Monday, December 17, 2012


“Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side.”
-Abraham Lincoln

The American civil war - or the war between the states, depending on who you ask - is one of the most contentious and divisive events in the nation's history, even today more than a century later.  If you ask most northerners, or people in the west, they'll say the war was fought over slavery, to set the slaves free.  If you ask southerners, they'll say the war was fought over the right of states to self govern without federal interference.
Abraham Lincoln is another divisive topic.  He's either a saint who held the nation together and freed the slaves, or a monster who raped the constitution and a tyrant who ruined the country.  To this day, people get into fights over the topics that tore the nation apart over 100 years ago, and it shows no sign of lessening over time.
What's right here, what's wrong?  Who has the truth on their side?  How can we weed through this?  The truth is... both sides are right, and wrong.  The truth is a bit more complicated and subtle than is usually presented by film or debate.
To understand the origins of the American Civil War, you have to go back a long time before it started.  The south was largely settled and populated by two groups: immigrants from the British Isles and Ireland who tended to settle further inland (the mountains, mostly), and landed nobility who purchased and settled large farms and plantations.  Younger sons of nobles in England, Scotland, and Ireland would come to the US to find their fortune, and kept their nobility in mind.
While the north was generally more of a mix of ethnic backgrounds and of more diverse class structures, the south tended to be more blue blood.  They were often very wealthy, very powerful, and very convinced of their superiority.  To this day, many Scots and other UK residents who visit the area are more comfortable with the culture and accent, finding it more homely and familiar than the rest of the US.  It isn't that there were no poor or other groups of people, its that the culture, leadership, and most powerful people in the region tended to be these wealthy aristocrats.
With that perspective of noble background and wealth came a tendency to reject not just authority, but the idea of democratic rule.  They didn't oppose voting and representation and all that, they opposed the rabble telling them what to do.  And further, they opposed a central government including other states' representatives having any say in their actions.
When the US Constitution was being written, not a few people from the south wanted no federal government at all, simply a loose coalition of sovereign states.  The fight to get the constitution written and finalized was a very difficult one, and included actual real violence in the process.  That story is a pretty big one in its self, and I recommend digging into it more fully.
One glimpse into the history behind that battle is the 3/5ths compromise, where southern and northern states battled over how slaves should be represented in congress.  The south had many more slaves than the north, although both had slaves (as did the rest of the world at the time; Africa included).  The south saw a potential for greater power by counting all the slaves for representation.  If they could load up congress with southerners based on their slave population, then they would have more power over the federal government.  The north didn't care for that and wanted more power for themselves.
And then there were folks who pointed out that slaves could not vote, had no voice, and hence were not being represented in any way so they shouldn't be considered for the purposes of congress at all.  And yes, there were people calling for slavery to end back then, too.  I've written more extensively in the past about the 3/5ths compromise, but it was basically a way for the two regions to find common ground and get a constitution passed to begin with.
The founders such as Jefferson, Washington, Adams, and so on all were opposed to slavery in principle, although most kept slaves.  They knew that they couldn't end the system and have any hope of building a nation that they dreamed of, so they worked toward a future when it could one day happen.  The south, heavily dependent on slaves for agriculture, would have simply refused to have any part of a nation which banned the practice.
The south continued to rebel against federal control, even after the constitution was signed and the nation formed.  One of George Washington's first acts was to put down the "whiskey rebellion" in which southern bourbon distillers rebelled against the federal tax on liquor.  Southern states insisted on the right of "nullification" which essentially was the power of states to ignore federal laws they consider unconstitutional.  
Nullification came to a crisis under Andrew Jackson, who on the whole was for small and limited government and states rights.  South Carolina's economy was suffering and they blamed a tariff applied by congress to trading with England for their problems.  The state's legislature passed an act that permitted them to simply ignore the tariff as unconstitutional, and the federal government responded by passing a law allowing the federal government to use the military to enforce law.  South Carolina backed down, this time, but the tariff rates were lowered as well.
However, the animosity and concern over encroaching federal power continued.  Southern states were very strong on the principle of state sovereignty, the idea that except in matters of foreign trade and interaction between various states, the federal government had no power whatsoever within states.  This is, incidentally, the position the founding fathers took in both the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers, and one I happen to agree with.
Also, the growing anti-slavery movement made southern states very uncomfortable.  They still relied on slave trade and labor for their livelihood (or, at least, the level of wealth they liked) and saw each  new state added to the union which banned slavery a threat to their future.  Each new area which had congressmen in the federal government which opposed slavery meant one more that might eventually ban the practice in America overall.
Further, the southern states tended to be independent overall.  They didn't care to pay taxes to a federal government, and any new tax was met with great resistance.  They didn't like northern states having any say at all in what they did.  Frustration, animosity, and conflict between the two regions built over the years and little was resolved.
This is something to be very clear on; the civil war didn't spring out fully formed like Pegasus from Zeus' head.  The seeds for this conflict were sown before the revolutionary war, as two very different regions began to clash in ideology and principle.  Surprisingly enough Wikipedia has a pretty good timeline of events that show how the conflict built over the years.
By the time the southern states met in South Carolina to discuss seceding from the union, this struggle had been going on for over a century.  The core of this fight was over slavery, but the general theme was of states' rights versus central federal control.  Its like an argument a married couple has over a personality clash, but it takes focus on something specific, like the toilet seat being left up.  The argument is over the toilet seat, but the background is something else unresolved.
In this case, it was southern states wanting to be more self governed, but it took focus over slavery because that was the lifeblood of the south's economy.  Here are a few stats from 1860, the year it all blew up:
  • U.S. slave population in the 1860 United States Census: 3,954,174
  • Total US population: 31,443,321, an increase of 35 percent over the 1850 Census
  • About 20,000,000 citizens lived in the north
  • About 8,000,000 citizens lived in the south
  • 26 percent of all Northerners live in towns or cities
  • 10 percent of Southerners live in towns or cities
  • 40% of the Northern work force works in agriculture
  • 80% of the Southern workforce works in agriculture
The south and the north had very different cultures, and very different concerns.  Each had their say in congress, but the overall momentum of the country was against slavery and against the south's system of agriculture, and they were outnumbered more than 2:1 in general population, which is how Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860 despite winning no southern states.  Although the Republican Party platform declares that individual states are allowed to form their own "domestic institutions" the south can see the writing on the wall.  The federal government will inevitably declare slavery illegal and end it, despite having no constitutional power to do so.  The northern states already were refusing to extradite escaped slaves, which were considered lawful property of southern owners.
Every state in the union had already outlawed the slave trade (although South Carolina started it up again for a while).  The federal government had only the power under the constitution to prevent slave trade between states and importation of slaves, it could not tell individual states what to do within their borders, not legally.  But the southern states could tell that was on the way.
Just a day after Abraham Lincoln was elected president, South Carolina arrested federal agents moving supplies from one fort to another, fearing the north was reinforcing their base to begin military force against them.  Two days later, they took over the Charleston harbor batteries, raising the state's flag instead of the US stars and stripes.
Federal military officials begin to take steps to secure southern fortifications for fear that they will be taken over by southern states, seizing federal property and supplies. Southern states are already voting on whether or not they will consider seceding from the union, something the federal government argues they are not permitted to do.
On December 17, 1860 in Charleston North Carolina, a convention is held to draft a statement explaining why the state - and others - were leaving the United States.  The statement is breif and to the point:
We, the People of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, That the Ordinance adopted by us in Convention, on the twenty-third day of May in the year of our Lord One Thousand Seven hundred and eight eight, whereby the Constitution of the United State of America was ratified, and also all Acts and parts of Acts of the General Assembly of this State, ratifying amendment of the said Constitution, are here by repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of “The United States of America,” is hereby dissolved.
Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas offered similar declarations when they seceded in subsequent months.  Essentially, they saw the constitution as a contract which the north had violated, and they had simply opted out.
Again, the reasons for secession were more than slavery, but slavery was the core and repeated complaint.  They considered the election of Lincoln cause for secession because he was hostile to slavery.  They considered the north's refusal to return runaway slaves as a violation of the constitution and law.  They considered laws banning slavery and pressure to end it as a violation of federal power and states rights.
So when people argue the war was about slavery vs state's rights, they're both right.  The thing is, those state's rights concerns were almost exclusively about slavery.  Tariffs were part of the concern, but slavery was the repeated cry and hammered again and again in documents from the time.  Had slavery not been the issue, it is unlikely the south would have tried to secede, simply because slavery was the core of their entire economic livelihood, and they would be ruined without it.  That made the issue key and worth fighting over, to southerners.
You can get a feel for that in the Articles of Confederation, the south's version of the US Constitution.  The document only mentions slavery a few times, and is overall a very fine document with few flaws.  It actually addresses some areas of significant concern today that the constitution would have benefited from having, as I wrote about a while back.  But unlike the US Constitution, which focused on equality under law, the Articles of Confederation specifically mentions and details various points about slavery to make sure it is codified in the document as a permanent part of US law, something the founders wanted to avoid in the constitution.
This is important to keep in mind as well: the south wasn't all on fire to keep slaves because they were in such love with the idea of slavery or hated blacks so much.  They wanted it so bad because it was how they were able to keep their business running.  It would be like having the federal government ban gasoline today; people aren't so much in love with gasoline as in love with what it gives and allows them to do.  Slavery wasn't held near and dear to the southerner's heart, the money and economy slaves provided was.
So the war started up.  How it started is a matter of some argument as well.  Southerners claim aggression on the part of the north who sent troops down to attack them.  Northerners claim that the south started the war by taking over a fort.  In this, I have to side with the north: Fort Sumpter was a federal facility, with federal equipment, on federal land.  The Fort Sumpter event was prompted by a series of maneuvers by federal officers and southerners in various forts as the federal government tried to protect and maintain its property and the south tried to take it over to prevent it from being used against them.
It comes down to whether you think declaring yourself separate from a nation gives you the right to take everything that's in your state or not.  The south figured that since they had seceded from the US, the forts were theirs.  The US figured they had built and owned those forts, so they were federal property.  I side with the US on this one; eventually you could work out a deal where you purchase the forts or something, but you can't just take someone else's property because you're mad at them and declare it all to be yours.
In any case, the war exploded and millions died.  Over 600,000 soldiers died on both sides, and many more civilians died of starvation, wounds, and fires as a result.  The civil war utterly obliterated the south's economy, and they took over a century to recover.  The north, fearful of continued rebellion, stomped all over southern rights and essentially treated the south as a vassal state which continues to this day with laws such as the Voting Rights Act, which requires southern - and no other - states to get federal approval to any changes in election laws or redistricting.
Massachusetts can require voter ID without getting the federal government to approve.  Texas cannot.  Maine can change the districts for congressmen in their state with a simple vote.  Mississippi has to beg the federal government for approval.  This is intolerable in an allegedly free and united country under one constitution, but it continues for two reasons: first, because many in the north believe a caricature of southern bigotry spoon fed them for over a century, and second because it is very politically useful to leftists to control southern, more conservative states.
The south has a lot of very valid grievances.  Nowhere in the US constitution or the discussions of the founding fathers was any official position on how to leave the United States if a state chose to.  It was rarely even considered.  Whether a state can leave the union or not is a matter of practice rather than law: several states tried and war resulted to stop it.  The idea of nullification is similarly unclear to many.  It seems obvious to me given the writings of many of the founding fathers that the states can, and shouldignore unconstitutional laws, but many believe this to be solely the purview of the US courts, especially the Supreme Court.
And as for Abraham Lincoln?  Well, he's a mixed bag like we all are.  He was a very noble and good many in many ways, fighting for liberty and struggling to keep a nation together in a time of crisis.  His writings are full of humble concern about doing right and obeying God, and his efforts to help blacks were not just noble but heroic.
On the other hand, he basically took the US constitution and shredded it.  His actions were the basis of most of the expansion of federal government we suffer under today.  He ignored large portions of the law in the name of crisis and emergency, he violated the constitution repeatedly in his efforts to do the right thing (isn't that always the way?), and ultimately he imposed unconstitutional federal power over large swaths of the US in the name of ending slavery.
The greatest speech in US history, the Gettysburg Address, was a blatant violation of the constitution.  The president cannot simply by declaration impose legal change, yet he in that speech announced the end of slavery.  The Emancipation Proclamation had zero legal weight, because the president is not king.  John Wilkes Booth was right in this sense: Lincoln was a tyrant.  He was a generally benevolent one, but President Lincoln ignored law and procedure to do what he thought should be done.
So, the man freed millions of slaves, laid the foundation for the "intercontinental railroad" (as President Obama puts it), and saved the US from fragmenting, but at the same time did it with horrible methods and laid the foundation for the principle that the federal government can do anything whatsoever it wants, as long as the cause is considered right.
So like FDR: good and bad, and we're still suffering from the bad.  And the civil war was both about slavery and state's rights, and unfortunately because the south lost... states have very few rights at all.  That war was ultimately fought over the power of the federal government to impose its will on states, and states - and hence, American citizens - lost.
The sad thing is, because of the taint of slavery on this entire conflict, the very term "states rights" and the idea that states are sovereign within their borders has become equivalent to supporting slavery to many.  If you even mention the concept to many blacks, they instantly assume you're a hateful bigot and love slavery.  Bringing up this aspect makes people instantly turn against you because they associate it with slavery and the civil war.
And I blame the south for that.  Had they not been so fixated on an institution that by the mid 1800s was already fading out due to technological advancements  - something they freely admitted at the time -  then the ideals they argued wouldn't have been so hideously tainted.  Nullification, state's rights, and a limited federal government are all noble causes and just ideas ruined by their stupidity and pride.  And we're all paying the price for that today.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.


Unknown said...

Very good and very well thought out. I liked it.

StephUF said...

Great essay.