Sunday, May 01, 2011

About the cause of the Civil War

Think about the decisions made after Lincoln won the election of 1864. Southern states decided to secede from the Union. Four years later something like one-quarter of the men of military age in the south were dead, the economy was in ruins as were great swaths of southern territory, the slaves had been emancipated, the export economy was dead, the plant of the industrial economy (such as it had been) was largely destroyed, former slaves were in poverty but also empowered with the vote, and there was an occupying army. Northern states had in fact lost more men in the Civil War than had the southern states, and there had been huge economic costs of the war, and indeed the north had been invaded by the Confederacy and two of the major battles of the war had been fought in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Surely a better alternative to the war must have been available.

I am reminded of the old story of two cowboys. Tex watched as Bronco Billy rode up to a cactus patch, dismounted, took off all his clothes and jumped naked into the middle of the cactus. After Tex helped Bronco Billy out of the patch, getting his own clothes ripped and himself wounded in the process, he asked "why in the world did you do that?" Bronco Billy answered, "it seemed like a good idea at the time". It has always seemed to me that Tex might have asked himself why he didn't think it was a good idea at the time to stop BB before he jumped into the cactus.

It is tempting to attribute the cause of the Civil War to the limited rationality of the both parties, the Southern secessionists and the northern negotiators who failed to reach a solution less harmful to both parties. I think that is wrong, however, as the cause of the war was more likely to be the cultures and political processes that were in use at the time. There were people in the south who recognized what would probably happen and indeed people who argued against secession. There were people in the north who supported a negotiated settlement and indeed tried to obtain one. These reasonable people were not in the key power points, and those who were did not understand or did not care.

Sherman and Grant, who had fought in the Mexican American war apparently understood that the war would wreck a terrible tole on the nation, but that understanding was not shared by the media of the knowledge systems of the time. Some must  have realized that the weapons of the 1860s were much more lethal than those of the 18th century, that the social and economic systems of the nation were capable of supporting much greater armies and navies, which would inflict much greater damage than those of the distant past. Apparently the realization of the founding fathers that slavery would not be sustainable, a realization what was shared in many parts of the world, had been lost in the South. It is tempting to suggest that if the schools and universities and the press had done a better job, that the war could have been avoided. So too, had the political systems done a better job of giving power to "docile and reasonable men" then the war could have been avoided. Indeed, Brazil ended slavery in the 19th century by a gradual process which did not involve Civil War.

I suspect that there might have been many alternative scenarios by which the Civil War could have been avoided. Perhaps the British might have prohibited slavery in the North American colonies before independence, or perhaps the founding fathers might have reached a better compromise in writing the Constitution or in the laws of the early republic. Perhaps efforts in the 1840s or 1850s might have still averted the war at lower cost than those that might have done so after Lincoln was elected.

Failure to take any one of these alternative paths to peace might be called the cause of the Civil War. For those who want to focus on one, single, most-important cause of the war, one might consider criteria. For example, which path to peace might have been most feasible, or which might have required least effort. Perhaps the paths which diverge from reality most close in time to the onset of the war might be preferred.

Ultimately, counterfactual arguments can not be tested against reality and must remain hypothetical. Perhaps the best explanation of the cause of the Civil War was that too many people in too many key roles thought that "it seemed like a good idea at the time."

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