Did Democracy Cause the American Civil War?

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Description: A hundred and fifty years ago the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. It was a war that was to result in the deaths of perhaps three quarters of a million people. Yet the United States in 1861 was the world’s first modern democratic nation — a place in which virtually all white men could vote and in which mass political parties vied for votes in noisy and hotly contested elections. What was the relationship between the coming of the war and this kind of democratic politics? Contrary to the assumptions of International Relations specialists who have posited that democracies do not go to war with one another, was this a war made more likely, and, once it started, more bloody, by the principles and practice of popular sovereignty?

Talk was presented by Dr. Adam Smith of University College, London.

9 comments… add one

  • Ray O'Hara Feb 4, 2012

    For the South and modern day Lost Cause adherents the very fact Lincoln won was a failure of democracy and it meant the disenfranchisement of the South.
    Today I was informed on a different forum that the “South” was being oppressed because its voting power was not the equal or superior to the rest of the Country.

    So I would say it wasn’t a lack of democracy but the rejection of democracy by a segment of the country that caused the war.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 4, 2012

      OK, but I am not quite sure how this relates to the content of Smith’s lecture.

  • Pat Young Feb 4, 2012

    The “Democracy” was America’s preeminent school of white supremacy. White supremacists saw their opponents as Puritan bigots who were intolerant of slavery, immigration, and Catholicism.

    Democracy after Martin Van Buren demanded mass participation in partisanship to an unprecedented level. Hence, popular anger set the stage for mass violence.

  • Marooned Feb 5, 2012

    Excellent.

    This should be included in all high school courses that deal with government and American history.

  • Woodrowfan Feb 5, 2012

    very interesting, thank you for posting it.
    One note, I have read a fair number of the studies on the idea that democracies do not go to war against other democracies. It is based upon the critical factor that the democracies recognize each other as democracies. In 1861 did the North and South consider the other a genuine, legitimate democracy? I would argue that in fact they did not. In that case, the war would indeed fit the model, on both sides, of a democracy trying to win popular support against a non-democratic enemy. Of course the irony is that you had this on both sides claiming the other represented tyranny.

  • Lyle Smith Feb 5, 2012

    I liked his talked. He does a great job of emphasizing how the economics of slavery buttressed the politics of slavery and secession.

    Victor Davis Hanson also makes the argument that wars between democracies are usually very bloody affairs (mass organized consensus against mass organized consensus – compared to mass organized consensus against a non-democratic monarchy or oligarchy)

  • Mark Curran Mar 30, 2012

    What caused the Civil War? Are you kidding? The Southern leaders shouted it from the rooftops, at the time. They put it in headlines in the newspapers, at the time. Sermons, speeches, books made it very clear, at the time.

    The SPREAD of slavery — the wildly aggressive Southern leaders insisted that slavery be spread — into the territories. They said it over, and over, and over. In fact, Jefferson Davis himself said it before, and after the Civil War. Read his book – he said the “intolerable grievance” that made war necessary was NOT John Brown’s raid, and was NOT any tariff issue, but the intolerable grievance was those who resisted the SPREAD of slavery into the territories.

    In fact, read newspaper headlines after secession, but before the shooting started, in Richmond Newspapers. The headline “THE TRUE ISSUE” — what was the true issue? The SPREAD of slavery. They were bragging about it. Read the article yourself.

    Did Richmond newspapers know what they were talking about? Did Jefferson Davis? For two generations, the spread of slavery was the oxygen in the air. Again and again the radical religious fanatics who insisted God ordained slavery, and even the torture of slaves (yes, read Southern books bragging about this too, at the time) and slavery must spread, like the gospel itself. Vice President Stephens gave a series of speeches boasting that the Confederacy was just the “first nation” to obey God’s law about total and perpetual enslavement of black inferior races. That was “the cornerstone” of their new nation.

    Did Stephens know what he was talking about? Jeff Davis would repeat the “cornerstone” quip in his own speech later, claiming slavery was the cornerstone. And slavery must be spread.

    Read the article in the Richmond (and other Southern) newspapers at the time, detailing the “Five Ultimatums”. All five ultimatums — promises of war –were about one issue : the spread of slavery. All five! Not one, not two, not three ultimatums, but ALL FIVE. Slavery must be spread — or there would be war.

    This was not just the ranting of Davis, Stephens and southern editors. The spread of slavery was the issue for 60 years. The “Compromise” of 1820, was about as much a compromise as a 7-11 armed robbery, and likewise, the “Compromise” of 1850. Spread slavery or face war, was the issue in 1820 and 1850. The North capitulated. The slave owners promised that’s all they wanted — to push slavery where white people wanted it.

    But in 1860, people in Kansas had rejected slavery, emphatically, violently resisting the thugs and murderers sent out by slave owners. In a Kansas vote, slavery was rejected by a stunning 98% to 2%. Probably no place on earth was more anti slavery, by that time, than Kansas.

    So what was the FIRST — very first — thing Confederate leaders did in Montgomery after secession? They came up with what would be called the Five ULtimatums, in Southern papers. Slavery MUST be spread.

    This was a goofy ultimatum, but it made perfect sense to men raised from childhood to believe God gave them power to enslave. Upon their word, children were sold, women were abused, and men burnt to death for fighting back. These men had become, as George Mason predicted in 1780, insane with power, poisoned by the idea of their own power. To them, an ultimatum to Lincoln that he must spread slavery made perfect sense. They got what they wanted their whole life by terrorizes and threats.

    They assumed they would get what they wanted — the spread of slavery — once again. But this was a bridge too far. It was like Hitler demanding England invade Poland for the amuesment of the Germans. Lincoln was not going to spread slavery, for Jeff Davis or any other fantatic.

    And when Lincoln did not obey the South’s Ultimatums — as promised, the South attacked.

    For 150 years now, the South has tried to downplay, ignore, dismiss, and cover up the fanatical, violent, repugnant nature of the Confederacy. We don’t hear, for example, about Rober E Lee’s torture of slave girls as young as 14 years old, or find out Lee was obsessed about certain light skinned girls, and their even lighter skinned babies. In fact we hear almost nothing about the real day to day events of that period other than self serving drivel from Confederate apologist.

  • Richard Taylor Jul 10, 2012

    RE Lee was a great general, perhaps the greatest American general of all time. It does not necessarily follow, then, that he was a great man. Great men (now, in the 21st Century, great persons) exceed their time, their place, what they were taught and the devils that haunt them to do what it is that makes them great. Lee has received the plaster saint routine much like Lincoln (Lee is the Southern Lincoln), although Lincoln was exceptional in almost every regard while Lee was exceptional in one, and was defeated by another man who was exceptional in a slightly different regard. If he beat slaves, then he is beneath respect. If he sold babies after tearing them from their mothers arms because he was enjoined not to sell the mothers, but the babies were outside the law, then he is despicable. It’s been 150 years since the Civil War, but there is no statute of limitations for inhumanity. If he did those things, his image and name should be removed from all government buildings and the truth should be taught to all who will listen.

  • Richard Taylor Jul 10, 2012

    On the subject of democracy and did it cause the Civil War, the South gained extra seats in Congress counting slaves as a fraction of a human being while giving them no representation. When the North began to outgrow the South, and worse from their perspective, gain control of Congress because of it, they decided losing an election was tantamount to a declaration of war. They were happy with democracy as long as it favored them, in the same way they loved states rights as long as it was their states receiving the rights. When the fugitive slave act imposed upon the rights of Pennsylvania and New York and elsewhere, well, they were against those states and their rights.

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