Is The Irrepressible Conflict School Making a Comeback?

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?

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4 comments… add one
  • Dudley Bokoski Nov 6, 2012 @ 17:19

    Mr. Noe’s mentioning WW1 is an interesting point. It is striking to me how few people North or South after the war seem to have blamed their section’s politicians for getting them into the war, despite the great loss of life and fortune. Certainly it is reasonable to think this is because both sides thought it was a necessary war for a correct cause.

    But to stay with the WW1 discussion one step further, a critical difference might be that the European public did not have the passionate anger toward their nation’s enemies that the Civil War elicited here. It is easy to understand how, with much less passion involved, the public was more questioning of the butcher’s bill of the first world war. After all, it was a war started in no small part due to railroad time tables and mobilization plans which, once put into action, lead to a collision of national interests.

    The Civil War was different. After the fact we focus on the battles and leaders and great events. What is missed is the intense mistrust and often hatred between the sections before the war itself. It was not just a war of competing goals and agendas, but also a violent expression of contempt by people who believed the worst in each other. As a nation we can be proud of how soldiers north and south fought, but how we allowed ourselves to arrive at the point of war over a number of years is certainly a point worthy of deeper consideration.

  • Ken Noe Oct 29, 2012 @ 5:33

    The first repressible conflict school grew out of disenchantment with blundering politicians that seemingly created a needless World War I. It wouldn’t be surprising if our current national polarization and cynicism about Congress, the White House, and our wars in the Middle East ultimately lead to similar mindsets. Other historiographical sea changes certainly are occurring, such as the revival of “externalism” as a reason for Confederate defeat, and new challenges to the ‘ideological basis of enlistment school’ best exemplified by James McPherson. Civil War scholarship always seems to respond to the last war.

  • Margaret D. Blough Oct 25, 2012 @ 9:39

    I really hope not. It’s like the old saying of, “There’s no such thing as a little bit pregnant.” There are some differences where this is no middle ground. If one member of a couple desperately wants a child and believes his/her life would not be complete without one and the other adamantly does not want to be a parent under any circumstances, you can’t have half a child.

    Furthermore, what compromise was possible after Dred Scott? The basis of the prior compromises had been a line of demarcation between slave territories and and free, leading to a balancing of admission of a new free state by the simultaneous admission of a slave state. Even the Compromise of 1850 caused resentment in free states that went far beyond the religious. Many free state residents, while not liking slavery, were quite content to not bother it if it didn’t bother them, but they saw the new Fugitive Slave Law coming out of the Compromise of 1850 as potentially forcibly turning them into slave=catchers.

    Finally, the South was ALWAYS alarmed and uneasy. Anyone who reads Madison’s Notes on the Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787 can tell that much.

  • Wallace Hettle Oct 25, 2012 @ 6:11

    Two books do not make a school of thought, but when top scholars like Goldfield and Cooper, and arguably Michael Fellman take a position, others are sure to follow. And one could say that Cooper et. al. are following in the footsteps of Michael Holt.

    I should say I found Goldfield’s book unconvincing.

    If it does seem like some kind of neo-revisionism is emerging, I’m sure this is an argument no longer founded on disinterest in the fate of slaves. It is also natural for writers to take pokes at a position strongly held by James McPherson, as his interpretation of the war has been dominant for a quarter of a century.

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