The Causes of the Civil War, 8/10

Edited by Kenneth M. Stumpp. Published by Prentice-Hall, 1959.

Very useful anthology of essays on the causes of the Civil War. Drawn from all periods–before, during, and from each succeeding generation, at least through the 1950s. Stampp’s organization of the book into seven chapters works well. From these myriad writings we cover the more significant aspects of the sectional crisis.

The writing, naturally is variable, according to each author’s ability. Lincoln direct, clear style stands out; Alexander Stephens is also an adept writer. Given the generally high quality, or, at least, relevance of the authors’ and editor Stampp’s contributions, maybe there’s not enough. The total of 91 excerpts sounds great; all but the shortest, however, are abridged (for 181 pages total). Many times I wanted to see a more complete argument or picture of an individual author’s view. Nearly all of the entries are from journals or articles; so even the original texts were relatively short. The longest entry is five pages, most are two to three pages. What’s there is definitely well-presented. I like how the editor sets up each chapter, and then gives a quick but solid introduction to each entry.

The content, abbreviated though it is, includes writings from every principle politician and many significant historians of the era. Whether by design, or more likely, just by exposition of these opinions, one can see the intractable nature of the North/South conflict. Although there were plenty of attempts to minimize the differences–particularly by cloaking the slavery issue in purely economic or philosophical terms–the problem of slavery drew in so many points of contention as to make it an unavoidable issue.

When Lincoln responded to Alexander H. Stephen’s letter in late 1860, as the secession crisis was in play, but before the war began, one can’t help but think that he understated his case by a vast distance. “You (i.e., Stephens, the secessionist South generally) think slavery is right and ought to be extended, while we (in the North) think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us” (p.151). Stampp comments that Lincoln is narrowly focused on an abstract point; that is, that the pro-slavery and anti-slavery views were only superficially different. Obviously, that was absurd. Stampp is correct in pointing out that discrepancy.

It’s still possible, however, that Lincoln was well aware of the unrealistic tone the controversy had taken on. Stephen’s response shows that he is depending entirely on legalistic argument (p.152) for his rebuttal. The fundamental nature of the disagreement, which, in less decorous communications, manifested outright hatred, grown out of religious, moral, rational, historical, cultural, and traditional sources.

It’s not hard to see why the legalistic arguments defending the existence of slavery gained traction for many Southerners. The Founding Fathers, wanting above all to cement a union of states in order to more effectively prosecute the war against England during the Revolution, and later, to consolidate the victory by establishing the United States of America, had to compromise on the slavery issue. The disagreement on which powers were reserved for the states is indeed a legalistic issue, and did bear directly on slavery. On the Federal or Northern side, the validity and legality of secession was key. As Lincoln stated in 1861 “the Union of these states is perpetual…It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination” (p.39).

In 1789, as in 1820, 1832, and 1850, there were means to overcome these washed-out bridges in logic between North and South. But by 1860-1861, every bit of compromise had been tried and found lacking by one or both sides. It proved impossible to appeal to reason when the borders of reasoning had shifted as far apart as the sections. The Causes of the Civil War does give the lasting impression that the war was inevitable.

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