16 thoughts on “The Sunday Question: The Coming of the Civil War

  1. Mark February 27, 2011 / 2:06 pm

    You said books about the COMING Civil War.
    Impending Crisis is pretty good, though I hope to read others suggested by your readers.

    Of books written then, Helper nailed it. But Helper was nearly so insane with hatred both for slavery AND for blacks, that it’s a very difficult book to read. His main thrust is that slavery is destroying the South, making people evil, despostic, stupid, and poor. He was right of course.

    No wonder the book was banned in much of the South.

    Helper repeatedly mentions the hatred in the South for free speech and free press — and shows that the North got rid of slavery from having free speech and free press, but that the South had violently suppressed that.

    To me, this is the fundamental difference in North and South – not the climate. We have stupidly allowed this notion that the outside temperature was what made slavery possible. That idiotic myth can only exist if people are unaware of the real difference — the governmental totalitarianism in the South against free speech. That was the big difference, not 10% heat index.

    The South arrested preachers — and subjected them to physical torture – just for preaching against slavery. Quick — which fact would stop free speech more? The arrest and torture of preachers, or the average June temperature in Maine, compared to Alabama?
    Yet you have “educated” men even today claiming that slavery was in the South because of temperature. They heard that nonsense, and with no critical thinking skills, they accept it. Let them read Helper’s book.

    I bet not 1 in 100,000 US citizens know that the Southern governments were a totalitarian enterprise, with no real elections (you can’t have real elections when fundamental free speech is punished) and no free speech. And I sure never heard of this basic fact, until I stumbled on it in Helpers book, and the Southern newspapers. They simply do NOT teach this horrible truth in any history text book.

    If you can find a US history text book which teaches this, I will eat it. At least, a few pages.

    Even religion could not fill it’s basic role in the South — to challenge man’s behavior. Preachers were arrested. You didn’t have to preach against slavery to be punished – just MENTIONING your opinion as “regular” civilian could get govermental action against you. We just are not aware of that today, it’s as if this very basic fact of our history never happened. It’s goofy. This was the most basic truth of the era.

    Hilton Helper addressed this — here is a passage from his book:

    ” free press is an institution almost unknown at the South. Free speech is considered as treason against slavery: and when people dare neither speak nor print their thoughts, free thought itself is well nigh extinguished. All that can be said in defence of human bondage, may be spoken freely; but question either its morality or its policy, and the terrors of lynch law are at once invoked to put down the pestilent heresy. The legislation of the Slave States for the suppression of the freedom of speech and the press, is disgraceful and cowardly to the last degree, and can find its parallel only in the meanest and bloodiest despotisms of the Old World. ”

    Any book that does not mention this, any writer who does not deal with this, any history that does not cover this, is not a true or accurate account.

    Does anyone guess why Lincoln would not, could not possibly, go to speak in the South, during the election of 1860? Take a guess?

    It is no exaggeration to say Lincoln going South to speak — even though he bent over backwards to assure the South he was only trying to stop the SPREAD of salvery — would have resulted in his arrest and torture. It would be like a Jew walking around downtown Berlin in 1937, telling people the Nazis should not persecute the Jews.

    Notice, as Helper did, that people in the South could go North and spew whatever they wanted — advocate slavery, claim that God told them to enslave, the whole nine yards. But you would take your life in your hands to try the reverse in the South. And it was GOVERNMENTAL action that would stop and punish you. It would be a sheriff, you would get some kind of trial, and then you would be punished.

    Helper got that, of course, he was there. This was common knowledge at the time. The preachers who were arrested could sure tell you. I just read Southern newspapers from that period, where the editor was joyously announcing the capture of a man who simply said he was against salvery — there was a court proceeding against his “abomindable sentiment” and he was removed from the area. He wasn’t DOING anything, he just spoke out against slavery in a normal conversation.

    So — Hiton Helper’s book, if you want a book written then about this topic.

    De Bow bragged in 1843 that “God has silenced all opposition to slavery by His Holy Word”. Nonsense, it wasn’t God, it was the brutal physical torture in store for those people who spoke out against slavery.

    The degree of torture used varied from place to place — but it was GOVERNMENTAL totalitarianism. It was not mob action. You simply can not understand the development of antebellum history without knowing the persecution and supression of free speech in the South. It would be like discussing swimming, without mentioning water.

    Helper mentioned in, and explained it, in his book. For that reason, I consider it the best book about the coming Civil War, and why it was headed this way.

    If the South had free speech, if they had real elections, Helper wrote, then slavery could have ended like it did elsewhere. But since free speech and free press and real elections didn’t functionally exist — in fact, there was clear government suppression of free speech — then ending slavery that way was simply not possible.

    • Tony Gunter March 1, 2011 / 4:08 pm

      I would disagree with you about how much of it was official governmental action and how much was vigilantism. Although I think the two go hand-in-hand due to the fact that vigilantism was allowed to act as an unofficial branch of the local government, it was vigilantism nonetheless.

      In Mississippi, vigilance committes reviewed the federal mail for “dangerous” content, monitored owners to ensure that proper discipline was being enforced, had the authority to call you in to testify against yourself in a makeshift court for your personal beliefs, and were allowed to carry out punishments ranging from tarring and feathering to outright execution.

      Does Helper make a distinction between the two?

      I’m sure the same fellows who joined subversive organizations after the war were the same fellows who rode with the vigilance committees prior to the war.

  2. James F. Epperson February 27, 2011 / 2:23 pm

    “Impending Crisis”might be the best. “Battle Cry of Freedom”—the early chapters—is also good.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 27, 2011 / 2:26 pm

      I prefer Potter’s account, although McPherson’s is more lucid. Both are very good. More provocative in terms of shaping my thinking is Michael Holt’s The Political Crisis of the 1850s.

  3. Bob Pollock February 27, 2011 / 2:38 pm

    I might suggest Bruce Levine’s “Half Slave and Half Free: the Roots of the Civil War.”

  4. R. B. Bernstein February 27, 2011 / 2:56 pm

    David Potter’s THE IMPENDING CRISIS has long been one of my favorite history books, bar none, so that’s the one that I would recommend. I’d also suggest, for context, the challenging brief and eloquent book-length essay by Robert Penn Warren, THE LEGACY OF THE CIVIL WAR.

    • Allen Gathman February 27, 2011 / 3:27 pm

      I’m with you on Potter’s The Impending Crisis. Helper is interesting as a historical document, but Potter has the advantage of modern historiography and a longer perspective.

      • kevlvn February 27, 2011 / 3:36 pm

        The Impending Crisis for me as well. William Freehling’s second volume of Road To Disunion is also one of my current favorites.

  5. Roger Bridges February 27, 2011 / 3:11 pm

    Far and away the best I have read is William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, 2 vols. Freehling documents southern intransigence better than anything I have read. From his extensive research, it appears the Lower South, especially South Carolina, defense of the “Peculiar Institution” was so intense that nothing, short of complete northern capitulation could have kept them from seceding.

  6. Chris Meekins February 27, 2011 / 5:44 pm

    Certainly Potter as stated by others but I will toss Eric Foner’s “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War” on the book table. I think this book makes clear that there could be no viable compromise on the free soil issue and that that in turn would force the crises. Great question.

  7. Al Mackey February 27, 2011 / 5:46 pm

    Freehling’s 2-volume work, The Road to Disunion and Potter’s The Impending Crisis.

  8. Bob Huddleston February 27, 2011 / 7:28 pm

    I will tag with the others and say Potter, _Impending Crisis_ and Freehling’s 2 long volumes _The Road to Disunion_. His _South vs. The South_ is also good, although he needed a proof reader with some knowledge of Civil War Military history.

  9. Kristilyn Baldwin February 27, 2011 / 9:11 pm

    “The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It”

  10. lunchcountersitin February 28, 2011 / 12:04 am

    I’m finishing the late Shearer Bowman’s At the Precipice, and I’ve found it very interesting.

    Some have criticized this as a challenging read, and I can see why. The book contains over a dozen mini-briographies of people both famous and not so famous at the time of the war, which gives us a cross-section of views and attitudes concerning the current state of society and politics. But often, his biographical sketches are non-linear in time; Bowman will jump from one point in time in a person’s life to another in abrupt breaks that can be disconcerting.

    But the book is effective in showing the diversity of thought and life experience of Americans during the pre-war period or soon after. I found the chapter on Honor and Degradation to be worth the price of admission. The book explains how these social forces, which are much less important in 21st century America, played a big role in the behavior that led to the war.

  11. Jimmy Price February 28, 2011 / 7:36 am

    Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union & The Emergence of Lincoln certainly deserve a mention. Although technically that’s four books…

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