What Issue Was Really at the Heart of the Civil War, and is it Relevant Today?
Most Americans today have a romanticized (and extraordinarily narrow) historical understanding of the conflict that we call the Civil War.
In their imaginations, it goes something like this: With passions inflamed by a moral renaissance in the North regarding the institution of slavery in the South, the two sides decided to go to war over the issue. In the end, the evil South was righteously razed by the armies of the North, and thus, slavery was ended, and the former slaves made American citizens, as Abraham Lincoln intended.
If you think this an unfair caricature of the extent of the average American’s knowledge on the subject, I’d wager you haven’t spoken to many people under 50 about the subject. Our young and middle-aged enjoy a collective memory of this fantastic tale of good and evil, and so many of our countrymen believe that it actually occurred in this way that presenting any alternative or more nuanced version of the story earns a million accusations of supporting “white supremacy.”
But the truth matters. And the telling of it matters, perhaps now more than ever because, at the rate that the leftists who indoctrinated generations to believe that fable are now using academia to rewrite history and are controlling modern avenues for free speech, opportunities to do so may be scarce in the future.
And, also, the true story is important because it’s incredibly relevant today.
The truth is most certainly not that Abraham Lincoln and the Union soldiers were so moved by the moral arguments against slavery that they were compelled to invade and destroy the South. Likewise, Robert E. Lee and Confederate soldiers didn’t pick up their rifles and start shooting at their former countrymen because they thought they were coming to take away the slaves that fewer than 10 percent of Southerners owned.
That’s just silly, and in a sane world, anyone suggesting it would be ridiculed into irrelevance.
The truth is, as Clifford Dowdey observes in his opening statements of The History of the Confederacy 1832-1865:
The Civil War was fought for thirty years before the mounting antagonisms exploded in a clash of arms. The period from Nullification in 1832 until Fort Sumter in 1861 constituted a long period of cold war, even by today’s standards. Men who opposed one another in the opening phases of the conflict had gone to their rewards when the shooting began, and the generation in the South which was to die had not been born when South Carolina first defied the Union. The quarrel was passed on, like a baton in a relay race, from generation to generation, until the men who settled in the bloodiest violence had little notion of what had started it.
The initial salvo which began this cold war did not actually occur in 1832 but in 1828. The federal government issued new tariffs which were, by design, both harmful to the South and beneficial to Northern producers. A tariff of nearly 49-percent was issued on nearly all imported goods. The consequence was not only that Northern industries were protected by artificially pricing European competitors out of the market, but agrarian Southern economies were double-struck by being required to pay more for goods they had previously imported and the reduction in European trade meant less money for Europeans to compete for Southern cotton. And to make matters worse, there was fear in the South of retaliatory tariffs from Europe which would further harm commerce. Understandably, this came to be known in the South as the Tariff of Abominations, and it led to the 1832 Nullification Crisis.
South Carolina threatened to secede, but armed conflict was avoided (and bitter resentment assured) by the 1833 passage of both the Force Bill and the Compromise Tariff, which gave the federal government the right to militarily enforce tariffs and lowered the tariff rates, respectively.
It was this question which was at the heart of this constitutional crisis, “a bedrock question,” writes Robert Selph Henry in The Story of the Confederacy, “going to the very nature of government… The fundamental question of the relation of the states to the government they had created.”
South Carolina was far from the first to threaten secession. In the seventy years between the Founding and South Carolina’s eventual secession, for example, New England seriously threatened secession twice -- once on the grounds that federal embargoes after the War of 1812 harmed commerce, and again after the annexation of Texas in 1845 and disagreement with American foreign policy in the War with Mexico.
The central question regarding secession, in both cases, was the same as South Carolina’s in 1832 and 1861. If the people of a state surmise that the federal government is pursuing a policy that compromises the liberty and prosperity of its citizens, does that state have to conform to what is perceived by the people of the state as an unconstitutional abuse of power, or, more bluntly, intolerable tyranny?
Dumbing down history to simple, easily digestible falsehoods (like “the Civil War was fought to free the slaves,” for example) is the easiest and most effective way to make those falsehoods common knowledge. That’s why the leftist propagandists and racial grievance hustlers in academia, the media, and the government do it. The truth about what led the country to the Civil War, however, is anything but simple or easily digestible. But I think Clifford Dowdey offers a fairly good summation:
[The North and South] had diverged into patterns of life which became increasingly antithetical; antagonisms and rivalries grew in intensity. The industrial North did wish to buy cheap and sell dear at the expense of the South, while Northern money power needed the South in a colonial status for exploitation. Slavery did exist in the South, and there was a high moral tone in the issue of freedom, held by a small minority. Extremists on both sides did inflame passions. There was, as an amalgam of all this, the nationalistic sweep of the new industrial middle-class society represented by the North, in alliance with the expanding, democratic West, and against these the South stood as an anachronistic, arrogant feudal culture in the path of manifest destiny. All of this defines the elements of duality within the corporate body of the nation; yet, put them all together, with equal emphases or any single emphasis, and the element of explosion is missing.
That element was similar to the violence inherent in the split personality of the schizophrenic. There the separate parts are locked in a struggle which must be resolved if the corporate body is to function. If this warring duality cannot be resolved, an explosion is inevitable.
There should be little need to expound upon the parallels to today in that, but here goes:
Red and blue states have, in fact, diverged into patterns of life that have become increasingly antithetical in recent years, and antagonisms and rivalries are growing in intensity. Blue states did fleece the taxpayers of red states last year by demanding a federal bailout for their decision to keep their states irrationally closed during the pandemic and in order to keep their broken, and internally unsustainable, entitlement programs afloat. There is a high moral tone being expressed on abortion in red states, an institution that disregards the right to life among the unborn just as the institution of slavery disregarded the right to liberty among slaves. Extremists on both sides are inflaming passions. Effete coastal liberals and elitists in the media and academia view middle-class, red-state denizens as anachronistic God-worshippers who prioritize their families and communities before the needs of the national collective, and are thereby impediments on that Hegelian path of history toward their inevitable vision of “progress.”
Red and blue states do, in many ways, seem like separate parts locked in a struggle that must be resolved if we are to function as a nation. Will this warring duality be resolved, or will we explode when, for example, the federal government decides to mandate vaccination IDs be issued by all of the states, and several states refuse?
Again, if the people of a state surmise that the federal government is pursuing a policy that compromises the liberty and prosperity of its citizens, does that state have to conform to what is perceived by the people of the state as an unconstitutional abuse of power, or can it express its autonomy and liberty without the prospect of being attacked by the federal government for having done so?
That is the central question that was at the heart of the Civil War. And we are fools to not consider that it’s the likeliest question that will be at the heart of the next one or to understand that it’s certainly the question at the heart of the semi-cold war between right and left in America today.
Image: Library of Congress, via Picryl / public domain