Originally aired on September 30, 1994 - In part 5 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson says that to believe that the sole cause of the Civil War was the slavery issue is to show a remarkable lack of historical judgment.
#5 – Slavery and the Coming of War
When a war ends with a negotiated peace, burning questions linger thereafter. The American Civil War was no exception. Almost as soon as the guns ceased firing, arguments began over what had caused the conflict in the first place. Today, more than 130 years later, that public debate continues. Unfortunately, the loudest voices seem to come from the extremes of opinion.
To say that slavery had nothing to do with the coming of the Civil War is to confess a total ignorance of American history in the fifteen years between 1845 and 1860. Likewise, to assert that slavery alone was the cause of the war is to show an amazing lack of historical judgment. Too many of those who write letters-to-the-editor and those who produce television extravaganzas are guilty of oversimplification.
The facts are unmistakably clear: throughout the first half of the 19th Century, slavery was the focal point of all the differences between North and South. Every disagreement between the two sections – except for slavery – could have been settled through normal democratic means. But slavery poisoned all national questions. It incited deep moral commitments and longstanding biases. The issue of slavery became too much of a traffic jam for the existent political avenues to unsnarl. Slavery smashed the established structures of politics, parties, and two major religious denominations.
Event after event, stretching over thirty years, led to an atmosphere of hostility that burned beyond the ability of anyone to control it. By 1860, slavery was the one issue which could not be compromised; it was the one issue that made men so angry they did not want to compromise. Slavery first put a cutting edge on all arguments. It then sliced the nation in two.
There would have been no civil war without slavery. However, to say simply that “slavery caused the Civil War” is sophomoric thinking if not acutely inaccurate. Much more was involved than slavery to force thousands of men to kill and be killed. Slavery was the catalyst around which a number of other – and vitally important – issues congregated as they tore apart the young republic. Three of those elements must be kept in mind in order to understand why war came at that particular time and in that particular way.
The first associated elements were uncontrollable passions. If you do not understand the pure emotionalism of America in the mid-19th century, you will never understand the Civil War. Viewed dispassionately today in an age of media saturation, and with a political sophistication that borders on cynicism, the sentiments of the 1850s do not make much sense.
But emotionalism ruled the day. It swept the country like a tidal wave, uncontrollable and destructive. Gladly, even joyously, North and South responded to Fort Sumter with cheers and flag-waving. “War! War! We’re going to war.” They shouted, as if it were a time for some kind of celebration. Caught up in the quest for heroics, Americans forgot the quest for compromise – and compromise is the only middle ground on which democracy can survive.
The second element that gave momentum to the coming of war was that, at precisely the time slavery was occupying the center of the national stage, the sectional balance of power within the Union was undergoing fundamental change. The once-dominant South was slipping into the status of a permanent minority. The North was determined to assert its new-found strength. While the South defended its institutions on the basis of state rights, the North insisted on a new and restructured national society.
It is easy enough now to say that the federal government should have interceded. Do not say it. If you do, you make the big mistake of looking at the past through the lenses of the present. That is not the way to understand history.
The federal government was, in fact, the third element in the coming of war – not because of anything it did but because of its failure to do anything. Washington, D.C., was not then a bastion of power. The central government was wallowed in an adolescence of confusion. “Uncle Sam” was too young and too inexperienced to cope with these sudden, overwhelming demands.
Slavery and its satellite issues – emotionalism, deep-seeded sectionalism, and an impotent federal authority – had become too much for the American system. A landslide of disunion began. Violence took the place of an unworkable peace. Men turned to war when no solution appeared elsewhere. In 1861 the future became dark and dangerous, because the past had failed as a guide.