You are here
HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
- Slavery and State Rights, Economies and Ways of Life: What Caused the Civil War?
Professor Blight begins this lecture with an attempt to answer the question “why did the South secede in 1861?” Blight offers five possible answers to this question: preservation of slavery, “the fear thesis,” southern nationalism, the “agrarian thesis,” and the “honor thesis.” After laying out the roots of secession, Blight focuses on the historical profession, suggesting some of the ways in which historians have attempted to explain the coming of the Civil War. Blight begins with James Ford Rhodes, a highly influential amateur historian in the late nineteenth century, and then introduces Charles and Mary Beard, whose economic interpretations of the Civil War had their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s.
|Low Bandwidth Video
|High Bandwidth Video
The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 - Lecture 11 - Slavery and State Rights, Economies and Ways of Life: What Caused the Civil War?
Chapter 1. Introduction: Jefferson Davis’s Defense of Secession [00:00:00]
Professor David Blight: So what caused the Civil War? Somebody said “slavery.” Can I hear a “states’ rights?” Can I hear a “conflicting civilizations?” Can I hear “unctuous fury?” Can I hear “fanaticism?” Can I hear “fear?” Can I hear “stupidity?” Can I hear “Goddamn Yankees?”
Or Jefferson Davis may have captured the kind of toxin that was in the air, around southern secession, in late 1860 and into this “distracted, sad year,” as Whitman called it, of 1861. Jefferson Davis, soon to be the first president — only president — of the Confederate States of America; senator — former senator — from Mississippi; former commandant of West Point; former Secretary of War. He tried to capture what the South was doing with secession with a certain dignified reserve here. This is at the very end of 1860, before Mississippi had seceded, but it’s not far away. He said, the South now, quote, “is confronted by a common foe. The South should, by the instinct of self-preservation, be united. The recent declarations of the candidate and leaders of the black Republican Party,” — and southerners made no — missed no opportunity to rename the Republican Party a thousand times, “the Black Republican Party.” At any rate, “The recent declaration of the candidate and leaders of the Black Republican Party must suffice to convince many who have formerly doubted the purpose to attack the institution of slavery in the states. The undying opposition to slavery in the United States means war upon it, where it is, not where it is not.” That is, the Republicans did not simply oppose slavery in the territories, they opposed slavery in the slave states, and they would not stop until they had obliterated it. “And the time is at hand when the great battle is to be fought between the defenders of the constitutional government and the votaries of mob rule, fanaticism and anarchy.” Yes. Davis seemed to think a little bit was at stake, for the South, in 1861.
However, after the war, Jefferson Davis wrote what is probably the longest, most turgid, belabored, 1200 page defense of a failed political revolution in the history of language. 1,279 pages is his memoir, entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. And by the time he wrote that, or published it, in 1882, he was arguing everywhere, on storied, famous, legendary tours of the South, the war had absolutely nothing to do with slavery. Listen to just one passage of that 1200 page defense of his Constitutional Movement. “Slavery,” said Jeff Davis, by 1882, “was in no wise the cause of the conflict but only an incident. Generally African-American” — excuse me — “Generally Africans were born the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, and sold by heathen masters. They were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity.” Now he goes on, and I quote him. Blacks, said Jeff Davis, had been, quote, “put to servitude, trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and civilization. They increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers. Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachments secured faithful service. Never was there happier dependents of labor and capital on each other. The tempter came, like the Serpent of Eden, and decoyed them with the magic word, freedom. He put arms in their hands and trained their humble but emotional natures to deeds of violence and bloodshed, and sent them out to devastate their benefactors.” Now I could go on and on with this particular, incredible passage.
What you have there in that 1882 passage is the core, the life blood of the Lost Cause tradition. In 1861 — and you’ve read Charles Dew’s book on this — in 1861 southern leadership, at least until after Fort Sumter, argued every day and every way that they were about the business of preserving a slave society — a civilization based on slave labor, a racial system ordered by slavery — now threatened by these anti-slavery black Republicans. In the wake of the Civil War, however, so much energy will be exercised, not only by southerners, over time, to try to convince the American people and the rest of the world that this event was not about slavery. In a speech in 1878 — like many other speeches he gave in the last third of his life — Frederick Douglass was at that point, 1878, already fed up with Lost Cause arguments about what the war had been about. He was also already, early in the process, fed up with the ways in which Americans were beginning to reconcile this bloody, terrible conflict around the mutual valor of soldiers, and in his view forgetting what the whole terrible thing might have even been about. And at the end of a magnificent speech he gave at a veterans reunion he said this: “The Civil War” — this is Frederick Douglass — “was not a fight between rapacious birds and ferocious beasts, a mere display of brute courage and endurance, it was a war between men of thought, as well as of action, and in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield.” He went on and on and on then to declare that the war had been about ideas, and he described the difference between those ideas, as he put it, was the difference between, quote, “barbarism and civilization.”
Chapter 2. Fear? Southern Unity? Why Did the South Seceded [00:08:24]
Now, I’m going to spend this lecture just reflecting with you on, first, secession, because I left you hanging in the air about the various explanations of secession, interpretations over time; and I want to re-visit that at least briefly. And then I want to take you through a little quick survey of the interpretations of Civil War causation over time. It’s fascinating to understand how in the past, now nearly a century and a half, Americans have gone through this topsy-turvy, twisting inside out, changing view of what caused that war.
But back to secession. I left off with saying I was going to offer you five different explanations. I don’t think they’re all equal, necessarily, but they’re there. In some ways they kind of fold into one another. And I’d already talked about how the preservation of slavery, a slave society, a society ordered by slave labor and so forth, was a principle, if not the principle, purpose of this secession movement, at least in the Deep South, where it succeeded. Remember now, there are still eight slave states that have not seceded from the Union. As of March 1861, when Lincoln was to be inaugurated, the majority of the slave states are still in the Union, not out; only South Carolina over to Texas, the whatever-color-that-is of the Deep South, was the Confederate States of America. Had it remained only those seven states it’s hard to imagine exactly how the Confederacy would’ve mounted a war effort, conducted and created a foreign policy, and managed if the Lincoln government decides on war — or coercion as the South will call it — it’s hard to imagine how the Confederacy would’ve survived, as long as it did. The four states that will join it — we’ll come to this on Thursday — do not secede, of course, until after Fort Sumter. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas, in their initial secession legislatures or conventions, either did not — chose not to vote, or voted secession down, which Virginia decisively did — before Fort Sumter. And it’s only after the firing on Fort Sumter in April of ‘61 that Virginia will vote secession; and it’s crucial, of course, given it’s — that it’s Virginia, and the size of Virginia, the significance and symbolism and power of Virginia, the geographical location of Virginia and so on.
A second explanation of secession though is what I would call the fear thesis; fear of many kinds. And now this is, now, of course, deeply related to the first explanation of preserving a slave society but in some ways this was a racial fear as well. If you look into those secession conventions, and if you look deeply into all those quotations in Charles Dew’s book — and he loads them on you doesn’t he? — there’s an even more immediate kind of racial fear among southern secessionists, that they live on the potential of a racial powder keg, of the potential of slave insurrection over time, especially if the South and if slavery continues to shrink within itself. There’s the phrase they kept returning to in Abraham Lincoln’s House Divided Speech from 1858. They never let him forget it, that he and the Republican Party, they said, were going to put slavery on a, quote, “course of ultimate extinction.” That’s fairly clear isn’t it? “We’re going to make your system extinct — how do you like that?” “Oh, not a problem.” Fear of the radicalism, now of John Brown. John Brown had sort of made this equation, that had always been there in the southern mind in vague ways, explicit. If the Republican Party in the North had succeeded in selling this slogan of a slave-power conspiracy, well southerners now, the planter class and the secessionists, are very successful, especially in the wake of John Brown’s raid, of selling a mutual or a counter-conspiracy theory. And that conspiracy simply is “abolition emissaries.” There are lots of labels it goes by but the idea that if the Republican politicians themselves aren’t going to lead bands into the South to attack the South, they will end up nevertheless politically stimulating more and more John Browns to make visitations on the South.
All over the rhetoric of secession you find the language of — or the word frankly — of submission; submission, we will not submit and so on. Let me give you just one example. In Charleston, South Carolina, the editor of its most radical newspaper, its most secessionist newspaper, was a man named Robert Rhett, the Charleston Courier — I’m sorry, theCharleston Mercury is what he edited — and he ran a series of articles under the heading the, quote, “Terrors of Submission,” during the secession winter. And in one of those pieces Robert Rhett wrote, and I quote: “If the South once submits to the rule of abolitionists by the general government there is probably an end of all peaceful separation of the Union. We can only escape the ruin they meditate for the South by war. The ruin of the South by the emancipation of her slaves is not like the ruin of any other people. It is not a mere loss of liberty, but it is a loss of liberty, property, home, country, everything that makes life worth living.” Rhett was full of some unctuous fury, without a doubt.
There were southern secessionists who absolutely believed that even any discussion of slavery’s future in the U.S. Congress should be suppressed, that they would no longer live in a union that even discussed what to do about the future of slavery. And I would say there’s not only a kind of racial fear, a fear of loss of slavery by the planter class, but there’s a certain kind of political fear going on as well, and that is the fear that southern polls now had — they’d had this for years, hadn’t they? The fear was the growing, or the growth now for them of a kind of minority status, that that Republican Party in the North now had the potential, given the population of the North, this sectional, anti-slavery party, had the potential to really take over the House of Representatives, in huge numbers. Then you get Lincoln in the White House for four years — and what if you get him for eight? — and he appoints the next two, three, four, five members of the Supreme Court. And he can control the diplomatic corps around the world, and even more importantly he can control patronage of the post office system, which in those years, believe it or not, was very powerful; nobody gives a hoot about who runs the post offices now but boy they did then. And what was at stake? And we can see this all over their letters and their diaries, their speeches in secession conventions, was a loss ultimately for the slaveholding class of what James Roark and other scholars have called “planter control.” So to say secession is about slavery is accurate, but there are layers beneath it, in what I’d call a kind of fear thesis.
A third explanation is what we might call — or a motivation for southern secession — we might call southern nationalism, a sense of southern unity, a dream for some southern secessionists — they were a minority surely over time and they’re even a minority, I think, in the midst of the secession crisis — but a dream over time of a southern nation, an independence, of developing their own boundaries and their own potential expansionist foreign policy, where they would no longer ever be dependent on the United States Federal Government, on one compromise after another with northerners. And now to many southern secessionists it would be compromises with people they couldn’t even conceive of compromising with, these free soil, anti-slavery, they believed, abolitionist Republicans. These southern nationalists were led by people like Edmund Ruffin of Virginia, William Lowndes Yancey of Georgia, Robert Rhett of South Carolina, James D.B. DeBow, who published the DeBow’s Review, a very important southern magazine out of New Orleans. It was a vision now of an independent southern nation. In fact, Edmund Ruffin was so determined to try to gather the spirit of an independent southern nation that in the wake of John Brown’s raid, he got himself to Harpers Ferry and managed to collect 15 or 20 of Old John Brown’s pikes; you know, these spear things that John Brown was going to give to slaves after his rebellion. And Ruffin sent one of those pikes to the governor of every southern state. These people were into symbolism.
Now, it’s interesting that this sense of a southern nationalism, if you like, was born more, I would argue, of fear of an enemy than it actually was of any kind of planned vision of an organized nation. As numerous, brilliant scholars of southern nationalism, from Drew Faust to John McCardell and others have argued — and I will come back to this in a couple of weeks — a southern nation did come out of this confederacy, but it was born almost overnight, and not by a lot of long-term planning. It was born more in resentment and defensiveness of knowing what they were against and who their enemy might be than it was actually born of a thought-out plan of what they were for. And it’s also — there was also a theory at the root of this kind of southern nationalist, fledgling as it was in the Secession Crisis, that — and it’s right there in the secession debates. It’s rooted in the shrinking south theory, it’s rooted in the desire to preserve a slave society — but it’s the idea that the South’s ultimate welfare would be better outside of the union than in, requiring a certain thinking about how to create a new nation.
Chapter 3. Agrarian Society? Honor? Why the South Seceded, Continued [00:20:46]
A fourth possible explanation — though I wouldn’t hang too many hats on this one because it’s rather vague; it used to have a lot of purchase among historians — is what we might call agrarianism, the agrarian thesis, the idea of King Cotton ideology, or King Cotton diplomacy, or put more deeply, a kind of Jeffersonian yeoman idealism. This is the vague theory that secession was to protect an agrarian, agricultural, planter civilization. That the South was ultimately — they liked to think of themselves, even the leadership — as a people or a republic of farmers, small farmers. Now the majority of them were small farmers. The real South, this argument was, was not in the slave owning master class but in the men of the soil, protecting a way of life against all that ignoble, go-getter, money grubbing, Yankee individualism. And there’s something to this. You can find these arguments all over the secession debates as well. “Separate from those New Yorkers, they’re going to take your wallet;” or as the saying went, you could hit a Yankee, he wouldn’t hit you back, but he would sue you. This had a real vogue back in — this interpretation — back in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, even into the 1950s and beyond, among historians like Frank Owsley and others. And its spirit, if you like, is there in the Confederate Anthem — not Dixie, but the other Confederate Anthem, the Bonnie Blue Flag. You don’t hear that as much, but there’s a verse in Bonnie Blue Flag that the soldiers sang all the time. It goes like this, and listen for its ironies: [sings] “We are a band of brothers, native to the soil, fighting for the property we gained by honest toil.” Whose honest toil? Property. Well, for a yeoman farmer that lyric made good sense.
And fifth, you can also argue that secession is deeply rooted in some — some have argued this; certainly Bertram Wyatt-Brown has and others — is rooted in this notion of a tradition of southern honor. The thesis that at the heart of the southern planter class, in particular, at the heart of their cohesion, their self-understanding, and their worldview, was a set of values by which men, especially planters, defined themselves, and therefore their society, and when those values were threatened they circled the wagons in defense. And these were the manly virtues, the argument went, of honesty, trustworthiness, entitlement, social rank, the willingness to defend one’s honor, blood, lineage, family, and especially home or homeland, to defend one’s community against not only invasion but also insult or humiliation; to save face in the presence of one’s critics, one’s enemies. Nothing could be worse, said the honor code, than public humiliation. Disputes to the man of southern honor were personal, not a matter of law. And there comes a time, the argument went, when to hell with the Supreme Court, to hell with compromises in congress; “this is personal,” they said.
Now, this one’s hard to throw darts at and make it stick. You can see the language in the secession movement — “we must defend our honor, we must defend our society.” When is the southern secessionist planter speaking from honor, and when is he speaking from the preservation of the slave society, and when is he speaking from his sense of agrarianism? When is he speaking from a vision of an independent southern national future, is never easy to know, but you can hear it in a James Jones, for example, a leading South Carolina secessionist in the South Carolina Secession Convention who got up at the end of the arguments and he said, well folks, quote, “If we fail we have saved our honor and lost nothing.” Now, think of the logic there. Of course he doesn’t really know precisely yet what they’re going to fail at. If a whole civilization goes down in ashes, if a society will be destroyed at its root, you’ve lost nothing. Some of these same guys who were so caught up in defense of honor, of course, loved Shakespeare. They especially loved plays likeHenry IV, when Prince Harry is lecturing his soldiers to die with honor, because if you die with honor you’ve lost nothing. Now, in your more modern sensibilities life usually doesn’t equate with nothing. But mix all those explanations up together and fold in a little ambiguity, and you can begin to explain secession.
A final parting word though, did the South have the right to secede? Let’s just have a show of hands, just to show, just a poll, did the southern states have the right to secede in 1861? Yes? All right. No? Bunch of Yankees. [Laughter] Not sure? You people are honest because this is a constitutional theory that is very old and never ending. But not sure, down here in the front — a teaching assistant is not sure. So, and he’s remaining not sure. David Huyssen is a prophet of ambiguity. You got to watch him, he burns question marks on your front porch if you’re not careful. [Laughter] I usually save that joke for Unitarians, but I — anyway, never mind. Okay, sorry, sorry. [Laughter]
Very quickly though, in 1861, of course, people had to make huge decisions here, not the least of which was Lincoln and his circle of Republican advisors. But Lincoln was very clear on this. We’re going to come back on Thursday to this whole question of what Lincoln’s policy was there in April 1861 and why he moved with some force against the South. But first of all, Lincoln’s view, and the nationalist unionist view of secession, was essentially this. And you can read this closely in your Lincoln Reader, in many places. But it was basically that the Union of the United States, so the argument went, was created by the people not the states. Now I know this gets a little bit like constitutional hairsplitting, but a lot of hairs were at stake here. So you had to split some of them. The Union was created, said this argument, by the people, not by the states. The Union was therefore older than those states that agreed to join it, in the American Revolution and in the U.S. Constitution. “We the people in order to form a more perfect union,” some unionists argued, meant secession really is not possible. There was the practical argument against secession. A Union cannot survive, the argument went, if it can be broken at will whenever someone gets upset. I don’t like this law and that law; well I like these but I don’t like those; I will nullify those and not participate. Hum, the argument is, that’s not a good practical way to run a republic.
And some unionists — and Lincoln was of course brilliant at this, eventually, as you read his speeches — would argue against secession from a position — sort of civil religion, of almost mysticism. What did Lincoln refer to at the end of that first inaugural? That magnificent phrase about the “mystic chords of memory, from every battlefield and patriot grave, would yet swell the chorus of the Union.” That’s about music and memory, not about the Constitution. Unionists would invoke the fathers, just like the secessionists will, of course, and those fathers of the Constitution and the American Republic, they would argue, were nationalist. They wanted a more perfect Union, out of a Union that wasn’t at all perfect. And sometimes they would even directly invoke Chief Justice John Marshall, the Virginian, the first great Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for twenty-five, thirty years, and the forging of that institution of the Supreme Court into a national institution of cohesion and a certain power.
Now, the states’ rightists, the secessionists, of course, will argue, “no; no.” They will say, constitutionally, the Union, they will argue, is a federal union; federal in the sense that it was a compact, a contract between its founders, and the founders were the states that chose to join it. And they will argue that states voted. In the Continental Congress states voted on the Articles of Confederation, states voted to approve the U.S. Constitution or not. States voted to ratify the Constitution and so on. Then they will go to the Reserve Clause of the Constitution — all powers not given to the Federal Government in the Constitution, in Congress, are, quote, “reserved for the states.” That beautiful, wonderful, tortured and ambiguous, but, in some ways brilliant, provision of the Constitution. They will go to the language of experiment in republicanism. They will say the American Republic has been an experiment; it’s been a fascinating, wonderful, world historical experiment. But you know what they’ll say? It’s just failed, and let us show you the reasons why and the way, and let us go in peace; it is our right. They will argue for the right of secession, based on essentially the notion of a contractual theory of government, and that a contract in this sense, they will argue, can be broken. Now as Allan Nevins once said, secession though, after all the constitutional historians and the lawyers have worked it though, is a matter of power, and as Nevins said, who has the most guns.
Chapter 4. Historiography of the Civil War, from Rhodes to Beard [00:34:19]
I’ll leave that hanging for a moment. We’ll come back to secession in the wake of Fort Sumter and the beginning of the war on Thursday. But let me take you through a quick survey of what historians have done with this story over time. I love this kind of stuff, the historiographical debates of historians is probably why some of use become historians — we like the arguments. Before I leave states’ rights though, it’s of course a theory that’s not going to at all die in the Civil War. Secession may have died; well maybe, never say never, who knows? Kosovo just seceded from Serbia and Russia is making a big stink over it. And I was listening to a Canadian radio station last night — don’t ask me why but it’s what comes on right after NPR goes off [laughter] — and the Quebecois in Quebec are using the Kosovo model now to rev up once again the possibility of Quebec secession from Canada. So watch out; got to follow this. And there’s always threats after some of our elections, somebody’s deciding they want to secede, which usually means they just want to move to New Zealand; but New Zealand has strong immigration laws, so don’t even think it. [Laughter]
States’ rights is a theory, I’m going to argue, a theory of the proper relations of the levels of government, how power is distributed between those levels of government. It is a theory of the nature of federalism. But — and I think this is the crucial point and you can argue this, we can argue this forever, and we probably will if we’re Americans — but I would argue that the significance of states’ rights is always and everywhere in the cause to which it is employed. States’ rights for what? A state’s right to do what? In the interest of what? Now throughout our history some things have happened first in states. Women’s suffrage happened in states first, and then grew over time into finally a federal right to vote for women. There are many other cases. States’ rights is not always a conservative or reactionary idea. It is sometimes a progressive idea. One might believe in more local state control — but to what end, for what purpose, to advance what issue, cause, what principle? Just make your list of issues. And where would you start first, for stem cell research, for gay marriage, for or against? Where did the right begin? School curriculums, the right to vote, women’s economic rights, reproductive freedom, collective bargaining for unions; and on and on and on. Old-age pensions began first in some states in the progressive era, before we ever had a national Social Security. The Civil War didn’t eliminate states’ rights. It has this sloganeering power to it that never gets much analysis. Well all right.
Now, somewhere on this outline I listed — Well, in the wake of the Civil War, of course, and for that generation, there were unionist and confederate blame laying, interpretations of the war. It’s a fascinating collection of writing, there’s a lot of it. Much of it is score settling, of course, it’s vindication on the part of southerners, it’s the forging of this Lost Cause tradition — and I’ll speak a lot more about that at the very end of the course, because the lost cause became an elaborate ideology over time, especially a racial ideology. A lot of the debate among the generation that fought the war over what had caused it got all caught up in labeling. Was the war “The War of the Rebellion,” which was the official, northern, federal definition and label of the war? This was not called the American Civil War by the Federal Government, it was called the War of the Rebellion. If you go out and look at Civil War monuments on battlefields, put up in the 1880s and ’90s, it’s called the War of the Rebellion, if it’s a Union monument. In the south, it was early called “The War Between the States.” It was sometimes called “The War for Southern Independence.” It was sometimes called “The War of Northern Aggression;” that sometimes is used now as a euphemism. My favorite label, and it wasn’t just southern, but by the 1890s and turn of the twentieth century a label that got into the press and people loved it as a throwaway joke line, was, quote, “the late unpleasantness.” [Laughter] You want to start dissolving conflict — we had some late unpleasantness here and slaughtered all these people, but never mind.
Now, I’ll pass on examples of this unionist and confederate tradition and perhaps we’ll just re-visit this at the end of the course, because that’s perhaps where it belongs anyway. But by the late nineteenth century, the 1890s to be exact, and into the early twentieth century, one historian, named James Ford Rhodes, and this kind of nationalist tradition in which he wrote, had a tremendous impact on the way the vast majority of Americans would come to understand Civil War causation. Rhodes was a gifted amateur, a gentlemen scholar. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1848. So he was a boy and a teenager during the Civil War, but too young to have fought. But he grew up helplessly fascinated with this event that forged his life, his world. He was very wealthy. He retired to Beacon Hill in Boston, and between 1893 and 1907, a fourteen-year period, he published his seven volumes, a series called History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850. They didn’t worry about boring titles in the nineteenth century. That title would never fly though a publisher today, but that’s what it was called. Seven volumes Rhodes wrote.
Now, on the one hand Rhodes said the Civil War was caused — he developed the sole cause theory, and he said the sole cause is slavery; make no mistake, it’s slavery. But it’s what Rhodes did with this that is really important, and it is still alive and well in our culture and you can’t kill it. He said the war was caused by slavery, it was an irrepressible conflict, but he focused on slavery as a system, on cotton and the cotton gin, not upon any moral element to the story of slavery and/or abolition. Slavery was a national curse, he called it, never a national crime. Slavery was a broad force, almost like climate, it was almost like bad weather, and no one is to blame for bad weather. Southerners deserved, in Rhodes’ view, sympathy and not censure. Slaveholders, he argued, should be absolved because they were themselves the victims of this system and therefore the victims of history — a tragic lot, destined to try to preserve a civilization that the world was beginning to pass by. He greatly admired antebellum southern society and civilization, and there’s a certain nostalgia in Rhodes’ work for my God what we lost, in the great planters world. He rose Robert E. Lee to the status of national hero; he didn’t do it alone, there were a lot of people helping him with that by 1900 — that’s Robert E. Lee who led the Confederate armies to national hero, I just thought I’d point that out.
I was in Richmond two weeks ago giving a lecture. A woman came up afterward from New York or Boston, born and raised in the North, and she has just moved to Richmond. Oh, she’s just full of enthusiasm and she’s the cultural attaché director or something for the city of Richmond now. And I was speaking at this new museum about the Civil War and she came up to me and she said, “I want to know what you think of my idea. I think the first thing we need to do in Richmond is just tear down all those Confederate monuments.” I said, “Oh.” Oh dear. [Laughter] Oh dear. I didn’t even know what to tell her. She said, “If they can just take down that Robert E. Lee statue and then that Stonewall Jackson statute. Just take them down. Wouldn’t everything be all right?” I went over in the bookstore, I got her a copy of Race and Reunion, this book I did on Civil War memory, and I said, “Here ma’am, just start here.” [Laughter]
According to James Ford Rhodes both sides had fought nobly, both sides had fought well. There was to be no blame, in this historical verdict of seven volumes and something like 3000-and-some pages, in Rhodes’ history. Now, this put in place — and I’ll leave it there — a kind of nationalist, reconciliationist, quasi-scholarly, popular historical tradition through which most other interpretations of the Civil War causation would now have to pass or breathe or move.
And then came Charles Beard and Mary Beard, by the 1930s — early — in the ’20s. How to sum up Beard. Charles Beard, the great progressive historian, so-called — and by that label we mean those historians who came of age around the turn of the twentieth century, first decade or two of the twentieth century, and were still writing into the 1950s; some of them even into the ’60s. They tended to see the world — especially by the 1930s — they tended to see the world through a frame of the Great Depression. Well the frame of World War One and then a frame of the Crash of ‘29, and the worldwide Great Depression of the ’30s. They tended to see history as essentially a story of economics, essentially a story of capital and labor, of wealth as an engine, or the pursuit of it as an engine of history. Charles Beard wrote a great book, in many ways — we now can look at it and see all kinds of holes in it — a book called The Economic Interpretation of the American Civil War. He saw the South and the North as essentially two economies — two civilizations, two economies. There are rarely any people in Charles Beard’s work, there are economies, there are systems, there are economic forces; there’s cotton and free labor, and there’s shipping and merchants in the North, and there are planters in the South. There’s the telegraph spreading across the North. There are canals and there are railroads. And in his interpretation the South rebelled to try to preserve its economic way of life. And ultimately the Civil War, in Beard’s view, wasn’t really about any particular ideology — that is, any racial ideology or any pre-slavery or anti-slavery ideology — it was two economic systems living together in the same society, the same nation, and coming into conflict with one another in insolvable ways; forces meeting at a crossroads and they had to clash. Beard is laden with inevitability, as any great economic determinist usually is. He called the American Civil War, famously, the “Second American Revolution.” But by that he didn’t mean what Bruce Levine and Eric Foner and other, many other historians of well my generation and the generation before have called it, when we’ve called it a second American Revolution. What Beard meant by that is a kind of great dividing line between an agricultural era and an industrial era.
Chapter 5. Conclusion [00:48:36]
All right, my clock says I’m running out of time. I’m going to leave you hanging on this limb of wondering what the “needless war school” people argued. They thought it was needless, actually. But I want to end with this, as a lead-in to Thursday. Walt Whitman wrote a poem about this year. He called it “1861.” And here are just a few lines of it, to give you a sense — I think Whitman, as no one else could, captured what was in the heads of northerners and southerners. “Arm’d year — year of the struggle, No dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses for you, oh terrible year. Not you as some pale poetling seated at a desk lisping cadenzas piano. But as a strong man erect, clothed in blue clothes, advancing, carrying a rifle on your shoulder, With well-gristled body and sunburnt face and hands, with a knife in the belt at your side. As I heard you shouting loud, your sonorous voice, ringing across the continent. Year, that suddenly sang by the mouths of the round-lipp’d cannon. I repeat you, hurrying, crashing, sad, distracted, year.” See you Thursday.
[end of transcript]Back to Top