Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Thinking Again About What Caused the Civil War

If you asked someone at random from South Carolina in 1866 whether leading the South into secession had been a good idea, and if they liked the results of firing on Fort Sumter, it seems that the likely answer would be no. In the interim something like 620,000 people had died in the Civil War, the slaves had been emancipated without any payment to their former owners, and Sherman's troops had marched through the center of the state killing, confiscating and burning.

Virginia, one of the last states to try to secede from the Union saw armies fight around Washington, up and down the Shenandoah Valley, down the roads from Washington to Richmond, and up the Peninsula to Richmond. It young men had been killed and wounded, its slaves emancipated, its property ruined, and West Virginia had seceded from the State. This in spite of the fact that many in the state had wanted to end slavery, and many were devoted to the Union.

Lincoln had made it clear that he wanted to keep the Union whole, that he was bound as President by the Constitution, and clearly hated the misery and killing during years of war.

From our modern perspective it seems clear that slavery was on its way out globally, and that it would not survive the 19th century. We know that military technology was making warfare more terrible. We can see that a solution in which the Union was preserved, slavery was not extended into new territories and states, slaves were eventually emancipated with compensation to the slave holders, and peace was maintained should have been possible and should have been better for the country and its people. Indeed, some people in the South and some in the North could see this before the Civil War.

If countries made decisions as people do, one could put the war down to a failure of imagination, the inability of the decision maker to see clearly the implications of the option that was chosen for the country, nor to recognize possible alternatives and their costs and benefits. Indeed, far too many of the leading politicians in the North and in the South suffered from such a failure of imagination.

But countries are not individual decision makers. While very imperfect, the United States was a democracy and I suppose the case must be made that it was the decision making within its imperfect political institutions that led to war.

The South Carolina political system was dominated by people of wealth based on slave holding, people who believed myths of American military superiority that came out of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, and the Mexican American War. Southerners believed rumors that Lincoln was a radical abolitionist and that the Republican party would act rashly.

Northerners too had their own myths and rumors. Certainly it took years of war for those in the North to understand the kind of warfare that would be required to win, the financial and human sacrifices that the northern states would be called upon to make pursuing the war.

The political institutions empowered people who made bad decisions for their states and for the nation. Fortunately, they also empowered Lincoln and his Team of Rivals who were able to prosecute the war to preserve the Union, and incidentally to plan for the transcontinental railway, to create the Land Grant Colleges, to create means of financing the war including an income tax and paper money, and to create the National Academy of Sciences laying the foundations for the economic boom after the Civil War and modern America. But one must consider that other institutions might have avoided war entirely and found an even better solution for the country and its future.

Indeed, one might go further and suggest that a better educated citizenry might both have more widely appreciated the dangers of the path that the nation was taken, more actively promoted alternative paths including much better paths, and indeed to have reformed American political institutions to avoid the failures that led to the Civil War. Perhaps it was the educational system of the United States that was at fault.

As I write this it seems quite possible that the Europeans will fail to find a solution to Europe's economic problems, that the Americans will continue in deadlock on economic policy and that the world will descend into an economic depression. The Occupy movement and the Tea Party movement seem to agree at least on the proposition that something is very wrong with the way our political and economic institutions are working right now. Our people do not seem able to fully understand the implications of the policies that are being advocated, nor to throw up new and better alternatives in such a way that they are likely to be accepted.

You know the story from the old west of the cowboy who rode up to a cactus patch, stripped off his clothes and jumped in. When asked why he did so, he said "it seemed like a good idea at the time".

Now we may start telling the story of that cowboy's descendant who drives his Hummer up to a biodigester, get out of the car wearing only his bathing suit. and jumps in. Will he too, when asked why, say "it seemed like a good idea at the time"?

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