Skip to comments.Facts and Myths - an examination of McPherson's "Causes of the Civil War" essay
Posted on 08/09/2002 3:38:13 AM PDT by GOPcapitalist
Some of the pro-north activists around here have been asking for a factual refutation of McPherson. Since I'm too cheap to purchase "Battle Cry" due to the fact that its revenues go into the pocket of an avowed Democrat with marxist political affiliations, I decided to examine his positions in one of those free articles on the web. Here goes...
The following is intended as a refutation and analysis of the main arguments found in James McPherson's article "The Civil War: Causes and Results." I've broken it down by section to address his arguments in detail. His statements are selected in order as they appeared in the original essay and presented in bold below:
I. "To be sure, conflicts of interest occurred between the agricultural South and the industrializing North. But issues like tariffs, banks, and land grants divided parties and interest groups more than they did North and South."
McPherson is using a red herring when he states that tariffs et al divided parties instead of the country's two regions as the inescapable partisan situation throughout the war revolved around an exclusively sectional northern political party. The Republican party of the north was indisputably protectionist and heavily emphasized protectionism in its 1860 platform. The remaining partisan divisions during the war consisted mostly of southern Democrats and northern Democrats. The former played a dominant role in the confederacy. The latter came to encompass the anti-war copperheads, the peace Democrats, the anti-draft Democrats, the McClellanites, and a number of other similar factions generally supportive of the idea that the war should be waged in greater moderation, in a more limited capacity, or not at all.
In short this created a war/political climate consisting of one group for the war as it was being waged (the Republicans) and two disapproving of the way the war was being waged - the confederates who were obviously opposed to the invasion and the northern democrats who sought a more restrained war or an end to it all together. Accordingly it can be accurately said that the sectional proponents of war against the confederacy as it was being waged were almost exclusively from the strongly pro-tariff Republican Party. Comparatively the southern confederates expressed solid opposition to the tariff. As the war itself was conducted between the northern Republicans and the southern Confederates, McPherson's implication that the tariff issue did not break on the same lines as the war is historically inaccurate, deceptively presented, and flat out absurd.
II. "The South in the 1840s and 1850s had its advocates of industrialization and protective tariffs, just as the North had its millions of farmers and its low-tariff, antibank Democratic majority in many states."
This is another red herring on McPherson's part. On any given issue of practically any nature it is typically possible to find an advocate opinion in the midst of a crowd of opponents. So naturally there were some pro-tariff southerners and anti-tariff northerners. What McPherson fails to concede though is that both were a minority among the two dynamically opposed entities at the center of the war itself - the northern Republicans and the southern Confederates. The Republicans were very pro-tariff and openly indicated so platforms. The Confederates opposed the tariffs being pushed by the north and cited it frequently among their grievances for secession. As for the northern Democrats McPherson mentions, that is well and good except that he conveniently neglects their differing view from the Republicans on how to wage the war.
III. "The Civil War was not fought over the issue of tariff or of industrialization or of land grants."
While it cannot in any reasonable manner be said that the war was fought exclusively on tariffs or any other issue, to deny this as McPherson does above is simply dishonest. Northern advocacy of the tariff had been an issue since the Spring of 1860 when the House took up the Morrill bill. Southern opposition to it, aside from dating back decades to the nullification crisis, appeared in both Congress and the conduction of secession by the states. Witness just a small sample of the historical record on the issue of protectionism and tariff collection from 1860-61, broken down here between northern and southern sides:
NORTH/REPUBLICAN:IV. "Nor was it a consequence of false issues invented by demagogues."
"That, while providing revenue for the support of the General Government by duties upon imposts, sound policy requires such an adjustment of the imposts as to encourage the development of the industrial interest of the whole country, and we commend that policy of national exchanges which secures to the working men liberal wages, to agriculture remunerating prices, to mechanics and manufacturers an adequate reward for their skill, labor and enterprise, and to the nation commercial prosperity and independence." - Republican Party Platform of 1860
"According to my political education, I am inclined to believe that the people in the various sections of the country should have their own views carried out through their representatives in Congress, and if the consideration of the Tariff bill should be postponed until the next session of the National Legislature, no subject should engage your representatives more closely than that of a tariff" - President-Elect Abraham Lincoln, February 15, 1861
"Resolved, That in as much as the movements now made in Congress of the United States of North America, and the incoming administration thereof, threaten to blockade our ports, force revenues, suspend postal arrangements, destroy commerce, ruin trade, depreciate currency, invade sovereign States, burn cities, butcher armies, gibbet patriots, hang veterans, oppress freemen, blot our liberty, beggar homes, widow mothers, orphan children, and desolate the peace and happiness of the nation with fire and sword,-these things to do, and not to disappoint the expectation of those who have given him their votes. Now, against these things we, in the name of right, the Constitution, and a just God, solemnly enter our protest; and further, when that which is manifested shall have come upon the country, we say to Tennessee: Let slip the dogs of war and cry havoc!" - Resolution of Franklin County, Tennessee for secession, adopted unanimously at Winchester, February 25, 1861
"You suppose that numbers constitute the strength of government in this day. I tell you that it is not blood; it is the military chest; it is the almighty dollar. When you have lost your market; when your operatives are turned out; when your capitalists are broken, will you go to direct taxation?" - Louis T. Wigfall, United States Senate, December 1860
Contrary to McPherson's assertions, a strong argument may be made regarding the nature of the core issue upon which Lincoln waged his war. As Lincoln famously expressed in his letter to Horace Greeley, his public line was "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union." Lincoln was gifted with significant rhetorical skills and publicly alleged the theme of "The Union" as his basis for action throughout the war. His use of the issue of unionism is peculiar as it bears an uncanny resemblance to a thoroughly reasoned prediction made by Alexis de Tocqueville thirty years earlier regarding the event of secession itself:
"If it be supposed that among the states that are united by the federal tie there are some which exclusively enjoy the principal advantages of union, or whose prosperity entirely depends on the duration of that union, it is unquestionable that they will always be ready to support the central government in enforcing the obedience of the others. But the government would then be exerting a force not derived from itself, but from a principle contrary to its nature. States form confederations in order to derive equal advantages from their union; and in the case just alluded to, the Federal government would derive its power from the unequal distribution of those benefits among the states.In light of northern behavior as it occurred, Tocqueville's observation was largely proven valid. Economically, the north stood to face a competitive disadvantage in the event of southern secession. Simply speaking, secession posed to expose the northern industrial economy to european economic competition it had sought to escape by way of protectionist policies - if European goods could be purchased by southerners without tariffs their prices were often lower than northern substitutes, hence consumers shift to the cheaper European products. That situation is even further complicated if cheaper European goods brought in with low tariffs in the south make their way up north and compete on the market there with northern products. Accordingly on economic policy the north had a very clear advantage to be had from the continuance of the union as one. That is what Wigfall was referring to when he asked what the north would do when it lost its market.
If one of the federated states acquires a preponderance sufficiently great to enable it to take exclusive possession of the central authority, it will consider the other states as subject provinces and will cause its own supremacy to be respected under the borrowed name of the sovereignty of the Union. Great things may then be done in the name of the Federal government, but in reality that government will have ceased to exist." - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book I, Chapter 18 (emphasis added)
It is also an evidenced very strongly in Lincoln's war policy. From the moment secession became an issue, Lincoln expressed a near obsessive desire to do one thing - enforce revenue collection in the south and seceded states. As early as December of 1860 he wrote private letters to his military commanders emphasizing the need to maintain or recapture southern forts to ensure revenue collection. When he instituted his blockage Lincoln explicitly legitimized it on the issue of revenue collection. When he spoke before safely pro-tariff northern audiences he pledged his dedication was to revenue collection. This was the sole issue of his letter to Salmon Chase on March 18, 1861 about what to do with secession:
"Sir I shall be obliged if you will inform me whether any goods, wares and merchandize, subject by law to the payment of duties, are now being imported into the United States without such duties being paid, or secured according to law. And if yea, at what place or places? and for what cause do such duties remain unpaid, or [un]secured? I will also thank you for your opinion whether, as a matter of fact, vessels off shore could be effectively used to prevent such importation, or to enforce the payment or securing of the duties." - Lincoln to Chase, March 18, 1861In one speech to a northern audience from February 1861 Lincoln even admitted that "marching of an army into South California, for instance, without the consent of her people, and in hostility against them...would be invasion, and it would be coercion too." But he continued to argue that if he did was simply insisting on "the collection of duties upon foreign importations" among other things, it would not be "coercion." All of this differs significantly with the official line that he was acting only to preserve the union, suggesting that just as Tocqueville predicted, the use of the union's sovereignty was a "borrowed name." And if borrowing an attractive name to publicly promote as a whole while simultaneously arguing a less attractive one in private and among allies does not constitute the invention of an issue, I do not know what does. I will concede that even the degree of Lincoln's engagement in this tactic is a matter of wide debate, but for McPherson to deny its presence all together is yet another case of historical inaccuracy on his part.
V. "What lay at the root of this separation? Slavery. It was the sole institution not shared by North and South. The peculiar institution defined the South."
First off, McPherson's assertion that slavery was a solely unshared by North and South is historically inaccurate. A number of northern states on the borders openly practiced and permitted slavery until after the war and with Lincoln's full consent - Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, federal controlled regions of Kentucky and Missouri, and even New Jersey, where the slavery that had been abolished there about two decades earlier had grandfathered persons in slavery at the time of abolition.
Second, to suggest as McPherson does is to lie about the sentiments of large portions of the northern population, as the northern population was NOT an abolitionist body opposed to slavery in 1861 or anything even remotely of the sort. A majority of northerners were opponents of abolition at the time of the war, Lincoln included among them. The abolitionist crowd represented less than 10% of the northern population by most estimates. Among the remainder, divisions in treatment of slavery as it existed were widespread. Few statistics measure the exact breakdown of the population, though estimates based on candidacies, electoral data, and other sources of public sentiment were made at the time. The general range of northern opinion included a wide spectrum. Included were those who tolerated the institution entirely and those who tolerated it in a limited sense. One major division were those who favored its continuation so long as it was contained entirely to the south. Many since then have tried to claim that the non-extension belief was some sort of a principled long-term plan to kill off slavery where it existed (this interpretation of the non-extension position was popularized by Karl Marx in 1861). But evidence of the time suggests that the motives for the non-extension policy among many if not most of its proponents were much more political and economic based than principle oriented. Economically, a non-extension policy on slavery was believed to be an economic restriction on job competition for white northern laborers. That's right - the north of 1861 was full of bigots and racists who feared black people, slave or free and based solely on their skin color, to the extent that they did not even want them to labor in their company. Alexis de Tocqueville similarly noticed this about the north thirty years earlier. Lincoln had also noticed it in his 1858 senate debates where he consciously advocated racial supremacy before audiences he suspected to be composed of what have been termed "negrophobes," only to turn around and advocate racial equality to crowds perceived as more abolition-friendly. Lincoln also advocated the "white labor" position as a reason to oppose extension of slavery into the territories, including in one of the most famous speeches of his career:
"Whether slavery shall go into Nebraska, or other new Territories, is not a matter of exclusive concern to the people who may go there. The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these Territories. We want them for homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted within them. Slave States are places for poor white people to remove from, not to remove to." - Abraham Lincoln, October 16, 1854, Peoria, ILA second major reason behind the non-extension policy was purely political - control of the senate broke on sectional lines. By allowing slavery in the territories, southerners hoped to eventually create new states on the shared issue of slavery that would also vote with them on sectional disputes. By opposing slavery in the territories, northerners hoped to do the opposite and create a state that would vote with them on sectional disputes. This is evidenced repeatedly during the pre-1860 compromises pushed by Clay, Douglas, and others - they addressed the senate division by preserving an even split. To do so they simultaneously admitted a slave territory and a free territory as states.
Now, that having been said it is perfect proper to admit and consider slavery as a major and prominent issue during the war. To refuse it would be to deny history and engage in absurdity. But to do as McPherson, Marx, and other persons who advocate an historical view heavily skewered to the yankee side do and purport slavery to be the sole issue is similarly a violation of historical accuracy. Above all else the war was an inescapably complex issue with inescapably complex roots. In order to reduce the war to a single issue, one must reduce it from the complex to the simple. Since the war by its very nature consists of a point of irreducible complexity in its roots, to push beyond that point is to violate the irreducibly complex. That is McPherson's flaw as it is the flaw of the many others who share his position.
VI. "What explained the growing Northern hostility to slavery? Since 1831 the militant phase of the abolitionist movement had crusaded against bondage as unchristian, immoral, and a violation of the republican principle of equality on which the nation had been founded. The fact that this land of liberty had become the world's largest slaveholding nation seemed a shameful anomaly to an increasing number of Northerners. "The monstrous injustice of slavery," said Lincoln in 1854, "deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world - enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites." Slavery degraded not only the slaves, argued Northerners opposed to its expansion, by demeaning the dignity of labor and dragging down the wages of all workers; it also degraded free people who owned no slaves. If slavery goes into the territories, declared abolitionists, "the free labor of all the states will not.... If the free labor of the states goes there, the slave labor of the southern states will not, and in a few years the country will teem with an active and energetic population." The contest over expansion of slavery into the territories thus became a contest over the future of America, for these territories held the balance of power between slavery and freedom."
This entire passage of McPherson commits the same error of assumption made earlier about northern beliefs on slavery and non-expansion. McPherson severely overstates the size of the northern abolitionist population and illegitimately implies a shared affiliation between them and Lincoln. In reality, Lincoln was perfectly willing to permit the continuation of slavery to the point that he used his first inaugural address to endorse a recently passed but unratified constitutional amendment to protect the institution of slavery where it existed. Had it been ratified as Lincoln wanted, slavery's life would have been artificially extended in America beyond its natural decline worldwide. That is why true abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison and Lysander Spooner publicly identified Lincoln as a fraud, even after the 13th amendment.
McPherson's statement above further neglects the presence of what has been accurately termed as northern "negrophobia" in 1861. Included are the economic motives asserted by Lincoln and others for non-extension that were noted earlier. The less than pure motives for northern opposition to slavery's expansion were well known in their day, including having been noticed by some of the greatest minds - and anti-slavery advocates - of western history. Alexis de Tocqueville readily observed that northerners did not oppose slavery for the benefit of the slaves, but rather for the benefit of themselves. Charles Dickens noticed the same was still the case thirty years later. Both men were prominent opponents of slavery.
VII. "Proslavery advocates countered that the bondage of blacks was the basis of liberty for whites. Slavery elevated all whites to an equality of status and dignity by confining menial labor and caste subordination to blacks. "If slaves are freed," said Southerners, whites "will become menials. We will lose every right and liberty which belongs to the name of freemen."
His blatant generalizations aside, McPherson's statement above, as has been seen, perhaps better resembles the position taken by the northern "negrophobes" than any other faction in the country. Northern bigots saw the mere presence of persons of other skin colors as a threat to white livelihood and accordingly legislated blacks out of their towns, cities, and states. Many wanted blacks to be kept out of the territories for the reason Lincoln stated at Peoria in 1854 and sought to address the presence of blacks by restricting them out of white society all together through segregation, statute, and coercion - the exact type of bondage mattered little to these bigots, so long as they were "on top" and didn't perceive any economic threat posed by their labor. Lincoln took this very position in one of his debates with Stephen Douglas:
"I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races - that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race." - Abraham Lincoln, August 17, 1858VIII. "A Northern antislavery party would dominate the future. Slavery was doomed if the South remained in the Union."
Untrue, and had Lincoln gotten his way and ratified his pro-slavery amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1861, the exact opposite would have been true. During his Inaugural Address, Lincoln made the following statement:
"I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution?which amendment, however, I have not seen?has passed Congress, to the effect that the FederalThe amendment he was referring to had passed congress with a 2/3rds majority less than a week earlier, owing its passage to what eyewitness Henry Adams described as the "direct influence" of Abraham Lincoln himself (Lincoln was fibbing when he claimed in his inaugural to have "not yet seen" the amendment). The amendment Lincoln got passed read:
Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I
depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable." - Abraham Lincoln, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861
Article Thirteen.It would have effectively made slavery untouchable by any future constitutional amendment, thereby preventing at any time in the future what became the actual 13th amendment and prolonging the existence of slavery where it existed beyond a possible future abolition by peaceful means.
"No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic
institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State."
IX. "If the new Lincoln administration and the Northern people had been willing to accept secession, the two halves of the former United States might have coexisted in an uneasy peace. But most Northerners were not willing to tolerate the dismemberment of the United States."
McPherson is fibbing here, pure and simple. Most honest historians recognize the presence of a significant anti-war sentiment among the northern population and even a belief in "simply letting them go." This sentiment emerged at times throughout the war, especially in the early days when the north had suffered several glaring defeats by smaller sized confederate forces. Throughout much of his presidency Lincoln consciously worked tirelessly to achieve what McPherson dishonestly purports to have already been there. He did it both by persuasion and, in certain more dubious cases, coercion. The latter occurred when he unconstitutionally suspended habeas corpus among other things. Federal forces were similarly used to impede the properly seated legislatures of Maryland and Missouri, forcing many of the former state's into prison without cause and the latter's to flee south and reconvene in a rump session.
X. "Lincoln intended to maintain the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay as a symbol of national sovereignty in the Confederate states, in the hope that a reaction toward Unionism in those states would eventually bring them back."
McPherson is fibbing again. Lincoln's private correspondence to military commanders over the issue of Fort Sumter were near obsessively concerned with the collection of revenue. Surviving from Lincoln's cabinet meetings on the subject of how to address Fort Sumter also include a lengthy list of the "pros and cons" of holding the fort. Clearly identified among them as a "con" is the statement recognizing the federal presence at Charleston as having the effect of exacerbating secessionist sympathies much like a thorn in the side of South Carolina. It states that "(t)he abandonment of the Post would remove a source of irritation of the Southern people and deprive the secession movement of one of its most powerful stimulants."
XI. "To forestall this happening, the Confederate army attacked Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861"
McPherson's fibbing continues in the above statement, which immediately follows the statement he made in what I have identified as item X. The historical record shows the above statement to be bizarre, unusual, and largely fabricated out of thin air. The confederate attack was not made randomly on April 12th to stop some unknown resurgence of unionism in South Carolina. It was fired on in direct response to military maneuvers on the fort that had been launched by Lincoln earlier that week. On April 5 Lincoln notified Governor Francis Pickens of South Carolina that he would be attempting to peacefully reprovision Fort Sumter with supplies. Shortly thereafter he instructed his military to send out a fleet of federal warships containing the food as well as heavy reenforcements and weaponry. Explicit orders were to go to Sumter and if the Confederates refused to let them enter the fort, open fire and fight their way in. Confederate intelligence, knowing of Lincoln's earlier message to Pickens, caught wind of the operation by discovering the ships had been sent to sea. Beauregard was notified and opened fire on the fort to preempt the fleet's arrival, which turned out to be only a day away. Lincoln's fleet got there a day late, though just in time for Beauregard to allow the garrison safe passage to them and back up north. Needless to say, Abraham Lincoln did not consider the move in any way a failure as he had provoked the confederates into firing the first shot, even though it did not happen the way he anticipated. He openly admitted this in a personal letter to Captain Gustavus Fox, who he had tasked to lead the expedition:
"I sincerely regret that the failure of the late attempt to provision Fort-Sumpter, should be the source of any annoyance to you. The practicability of your plan was not, in fact, brought to a test. By reason of a gale, well known in advance to be possible, and not improbable, the tugs, an essential part of the plan, never reached the ground; while, by an accident, for which you were in no wise responsible, and possibly I, to some extent was, you were deprived of a war vessel with her men, which you deemed of great importance to the enterprize. I most cheerfully and truly declare that the failure of the undertaking has not lowered you a particle, while the qualities you developed in the effort, have greatly heightened you, in my estimation. For a daring and dangerous enterprize, of a similar character, you would, to-day, be the man, of all my acquaintances, whom I would select. You and I both anticipated that the cause of the country would be advanced by making the attempt to provision Fort-Sumpter, even if it should fail; and it is no small consolation now to feel that our anticipation is justified by the result." - Abraham Lincoln, letter to Fox, May 1, 1861 (emphasis added)XII. "The war resolved the two fundamental problems left unresolved by the Revolution of 1776, problems that had preoccupied the country for four score and nine years down to 1865. The first was the question whether this fragile republic would survive in a world of monarchs and emperors and dictators or would follow the example of most republics through history (including many in the nineteenth century) and collapse into tyranny or fragment in a dreary succession of revolutions and civil wars."
Here McPherson is exploiting the "experiment in democracy" myth to attach some legitimacy and purported good to what was an appallingly costly, brutal, and disastrous war. While he is correct to phrase the American nation's role in a world that was at the time dominated by empire and monarchy as well as to note the previous occurrence of republican failures elsewhere, he is incorrect to suggest that the fate of republican government rested on the preservation of the union. As any honest historian must concede, though it is often contrary to the Schlessingerian "experiment in democracy" and the neo-Hegelian "end of history" paradigms, the concept of republican government has been around in various forms throughout recorded history. It has had its successes, sometimes lasting for centuries, and it has also had its failures, but just the same so have empires and monarchies. On the greater spectrum of history itself I believe the evidence is clear that governments are cyclical developments and refinements. This is commonly thought of as a classical understanding of government. Alternative some hold governments to be evolutionary stage developments as McPherson does here and as some otherwise genuinely intelligent and even conservative persons believe America to be. This alternative is the Hegelian view, perhaps most famously adopted by Marx as the heart of communism. I will concede it is tempting for some conservatives to gravitate toward this latter position, but doing so entails what is ultimately an embrace of arrogance and perfectibility over all that preceded us when in reality we are the same inherently human, inherently flawed, yet readily redeemable human beings as those who came before us were. For that reason few will likely find the Hegelian position in the minds of conservatism's greatest thinkers (actually it is normally found among the left, such as McPherson demonstrates here). Therefore what some may falsely interpret to be a classical system that appears dismissive of the wisdom of the Constitution and the sorts may find themselves surprised to find it a position held by some of the Constitution's greatest defenders and conservatism's greatest minds.
I'll take my stand and say this republic can survive.
Great work, GOPC - I always enjoy your research and thought provoking articles.
Since I'm too cheap to purchase "Battle Cry" due to the fact that its revenues go into the pocket of an avowed Democrat with marxist political affiliations ...
A popular sentiment around here! You're not cheap - you're intelligent - you wouldn't subsidize Osama bin Laden either.
On a serious note, once you discount and remove Lincoln's and Litte "Red" McPherson's lies, was their anything left?
This was true of the people in my hometown in northern Ohio. The people of this town were well known for returning runway slaves. Eventually the Underground Railroad gave this town a wide berth. This bit of the towns history is not well known today. It is not politically correct in a town with a fairly large African-American population.