Saturday, October 26, 2013

A thought having visited Bull Run battlefield yesterday.

It seems that most historians have tried to explain the causes of the Civil War using a prospective framework. Elizabeth Varon in Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859, for example, discusses the use of the concept of "disunion" in the decades leading up to the war. Others describe the division between the northern and southern economic systems (and thus their differences in economic policy preferences, or the increasing anger involved in the interactions of the abolitionists and the pro-slavery partisans. Still others focus on the inability of politicians to reach compromise or the invective of the press.

It occurs to me to consider the situation from a retrospective rather than a prospective view.

The Union forces of the North of course won the Civil War. Not only did the war establish the human rights of African-Americans to be free, but it established free labor as the basis for the American economy. Republicans maintained political power for decades thereafter, and were enabled to implement their progressive policies with little effective opposition from southern conservatives. They promoted transcontinental railroads, homesteading to settle western lands, and the application of science and technology, especially through the creation of the land grant colleges and their agricultural research stations and the geological survey.  Taxes and tariffs could be imposed to protect native industries and pay for infrastructure investments. The United States achieved a global importance that North America would not have achieved had the union divided into two governments. Thus I conclude that in decades after the Civil War, those in the north who had favored war to save the union were content with having made that decision.

On the other hand, after secession and the start of the Civil War, the southern states saw emancipation of slaves within a couple of years. Since the plantation economy had been based on slavery, it was decimated. British customers for southern cotton developed other suppliers during the shortages caused by the Civil War, and the south's most important export never recovered.  A generation of young (white) men was killed or maimed. Fighting decimated large swaths of Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. The south was occupied by northern troops, southern officials who quite the federal government to serve in the Confederacy were barred from political office, and the region underwent decades of social upheaval. Thus I conclude that those who led the southern states to secede must have come to believe that they had made a grave mistake in doing so.

Thus I would look at the proximate cause of the Civil War to have been the secession of the southern states; the proximate cause of that secession was the grave mistake made by southern leaders. I suppose that the leaders in the south overestimated the attractiveness of their cause to the border states (in which slavery was still legal), mistook the relative military capacity of the north and the south, underestimated the will in the north to sacrifice to preserve the Union, and overestimated the likelihood that the Confederacy would receive support of European powers.  So I would suggest that the real cause of the Civil War was bad decision making by leaders in South Carolina and other southern states that chose to secede from the Union.

Why did they make such bad decisions? Why did they mistake the realities of the situation? Some southerners correctly assessed the situation (Sam Houston comes to mind). Ignorance, arrogance, and pride seem likely to have been implicated. Making decisions on what decision makers hoped would happen rather than what was likely to happen, or the things that could happen that would be most painful to their cause seems a possibility. So too does an institutional structure that concentrated decision making power in a small economic elite (with interests that did not mirror those of the majority of southern people). 

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