A couple of recent titles leave me wondering whether some version of the interpretation that the Civil War was unavoidable owing to the loss of moderate influence is making a resurgence. If so, to what extent has it been fueled by our current political culture? It’s hard not to see this at work in David Goldfield’s recent book, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, which focuses on the infusion of evangelical religion into political discourse as leading to the breakdown. [The video is from a recent presentation based on his book at the Minnesota History Center.] I just started William Cooper’s We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861 so it may be too early to say much of anything that is constructive in this context, but consider one short passage in the preface:
But not all Americans wanted another compromise. In the South, radical secessionists saw this moment, the election of a northern president heading a northern party by northern voters, as their opportunity to disrupt the Union. The North had its own segment that spurned any compromise with the South. These vigorous partisans of the triumphant Republican party were determined to celebrate their victory without any deal with an alarmed, uneasy South.
Of course, two books does not make a school of thought and I have not offered much in terms of historiography, but I thought it might help to get the intellectual juices flowing. What do you think?
I was hoping that yesterday’s post would not turn into another round of the same old back and forth over the cause of the war, but that is exactly what happened. Unfortunately, most of what is usually offered in such discussions lacks any serious analysis and/or context. I was hoping to encourage readers to share those books that have informed their understanding of the coming of secession and war. For what it’s worth, here are a few of my favorites, though I could just as easily have chosen five others.
I understand that the Internet and social media sites can be an empowering place. It also has a powerful democratizing effect, which I value. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s voice ought to be given equal weight. Though it should be utilized with discretion, sometimes the most appropriate response is the back of the hand. Here is a case where this applies.
This is for those of you who are convinced that the scholarship around the antebellum period, slavery, and secession is fundamentally misguided. My response to you: I DON’T CARE! That may seem a bit dismissive, but that is exactly what I mean to say. I am not interested in what you learned from reading the Dixie Outfitters website, The South Was Right or one of your other Pelican Press books. I am also not interested in your assumptions about what motivates academic historians. Your theories about how some vaguely defined political agenda influences research is of no interest to me.
I’ve read a pretty large chunk of the scholarly literature on slavery and secession and one thing that has been established over the past few decades is that the South’s “peculiar institution” is central to understanding secession and the Civil War. The post photo includes just a small number of relevant books from my personal library. It’s not meant to make you feel insecure, but to give you a sense of how I approach the study of history. My understanding of this subject comes from reading these books, most of them written by professional historians. I spend a great deal of time reading books and journals, not because I’ve become seduced by the academic world, but because these books constitute my education in this area of history. You are going to have to do better if you hope to convince me that the broad interpretation that emerges from these studies is fundamentally flawed.
If critical scholarship is not your cup of tea, so be it. Just please don’t expect me to take you seriously or imagine that I have any interest in your personal beliefs about Civil War history. We are simply on different pages. We have divergent ideas of what it means to engage in the study of history. In the end it’s not a big deal. You are free to discuss your personal beliefs on your own webpage or Facebook site or wherever you can find like-minded people.
The last few posts on the important place that slavery occupied in the Deep South’s secession documents [and here] has been entertaining and informative, but as we all know it quickly gets old as both sides begin to rehash the same arguments. In the end, white southerners made it perfectly clear as to how slavery led them to secession. All too often, however, we lose sight of the fact that many of the official secession documents that were meant to announce to people on the local, state, regional, and even international levels why political ties ties had been severed with the United States also reflect how white southerners viewed themselves in contrast with the North. In other words, the defense of slavery was a catalyst for secession because it occupied such an important place in southern culture.
It’s a crucial step to take, especially in the classroom, since it gets us beyond the old canard of how few southerners actually owned slaves and other distractions. Instead of getting bogged down in the priority of causes or who owned what and how much, the goal is to better understand the meaning that white southerners (slave and non-slaveowner alike as well as those who remained loyal to the Union) attached to the institution. Not surprisingly, they wrote extensively about this on the eve of the Civil War as part of the difficult process of nation building. Consider the following March 14, 1861 editorial from the Richmond Examiner:
Those who suppose the present difficulties of the United States to be the result of an agitation against negro slavery, see only the surface. The true cause of the approaching separation of this country into two parts is the fact that it is inhabited by two peoples, two utterly distinct nations…. It [slavery] has developed our peculiar qualities and peculiar faults, all of them the exact reverses of those created by the system of leveling materialism and of numerical majorities which has attained in the North a logical perfection of application hitherto unknown and unheard of in any part of the whole world. Under the operation of these causes, we repeat the North and the South have come to be inhabited by two nations. They are different in everything that can constitute difference in national character; in their persons, in their pronunciation, in their dress, in their port, in their religious ideas, in their sentiments toward women, in their manners to each other, in their favourite foods, in their houses and domestic arrangements, in their method of doing business, in their national aspirations, in all their tastes, all their principles, in all their pride and in all their shame. The French are not more unlike the English than the Yankees are unlike the Southerners.