Causes of the American Civil War – 4: The Antebellum North

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Dewitt Clinton Train

Dewitt Clinton Locomotive

Methodist Camp Meeting

Continuing the series on the causes of the American Civil War, this post looks at the Antebellum North. The North evolved from its Puritan roots into a culture driven by a strong work ethic. A man was valued by what he could earn and accomplish. The capital of the north was invested in the engines of modernization. Labor moved from agriculture and artisan to factory as modern farming tools improved productivity. Individuals became more dependent on wages. Material wealth was seen as evidence of good, productive, hard work.

As the country expanded, northeastern populations migrated almost directly west. Foreign immigration increased. With modernization came an extensive transportation system including both impressive roadways and railroads.

New levels of wealth were attained by the leaders of the industrial revolution. A new poor working class emerged but so did a middle class that no longer had to produce large families to work the land. Urban centers developed particularly in the northeast.

Methodist Camp Meeting

Watercolor by J. Maze Burbank, c. 1839 Old Dartmouth Historical Society-New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts Gift of William F. Havemeyer (187) Source: Library of Congress.

Modernization drove social reform including the creation of public education systems in the North and associated high literacy rates. Enlightenment crusades flourished, touching literature and religion. Suffrage and temperance movements formed. Abolitionism became tied with humanitarian reforms driven by Christian crusades.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton and daughter, Harriot--1856. LOC Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-48965

The North became more and more distinct from the South on many levels, not the least of which was its distaste for slavery. Even so, like white populations in most of western society, northerners considered blacks to be inferior in the antebellum North.

© 2010 L. Rene Tyree

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Epiphany – The Industrial Revolution and the Civil War

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T. Harry Williams’ essay, “The Military Leadership of North and South” in the book Why the North Won the Civil War is outstanding.

His point that the Industrial Revolution had the “immediate consequence of making the Northern generals less inclined to deal out destruction” was an epiphany. So much of what I’ve read until now points to the advantages of the North because of more and better “everything.” That this affluence in war-making capacity contributed to the early lack of engagement of the North’s generals now makes perfect sense.

“They could secure material so easily that they refused to move until they had received more than they needed — after which they were often so heavily laden the could not move.” (Williams, 50 – 51)

Likewise, the “poverty of Southern resources” explains the scrappy nature of the generals of the Confederacy.

The lesson is timeless and as important to business – my field of battle – as the military.

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History as Science

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Should the study of history be scientific? The debate between historians, philosophers, and sociologist around whether history should be based on science has been a topic in my historiography class (see courses here). The biggest brouhaha took place in the late 1800′s when the world was still feeling the effects of the Industrial Revolution and scientific method was becoming all the rage.

Breisach

Ernst Breisach

Ernst Breisach (left), who author’s our primary text for the class [Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern], provides a survey of this quest to find a reason for history and its place alongside other areas of study. He provides a look at the players in those countries most engaged in the debate: France, England, Germany, and America.

Comte

Auguste Comte

Auguste Comte, who I mentioned in my post here, was a player. He believed that man was of one collective mind and thus progressed intellectually as one. He proposed a model called “The Three Stages of History” which posited that all thought, emotive forces, and sciences progress through three eras: (1) theological, (2) metaphysical, and (3) positive. Events in the theological era were explained by “God’s will.” In the metaphysical era, they were explained by natural laws. Eventually, he predicted, man would enter an endless “positive” era where events could be explained by positive philosophy and laws. Society, politics, and culture would radically change in this state and man’s collective mind would  reach a pinnacle needing no further development. The sciences would organize human life according to laws governing phenomena. These laws would be based on sensory experience; things which could be observed. Comte felt that mankind was on the cusp of moving into that final stage which he predicted began with the French Revolution and would go on forever.

Comte’s Stages

Comte’s ideas fell flat among many. Contrarians argued that once this utopia in human development was reached, there would be little left to do. Not only that but the very foundations of idealist philosophy would be destabilized. God, ideas, uniqueness, and intuition would be considered irrelevant.

Buckle C

Henry Thomas Buckle

But the idea that science could lead to a higher stage of intellectual development governed by overarching laws stuck and a new school of thought was born that became known as “positivist.” Positivism grew in popularity and historians who embraced it began looking for overarching laws that governed, for example, the nature and destiny of nations. If the principles applied to the natural sciences could be applied to history, surely these laws would exist!

British historian Henry Thomas Buckle (right) jumped on the positivist band wagon and called on other British historians to fall in step with more scientific approaches or be ignored. His direction was to abandon the historiography of description in favor of an approach in line with natural sciences. The British didn’t buy it. With few exceptions, they remained attached to the notion that history required careful interpretation and narration by historians. Moral lessons could be found in history that were necessary for the education of the young. Viewing history as science was nothing less than dangerous.

Americans, on the other hand, took to historical science with enthusiasm. History associations and history journals were formed. University history departments in the model of other scientifically-based disciplines were created. The notion of professional and academic historians emerged and it wasn’t long before amateur historians were pushed aside. Breisach called it “The Great Divorce.” (p. 287) More on that in a later post. Americans never demanded nor sought great laws governing human affairs but embraced the benefits and ambiguities of “scientific history,” incorporated what were arguably the best of the interpretations  from around the world, and put an American stamp on it.

S2

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

What else changed? Plenty. Documentation of sources became more important. Historical writing became more formal and less accessible or interesting to the reading public. If the style of writing didn’t change, it was criticized. So “literary” and “romantic” history became passe. Thus the work of such notable historians as George Bancroft became discredited. Historians began to specialize. The use of quantitative methods Depiction of the data items found in the perspectives of the Zachman Frameworkas a basis for drawing historical conclusions grew. [Needless to say, a paradigm-shift in quantitative methods occurred as a result of computer technology in the 20th century.] Economic history surged as a field of study in the early 20th century and continues strong today.

Not everyone has approved over the years. Breisach provides a wonderful quote by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  who said that the really important questions of historical inquiry are important because they can’t be quantified. Teddy Roosevelt, Jr.  protested accusing professional historians of becoming so enamored with detailed research that they “did much real harm in preventing the development of students who might have a large grasp of what history should be.” (p. 288)

Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt, Jr.

Certainly both the quantitative and the qualitative have a place in the study of history. There is no doubt that methods used in other fields like economics, data analysis and statistics can provide great insight into the study of history (See Cliometrics). This is the stuff that counter-factual analysis was built on. But finding the right balance remains a challenge.

Of interest, positivism had a rebirth in the 1920s but, interestingly, proponents of the narrative form of history surged back in the 1960s as humanists challenged pure scientific historiography. For me, there will always be a place for outstanding narrative in the telling of history. Like the British at the turn of the century, I believe in well told history that occasionally has a brilliant moral in the telling.Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Third Edition

Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2007). Chapter referenced: “History and the Quest for a Uniform Science.”

Copyright Rene Tyree 2008

Image of depiction of the data items found in the perspectives of the Zachman Framework by Stan Locke, January 2008, Wikipedia.
Other photos from Wikipedia Commons, public domain.
Diagram of Comte’s Three Stages of History, self-made, Rene Tyree, Feb. 13, 2008.

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