The war that didn't need to happen

America's bloody Civil War -- our war between the states

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The War that Didn't Have to Be

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The War that needn't have happened

A Federal and Confederate sharing a smoke while burying their dead
Yank, Rebel share smoke
a brief respite of amity
in the midst of conflict

Efforts toward compromise went unheeded:
"Anti-slavery" Henry Clay was one of a number of responsible southern voices

by Robert Shepherd

If it can be believed, my family tree gives me a picture not only of Quaker abolitionists and free-soilers in the north, but of Calvinist Baptist slaveholders in the South (Hoppers of NC). Like America's own patchwork heritage, my family is genetically a bit of a hodge-podge. Alas, history is always with us, too.

Historians will discuss and dispute, but I think that our nation's Civil War, far from being (in the words of Seward) an irrepressible conflict, was probably an unnecessary strife, a quarrel that need never have escalated to the level it did. Had both North and South heeded the early warning signs, had each side truly listened, listened and attentively considered, the concerns of the other side, the war almost certainly could have been averted, and the problems resolved in a responsible and a less sanguinary way.

Few white southerners these days would try to claim that slavery was in any way a positive good. But what people may forget is the detrimental role that northern meddling played in the decade leading up to the war. Rather than soothing roiled waters, the abolitionist extremists provoked and exacerbated passions. Even Lincoln seemed obsessed, for a time, with bringing things to a head, as if provocation, at that late stage, had become a therapeutic policy.

A Voice that offended both sides
Both sides had chances, early on. For example, Henry Clay, a candidate for President in 1844 (and himself a slave-holder), earnestly urged upon both North and South the preferability of compromise. Though he shied away from specifics, his views, generally speaking, could be said to fall in the category of a rough Jeffersonian outline, one of an eventual, compensated, gradual policy toward emancipation. He would have asked the North to be respectful of the feelings of slave owning southerners, and to be respectful of the heavy economic considerations they faced.

Clay would have asked the South to be understanding of the basic long-term validity of northern views on the moral wrong of slavery, and to be realistic on slavery's almost certain ultimate extinction. The young officer Robert E. Lee seems to have held views approximately like those of Henry Clay, this great man of compromise. Lee, like Clay, adhered to Whig-leaning sentiments, in economics. And also, like the great Kentuckian, Lee was known as a pro-unionist in his sympathies. But he recoiled at the extreme abolitionism and the effects their crusading zeal had upon a South that was already touchy about northern 'insults.'

In retrospect, such views of moderate southerners like Clay and Lee appear to have been considerably more responsible and pragmatic (though difficult) than the vituperations and denunciations of the sensationalists. Yet decibels dominated the "air waves" of the times, and both extremes resorted more to shouting down the opposition, than to considering possible solutions.

What northern rhetoric often overlooks is the simple fact that sentiment in the South was anything but monolithic in its support for slavery. Only a tiny minority of southerners ever owned the bulk of the slave population. While the Constitution valued each slave as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of electoral accounting, northerners who helped frame the Constitution had also acquiesced in the necessity that some such compromise was necessary.

Southern integrity and honor

One of the ironies of history is the fact that during the early part of the nineteenth century, "the South seemed to lead in anti-slavery societies and speeches." (quote is Alice Dana Adams, Radcliffe College, 1908, p29). Susan Ellis notes that in 1827 "out of the known 130 [anti-slavery] groups, 106 were southern." Terry Matthews states: "from 1808-1831, the South was the leader in the anti-slavery movement with the opposition to slavery being better organized in the South than in the North. Societies were founded in Kentucky in 1808, Tennessee in 1815, and in North Carolina in 1816. By 1826, just ten years later, North Carolina had become the home of 45 of these anti-slavery societies. It is also interesting to note that the South was better served by anti-slavery newspapers than the North, and many of these publications were printed with little or no opposition. Moreover, the South was the home to a strong free black community populated by carpenters, day laborers, and seamstresses."

The mood against slavery persisted (in muted form), even as late as the 1850's, to such an extent that Senator Thomas Hart Benton could assert the South had almost no outright proponents of slavery in the abstract. That is, history had stuck them with a situation from which it was very difficult to extract themselves, and they were left with making the most of circumstances they themselves knew were far from ideal.

What was not helping matters, from the southern white point of view, was the fiery preachments of holier-than-thou northern abolitionists. In their own minds commendable do-gooders, their hypocrisy grated on southern slave holders who knew far more about their own real world challenges than outside meddlers and scolds would ever know. Northern crusaders were like Job's friends in the Bible, lecturing Job on his faults, sitting in judgment (and condemning) on matters they (so it turned out) were unqualified to judge.

Lincoln himself once wrote to Alexander Hamilton Stephens that were their situations reversed, the North would be acting just like the South acted. But few of the abolitionists could lower their voices long enough to think of such a thing. [See The Infidel Lincoln.]

Southern whites were the earliest anti-slavery voices
If you don't count the English Quakers and later Methodists, the first opponents of slavery were as likely to be southerners, even slave owning ones, as northern. Numerous individual acts of manumission dot our history. Several of the Virginia delegates to the Constitutional Convention deplore the evils of slavery. As a rule, so-called abolitionism in the South was in reality more properly a range of philosophical "emancipationist" or "manumissionist" or "colonizationist" voices. The upshot, whatever the particulars, was that these voices of conscience were registering a form of opposition to slavery. There was almost an emancipationist movement among the more religious white Southerners in the first decades of the 19th century.

Here let me present a sampling of some of the more prominent southern white opponents of slavery.

Stephen Foster, a northerner, supposedly had pro-slavery sympathies
But evidence suggests it's not so simple, in Foster's case. We learn ( Rather than writing nostalgically for an old South (it was, after all, the present day for him), or trivializing the hardships of slavery, Foster sought to humanize the characters in his songs, to have them care for one another, and to convey a sense that all people--regardless of their ethnic identities or social and economic class--share the same longings and needs for family and home. He instructed white performers of his songs not to mock slaves but to get their audiences to feel compassion for them. In his own words, he sought to "build up taste...among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order." Stephen Foster is understood by some scholars as having reformed sentimental songs in black-face minstrelsy, then the most pervasive and powerful force in American popular culture.

It is possible that the sense of compassion reflected in some of his songs was aided and encouraged by his boyhood friend and artistic collaborator [ardent abolitionist] Charles Shiras. Like Oberlin in Ohio, Pittsburgh was a center for abolitionist activities in Pennsylvania, and Shiras was a leader of the movement. Inspired by local appearances by William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, Shiras launched a crusading abolitionist newspaper, and subsequently published a volume of anti-slavery and anti-capitalist verse. He and Stephen wrote at least one song together, and a stage work that was performed but never published and is now lost. Here's My Old Kentucky Home.

The best minds of the times fell into racist attitudes
The hypocrisy of the North, from a white southern viewpoint, revolved around the racial issue. Southern whites were reviled for nothing short of depravity, sexual wantonness and bloodthirsty inhumanity for the institution of slavery. Yet even the most enlightened sentiment of the times, in the North and in Europe, reflected white supremacist overtones and prejudices. Darwin, Agassiz, Haeckel, Lamarck and many other top scientists of the day revealed their own particular brand of white supremacist or racist assumptions. Henry Morris says "All of the nineteenth-century evolutionists -- well up into the first quarter of the twentieth century -- were convinced proponents of white supremacy." An excellent source on the subject of Scientific Racism is by Allan Chase (he focuses on the impact of Malthusian 'Science'). Even Lincoln made clear his view that the white man should rule over non-whites, and for himself, a rejection of intermarriage.

Provocations of Holier-Than-Thou (Abolitionist) Zealots
Historian Thomas Bailey [The American Pageant, 1971] writes:
Emotionalism on both sides ... slammed the door on any fair adjustment. Statesmen like Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln came to believe, not unreasonably, that the extreme abolitionists were doing more harm than good. All other western nations, including Brazil, ultimately rid themselves of the tumor of Negro slavery without the surgery of the sword, although admittedly their problems were different. Solution by civil war, even though it called forth much self-sacrifice and devotion to ideals, tragically scarred the body and soul of America. Its effects are visible even today.

What made the (HOLIER-THAN-THOU) abolitionists so fanatical?
A possible explanation, if only partial, come from the concept of the "authoritarian personality" of Adorno. Whence comes this predisposition to sit in judgment of others, to assume a posture of righteous authoritarianism? According to the theories put forth in psycho-analytical study, the psychological rigidity and inflexibility associated with this type of personality is also connected with judgmentalism, with an obsession for being right, with a greater orientation for status and power in relationships with others. Thus, the abolitionist tended to be concerned with having someone to look down upon, the (in his eyes) "sinful" slaveowners.

Ironically, we are given to understand that these very slave-owners, the manorial elite of the South, were actually descended from better stock, if you look at their family tree, than were their counterparts in the North. This little fact also coincides with the theory of Adorno and his colleagues regarding the authoritarian personality. Namely, there is a deep issue of low self-esteem underlying the authoritarian personality. His outward appearance of fanatic, or petty tyrant, is in reality a cover-up to mask his deep insecurities and low self-esteem.

Unsure about his own sexuality, secretly feeling himself to be unworthy or even wretched, he projects his self-hatred onto others. The abolitionists' vilest vitriol was reserved for what they saw as the sexual depravity of all slave masters. The South was one giant brothel. Slave masters were profligates and deviants (something akin to the odium our present era reserves for child molesters).

The sectional issue and its role
Northern apologists make a big deal out of the "Civil War" dimension of the conflict. Yet a sectional dichotomy is profoundly evident, if sometimes exaggerated in stereotype. The South retained the aristocratic sensibilities of their Cavalier ancestors, while the North clung steadfastly to the evangelical roots of their Puritan progenitors in Old England (and New).

Northern (religiously-tinged) fanaticism thus had plenty of precedent not only in Boston Puritanism, but in the Britain of Cromwell's rule. Certain aspects of that righteous zeal had commendable effects, for example their hatred of alcohol, and their dedication to compulsory, forced education for boys and girls, rich and poor. But at what price this "commendable" fanaticism? Along with the zeal came intolerance and bigotry and narrow-mindedness.

Southern religion began with the Anglican church of the Elizabethan Cavaliers. To northern evangelicals, the Southern style of Christianity was sheer "lukewarmness," their liturgy bordered on Roman "idolatry." The historian Bailey describes the "sins" which New Englanders saw in their southern counterparts -- the Anglicans. "Secure and self-satisfied, like the parent establishment in England, [southern Anglicanism] clung to a faith that was less fierce and more worldly than the religion of Puritanical New England. Sermons were shorter; hell was less scorching; and amusements, like Virginia fox hunting, were less frowned upon." There was a latitudinarian laxity in the attitudes of the southern Anglicans, and to Puritanical Bostonians, it looked like sin.

The hypocrisy of the northern apologists
Some defenders of northern abolitionism turn a blind eye to the North's own entrenched crimes, its racism, its cruelty toward, and robbery of, its own underclass, even such injustices as its treatment of women. Yes, slavery in the South had no excuse. But were the Simon Legrees actually as many as alleged? I seriously doubt it. Read the slave narratives, the oral recountings of freedmen. [Most libraries contain some of these published documents.] Countless, innumerable examples of kindness and cordiality exist, as well as surprising familial cordiality and cooperation.

Those who attack the South should remind themselves that no one is pure in God's eyes. Neither North nor South granted women the right to vote till several generations after Appomatox. Both North and South perpetrated crimes of racism deep into the middle of the 20th century. Both North and South have been remiss in their continued propping up of institutional patriarchy and sexism, often with overt manifestations of misogyny. For a look at spousal abuse etc, see Susan Brownmiller's rape classic, Against Our Will.

The North's judgmental attitude reminds me of what Christ told the disciples when in their self-righteousness they wished to bring destruction on a village they judged to be sinners. Jesus told them, ye know not what spirit ye are of. The North, the extreme abolitionist types, know not what spirit they are of. This is the same hypocritical attitude that the older brother had, in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Quoting Jack Frost: "It is easy for us to judge the offenses of the rebellious son, to identify and condemn them, because those offenses are more obvious to the outside observer. But the older brother looks so righteous, so good, that it is often difficult to discern the hidden sins of jealousy, pride and self righteousness that lurk within his heart." [shiloh place ministries, conway sc 29526]

Just suppose both North and South could have, somehow, been able to put into action the high ideals of the gospels. Just suppose that instead of hatred, both North and South had been able to truly love their "enemy" -- to truly listen to the other, to put themselves in the others' position.

Some ironies (friends or enemies?)
The three statesmen that Lincoln most revered were all slaveholders and all southerners. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Clay. All three owned slaves. All were unionists, all would have preferred to let slavery wither out, than see the union destroyed. Yet events got out of hand, and despite Lincoln's resolve not to be the first to commit aggression, he felt that he was obliged to preserve, protect and defend the USA. He felt self-defense was incumbent upon him.

And conversely, southerners also were caught in a bind. They realized that Lincoln's early goal of "gradual, compensated emancipation" was no longer even feasible. Events took over, and there was no turning back. History over-ruled everyone. Lincoln at one point mused it might take a hundred years to transition a wholly agricultural race to full citizenship. Perhaps he was being realistic. (Or worst case scenario.) Some of the freedmen became immediate stand outs. (But there are always differences in people, as anyone with children can testify.)

Southern leaders were possibly more perceptive as to northern politics than the average southerner. Jeff Davis would, in retrospect, speak of Lincoln's power of generosity, and in late 1865, Robert E. Lee echoed the thought of the fallen president as "the epitome of magnanimity." (from Susan B. Martinez, the Psychic Life of Abraham Lincoln). Interestingly, Woodrow Wilson, a Virginian, shared the view. With Lincoln's assassination, he said, the South lost its best friend, given the fact that the most vindictive Republican liberals (the Radicals) quickly maneuvered into power once Lincoln was gone.

healing the divide


There is nothing that war has ever achieved that we could not better achieve without it.

There never was a good war or a bad peace.

(Havelock Ellis)

(Benjamin Franklin)

To think about:

The hatred of woman is always only
the not yet overcome hatred
of one's own sexuality

(Otto Weininger)

Sam Houston pleads to preserve Union (last speech)
William Freehling : on the Founders and Slavery
The South Shall Rise Again : a high five for Dixie
Ashland (Kentucky) - Visit the Henry Clay Estate
America's first black office-holders - Southerners!
Don't be so shocked : Dixie's Jewish Confederates
The Palmetto History of Charleston, South Carolina
DiLorenzo exposes Lincoln as apologist for slavery
Outside the Magic Circle: valor of a southern belle

The great Southern writer Eudora Welty once explained the raison d'etre of her short stories and novels: "My wish, my continuing passion, would not be to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other's presence, each other's wonder, each other's human plight."

[Brennan Manning, Abba's Child]

Those Resilient Irish

Robert Shepherd
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