This month, 150 years ago, the Civil War, or “War Between the States,” began with the attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. This month, 146 years ago, that War on the battlefield ended with the fall of Richmond, and the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse (though the military and political occupation of the states that had formed the Confederacy would continue for another 11 years). In between those two Aprils in the 1861 and 1865, on a cold and overcast day in November, 1863, President Lincoln crystallized the purpose for which the War would be fought to a conclusion:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. …
…It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…
— that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom
— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Over the last few weeks several pundits have been wringing their hands over a renewed debate over the cause of the Civil War: was it state’s rights, was it slavery, or was it something else altogether? Moreover, the perennial debates have re-emerged over the propriety of flying a version of the flag of the Confederacy in public places. Most of the pundits seem to be chastising Americans who don’t seem to “get it” that the War was about slavery, and these same editorialists continue to froth at the mouth over the sight of the Stars and Bars.
I have a slightly different take on all of this that I’d like to share with you, and which I hope will add to mix of thoughts we consider as the nation’s Sesquicentennial of the Civil War starts its four-year observance.
I want to start by sharing an observation that would not have been accurate when I first came to Texas as a young man 31 years ago: the Civil War is finally over. Some time over these last three decades we stopped looking at each other with distrust or disdain while asking “where are your from;” we stopped celebrating a holiday for Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee and, instead, began celebrating a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and universally celebrating Memorial Day; the party of Lincoln became the dominant political force in Dixie and selected a Chairman who was African-American; and we have elected an African-American as President of the United States.
For those people younger than 40 who grew-up as the final social remnants of this War faded from our habits and customs, it is hard to appreciate how miraculous this development really has been. For many of us who trace the roots of our family trees to the United States that exited before 1860, our family histories and heir-looms often include cherished stories and artifacts from the War, while for some those histories and heir-looms remind us of a darker, more painful memory of our failure to live up to our ideals. The collective memory fueled by these family histories helped continue habits and customs of regional, social, political, and racial animosities for generations—but which now seem so odd that they are truly hard to explain to young people today.
I was blessed to grow-up learning a very balanced story of the War. My ancestors fought on both sides of the War, and I grew-up with stories and heir-looms from both sides of the conflict. But I also grew-up in the region of Central Illinois, where Lincoln rode the circuit, and where he and Douglas debated in 1858. Surrounded by Lincoln’s memory, we were taught that, although the Confederacy had better generals and military strategy, and defended arguably correct interpretations of the Constitution and the law as it existed at that time, the purpose of the War described that day in Gettysburg by Lincoln, and the ultimate preservation of our nation that resulted from the War, were just and right.
Somehow, after all these generations, we have learned to retain a pride in the heritage of our families and communities, while at long last putting aside the animosities that we held for so long. Now, for all but a few diehards, we share a belief that preserving the nation and its founding ideals, and working to make those ideals a reality for all men and women who call themselves Americans, was just and right.
But to acknowledge all of these developments doesn’t mean that we have stopped thinking—or should ever stop thinking—about what caused that War, because those underlying causes are deeply imbedded in the continuing American experience:
- The division of our governmental responsibilities between states and the federal government;
- The different influences that the vast and varied geography spanning North America continue to have on regional and national economics and politics;
- The central influence that religion has played in developing our national character and shaping public debates;
- The ambition to create one people out of settlers and immigrants from every corner of the globe, and to equally protect the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of each individual; and
- The restlessness of spirit that liberty agitates.
By the 1840s, the institution of slavery had become the catalyst by which each of these causes combined to tear the country apart.
Although Americans have always shared a restless spirit, the 15 years that preceded the War may have been the most restless in our history. Our borders expanded through war and annexation to include what is now the entire Continental United States. New territories were being formed and settled, and new states admitted into the Union. America began to absorb one of the first great waves of European immigration due to drought, famine and revolution. Gold was discovered in California, which caused the greatest internal migration the country has ever experienced, and which invited immigration from across the Pacific, all of which would keep parts of California in a state of violent turmoil until the start of the War. The opposition Whig party would disintegrate into several factions arguing over the political impact of these issues, and slavery, and would eventually lead to the formation of a wholly new political party by the mid-1850s—the Republican Party. Central to all of these phenomena was the question of what to do about the institution of slavery.
By the 1840s the continuation of slavery was being challenged throughout the Western World, but it truly was coming into stark contrast with America’s ideals. However, no one quite knew whether and how a society could last that was not based on, and run by a homogeneous race, ethnicity, clan, tribe, or religion. Even the most enlightened thinkers of the day were pessimistic that a society could be maintained among people of different races (let alone people of different races who also came from different ethnic groups, clans, tribes and/or religious traditions) largely because it simply had never been tried or accomplished by any other society. This question impacted not only the debate about slavery, but also the fierce debate over immigration during the 1850s.
Throughout the political and economic debate over slavery, religious leaders were on both sides of the issue, created religious teachings to support each side, and lent a tone of moral fervor to each side’s hardening positions. These hardened positions split denominations and congregations, as well as communities.
The differences in climate and geography between the North and the South had created completely different economies and societies. Slavery was not just a moral and political issue, it was an issue that impacted the credit and solvency of the entire region, because slaves were used as collateral for credit throughout the South. The Southern economy, in turn, perpetuated plantations, small farms and small towns, while the North had begun its development of larger farms and urbanization based on a free-market for labor. By the end of the 1850s, though, the economics of slavery was beginning to unravel due to prolonged droughts in Europe and the development of high-yield cotton production in Egypt, which made Iowa farm products more valuable to our trading partners—and to our nation’s diplomacy—than Southern cotton.
The imbalance between the power of the states and the federal government prohibited the federal government from crafting a national solution to slavery. Time after time, Congress had attempted to reach compromises that addressed the slavery issue, but each time the compromises failed or were overturned by the Courts. Finally, the infamous Dredd Scott decision clarified for all that the national government lacked the power to address an issue that crossed state lines and was of national importance—the institution of slavery.
By the eve of the 1860 election, all of these causes of division between the North and the South became entangled with the issue of slavery. To glibly say that any one of the causes of division can be separated from the issue of slavery as the “cause” of the War is as wrong as saying that “slavery” was the only cause of the War. All of these problems came together over slavery to bring about the War, and “slavery” had to be resolved in order to address the underlying divisions that caused the regional conflict and end the War.
Slavery officially ended with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution immediately after the military conflict ended, but resolving the underlying divisions took more than 100 years. Moreover, the causes of those divisions still roil our national debates today, and probably will for as long as there is an America. For instance:
- though we have expanded the scope of the power of the federal government 9 times by amendment, we still desire a limited federal government and debate the correct balance of local versus state versus federal authority;
- though mass media, mass production, and mass migration have reduced our regional economic and political differences, geography and history still combine to produce different regional viewpoints and activities that affect the nation;
- though race is no longer a source of religious dispute in this nation, the disciplines of our respective faiths still play a major role in the way we view the role of government and how we vote;
- though we have become the most heterogeneous society on Earth, we still struggle with how to assimilate new people into our nation and how to live by our ideals; and
- our desire to live as free people, and to develop our talents to their fullest potential, keep us restless and constantly in dynamic motion—both as individuals and as a society.
Rather than defend the public display of artifacts of a dispute long over—like flying the Stars and Bars over a government building—it is time to put those artifacts on our private shelves and get on with the continuing work of making our Founders’ vision work. Rather than continue to debate whether and how slavery helped cause the Civil War, we should recognize that slavery arose as the single issue that caused our divisions to become irreconcilable.
Then, we should commit to study and debate the tensions that will always exist in our society, and why, in the middle of the 1800s, they caused us to go to war with each other, in order to make sure that we never let that happen again. Through the learning that comes from such study and debate, we should gain the wisdom to never repeat that mistake.
Now that the Civil War is finally over, I hope that we start to gain such wisdom during this Sesquicentennial commemoration.