment, weighs more in the scales of history than dreary ages.”[ii] The giant of which he spoke was Abraham Lincoln. His view makes Lincoln a central figure of both American mythology and history. Lincoln’s role in the coming of the Civil War he “divides into four increasingly important stages.”[iii]
- First, in the 1850s as tensions grew, Lincoln was one of many political leaders, familiar mostly in and around Illinois, though as the decade progressed so did his reputation in the North.
- Second, in 1860 he won the presidential nomination of the Republican [P]arty and became a nationally known figure.
- Third, from his election in early November to his inauguration on March 4, 1861, he was the president-elect.
- Fourth, in the White House he presided over events that led to Sumter.
As one stage followed another, Lincoln’s stand changed only gradually, but his voice grew ever more weighty until the end when, together with the voice of President Jefferson Davis, it proved to be decisive.[iv]
I would suggest that there were others whose individual influence – while perhaps not equal to that of Lincoln’s – none the less, impacted the direction of the nation. Key to the South was the “triumvirate of secession” – extremists Robert Rhett, William Yancey, and Edmun Ruffin (pictured below). Each, according to his gifts, kept the pressure for secession constant, the evils of the North apparent. In the period after Lincoln’s election, they leveraged the fear, uncertainty and doubt created by Northern and Southern newspapers to move the populous from defeat to secession as the only alternative left.[v] [See more about Rhett, Yancey and Ruffin in my post “The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War” here.]
They fought delay. Many of the leaders had long believed the Union a curse to the South and they feared that if they moved too deliberately the North might offer favorable terms. Others urged quick action lest the people cool off and accept less than justice. They must strike while the iron was hot. Delay was their worst enemy.
By December 17, 1860, Rhett and his followers had secured a convention in South Carolina, composed of those who were ready to stand alone, if necessary, in defense of Southern rights. The next day an ordinance of secession was adopted. Within six weeks, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had followed South Caroline’s example. The Cotton Kingdom was ready to form itself into the Confederate States of America.[vi]
Is it a wonder that Edmun Ruffin was among the first to fire a cannon on Fort Sumter?
At a nearby battery, another fire-eater was ready. Edmund Ruffin, with his long flowing white hair, another momentary exile from a still reluctant Virginia, sixty seven-year-old honorary Palmetto Guard, was ready. Staring into the dark, knowing where the enemy was, he sent the first shot from a columbaid into the fort flying the unseen flag of the United States.[vii]
Key individuals in the North included those who catapulted the Abolitionist message into the public consciousness. For this reason, John Brown must be included. The men surrounding Lincoln – Seward, Chase, Bates, Douglas and Buchanan – also deserve a chair.
And So What the Cause?
The Civil War can be attributed to no single cause. Slavery was undeniably an influencing factor – a common thread – inexorably tied to the sectional crises that evolved as the country expanded. Profound sectional differences – social, cultural, spiritual, economic, political – provided sufficient tender to ignite into violent conflict – given the spark. The “fanatical edge” and our politicians created the sparks that erupted in violence and pushed the nation over the precipice and into war. Several key individuals tipped the balance. Chief among these were: the Southern fire-eaters Rhett, Yancey and Ruffin, abolitionists who turned up the heat of anti-slavery sentiments in the North, and – pointedly – Abraham Lincoln himself.
For more reading, I highly recommend Gabor S. Boritt’s Why the Civil War Came. His essay titled “Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility” is excellent. Avery Craven’s The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. provides very interesting commentary on Rhett, Yancey, and Ruffin (and more about their individual strengths) and a wealth of information on Antebellum America and its march toward war.
In the next post, I’ll tackle the second question of the series: The Debate Over the War’s Inevitability.
[i] “Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility,” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 7., [ii] Ibid., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid.
[v] Avery Craven. The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 433., [vi] Ibid.
[vii] Boritt, “Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility,” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 5.
Exploring Causes of the Civil War – Part VII: Political Discord, Slavery, and the Fight for Political Control
This post continues a series on Exploring Causes of the Civil War. Other posts can be read by clicking on any of the following links: Part I: Introduction, Part II: Antebellum America, Part III: The Antebellum South, Part IV: The Antebellum North, Part V: The Rise of Sectional Disputes and Part VI: The Contribution of Constitutional Ambiguity.
Political discord represents yet another candidate for the war’s cause. Late historian William E. Gienapp (pictured right) suggests that “however much social and economic developments fueled the sectional conflict, the coming of the Civil War must be explained ultimately in political terms, for the outbreak of war in April 1861 represented the complete breakdown of the American political system. As such, the Civil War constituted the greatest single failure of American democracy.”[i]
Gienapp points to the role of slavery as the underlying cause of the sectional conflict. “Without slavery it is impossible to imagine a war between the North and the South (or indeed, the existence of anything we would call “the South” except as a geographic region).”[ii] He also asserts that America’s slave heritage was completely associated with race. That is, had the slaves brought to America been white, the practice would have disappeared much earlier.[iii] But an argument asserting slavery as chief cause of the war neglects the fact that not only was it older than the republic, but “for over half a century following adoption of the Constitution, the institution had only sporadically been an issue in national politics, and it had never dominated state politics in either section.”[iv] What changed? It was the rise of the slavery issue in American society; that is, the heightened awareness of it. This development was rooted in a number of changes in American society in the first half of the nineteenth century already addressed.[v]
As mentioned in previous posts in this series, the abolitionist movement did a great deal to raise that awareness. But Gienapp suggests that “it was the politicians themselves, as part of the struggle for control of the two major parties, who ultimately injected the slavery issue into national politics.”[vi] The key development was the introduction in Congress in 1846 of the Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited slavery from any territory acquired from Mexico, by a group of Van Burenite Democrats who were angry with President James K. Polk (pictured right) and his southern advisers. Once the slavery issue, in the shape of the question of its expansion into the western territories, entered the political arena, it proved impossible to get it out. The issue took on a life of its own, and when politicians tried to drop the issue after 1850, they discovered that many voters were unwilling to acquiesce.[vii]
Gienapp makes a good case for the war’s true cause in the following discourse.
A second critical development, intimately related to the first, was the crystallization of rival sectional ideologies oriented toward protecting white equality and opportunity. Increasingly, each section came to see the other section and its institutions as a threat to its vital social, political, and economic interests. Increasingly, each came to think that one section or the other had to be dominant. Informed by these ideologies, a majority of the residents of each section feared the other, and well before the fighting started the sectional conflict represented a struggle for control of the nation’s future.
It fell to the political system to adjudicate differences between the sections and preserve a feeling of mutual cooperation and unity. And for a long time the political system had successfully defused sectional tensions. Because it brought northern and southern leaders together, Congress was the primary arena for hammering out solutions to sectional problems. In various sectional confrontations–the struggle over the admission of Missouri as a slave state in 1819-21, the controversy over nullification and the tariff in 1833, the problem of the status of slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico in 1850, and the struggle over the proslavery Lecompton constitution in 1858-Congress had always managed to find some acceptable way out of the crisis.
Yet the American political system was particularly vulnerable to sectional strains and tensions. One reason was the institutional structure of American politics. The Civil War occurred within a particular political institutional framework that, while it did not make the war inevitable, was essential to the coming of the war.
Integral to this institutional framework was the United States Constitution. While some aspects of the Constitution retarded the development of sectionalism, it contained a number of provisions that strengthened the forces of sectional division in the nation. No constitution can anticipate all future developments and conclusively deal with all controversies that subsequently arise. The purpose in analyzing the Constitution’s role in the sectional conflict is not to fault its drafters or condemn it as a flawed document, but rather to indicate the importance of certain of its clauses for the origins of the war.
One significant feature of the Constitution was its provision for amendment. Lurking beneath the surface in the slavery controversy was white Southerners’ fear that the Constitution would be amended to interfere with the institution. In advocating secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election, Governor Andrew B. Moore of Alabama (pictured above) predicted that the Republicans would quickly create a number of new free states in the West, which “in hot haste will be admitted to the Union, until they have a majority to alter the Constitution. Then slavery will be abolished by law in the States.”[viii]
The fear, uncertainty and doubt associated with this possibility, on the part of the Southern political establishment, pushed the country toward war.
For further reading, I recommend The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War by Michael F. Holt and Why the Civil War Came, edited by Gabor S. Boritt.
Historian William E. Gienapp. Source: Harvard Gazette Archives, Issue: April 07, 2005.
Poster Announcing Sale and Rental of Slaves, Saint Helena (South Atlantic), 1829. Source: The Atlantic Slave Trade and
Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record., Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr., The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Image H003.
President James K. Polk
Cropped image of the constitution of Kansas
Governor Andrew B. Moore of Alabama. Source: Alabama Department of Archive and History
[i] William E. Gienapp, “The Crisis of American Democracy, the Political System and the Coming of the Civil War,” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt [book on-line] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, accessed 1 September 2007), 82; available from questia.com http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=78779127; Internet., [ii] Ibid., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., [vi] Ibid., 83., [vii] Ibid., [viii] Ibid., 86.
This post continues a series on Exploring Causes of the Civil War. Other posts can be read by clicking on any of the following links: Part I: Introduction, Part II: Antebellum America, Part III: The Antebellum South, Part IV: The Antebellum North, and Part V: The Rise of Sectional Disputes.
Historian Gabor S. Boritt asserts that the American Constitution’s “fundamental ambiguity” on a number of matters involving slavery contributed to the sectional controversy that stimulated the growing conflict between the North and the South.[i] The document was vague on the status of slavery in the territories, the power of Congress over the institution in the District of Columbia, whether the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce extended to the slave trade, whether it was a state or federal responsibility to return runaway slaves, and whether Congress could impose conditions on a new state or refuse to admit a new slave state to the Union.[ii] But the most important of these was whether a state had the right to secede from the Union.
Whereas the Articles of Confederation had proclaimed the Union to be perpetual, the Constitution contained no such statement. Indeed, nowhere did it discuss whether a state could secede or not. In the absence of any explicit provision, neither the nationalists nor the secessionists could present a conclusive argument on the subject. In upholding the perpetuity of the Union, Abraham Lincoln conceded that the language of the Constitution was not decisive.[iii]
This didn’t stop either side from finding in these documents justification of their positions.
Topic of the next post: Political Discord, Slavery, and the Fight for Political Control.
© 2007 L. Rene Tyree
[i] Gabor S. Boritt, “‘And the War Came’? Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility,” in Why the Civil War Came, ed. Gabor S. Boritt [book on-line] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, accessed 1 September 2007), 85; available from questia.com http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=78779127; Internet.