Another Explanation of the Coming of the Civil War

Here’s Phil Leigh’s take on Civil War causation:

Fifty years ago the master narrative of the Civil War Centennial failed to synchronize with the momentous 1960s Civil Rights movement. It minimized the roles of slavery and race. Instead the War was characterized as a unifying ordeal in which both sides fought heroically for their sense of “right”, thereby becoming reconciled through mutual sacrifice. Slavery was considered only one of several causes of the War.

Thereafter, most historians began rejecting the Centennial interpretation. Yale professor David Blight explains that historians who came of age during the 1920s economic boom, ensuing crash, and Great Depression were chiefly responsible for shaping the twentieth century understanding of the War’s causes – until the 1960s. Such historians “tended to see the world through the frame of the Great Depression” and interpreted sectional differences as more important than differing ideologies on slavery per se.

His signature example was Charles Beard who “saw the South and North as essentially two economies . . . [U]ltimately the Civil War, in Beard’s view, wasn’t really about any particular ideology . . . it was two economic systems living together in . . . the same nation, and coming into conflict with one another in insolvable ways; forces meeting at a crossroads and they had to clash. Beard is laden with inevitability, as any great economic determinist usually is.”

If Blight correctly reasons the accepted causes of the Civil War fifty years ago were distorted because the Great Depression personally affected influential authors, it is reasonable to examine whether the Civil Rights movement similarly impacted Sesquicentennial historians. Princeton’s James McPherson is a good place to start. He won a 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom, which was his historical interpretation of disunion and the War. His influence is evident from the book’s massive popularity as a text in American colleges. Moreover, he’s repeatedly confessed that the 1960s Civil Rights movement molded his study of the War. The affect was evident as early as his dissertation selection:

…[T]he selection of a dissertation topic was one of the most difficult experiences during my four years at Johns Hopkins from 1958–1962. . . . My adviser…encouraged me to write . . . on Alabama Reconstruction. . . [T]he Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and I knew that as a Yankee (born in North Dakota and raised in Minnesota) I might be less than welcome in Alabama. The prospect…left me considerably less than ecstatic. . . Meanwhile, I had become fascinated with the abolitionists… My empathy with these civil rights activists generated more excitement than…Alabama.

Additionally, McPherson echoes Blight’s criticism of Beard by writing “As Beard viewed it, slavery and emancipation were almost incidental to the real causes and consequences of the war. The sectional conflict arose from the contending economic interests.” On the eve of the Sesquicentennial McPherson opined that Beard’s once popular economic-centric explanation had been nearly universally rejected by contemporary historians, who define slavery as the overarching cause: “Probably 90 percent, maybe 95 percent of serious historians of the Civil War would agree on…what the war was about . . . which was the increasing polarization of the country between the free states and the slave states over issues of slavery, especially the expansion of slavery.”

After winning the Pulitzer, McPherson steadily attracted followers. While nearly all emphasize slavery as the reason for the secession of the cotton states, they generally fail to explain why the North declined to let the South depart peacefully. After all, if the South quietly left the Union, slavery would cease in the United States. It was precisely what prominent abolitionists frequently advocated prior to the War. Examples include William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Beecher, Samuel Howe, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Clark, Gerrit Smith, Joshua Giddings, and even Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner who would become a leading war hawk. For years Garrison described the constitutional Union as “a covenant with death and agreement with hell.”

Moreover, Lincoln continually rejected emancipation for the first seventeen months of the War. During the first year, he overruled Generals Hunter and Fremont when each attempted to emancipate slaves in their districts. As late as August 1862, he famously replied in a letter to publisher Horace Greely’s call to free the slaves, “My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it and if I could do it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” In short, “preserving the Union” was really a slogan to avoid the consequence of disunion. The reasons are chiefly linked to economics, not abolitionism.

A surviving independent Confederacy would undoubtedly employ much lower tariffs than the United States. In his inaugural address President Jefferson Davis stated, “Our policy is peace, and the freest trade our necessities will permit. It is . . . [in] our interest, and that of [our trading partners], that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon interchange of commodities.” Similarly Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin later offered France a special tariff exemption “for a certain defined period” in exchange for diplomatic recognition.

A low Confederate tariff presented the remaining states of the Union with two consequences. First, the federal government would lose the great majority of its tax revenue. Articles imported into the Confederacy from Europe would divert tariff revenue from the North to the South. Additionally, the Confederacy’s low duties would encourage Northern-bound European imports to enter in the South, where they could be smuggled across the Ohio River into Midwestern states to evade US duties. Tariff compliance would nearly vanish, thereby inducing a collapse in federal tax revenue. Second, given the Confederacy’s lower tariffs its residents would likely buy more manufactured goods from Europe rather than from the Northern states, where prices were inflated by protective tariffs.

It was quickly realized that such concerns were not mere abstractions. In March 1861 New Yorkers were panicked to read a dispatch from St. Louis in a Manhattan newspaper: “Every day…our importers are receiving, by way of New Orleans very considerable quantities of goods, duty free…If this thing is to become permanent, there will be an entire revolution in the course of trade and New York will suffer terribly.” Cincinnati also reported that goods were arriving from New Orleans tariff-free. Three months earlier the Philadelphia Press editorialized, “It is the enforcement of the revenue laws, not the coercion of the [Rebel] state[s] that is the question of the hour. If those laws cannot be enforced, the Union is clearly gone.” Historian Charles Adams explains:

“If trade were to shift to the Southern ports because of a free trade zone, or extremely low duties relative to the North, then [the] great cities [of the Northeast] would go into decline and suffer economic disaster. The image painted by these editorials [from newspapers of Northeastern cities] is one of massive unemployment, the closing of factories and businesses, followed by unrest, riots, and possibly revolution. The inland cities of the North would also go into decline, like Pittsburg, where duty-free British steel and iron products would cripple the American steel industry.”

States northwest of the Ohio River had additional economic reasons to fear dissolution of the Union. Specifically, they were apprehensive that the Confederacy would jeopardize free trade to the mouth of the Mississippi River. The concern was sufficiently acute that some Midwesterners toyed with the notion of forming a Northwest Confederacy of states to be allied with the Southern Confederacy. Although the Davis government promised that the river would be open to free trade, many Midwesterners regarded such assurances as mere paper guarantees. They remained worried that the Confederacy may impose fees and import duties at some future date.

Finally, after the opening guns at Fort Sumter many Northern capitalists reasoned that a war would be good for business. Wall Street looked at disunion as a menace to their investments. Government bond quotations dipped with every incident of federal indecision. But the demand for war goods was correctly expected to lift the economy. Since hostilities would block much of the Mississippi River trade, eastern merchants reasoned that they could monopolize commerce with the Midwest. Manufacturers would get many profitable military supply contracts. The Midwestern states would supply Union armies with provender. Such conclusions proved to be valid. From 1860 to 1865, the gross national product increased from $4.3 billion to $9.9 billion, which translates to an 18 percent compounded annual growth rate. Since the economy in the South was shrinking, the rate applicable to the Northern states was probably well above 20 percent annually.

Critics of the Centennial storyline have successfully placed slavery and race at the center of the Sesquicentennial narrative. Some have over compensated to a point where blacklisted historians are attacked as “neo-confederates.” For example, Gary Gallagher felt compelled to explain, “Don’t dismiss me as a ‘neo-Confederate’…As a native of Los Angeles who grew up on a farm in southern Colorado, I can claim complete freedom from any… special pleading…[and] not a single ancestor fought in the war.”

Those who worry that the moonlight and magnolias version of Civil War history holds much public influence fear a ghost. By capturing a 71% share of the TV audience the race-centered narrative of the “Roots” miniseries has surely been as influential as the countervailing account provided by “Gone With the Wind.” It has been 37 years since “Roots” shifted Hollywood’s Civil War perspective. By comparison, the interval between “Gone With the Wind” and “Roots” was 38 years. It’s time to give up the ghost.



29 thoughts on “Another Explanation of the Coming of the Civil War

    • Pat Young July 6, 2014 / 10:38 am

      The comment is Al at his best.

      How could this appear two months later without adjustments per Al’s criticisms?

      Finally, does any respected historian really accuse GG of being a NeoConfederate?

      • Rob Baker July 6, 2014 / 10:43 am

        Well, it appeared because Connie Chastain put it on her blog. It’s just more of her believed vindication. Nothing more.

        • Brooks D. Simpson July 6, 2014 / 12:48 pm

          Actually, I found it somewhere else: a FB page entitled Dixie’s Living Historians.

          Its statement of purpose: “Our goal at Dixie’s Living Historians is to promote and protect Southern Heritage.”

          Sound familiar? So should this:

          “Chaplin, John Stones.” As in Charlie?

          In the comments section, Phil announced: “Many of you would be surprised at the publishers and websites who attempted to censor the essay.”

          Clearly there’s a conspiracy against poor history, and Phil’s out to expose it. We are glad to help by exposing poor history.

          • Rob Baker July 6, 2014 / 12:54 pm

            Gotchya. Sounds like the same place she got it from.

          • Brooks D. Simpson July 6, 2014 / 12:56 pm

            We’re just trying to help Phil out in his battle to be heard.

          • Rob Baker July 6, 2014 / 12:56 pm

            His comments on their Facebook group are hilarious.

      • Ken Noe July 6, 2014 / 11:04 am

        That charge came from Ed Sebesta, who also thinks Kevin Levin is a Neo-Confederate.

      • Brooks D. Simpson July 6, 2014 / 12:38 pm

        No. But you must admit it’s a wonderful example of artful cherry-picking by an author desperate to make a point.

        Phil would like to be taken seriously as a historian.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 6, 2014 / 12:41 pm

      I prefer to check out how Phil failed to respond to them. That takes less time. 🙂

  1. jfepperson July 6, 2014 / 10:16 am

    Phil thinks he is an historian, but he didn’t bother to respond to Al’s rebuttal.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 6, 2014 / 12:40 pm

      Tell me … are you surprised?

      Phil’s complained that blogs are echo-chambers. Perhaps what’s more interesting is that he may think that is true only when he doesn’t like what he hears.

  2. Jimmy Dick July 6, 2014 / 11:01 am

    Phil gets the tariff screwed up, but that is nothing unusual for the Causers. They are locked in on the idea that the tariff was a problem, but the Tariff of 1857 was not a problem for the South as their representatives were the ones that put it in place. The other really big problem with this write up is that Phil does nothing to refute the idea that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. He like most Causers continually ignore the primary source documents that clearly show what the people of that time period were saying.

    In fact, that is the entire problem with Phil’s comments. He ignores primary sources in favor of secondary sources. Since neither of Phil’s degrees are in history or involve historical research I am not surprised at this. It is characteristic of the Lost Cause line of thought.

    Little thought is given to the probability of a trade war had the Confederacy seceded. First of all, the comments on iron going duty free to the Confederacy. What good would that iron have been to a nation with no capacity to make things with it? The main ironworks of the South were in Virginia, a state that only seceded after Ft. Sumter. What if the US had went to a free trade zone? Furthermore, the Confederacy did have duties and tariffs of their own as shown in this document.

    The slave labor system in place was not conducive to industrialization. How was the Lower South going to produce the things they needed? They could not which meant they would exist only as a nation exporting agricultural goods, mainly cotton while importing everything else. The wealth of the South was bound up in slaves and land. Its finances were in terrible shape as soon as the war started and never got better.

    The Lower South had all kinds of problems. People in those states were beginning to demand going back into the Union. Without the Upper South the seceding states had no chance of survival and they knew it. Davis started the war, not the US. That is another area Phil erred on. That is a major theme in Lost Causer history though. They ignore the reality of Davis’ orders and instead try to place the blame on the North. But then, that is typical of the Causer mentality. They don’t care for facts that conflict with their beliefs. For them it is all about heritage, not history.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 6, 2014 / 12:53 pm

      Phil also declares: “The whole period of Southern Reconstruction was essential an era of reparations payments by Southerners in the form of Federal taxes.”

      That’s a novel explanation.

      • Jimmy Dick July 6, 2014 / 1:34 pm

        It is just part of the victimization theory they devoutly believe in while ignoring the idea that slaves were victims of slave owners and a culture that allowed slave owning.

  3. Al Mackey July 6, 2014 / 5:17 pm

    Mr. Leigh’s being included on the Emerging Civil War Blog is evidence that blog is not a serious history blog.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 6, 2014 / 6:52 pm

      Well, it doesn’t help. Especially when a blog that broadcasts itself as the voice of a new generation adds someone who recycles a great deal. Then again, maybe it is a bid for attention … remember “confrontational”/”controversy” blogs? I kid.

      • Al Mackey July 7, 2014 / 12:44 pm

        Perhaps they’ll add Bragg Bowling next. 😦

    • Christopher Shelley August 12, 2014 / 3:25 pm

      Apparently, ECW is trying to rectify that–they dumped Leigh today.

  4. Rosemary Kubera July 7, 2014 / 1:07 pm

    In 50 years … or in 150… will there ever be a consenus on why the Civll War happened?

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 7, 2014 / 1:34 pm

      No one reading this now will be around to answer that question (or to be told that they are wrong).

      I still go with anger and fear.

  5. The other Susan July 7, 2014 / 2:50 pm

    “After winning the Pulitzer, McPherson steadily attracted followers. While nearly all emphasize slavery as the reason for the secession of the cotton states, they generally fail to explain why the North declined to let the South depart peacefully. After all, if the South quietly left the Union, slavery would cease in the United States.”

    ROTFL!! No it wouldn’t, but he’s not going for accuracy, just hilarity, lol, “slavery would cease in the United States” problem solved lol, good stuff, the onion should hire him.

  6. eshonk July 8, 2014 / 2:20 am

    Each generation of American historians composes its own list of “causes” for the War for Southern Independence. This has been going-on for decades, and will continue to do so. It’s amusing to read the rantings of our contemporary generation of historians, realizing that their interpretations are already on their way to the “circular file” of former historical interpretations. Of course, their claims and theories will be supported by some people, just as the earlier historians’ interpretations are still supported by some loyal followers. Change is the only constant of life, and historical interpretations are no exception. Historians are “cherry-pickers” from the “get-go,” since to convince other historians of their opinions, they need all the documented “help” they can get. Some historians are more successful with presenting their theories and “facts,” than other historians, and thus become the “experts” in their field. (Unfortunately, no one has told them that there is no such thing as an “expert” in anything…just more knowledgeable people re: any given subject).

    Be that as it may, until the use of correct terminology is accepted by all historians, there will continue to be an array of misunderstandings and blatant untruths re: the War for Southern Independence, and its causes. How anyone can claim that Southerners were “traitors,” or that Confederates were guilty of “treason” is beyond intellectual comprehension. Secession is not “rebellion” or “revolution,” but it is one method of exercising Mankind’s God-given right to self-determination. Yet, there continue to be those who insist that the War for Southern Independence was a rebellion or a revolution. This misuse of terminology leads directly to the erroneous claim, by many uninformed people, of treason and traitorous activity on the part of those Southerners, who dared to exercise their God-given right to self-determination, by choosing to secede from a malfunctioning Union…that they no longer trusted. (A. Lincoln’s claim that the Confederacy didn’t exist, parallels the United States’ decision to refuse to recognize Communist China, before President Nixon finally opened his eyes, and looked at a world map. LOL. In other words, such a claim is, and was, ridiculous). Yet, we still have some historians making the claim that the Confederacy didn’t exist, in spite of mountains of evidence that the CSA did, indeed, exist. Go figure.

    My hope for the next generation of historians is that they will correct the inaccurate use of these terms (rebellion or revolution) when referring to the War for Southern Independence, so that the “myth” that Southerners were somehow “traitors,” for daring to exercise their God-given right to self-determination, is refuted…once and for all. Then, perhaps, people can finally recognize the war for what it was…a war for independence, which should never have been fought in the first place. Then, hopefully, future historians will focus on why the United States is no longer a “union by choice,” as established by the Founding Fathers, but is now a “union by force,” which was never the plan of the Founding Fathers. How was it possible for Northerners to have vacated the founding principle of the United States (“consent of the governed”), via A. Lincoln’s decision, in 1861, to go to war, instead of participating in peace negotiations with the Peace Commission from the Confederate States? This question has been totally overlooked by researchers re: the war and its causes, to the detriment of our understanding of that time period of our collective history. It is now time to deal with the ugly truth, that Northerners failed to respect the right of their Southern counterparts, to exercise their God-given right to self-determination, by seceding from the Union, and re-establishing a limited constitutional government of their choice. The Revolutionary Generation fought on this principle, and secured it for their progeny. How could Northerners have turned their backs on this principle…destroying the Union by their actions? Let’s hope the next generation of historians will answer this conundrum.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 8, 2014 / 6:17 am

      “Yet, we still have some historians making the claim that the Confederacy didn’t exist, in spite of mountains of evidence that the CSA did, indeed, exist.”

      Name one. Document your claim.

      “My hope for the next generation of historians is that they will correct the inaccurate use of these terms (rebellion or revolution) when referring to the War for Southern Independence, so that the “myth” that Southerners were somehow “traitors,” for daring to exercise their God-given right to self-determination, is refuted…once and for all.”

      Good luck with that.

      Ed, if this is the best you’ve got, then I invite you to start your own blog. This is nothing more than Confederate apologist tripe, even if it is from Ohio (guess you don’t like the South enough to live there). The ugly truth is that white southerners did not want to address the right of the human beings they claimed to own to self-determination, and were willing to go to war to defend their right to ownership: your blind spot in that regard suggests that you just don’t give a damn about freedom and liberty for all, just for your favorite white people. So much for your “God-given right to self-determination”: you thus admit that white southerners promoting slavery acted against God in their attempt to take away what God had given us all. Not a pretty picture, but a telling condemnation of southern whites. No wonder you don’t really want to associate with them.

  7. Ed Johns July 9, 2014 / 7:18 am

    There is something profoundly nauseating about listening to a man defend the right to “self-determination” of slave holders with, apparently, no sense of irony. I think I may be suffering from hypocrisy poisoning.

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