Sunday, June 08, 2014

Who was to blame for the Civil War?

Source: The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Civil War in America

I have started reading Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 by Elizabeth R. Varon. I recently completed reading This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust.

The Fundamental Cause of the War

Slavery is and was morally wrong. The founding fathers knew that. Most recognized that the institution of slavery was inconsistent with a democracy based on the thesis that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with a right to liberty, and that governments are instituted among men to secure that and other rights. Most believed that slavery should be peacefully eliminated over time, as was done in the northern states.

An increasingly wide-spread abolitionist movement proclaimed the evil that was institutionalized slavery. They took advantage of the revolution in communications of the first half of the 19th century to publish and distribute many books and pamphlets with their message.

Many in the north also recognized that free labor was a better motor of economic development and growth than slavery. They sought first to assure that states being newly created ban slavery and institutionalize free labor. They saw the eventual abolition of slavery in the south as a good and proper step in the institutional development of a free market economy providing rapid growth and general welfare.

Slave owners in the south recognized that slaves would, if given the chance, fight for their freedom. They feared slave revolts and demanded well-disciplined militias under state control to protect the owners against their slaves. They knew that slaves would risk punishment to escape slavery, and demanded constitutional protection to assure owners could apprehend escaped slaves even in states that had abolished slavery, Many owners were cruel to slaves, including physical abuse, justified by maintaining control of the slaves.

There is little doubt that those who owned many slaves in the south enjoyed the fruits of that ownership and were made wealthy by their slaves. Moreover, they used that wealth to acquire political power which they used to protect the institution of slavery.

Source: The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Civil War in America
The Proximate Cause of the War

South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, barely after the votes had been counted electing Lincoln president of the United States. Considering that four and one-half years later, one out of five men of military age in the south had died in the war, that slavery had been abolished, that its capitol had been burned, that Sherman's army had created a swath of devastation through the state, that its economy was in ruins, and that it was occupied by the Union army, the decision to secede has to be seen as a colossal mistake. Thus the mistake of the South Carolina state government is one of the proximate causes of the war.

The governments of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas had all joined that of South Carolina in that mistake by February 1, 1861, before Lincoln was inaugurated. Had South Carolina been the only state to secede, it might have been brought back into the Union without war, or at least with a far less destructive war. For many of these states too, the Civil War turned out to be a disaster, decimating the male population, eliminating the institution of slavery rapidly without planning, and decimating economies. Thus the mistaken decisions to secede by these governments were also proximate causes of the war.

Think then about the later decisions of state governments to secede, those of Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee between mid April and early June 1861.  Had these states not seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy, the balance of power would have been much more lopsided in favor of the Union than it actually was. The war might well have been much shorter and less destructive. It seems very likely that the damage done in Virginia and Tennessee during the war would have been much less than that caused by the repeated campaigns on their territory. And indeed,, these slave states added to those that stayed in the Union might have successfully lobbied for more gradual abolition of slavery and less draconian post war policies toward the south. So the bad decisions by their governments were also proximate causes of the war.

The Impacts

The Union had a considerable advantage in power in the war. Nearly 21 million people lived in 23 Union states. The Confederacy claimed just 9 million people — including 3.5 million slaves — in 11 states. According to one source:
In 1860, the North manufactured 97 percent of the country's firearms, 96 percent of its railroad locomotives, 94 percent of its cloth, 93 percent of its pig iron, and over 90 percent of its boots and shoes. The North had twice the density of railroads per square mile. There was not even one rifleworks in the entire South.
The Union also had naval superiority and was able to blockade Confederate ports and control the Mississippi waters.

Many people had predicted that failure to negotiate an end to slavery would result in a hugely destructive civil war. They were right. An estimated 620,000 soldiers died in the war. It has been estimated that another 50,000 civilians died. The economy of the south was ruined. In the aftermath, having failed to prepare for a peaceful end to slavery, the whites in the south instituted a viscous Jim Crow movement against the blacks, while the blacks faced the problems of survival with little or no capital nor education.

Many people chose to believe that that level of devastation must have had a good purpose. It seems to me that it was the result of a horrible failing in our society. I am reminded of Europe stumbling into the horribly destructive World War I, or of Napoleon's and Hitler's invasions of Russia -- the results of human mistakes paid for in massive pain (mostly experienced by common folk who did not make those mistakes themselves).

Where Lies the Guilt?

Who are the guilty? Of course, the slave owners who were willing to foment a civil war in a last ditch effort to maintain the source of their wealth and power were guilty. They were also guilty of the deep immorality of keeping slaves.

A great deal of the guilt lies with the government officials of the states that chose to secede from the Union, There decisions led within a very few years to an even worse condition for their states than they had sought to avoid, and have to have been seen as terribly misguided as well as wrongly motivated. How could they have so failed to understand the danger that they were creating for the people that they represented? Did they misunderstand the relative power of the north versus the south, or the will to fight of each side, or the reduction of even their original limited power when the slaves quit and the young white men went off to fight? Or were they simply unable to forecast the results of war and its impact, unable to make good decisions for their states?

Of course, some blame must fall on the leaders of the Union government who were unable to articulate a better solution to the impasse than war, or to negotiate such a solution with their southern colleagues. Still it seems to me that the graver sin was that of southern secessionists.

I think that those who could have but failed to produce the knowledge that would have exposed the immorality of slavery and the horror of war were also guilty. So too were those in media who let the propagandists get away with their false and evil messages that slavery was OK and that the Union would fold if confronted. So too, a generation of southern teachers were guilty for not preparing children to oppose slavery, to oppose disunion, and to oppose the war to promote disunion and continue slavery in the sought. So too were the mentors of the southern legislators who failed to teach them how to forecast worst case scenarios and make rational decisions taking such scenarios into account.

I think that the general public in the south was also at fault -- the people who allowed themselves to be fooled were also guilty.

People have a responsibility to recognize and oppose the immoral and ignorance is not a valid excuse. In a democracy, they have a responsibility to elect people who can make good decisions for the governments that they must lead.

So how many of us today are guilty of the comparable sins of omission in our own society and time?

1 comment:

John Daly said...

This is not an exceptional view. There were two world wars in the 20th century that together killed tens of millions of people. At the end of WWII there was an international effort to keep such wars from ever happening again. It led to the creation of the United Nations and its Security Council to serve as a forum for national governments to negotiate to prevent or at least limit wars.

It also created UNESCO, recognizing that "since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that that the defenses of peace must be constructed." UNESCO was to promote education, science, culture and communications to build those defenses.

Politicians who deny scientific knowledge, who deliberately make false statements to the electorate, and who make bad decisions due to lack of foresight are a problem. They threaten peace, the environment and human rights. We should not allow them to obtain nor continue in office.