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Boritt, ed. Why the Civil War Came. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1996. xvii + 253 pp.
Of the many issues in nineteenth-century American history perhaps no question has attracted the attention of historians more consistently than the causes of the Civil War. As scholars have debated the possible origins, including the blundering politicians, economics, states' rights, and slavery, a growing consensus suggests that the inviolability of the Union, the failure of the political system, and the moral issue of racial slavery made the war an irrepressible conflict. In this fine collection of essays, Why the Civil War Came, Gabor S. Boritt has brought together the insights of seven of the nation's most respected authorities to address various aspects of this ongoing debate. A volume in the Gettysburg Civil War Institute Books series, the collection presents a fresh look at the central issues, including Abraham Lincoln's responsibility, the role of women and African Americans, the political process in both North and South, and the attitudes of average Americans and politicians in both sections on the eve of Fort Sumter. The essays, which vary greatly in length, deal with such diverse topics that they can be read separately or as a whole. Yet together, they provide an up-to-date account of the views of a significant element of the historical profession in the mid-1990s.
Boritt begins with a look at the man at the center of all interpretations with an essay entitled "'And the War Came'?: Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility." As with each of the contributors, Boritt is well qualified as the author of numerous Civil War volumes including Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (1978, 1994) and as the director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg. Like most northerners, Lincoln, according to Boritt, overestimated southern unionism and believed too strongly in the senselessness of war, assuming that his views were shared by all but a tiny minority in both North and South. Committed to containing the spread of slavery although at first not to total abolition, Lincoln continued to believe that the South would Page [End Page 55] not resort to war to sustain secession. He pledged in his inaugural address that he would not initiate a war, and he remained convinced that when the war did come the Confederacy was the aggressor. Yet in looking back on the events as the war ended in 1865, he blamed neither southerners nor himself. Both sides had hoped and expected to achieve their goals short of war. He also recognized that without slavery there would have been no war. No historian, including Boritt, can add much that has not already been said on this topic, but he does succeed in placing our focus on the role of the central figure in the debate and again reveals the impossibility of avoiding the cataclysm in the spring of 1861.
Entering into less charted waters, Glenna Matthews explores the role of women in the coming of what has been traditionally assumed to have been a male-dominated war. Having written two studies on the role of women in American politics, she has studied the antebellum and war years and accurately points out that women began entering the public sphere in increasing numbers in 1830. Her essay, "'Little Women' Who Helped Make This Great War" shows that despite the prohibition against their voting and serving on juries women made their influence felt, especially in the North, in a number of ways. They gave public lectures and used their homes and motherhood to express cultural authority. Because of the sexual abuse slave women faced from white male southerners, women felt they had a special stake in the crusade against slavery. Beginning with Lydia Maria Child's Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans (1833) and continuing with the role of Abby Kelley, Frances Harper, and Sojourner Truth, women brought a greater moral urgency and religious fervor to the movement. As spectators in courtrooms, they sometimes unnerved pro-slavery jurists and attorneys. During the war they were central in the U.S. Sanitary Commission's work and added their voices to the demands that Lincoln accept emancipation. As active supporters of war and emancipation, women, argues Matthews convincingly, played a far more central role than is usually recognized. Denied an actual decision-making role, they nonetheless directly influenced those who did control events.
David W. Blight, the author of Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (1989), accents the central role blacks played before and during the war in "They Knew What Time It Was: African Americans and the Coming of the Civil War." To slaves and free blacks, says Blight, the war would test whether or not they had a future in the United States, for many, like Douglass, feared a Page [End Page 56] peaceful disunion with slavery left in tact. As abolitionists, they were more pragmatic than their often theoretical white brethren and gave a new spirit to antislavery resistance. Many took hope in the political antislavery of the Liberty, Free Soil, and Republican parties and in antislavery interpretations of the Constitution. Although the Dred Scott decision led many to despair and to flee to Canada, most remained as active participants in the political crisis of the 1850s. Blight points out that the potential of slave unrest played a critical role in the increasing tensions and the fear and panic that pervaded parts of the South, a fear that John Brown's raid laid bare in 1859. So too did the slave narratives, which revealed their yearning for a future other than slavery. Blight adds that a study of slave culture is a study of resistance and of religious vision of deliverance both immediate and in a hereafter. Thus, as the war came blacks clearly knew what time it was, for although the white community may not yet have realized it, African Americans recognized that indeed there was a future for them and that the war would destroy the peculiar institution.
Not surprisingly, William E. Gienapp returns the debate on Civil War causation to a breakdown in the two-party system. The author of The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852–1856 (1987) and among those classified as new political historians, Gienapp says amazingly little about slavery itself as a cause of the war, although he recognizes that it was clearly the catalyst behind the political changes of the 1840s and 1850s that he views as so critical. He argues that the coming of war represents "the complete breakdown of the American political system" and "the greatest single failure of American democracy" (p. 82).
Gienapp is especially concerned with the issue of party realignment and why the Jacksonian system of two strong national parties, Democrats and Whigs, was replaced in the mid-1850s by a sectional alignment. With the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso in 1846, a proposal that would have banned slavery in all Mexican War territories, North and South each saw the other as a threat to its vital interests. As feelings intensified so did extremism and the rise of third parties that, says Gienapp, helped undermine political stability. Here he is on more controversial ground when he suggests that third parties allowed extremists to agitate sectional issues, an interpretation implying that even those committed only to limiting the spread of slavery (like the Free Soilers) might better have been silenced had the two-party system operated more effectively. That the political system should have been open to Page [End Page 57] moral dissenters on slavery seems to have been less important than political stability.
Gienapp also subscribes to the old myth that Liberty party votes in New York in 1844 caused Henry Clay to lose that state and made James K. Polk president. This belief was initiated by the Whigs themselves, and most historians have accepted it ever since. Yet it was put to rest when Vernon Volpe showed conclusively that Liberty votes had little impact on the New York outcome ("The Liberty Party and Polk's Election, 1844," Historian 53 [Summer 1991]: 691–710). Gienapp also engages in the kind of speculation that historians are taught to avoid when he suggests that a Clay election would have meant no Texas boundary dispute and therefore no Mexican War and Wilmot Proviso (229n. 20). With many Americans more interested in California than in a Rio Grande border, it is hard to imagine that even as president, Clay could have stopped the urge to seize more westerly Mexican territories.
Gienapp is open to further criticism when he discusses the decline of the Whig party and rise of the Republican party. As a new political historian, he stresses temperance, nativism, and the rise of the American (Know-Nothing) party as central to the downfall of the Whigs and thus the second party system. To this school, these issues were more immediate in 1854 than the explosive question of territorial slavery in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Many historians are not convinced that ethnocultural issues were as central to the decline of the Whigs as was their inability to block the demands of what antislavery northerners called the "slave power" in their push for more slave territory.
But Gienapp presents a more convincing argument when he moves beyond Know-Nothingism and looks at the Republican role in 1856 and later. With the Whigs about to disappear and the South a one-party section, southern Democrats could more easily argue that all Republicans were abolitionists and, even more, committed to racial equality. These southerners insisted on the right of secession to prevent an overturning of their society. Thus, in rejecting any further compromise, they might better control their own destiny. Republicans, for their part, convinced increasing numbers of voters that a small group of selfish slaveholders spoke for all southern voters. Thus with the election of Lincoln by a purely sectional party, matters passed beyond compromise. Gienapp concludes that the two-party system had failed, with southerners willing to go to war to defend their right to self-government and northerners equally determined to resist with force in order to defend law and or- Page [End Page 58] der and majority rule. Major party leaders had failed to strengthen moderate voters and thus were unable to keep a competitive, national two-party system functioning. Again, while critics may wonder about the place of slavery in such an interpretation, we are left to believe that none of this would have developed without slavery having generated the controversy. One might wish that Gienapp had said so more directly.
In some ways, William W. Freehling addresses some of the issues that Gienapp had applied to the North in his study of the slave states. Freehling's article, "The Divided South: Democracy's Limitations and the Causes of the Peculiarly North American Civil War," develops some of the same arguments found in his most recent books, The Road to Disunion: Volume 1: Secessionists at Bay, 1776–1854 (1990) and The Reintegration of American History: Slavery and the Civil War (1994). Like Gienapp, he suggests that the democratic system "could not peacefully resolve our own greatest social problem, slavery" (p. 127). While Gienapp looks at the failure of the two-party system, Freehling shows how slaveholders of the lower South, a small minority of southern whites, managed to mobilize others of their race as they had been unable to do anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. They effectively combined racism and the presence of large numbers of slaves with their use of a constitution that could be interpreted to their needs and in the process kept even much of the border South as allies.
In part, slaveholders found strength in the difficult process of amending the Constitution. With two-thirds of each house of Congress and three-quarters of the state legislatures necessary, slave-holders knew that a direct constitutional attack on slavery was a near impossibility. With extra seats in the House due to the three-fifths clause they would still take no chances and demanded 100 percent southern adherence to their proslavery position. Here the attacks of the Garrisonians played into their hands, argues Freehling, for the abolitionists' reckless charges served only to convince moderate southerners that a danger to their way of life did exist. Even as the South united, northerners could come together in opposition on some slave-related issues that they believed threatened democracy, such as when they feared the repeal of the Gag Rule in 1844.
Events that followed added to the North-South polarization, such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the repeal of the 36° 30' line in 1854. Yet the South's failure to secure the admission of Kansas as a slave state in 1858 was their first setback in Congress on a Page [End Page 59] major slavery issue. While the Senate approved the bill 33 to 25, the House rejected it but only with the aid of six upper South former Whigs. Thus, slaveholders still feared the erosion of their support in border areas. Whether they actually did the mathematical calculations, Freehling suggests, seems unlikely. For example, he argues that slaveholders worried lest in a forty-four state Union (there were only thirty-four states in 1861, nineteen free and fifteen slave) a 33 to 11 vote might have forced emancipation. Yet with border states receptive to arguments for gradual emancipation if accompanied by colonization, a concept enhanced with Lincoln's election, slaveholders in the lower South forced the issue of secession knowing the upper South would defend their right to leave. Only in this way, says Freehling, could one or two states force the southern majority's hand on the expediency of secession. An organized, determined minority overcame not only the majority in the North but a majority of their fellow white southerners in defense of slavery. Such an outcome proved impossible in those areas of Latin America where slavery still flourished, and only the United States required a civil war to abolish it. Freehling thus makes a convincing case for the uniqueness of the American situation that provides a key to our understanding of the coming of a war that few wanted.
The final two essays address the question of attitudes at the time the war began. Mark W. Summers has written four monographs focused on nineteenth-century America, two dealing with the surprising degree of corruption in public and private life before and after the Civil War, The Plundering Generation (1988) and The Era of Good Stealings (1993). His essay, "'Freedom and Law Must Die Ere They Sever': The North and the Coming of the Civil War," looks at the attitudes of both politicians and ordinary citizens, including troops, when the war began. In addition to the holiday spirit and the genuine and emphatic war fervor that Summers acknowledges has been well-documented, he adds two more original concepts. First, he suggests that a conservative spirit dominated the North. Rather than a war against slavery, the Union was waging a war against revolution and change demanded by the "slave power" aggressor. It was a war in defense of the American Revolution and its heritage, with soldiers defending the republic, not attempting to convert others to abolition. Second, Summers argues that politics as usual, Republican versus Democrats, was more the rule than the Union party appeal to bring Democrats into a coalition to support the Lincoln war effort as many have argued. Each par- Page [End Page 60] ty claimed to be the true patriots as each sought to have greater devotion to the Union than the other. While the Union party made some inroads, especially in the Old Northwest, partisan politics had a greater appeal. One might ask, however, whether Summers is confusing the Peace Democrats or Copperheads with the War Democrats, for the Republican party clearly had to create a coalition with the latter to govern effectively in both Congress and in several northern state legislatures. Nonetheless, Summers significantly adds to our knowledge of northern views and politics when the war began.
Charles Royster explores attitudes in both sections in the spring of 1861 in the final and briefest essay, "Fort Sumter: At Last the War." His most recent book, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson and the Americans (1991), established his credentials as one qualified to discuss both northern and southern attitudes. In looking at the long-dreaded buildup to secession and possible war, Royster concludes that Americans of whatever persuasion were actually relieved when it began. The "anxious uncertainty" was replaced by "a wave of patriotism and belligerence" (p. 204), for people hoped the war would purify the political atmosphere. It would provide a chance to resolve conclusively longstanding issues. While both sides were eager to blame the other for starting it, most surrendered to the war spirit momentum at the time of Fort Sumter and actually gave a sigh of relief when troops first engaged in battle. Even after Appomattox, as they looked back on the war as tragic, few repudiated the decision to go to war in the first place. Admittedly speculative as he explores hard-to-prove attitudes, Royster nonetheless effectively catches the emotions that prevailed as fighting began.
Royster thus provides a fitting conclusion to a collection of essays that adds richly to the debate over why the Civil War came. Each essay is fully documented with both specific references and/or a bibliographic essay, "For Further Reading." The research in all cases has been exhaustive. While we are surely no closer to the final answer to the question that will always intrigue scholars and the general public alike, we are better informed on the complexities of this most puzzling question in nineteenth-century U.S. history. Read as a whole, the essays compliment each other and are only rarely contradictory. They could be used effectively in undergraduate and graduate classes for they will most surely provoke discussion and debate. Boritt and his colleagues are to be commended for adding to the ongoing debate with insight and fresh perspective. Page [End Page 61]