Civil War

December 02, 2003


We finished the sectional crisis and fought the Civil War today.

I was a little light on the American Civil War, but we will finish the war on Thursday. I am now only about 10 minutes behind schedule.

What I focused on today was the disparate Northern and Southern responses to the events of the sectional crisis. I showed, using Bleeding Kansas and Bleeding Sumner, that the Republicans went from a batch of people in the 1860s equivalent of tinfoil hats to the major opposition party because Pro-slavery Democrats in Kansas and Preston Brooks in Congress visibly demonstrated everything that the Republicans had been warning about. They abused the law to maintain minority control over majority desires, and when challenged they used force to get their way. It now appeared plausible that there was a conspiracy against liberty by slave-owners, and Republicans mobilized on the basis of anti-slavery (limiting the power of Southern slaveholders, especially Democrats) where no one had been able to get a Northern majority while pushing abolition (free the slaves, build a society based on human equality).

In the end, the deep South lost an election and seceded. In fact, during the summer of 1860 fire eaters had promised to secede if Lincoln won the election. The interesting question about the coming of the war, for me, is the timing. Not just "why did the civil war happen in 1860 and not earlier?" but also "why did the Deep South secede BEFORE Lincoln could be inaugurated?" This latter question comes with the followup of "Why did the Deep South secede to protect slavery even though the Republicans repeatedly insisted that slavery was purely a state matter that the national government should stay out of?"

The answer to the second question is that both sections decided that the other had dropped all notions of fairness, of the proper relationship between majorities and minorities in a democracy, and of good faith conduct. The Whig party had died early in the Deep South, the American or Know-Nothing party had never created much of a foothold outside of Louisiana, and so in 1860 the current crop of politicians only had experience with a one-party system. In a one-party system, by and large, there are no second chances. Once someone gets control of the state government then they have control until the next major political realignment - which could be decades.

I argue, based on the work done by Michael Holt and others, that the Deep South wanted out before Lincoln took power because they found the following sequence of events not just plausible but inevitable:


  • Republicans win Presidency and Congress
  • Republicans appoint their partisans to post offices and patronage positions across the South
  • Partisan appointees start newspapers and begin to organize a Southern Republican party.
  • Southern Republicans make a class-based appeal to poor whites and non-slaveholders.
  • Southern Republicans use the same slave-power argument that had worked in the North to marginalize the old Southern political elite.
  • Class politics in the South lead to a temporary victory by a Republican coalition of poor whites and patronage appointees

  • Republicans in state government emancipate slaves, tax slavery out of existence, or otherwise destroy the institution.

Now, any outside observer will tell you that this scenario is pretty far-fetched. For it to work, the Republican party would have to maintain national dominance long enough to build strong state parties in the South. It is far more likely that if Southerners had worked to discredit the claims of anti-slavery rather than proving those claims, that the Republicans would have collapsed and gone away just as the Know-Nothings and Whigs had. Political parties were fragile. Slaveowners in the upper South convincingly argued in their secession conventions that Republican rule would pass, that the party system would contain their anti-slavery efforts, and that seceding because you lost an election was like cutting off your arm because your gloves were dirty.

In the Deep South, no one believed in second chances, and out they went. The Deep South seceded to protect slavery, pure and simple.

From there I ran through the standard narrative of Fort Sumpter, Call for Volunteers, Upper South secedes because it will not put down secession. We talked briefly about why Civil War soldiers fought, then I reviewed the weapons and tactics of the war. On Thursday we will talk about race and the Civil War, the odd way that emancipation took place, and Reconstruction after the war.

I want to close with a contemporary political comment, one I did NOT make in class but have been making, tangentially and incoherently, on this blog. The crucial factor in the collapse of the Second Party system and the coming of the American Civil War was firstly, the loss of all distinctiveness between Whigs and Democrats, which led to the Whigs being replaced by the Know-Nothings, and secondly, the loss of all regular political conflict within the deep South, which led Southerners to secede after they lost an election because they could not imagine ever getting another chance at power if they stayed in the union.

If you have been keeping half an eye on politics the last few years, the parallels should be obvious and frightening. Ralph Nader and the Green Party made an argument in 2000 that looked very like the argument made by Know-Nothings in 1853: the two parties are essentially alike, we need to throw the bums out, and our single focus idea is more important than the false issues that the standing parties have been arguing over. There are differences, of course, the most obvious being that 1, anti-Catholic bigotry is no longer mainstream behavior while environmentalism is fairly mainstream and 2, that it worked for the Know Nothings and did not work for the Greens.

There are differences between 2000, and 1853 - most obviously that George W. Bush and his advisors know their politics and, rather than continuing a me-too process of homogenization between political parties (Uniter not a Divider) they instead pursued sharply partisan political policies. These may not have been wise, they were certainly divisive not uniting, and that was the point. After three years of GWB, no one will buy the argument that the two political parties are a batch of interchangeable partisan hacks.

The other parallel is more disturbing. To some extent - not irrevocably yet - the split between "Blue" and "Red" states is mirroring what went on in the Deep South and Upper North in the 1850s. They are becoming one-party states. And, the trend is for one-party domination to extend, in part because people are changing the customs of partisan conflict. Two-party politics work because the basic procedures are devised along the same basic principle of the cake-cutting thought experiment. If you and I want to cut a piece of cake into two even slices, and both of us are greedy, the only wise thing is to have one of us cut and the other choose the slices. In political terms, people set up rules of the game that they are willing to abide by regardless of whether they are ahead or behind at that point in time. So, roll call votes take place within time limits, electoral districts are rearranged only after the US Census, and so on.

At the moment the Republican National Committee are being the worst offenders. The challenge is to rebuild notions of political due process; the danger is that we will get into a tit-for-tat escalation until, someday soon, twentyfirst-century Americans will contemplate drastic action rather than accepting the results of an election they are sure to lose.

Posted by Red Ted at December 2, 2003 08:21 AM | TrackBack