Background: The Civil war

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth Presid...

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m going to sidetrack General Lee for a few minutes, because we need to clear up a few misconceptions about American History. It will help us to understand the Civil War and why it was such a moral dilemma for so many both North and South.

1. The war was only marginally about slavery

I know, that’s not what your textbooks said. For some abolitionists it was, for most people on both sides it was about patriotism, and their view of the United States and/or their states.

If you were listening to the inauguration, you hear Sen Schumer use the construction “these United States”. It’s an archaic construction but, it was considered, by a large proportion of the population as the literal truth before the civil war. There were large numbers of people, north and south, that thought the union was something that the states (and people) joined voluntarily and could just as readily leave. That’s a lot of what the 9th and 10th amendments were about.

There were quite a few people who deplored slavery, don’t get me wrong but, the people scratching out a living in the north had no desire to have the freed slaves distorting the labor market either.

While we’re in the neighborhood let’s talk a bit about the 3/5th clause as well. I know, the Democrats keep telling you that it was a plot by the slaveholders to reduce the personhood of the black folks in slavery. As usual, they have it backwards. The slaveholders at the Constitutional Convention wanted their slaves to count as a whole person.

Why? Well there was no secret ballot anywhere until close to the 20th century, do you really think a slave was going to vote against his master’s wishes while his master was watching him? Really, you think he was openly going to defy the man who had an unquestioned power of life and death over him to attempt to elect somebody.

The northerners (especially the New Englanders) didn’t want to count the blacks at all, just ignore them. You see, it was all about representation in the House of Representative. The slaveholders traded 2/5 of the black vote for ending the slave trade, which was supporting a lot of New Englanders, and reducing the value of slaves, and thus the wealth of the south.

Along the same lines, everybody expected slavery to die out simply because it was a lousy use of capital, compared to wage paying, that changed when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Raising cotton involved a lot of physical work easily performed by unskilled labor, which is what slaves really were. Also remember that there was slavery all through the colonies at the time the constitution was ratified, nor was it completely confined to blacks.

As we will see, chattel slavery doomed the south to be an agricultural land simply because it’s capital was tied up in slaves, where the rest of the country hired people as needed and if they were no longer needed or unsatisfactory they were let go without consequence, thereby freeing their capital for other projects, instead of having it tied up in caring for what could be called cost-centers without end.

Lincoln was a conservative Republican

Nothing could be further from the truth, he was the prototypical RINO. He was an abolitionist, yes, when it didn’t cost anything, before the war but, he was no friend of the black man, he wanted to free the slaves, after they had been shipped back to Africa, that was the point of Liberia. During the war he didn’t care, there were instances early in the war when he ordered the return of slaves to their owner, until a Philadelphia lawyer, Major General Banks, came up with the formula that slaves were contraband property to be confiscated from rebels. But the Emancipation Proclamation, I hear you cry. A worthless piece of paper, except that its propaganda value kept England and France from recognizing the Confederacy. It purported to free the slaves only where Washington’s writ did not run, in the areas controlled by the Confederates. The slaves in the Union held area were not freed until the 13th Amendment was ratified (de jure, anyway) and that was signed by Andrew Johnson. Who freed the slaves in the old Confederacy? Jefferson Davis the President of the Confederate States of America, as a war measure in 1865. Here’s a few other thing Lincoln did:

  • Intercept telegraphic messages between private parties without a warrant
  • Suspend the right of habeas corpus
  • Detain American citizens without warrant for an indefinite time without charge or trial, in military custody
  • Deport at least one American citizen (Clement Vallandigham of Ohio) to a foreign Country (Canada) without charge or trial.
  • Use federal troops against civilians (in the New York draft riots). This one is sort of unfair, so did Washington during the Whiskey Rebellion, and the Posse comitatus Act wasn’t passed until 1878 mostly to get Rutherford B. Hayes elected President. Although the use of troops in the riots would also have been problematical under the Insurrection Act of 1807, which is about the only other basis.

Now you know why Obama and the rest of the Statists want to be like Lincoln.

But Lincoln saved the Union, you say.

Well sort of, he fundamentally reformed it. When he came it was a loose formed, non effective, and very unimportant part of life. Lincoln believed as wholeheartedly in crony-capitalism as Obama (or to be fair, Bush). He was a railroad lawyer  (the only big-business there was in 1860,  after all) He lobbied his senator (Stephan A. Douglass) for land grants for the Illinois Central Railroad, he had a very great deal to do with the Pacific railroad Act which was tailor-made for the corruptions that led to the Credit Mobliér scandal. If the transcontinental was to be built, it probably had to be done this way, it had really no commercial purpose.

The man who really saved the Union was Henry Clay. If either the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which is where the Mason-Dixon line came from, or the Compromise of 1850 hadn’t happened (and Clay was the driving force in both) the rebellion would have succeeded.

Why? Commerce. Any time before the trunk railroads reached Chicago, which is the mid 1850s, if the south had seceded, the Old Northwest would have gone with them, if they hadn’t they would have starved amid a flood of grain. You see, without the railroads, the grain production of the Old Northwest, which was prodigious, had to be shipped by water, to New Orléans, sort of. Actually what the Old Northwest was doing was feeding the Old Southwest, which was growing cotton for export to Europe. there was no other market for all that grain until the railroads made shipping bulk commodities to New York and Philadelphia economical year round.

This is also the cause of two other things

  1. The whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania suppressed by President Washington, which was a revolt connected with the excise tax on whiskey
  2. The production of whiskey in Tennessee and Kentucky

You see what Bourbon and most American whiskey is; is concentrated corn, and far easier to ship than hundreds of bushels by wagon.

This is also why support for the war in the southern (and most settled) parts of the old northwest (today’s Midwest) was so thin. In fact, it’s entirely possible without the strong Unionist Governor Oliver P. Morton, it’s entirely possible that Indiana and maybe Ohio and possibly even Illinois might have pretty much sat out the war.

OK, now that you know a bit about the situation, next time we’ll pick up our story about Robert E. Lee.

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22 Responses to Background: The Civil war

  1. Nice to see some sense on this. The Lincoln worshippers do him no real honour. He was a man, like any other, with the faults and the virtues.

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    • NEO says:

      He was, indeed. And he remained far more of a Whig than is ever mentioned.

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      • A good point. It is not a good idea to make an idol out of a man – your current President is another good example of why it’s a bad idea.

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        • NEO says:

          He’s an outstanding example of why, and the worst part is that he seems to believe his own PR, which is even worse.

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        • When flatterers surround you, it is no good for you. Only the strongest character won’t be ruined. His is not that.

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        • NEO says:

          Indeed, I believe he is very malleable-to the wrong viewpoints.

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        • Especially as he started out with the wrongs ones.

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        • NEO says:

          Indeed, it’s a pretty incredible story, whichever one of them you choose to believe.

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        • Indeed. Can’t abide the fellow myself.

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        • NEO says:

          First time in at least 30 years, I turned the inauguration off. Can’t stand to listen to him, haven’t been able to for 4 years.

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        • I can appreciate that.

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  2. A great write-up, Nebraska! I am glad you have pointed out these descepencies. I read a few biographies of Lincoln a long time ago (before the recent surge in “Lincoln, the greatest” books) and you are right to point out that abolishing slavery for the good of the slaves was not a priority for Lincoln. In fact, they discussed not only shipping them back to Africa but to an island in the Caribbean, as well, because they thought they would have difficulty accliimating into society. Lincoln also gave up the opportunity for the US territory to extend much further into Mexico. (If I recall, we had troops all the way to Mexico City and the mission was abandoned). I’m not going to say whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing but I suppose things would look a bit different if the US did extend into the Mexican peninsula. The Civil War was a disgraceful time in our history and I do wonder if the union could have remained whole without that bloody war (or if the south had been allowed to secede–only to return very shorty on their own accord. Slavery would have died out. I have no doubt. ). We’ll never know.

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    • NEO says:

      Good points all, Freedom. Yes there was a faction, towards the end of the Mexican War that wanted to annex (colonize, really) the whole country. I think it was a bad idea simply because our other acquisitions, they had no desire to extend citizenship but simply play the empire game.

      The Civil War was eminently avoidable. The Southerners weren’t all that sold on slavery but, all the capital was tied up in it, It would have cost far less to buy all the slaves and set them free than the war cost, not to mention 600,000 casualties. But, I think hubris reared its ugly head, on both sides.

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  3. “The war was not about slavery” is a very common argument — often of Neo–Confederate apologists, though I don’t think that’s what you’re advocating. But it misses the point. True, many, if not most, of the common people who fought, both in the North and the South, did not think about slavery as their primary motivation for fighting. But the indisputable fact is that politically, secession was about slavery, and the war was about secession. The whole, escalating sectional conflict of the past fifty years was precisely about slavery. People argue, as the South argued then, that the issue was states’ rights, and that was always a concern; but the only “right” that any state was willing to secede over was slavery. And not even because of an immediate threat to slavery, since Lincoln made assurances that he wouldn’t encroach on slavery in the states where it already existed, but the fear of a threat to slavery. The greatest tragedy of the war, as far as I’m concerned as a Southerner, was that so many thousands of plain folk with no interest at all in slavery, with nothing to gain or lose, were hoodwinked by the slaveholding elites into fighting and dying in a desperate and futile attempt to preserve their “peculiar institution.” For the Southerners who instigated the war, it was absolutely about slavery. Slavery caused the war; it would never have happened if not for slavery.

    As for Lincoln: true, he proved to be alarmingly liberal. But prior to his election, he appeared to everybody a moderate. On the issue of abolition, compared to people like Seward and Chase, he was markedly moderate before the war; and on the issue of Reconstruction, compared to Stevens and the other Radicals, he was decidedly moderate.

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    • NEO says:

      I somewhat disagree, although not real strongly on the cause of the war, slavery was certainly an underlying factor, I just don’t think it motivated the average southerner, this guys, while certainly not ready for equality with blacks, neither was anybody in the north, were not stupid enough to think slavery was not holding them down, like the Copperheads in the old Northwest, they did fear the competition of the newly frred slaves though, which explains a lot of the violence during Reconstruction.

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      • Again, it was only a minority responsible for violence during Reconstruction — the average Southerner learned to deal. As for the war, the average Southerner wasn’t responsible for it; he just had to shoulder its burden. Most historians argue that the average Southerner did fear the disorder of society if blacks, who supposedly couldn’t care for or order themselves, were suddenly unleashed. The wealthy planter elites convinced them, so it is argued, that slavery ensured the prosperity of the South, that the ranks of slaveholders were open to them, and that they could become like them, too. “All” white Southerners, it is said, aspired to that. But you are right that in large part slavery hindered the prosperity of poor whites, too, and limited their opportunities. I’m not sure if most realized that or not, or admitted it. (That’s actually, I hope, a question my thesis project will engage with to some extent.) Some, like Hinton Rowan Helper, certainly made that argument, but before mass media, the average guy might not have heard it, and those around him were constantly saying otherwise. “My people” in North Alabama (the ones I claim as my closest kin), lived in a community of Unionists and didn’t support the Confederacy (some even fought for the Union) – though they had cousins who certainly supported the Confederacy living only a few miles away, and I have a dozen or so ancestors who were Confederate veterans.

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        • NEO says:

          It was, and your points are valid. My problem comes with having a feeling that it’s going to be very hard to get men to fight as hard as the Confederates did for another man’s property. Your points on communication is very valid, and yes I’m quite sure that many/most/all aspired to rise in their society.

          Secession was hardly new, of course, Jefferson promoted it for a bit somewhat before the secession movement in New England before and during the War of 1812.

          Be careful with most of the current historians, many work to the progressive agenda, if you dig back to Bancroft’s era, the story is quite different. The truth is probably somewhere between. And good luck with your thesis, it sounds interesting.

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  4. Eh, not so sure here. Read Alexander Stephens’ cornerstone speecha and tell me what the conflict was about. What specific rights (besides slave owning) were secessionists talking about? Don’t say tariffs, those are indeed, Constitutional.

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    • NEO says:

      Tariffs are indeed. And slaveholding wasn’t explicitly constitutional either except perhaps as illegal search and seizure.

      And slavery was indeed A cause of the war, what I was really trying to do here was bring forward some of the others, I still have trouble with slavery as the proximate cause because I don’t think the union could have recruited the western or Irish regiments with that basis, and without troops a war ain’t going to happen whatever politicians say. I’m not set in stone but there were quite a few North and South who believed in secession and I see nothing in the founding documents to make me say it’s unconstitutional, unwise probably, but not really unconstitutional, if the union can expand, it can also contract.

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      • no doubt slavery wasn’t the motivation for fighting men on either side. They were driven by legitimate patriotism.

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        • NEO says:

          And that’s the point I was trying to make, I don’t dicount the Abolitionists in the political realm.

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