Tuesday, March 5, 2013

My Take On The Uncivil War

Sorry folks, but this is a long one.

Almost everybody these days KNOWS that “The War of Southern Rebellion,” known also as “The War of Northern Aggression,” “The War Between The States,” and “The American Civil War,” was all about slavery, and that the South was in the wrong and the North was in the right. Most of those same folks also KNOW that President Obama is an honest and lovable man who wants only the best for the nation. And then there’s the rest of us. We may not agree on everything, but we know that almost nothing is completely one-sided, and that the accepted “truth” is decided by the winning side in any conflict (or election).

While I believe that the people of the Civil War Era were mostly a more genteel people than is the norm today, there has never been a shortage of sin, since the days of Adam. Slavery, despite the first official case in continental America actually having been the result of a court ruling in favor of a black man owning another black man, became an atrocious plague on this nation. Had whites never owned blacks, there would have been none brought to this country against their will. There would not have been a century and a half for whites to manufacture reasons why they were “morally and intellectually superior” to blacks. Therefore, not only would there have been no slavery, there would have been little or no civil rights protests needed to address the century of black grievances FOLLOWING the Civil War. You might say that the race issue of the nation is a case of the “sons” paying for the sins of the “fathers.”

That being said, on the surface, slavery WAS a major cause of the Civil War. However, no history book that I recall seeing during my years of public schooling made any serious attempt to give the reasons below the surface. For one thing, the southern states had managed to keep fairly good control of congress during the nation’s first 50 years or so. Seniority in the Senate tended to favor the South, and by counting blacks as “partial” human beings (despite the fact that they couldn’t vote), they kept a sizable influence in the House of Representatives. Times were changing by the middle 1800’s, though; most immigrants landed in the North and stayed there for factory jobs opening up as part of the continuing Industrial Revolution. Those immigrants were white, and thus counted as “complete” human beings. Thus, the effect was to bring more and more northern influence into the House, while the South was losing ground. Almost NO-ONE willingly gives up power, once they’ve tasted it, so the South was not exactly a bunch of happy campers. On the other hand, once the North had begun to get a taste of power, they lusted after more.

“The LOVE of money is the root of all evil,” says the Good Book, and that love of money is what the Civil War was really about. The South had mostly sold their cotton to England over the years, since New England spinning and weaving was still in its early stages. However, as the North became more industrialized, it wanted to feed its mills with the cotton that was going to England. Unfortunately, it didn’t want to pay as good a price as England was paying. Also, since the English were kind enough to buy its cotton, the South returned the favor by buying much of its necessary goods from England. This infuriated the North, which felt that the South should have been supporting American businesses. However, because they weren’t as efficient as older English companies in production (or maybe just plain greed), the North charged more for their goods than did England. Thus, the South had no incentive for increasing trade with the North.

As the political winds began to shift, though, the North managed to get tariffs put in place, so items purchased from overseas would cost more. They wrongly believed that the South would simply quit buying from England and start dealing with them. Unfortunately for them, they miscalculated the hostility that such an unfair political move would arouse in the South. They also continued to offer low-ball bids on southern cotton and actually RAISED the price of many northern items, thinking it would still be cheaper for the south to pay their unfair prices than to pay the tariff. Between loyalty for their English friends and anger at Northern opportunists, the South continued dealing with England instead of the North. This, of course, gave rise to great self-righteous indignation in the North.

All this while, there were people working against the horrible institution of slavery. And all this while, the North was treating blacks and poor immigrants little better than slaves themselves. They were paid grossly inferior wages and forced to work in miserable, unsafe conditions. Their children sometimes starved to death. Company towns and script pay were coming into use, and laws were passed not allowing a person to leave a community where he owed money. (This actually got much worse AFTER the Civil War, especially in the coal fields.) The only way that blacks and poor people in the North were any better off than slaves is that they couldn’t be bought and sold and SOME could vote. But of course, the North felt SO superior, because THEY didn’t have slavery.

The opening of western lands created new tension, since neither wanted the new states to be adding senators to the opposite side, or to be shifting the balance in the House. An additional bone of contention is that most northerners considered the federal government to be “the boss” of the states. Southerners were (rightfully) of the opinion that the federal government was to be mostly the SERVANT of the states and that its main function was to provide services (like national defense) more easily and efficiently organized on a large scale. Stated more strongly, the North considered us as ONE NATION, with each state a minor part of the whole; the South considered us to be a confederation of MANY NATIONS, as we were under the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor to our constitution. Like it or not, the South was right.

There were some flaming abolitionists in the north (think John Brown) just itching to spill blood to free the slaves, while there were some southerners just itching to give “those damn greedy Yankees” their come-uppance. Many in the south were jealous of the industrial base of the north, while many northern businessmen resented the fact that they had to pay their help, while the south had “free” labor. Most people in the north didn’t personally care about the Negroes; they just considered the institution un-Christian and wanted to free them and send them back to Africa. (Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe were among those who desired to do so.) Despite his personal distaste for slavery, Lincoln publically stated that he would tolerate it to preserve the union. Intelligent people on both sides eventually felt that war was inevitable, but were determined not to fire the first shot. Unfortunately for the South, they eventually weakened and fired that first shot. That cast them as the villain in many otherwise open minds.

Northern men wouldn’t have been too willing to go to war if they had realized it was more a war about money than anything else. So, in the north, the abolition of slavery was pushed as the main goal, with the “preservation of the union” as a secondary goal. In the south, it was “state’s rights” and the preservation of their way of life (which required slavery). Apparently, such causes were adequate to convince thousands of American men of the nobility of fighting and dying. It was a sad and shameful chapter in our history, and the whole truth of the war and its causes will never be known, but there was more than enough blame and shame to go around.

Just for the record, I used to read a lot about the major players of that war and I came to the conclusion that Lincoln was the second greatest man of the era, despite being the politician that he was. I don’t mean that as a put-down, but as an honor, for he had some stiff competition. After reading a great deal of his personal correspondence, I vote for Robert E. Lee as the greatest man of the conflict, and perhaps for all before and after. That’s just my opinion, of course, but I’m sticking with it. © 2013

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