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Causes of the American Civil War – 2: Antebellum America

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The ConstitutionIn the last post, I kicked off a series looking at the causes of the American Civil War. Study of 19th century Antebellum America reveals a young country experiencing incredible change. Its rate of growth in almost all measures was unrivaled in the world. Its population was exploding through both immigration and birth rate. The push for land drove expansion of its boundaries to the south and west. Technological development enabled modernization and industrialization. The “American System of Manufactures” created the factory system.[i] People became “consumers” rather than “producers” of goods and this changed many social aspects of society.

Image of escaping slaves

Geneva Bible

Geneva Bible

The majority of Americans held a Calvinist belief structure. Puritan influence was strongest in New England. Immigration of large numbers of Catholic Irish created new cultural and ethnic tension. Irish Catholics tended to oppose reform and clustered in the lower classes of the North while native Yankee Protestants predominated in the upper and middle-classes.[ii] The century was marked by enthusiastic evangelical reformation movements. [Note: Jonathan D. Sassi has a concise description of the antebellum evangelical reformation movement in America here.]

A two-party political system had emerged by 1830. “Issues associated with modernizing developments in the first half of the century helped to define the ideological position of the two parties and the constituencies to which they appealed.”[iii] Democrats inherited the Jeffersonian commitment to states’ rights, limited government, traditional economic arrangements, and religious pluralism; Whigs inherited the Federalist belief in nationalism, a strong government, economic innovation, and cultural homogeneity under the auspices of established Protestant denominations.[iv]

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The fight for democracy and the fight for morality became one and the same.[v] “The kingdom of heaven on earth was a part of the American political purpose. The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Scriptures were all in accord.”[vi]

Distinct Northern and Southern cultures began to emerge early in the country’s history. These differences became more marked as the pressures that accompanied the nation’s incredible growth, territorial expansion and social change manifested themselves. Sectional identities and allegiances became increasingly important.

Next post – the Antebellum South.

American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of IndependenceFor further reading:

[i] Historian James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 10, [ii] Ibid., 23, [iii] Ibid., 25, [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., 13, [vi] Ibid.

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New! The Lincoln-Douglas Debates Audiobook

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The good folks at BBC Audiobooks America have sent me a review copy of their new audiobook, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates. This production is particularly apropos because we have arrived at the 150th anniversary of these debates. The timing couldn’t be better for me because I am studying Antebellum America this term.

I put this 16 hour performance into the category of primary source in that it uses as script the same verbatim text captured by the scribes who got every word of the debates down uses shorthand so that they could be published in papers across the nation. Text for the production was provided by the Abraham Lincoln Association.

Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, provides historical commentary.

Richard Dreyfuss plays Stephen Douglas and David Strathairn, Abraham Lincoln.

Having listened to first two CDs, I can highly recommend!

lincolndouglasdebates

  • ISBN: 978-1-60283-402-6
  • Published on: 2009-01
  • Format: Audiobook (Unabridged)
  • Binding: Audio CD

On Know Nothings and Secret Societies – 4

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Historian David H. Bennett contends, “Only in extraordinary times could nativism shape the policies of and give its name to a major party. Such was the situation from I852 to 1854” as regards the Know Nothing Party.

Men of political prominence began to join. In several New England states, the Know Nothings became a formidable force by appealing to the john-bellantislavery wing of the former Whig party. But throughout much of the South, displaced Whigs looked to nativism to protect their proslavery institutions. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act accelerated the movement’s growth; with talk of “bleeding Kansas” on every lip, converts flocked in at the rate of five thousand per week in 1854. Men with promising futures began to seek entry. In the South there were John Bell (right), to be presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union party in 1860, and John J. Crittenden, senior senator from Kentucky, author of the compromise plan to solve the sectional struggle in the months before the outbreak of war. Henry Winter Davis, powerful Whig from Baltimore, and Andrew Jackson Donelson became Know Nothings. In the North, Nathaniel P. Banks and Jerome C. Smith, who would ride the antialien tide to prominence, one as Speaker of the House of Representatives and the other as mayor of Boston, were initiated. Henry Wilson, vice-president of the United States two decades later, Edward Everett, a future secretary of state, and Edward Bates, Lincoln’s attorney general, came to the new party. After considering the triumphant run of victories for the Know Nothings in the fall elections, even Millard Fillmore joined, taking the secret rites of the Star Spangled Banner in his own home in late winter.

David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History, 114.

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On Know Nothings and Secret Societies – 2

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order-of-united-americans-cropped

In the 1830s and 1840s, Americans had rediscovered a fascination with fraternalism discarded earlier in the century “when anti-Masonry led to public suspicion of secret societies.” (1)  This was the era of the Odd Fellows, the Foresters, the Good Fellows and the Druids, the Red Men and the Heptasops. (2)

James McPherson marks the beginning of the movement that would lead to the “Know Nothing” American Party in the 1840s, when nativist parties flared and then cooled after the elections of 1844. (3)  Relief from depression calmed tensions between native and foreign-born workers just in time for the massive influx of Europeans that resulted from that continent’s potato blight. (4)  But American nativist sentiments continue to simmer and “on a late December evening in 1844, thirteen men gathered in the home of printer Russell C. Root in New York City” to form a group calling itself the American Brotherhood.  The name was eventually changed to “Order of United Americans (OUA).” Its goals, outlined in a “code of principles,” were “to release our country from the thralldom of foreign domination.” This marked the birth of a nativist fraternity…and formed the nucleus of a far larger nativist effort than ever before. (5)

Membership in the Order of United Americans was limited to white men, twenty-one years of age or older, native born and Protestant. Its leaders were reasonably affluent and good organizers albeit from the “margins of the establishment.” This was a secret society replete with mysterious rituals and procedures that gave it an “illusion of antiquity.” (6)

Central to its structure was the magical triad. There were three levels of authority (local chapter, state chancery, and national archchancery), three chancellors sent from chapter to chancery, three archchancellors sent on to national. But there was only one leader of the OUA (limited to a single year term) and in the language of the lodge vogue he was called the arch grand sachem. By 1850, he ruled over a truly national domain with groups in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Missouri, and Ohio. (6)

Gradually the organization began to become politicized and attracted “many conservative Whigs whose nativist ideology conveniently intersected with political needs in a time of party disarray.” (7)

1.  David H. Bennett, The Party Of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 106.
2.  Ibid.
3. James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (New York: Oxford Press, 1988), 130.
4. Ibid.
5.  David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History, 105.
6. Ibid, 107.
7. Ibid., 110.

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Exploring Causes of the Civil War – Part VII: Political Discord, Slavery, and the Fight for Political Control

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This post continues a series on Exploring Causes of the Civil War. Other posts can be read by clicking on any of the following links: Part I: Introduction, Part II: Antebellum America, Part III: The Antebellum South, Part IV: The Antebellum North, Part V: The Rise of Sectional Disputes and Part VI: The Contribution of Constitutional Ambiguity.
___________________
William E. GienappPolitical discord represents yet another candidate for the war’s cause. Late historian William E. Gienapp (pictured right) suggests that “however much social and economic developments fueled the sectional conflict, the coming of the Civil War must be explained ultimately in political terms, for the outbreak of war in April 1861 represented the complete breakdown of the American political system. As such, the Civil War constituted the greatest single failure of American democracy.”[i]

Gienapp poinSlave Sale Posterts to the role of slavery as the underlying cause of the sectional conflict. “Without slavery it is impossible to imagine a war between the North and the South (or indeed, the existence of anything we would call “the South” except as a geographic region).”[ii] He also asserts that America’s slave heritage was completely associated with race. That is, had the slaves brought to America been white, the practice would have disappeared much earlier.[iii] But an argument asserting slavery as chief cause of the war neglects the fact that not only was it older than the republic, but “for over half a century following adoption of the Constitution, the institution had only sporadically been an issue in national politics, and it had never dominated state politics in either section.”[iv] What changed? It was the rise of the slavery issue in American society; that is, the heightened awareness of it. This development was rooted in a number of changes in American society in the first half of the nineteenth century already addressed.[v]

As mentioned in previous posts in this series, the abolitionist movement did a great deal to raise that awareness. But Gienapp suggests that “it was the politicians themselves, as part of the struggle for control of the two major parties, whJames Polko ultimately injected the slavery issue into national politics.”[vi] The key development was the introduction in Congress in 1846 of the Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited slavery from any territory acquired from Mexico, by a group of Van Burenite Democrats who were angry with President James K. Polk (pictured right) and his southern advisers. Once the slavery issue, in the shape of the question of its expansion into the western territories, entered the political arena, it proved impossible to get it out. The issue took on a life of its own, and when politicians tried to drop the issue after 1850, they discovered that many voters were unwilling to acquiesce.[vii]

Gienapp makes a good case for the war’s true cause in the following discourse.

A second critical development, intimately related to the first, was the crystallization of rival sectional ideologies oriented toward protecting white equality and opportunity. Increasingly, each section came to see the other section and its institutions as a threat to its vital social, political, and economic interests. Increasingly, each came to think that one section or the other had to be dominant. Informed by these ideologies, a majority of the residents of each section feared the other, and well before the fighting started the sectional conflict represented a struggle for control of the nation’s future.

It fell to the political system to adjudicate differences between the sections and preserve a feeling of mutual cooperation and unity. And for a long time the political system had successfully defused sectional tensions. Because it brought northern and southern leaders together, Congress was the primary arena for hammering out solutions to sectional problems. In various sectional confrontations–the struggle over the admissiLecompton Constitutionon of Missouri as a slave state in 1819-21, the controversy over nullification and the tariff in 1833, the problem of the status of slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico in 1850, and the struggle over the proslavery Lecompton constitution in 1858-Congress had always managed to find some acceptable way out of the crisis.

Yet the American political system was particularly vulnerable to sectional strains and tensions. One reason was the institutional structure of American politics. The Civil War occurred within a particular political institutional framework that, while it did not make the war inevitable, was essential to the coming of the war.

Integral to this institutional framework was the United States Constitution. While some aspects of the Constitution retarded the development of sectionalism, it contained a number of provisions that strengthened the forces of sectional division in the nation. No constitution can anticipate all future developments and conclusively deal with all controversies that subsequently arise. The purpose in analyzing the Constitution’s role in the sectional conflict is not to fault its drafters or condemn it as a flawed document, but rather to indicate the importance of certain of its clauses for the origins of the war.

One signifiAndrew Moorecant feature of the Constitution was its provision for amendment. Lurking beneath the surface in the slavery controversy was white Southerners’ fear that the Constitution would be amended to interfere with the institution. In advocating secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election, Governor Andrew B. Moore of Alabama (pictured above) predicted that the Republicans would quickly create a number of new free states in the West, which “in hot haste will be admitted to the Union, until they have a majority to alter the Constitution. Then slavery will be abolished by law in the States.”[viii]

The fear, uncertainty and doubt associated with this possibility, on the part of the Southern political establishment, pushed the country toward war.

The next post: “The Influence of the Individual.”The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party

For further reading, I recommend The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War by Michael F. Holt and Why the Civil War Came, edited by Gabor S. Boritt.

© 2007 Rene Tyree
_________________________Why the Civil War Came

Photo credits:
Historian William E. Gienapp. Source: Harvard Gazette Archives, Issue: April 07, 2005.
Poster Announcing Sale and Rental of Slaves, Saint Helena (South Atlantic), 1829. Source: The Atlantic Slave Trade and
Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record., Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr., The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Image H003.
President James K. Polk
Cropped image of the constitution of Kansas
Governor Andrew B. Moore of Alabama. Source: Alabama Department of Archive and History

[i] William E. Gienapp, “The Crisis of American Democracy, the Political System and the Coming of the Civil War,” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt [book on-line] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, accessed 1 September 2007), 82; available from questia.com http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=78779127; Internet., [ii] Ibid., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., [vi] Ibid., 83., [vii] Ibid., [viii] Ibid., 86.

Exploring Causes of the Civil War – Part II – Antebellum America

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In the last post, I kicked off a series looking at the causes of the American Civil War. Study of 19th century Antebellum America reveals a young country experiencing incredible change. Its rate of growth in almost all measures was unrivaled in the world. Its population was exploding through both immigration and birth rate. The push for land drove expansion of its boundaries to the south and west. Technological development enabled modernization and industrialization. The “American System of Manufactures” created the factory system.[i] People became “consumers” rather than “producers” of goods and this changed many social aspects of society.Geneva Bible

The majority of Americans held a Calvinist belief structure. Puritan influence was strongest in New England. Immigration of large numbers of Catholic Irish created new cultural and ethnic tension. Irish Catholics tended to oppose reform and clustered in the lower classes of the North while native Yankee Protestants predominated in the upper and middle-classes.[ii] The century was marked by enthusiastic evangelical reformation movements. [Note: Jonathan D. Sassi has a concise description of the antebellum evangelical reformation movement in America here.]

A two-party political system had emerged by 1830. “Issues associated with modernizing developments in the first half of the century helped to define the ideological position of the two parties and the constituencies to which they appealed.”[iii] Thomas JeffersonDemocrats inherited the Jeffersonian commitment to states’ rights, limited government, traditional economic arrangements, and religious pluralism; Whigs inherited the Federalist belief in nationalism, a strong government, economic innovation, and cultural homogeneity under the auspices of established Protestant denominations.[iv]

The fight for democracy and the fight for morality became one and the same.[v] “The kingdom of heaven on earth was a part of the American political purpose. The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Scriptures were all in accord.”[vi]

Distinct Northern and Southern cultures began to emerge early in the country’s history. These differences became more marked as the pressures that accompanied the nation’s incredible growth, territorial expansion and social change manifested themselves. Sectional identities and allegiances became increasingly important.

Next post – the Antebellum South.

Photo Above: Th. Jefferson, photomechanical print, created/published [between 1890 and 1940(?)]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Presidential File. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-2474. This print is a reproduction of the 1805 Rembrandt Peale painting of Thomas Jefferson held by the New-York Historical Society.

For further reading:

© 2007 L. Rene Tyree

[i] Historian James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 10, [ii] Ibid., 23, [iii] Ibid., 25, [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., 13, [vi] Ibid.

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