Robert Penn Warren called the Civil War the “American oracle.” It changed the country’s destiny. It was the great pivot upon which the path of the American story forever turned.
One hundred and fifty plus years later, in an age where history is any news older than 24 hours, it is easy to think of the American Civil War as ancient history – or to not even think of it at all. Yet, for all the progress in race relations that has been made in the U.S. since then, it is unfortunately evident that bigotry and hatred of “those not like me” is still extant in the American fabric.
America elected its first black president in 2008 yet the resulting resentment fueled a commitment by political opposition leaders to destroy his presidency, even at the risk of harming the country and its citizenry. Political representatives of the “Party of Lincoln” unabashedly passed legislation specifically designed to prevent blacks and other minorities from voting. Ironically, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated for supporting enfranchisement for blacks.
The American Civil War was a time of extraordinary sacrifice. It was a time of genuine exceptionalism, when white men from essentially all walks of life sacrificed home, family and existence for the principle of human equality.
On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the McLean family home in Appomattox. Lt. Colonel Ely S. Parker, a Seneca Indian who became one of General Grant’s closest friends and advisors, made the formal ink copy of the terms of surrender. Seeing that Parker was an American Indian, General Lee remarked to Parker, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker replied, “Today, we are all Americans.”
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Declaration of Independence is America’s cross to bear. And it is a heavy one at that.
Even the very men who penned the Declaration, which inspired the defeat of the world’s most formidable army by a bunch of farmers, could not live up to its spirit when it came time to draft the U.S. Constitution eleven years later.
At the time of the Constitutional Convention, there were about half a million slaves in the United States, mostly in the five southernmost states, where they comprised 40% of the population. Hotly debated at the Convention was the issue of whether to include slaves in the calculation to determine state representation in Congress.
As expected, delegates from southern states argued that slaves should be considered “persons” to determine representation, but as “property” if the new government were to levy taxes on the basis of population. Northern state delegates, where slavery was uncommon, argued that slaves should be included in taxation, but, since they could not vote, should not be included in determining representation.
Americans today know this as the “taxation v. representation” debate.
The final compromise — count “all other persons” as three-fifths of their actual numbers — reduced the representation of the slave states relative to original proposals, but improved their representation in relation to free-states. An inducement for slave states to accept the Compromise was its tie to taxation in the same ratio, so that the burden of taxation on slave states was also reduced.
The Three-Fifths Compromise gave slave states a disproportionate influence in the new central government, namely the presidency, through the Electoral College, the speakership of the House, and the Supreme Court.
This was not meaningless. Historian Garry Wills proposed that without the additional slave state votes, Thomas Jefferson would have lost the presidential election of 1800, Missouri would have been admitted as a free state, Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act would never have passed in Congress, and the Wilmot Proviso, which banned slavery in territories won from Mexico, would have passed.
The other key provision was Article IV, Section 2, “No person held to Service or Labour in one State” “escaping into another,” “shall be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”
South Carolina delegates submitted this clause to the Constitutional Convention. Northern delegates objected, stating it would require that state governments enforce slavery at taxpayers’ expense. Notwithstanding the objection, the clause was quietly reinstated and adopted by the Convention without objection.
Thomas Jefferson described the justification best when he said, “as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”
In short, despite the lofty idealism of the Declaration, the United States was born under pragmatism leading to compromise, with the trade bait being slavery.
Even the strident abolitionist Benjamin Franklin waited until the Constitution was ratified to voice his opposition to slavery. His last public act was to petition Congress on behalf of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society to abolish slavery and end the slave trade. The petition, signed on February 3, 1790, asked the first Congress, then meeting in New York City, to “devise means for removing the Inconsistency from the Character of the American People,” and to “promote mercy and justice toward this distressed Race.”
Franklin’s “Inconsistency” set the stage for civil war.
By virtue of the Three-Fifths Clause in the Constitution, southern or slaveholding states, despite being less populous, controlled the national government for much of the period between 1787 and 1860. In effect, the minority ruled the majority.
With that political power and the use of slave labor, in particular to the growing of cotton, the economy of the antebellum South grew rapidly. Between 1840 and 1860, per capita income in the South outpaced the rest of the nation. In 1860, the state with the highest per capita income was Mississippi. It took Italy almost 80 years – until the eve of World War II – to achieve the same level of per capita income.
Mid-century, the economic system of slavery was never stronger. Slave owners relished the opportunity to take this business model to California and Western Territories, Cuba and Latin America.
Much of the North did not necessarily stand in their way. Some of the country’s wealthiest companies and families made their fortunes either directly or indirectly on slavery. With much of the South’s cotton and sugar financed and traded by New York City merchants, the City actually contemplated joining the secession movement after South Carolina made the first move.
What did stand in their way was a growing social consciousness – abolitionism – fermented on the strength of its righteousness and the will power of many indomitable, eloquent and charismatic leaders. In time, the moral opposition to slavery made its way into politics and Free State legislation that increasingly widened the social, economic and political divide between the sections.
On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech upon being selected as the new Republican Party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate against the Democratic candidate, Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln’s words apparently were too “candid” for the public to hear and often cited as the main reason he lost to Douglas.
A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.
Without stating so directly, Lincoln predicted war. The future was binary – the United States, or the Union, would be all free or cease to exist. There was no third option of “half slave and half free.”
Southerners, however, were in no frame of mind to change their way of life or abolish their peculiar institution. Increasingly, Northerners were not willing to simply let slavery be.
This conflict of interests and wills overwhelmed further compromise with the election of Lincoln in 1860. The minority was threatened when the majority took control of the national government, unquestionably fearing it would seek to first contain and then abolish slavery. In response, the minority seceded and formed a “new national government” that would preserve slavery.
The South’s political objective to become an independent state in order to protect slavery was countered by the North’s political objective to preserve the single democratic state memorialized in George Washington’s first inaugural when he referred to the “indissoluble union”.
The story is presented in chronological order, beginning with the election of 1860, by three “contemporary” reporters speaking from a newsroom that all too familiar today. Their narration is intermixed with the actual words of three of the most important “historical” characters: Jefferson Davis, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Tying the narrative to its true chronological order is, I believe, essential to gaining an appreciation of the event. Political and battlefield happenings brought incredible highs and lows to public sentiment on both sides.
I do not think it is possible to “grasp” the story of the Civil War without this sense of “being there” because the homeland sentiment, in return, affected so much of what could be achieved back in the political and battlefield arenas.
Lastly, I end this introduction of why I felt compelled to undertake this project with a few words from Robert E. Lee, who said it better than I could.
“The March of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient, the work of progress is so immense, and our means to aid it so feeble, the life of humanity is so long, and that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave, and we are thus discouraged.
It is history that teaches us to hope.”