Causes of the Civil War – 9: The Debate Over the War’s Inevitability

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This post concludes a series exploring Causes of the Civil War.

Slave Auction

A review of the literature reveals – not surprisingly – a lack of agreement over whether the American Civil War was inevitable. Given the fact that it did occur, the question under consideration might be better stated as “at what point in time” did the American Civil War became unavoidable.

Slave Auction

Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1830

Some would argue that war became predestined at the point when the slave trade was first introduced to the colonies. Others have suggested that civil war became preordained when the founding fathers created a Constitution that professed freedom for all but failed to deal with the country’s practice of chattel slavery (image left of slave auction at Richmond). But portions of the country had demonstrated a willingness to move away slavery. And there was some indication that even slave owners in the south did not expect the practice to go on indefinitely. Certainly the rise of King Cotton, made feasible by the invention of the cotton gin and cotton varieties more suited to the southern climate, slowed the inclination to move away from slavery. Even so, the country had opportunity and demonstrated an ability to find compromise on the issues surrounding slavery time and again and could have conceivably continued to do so had other factors not pushed the country to war.

England's Cotton

Sectional differences, well evident even in colonial days, had the potential to make civil war predestined but historian Avery Craven suggests otherwise. “Physical and social differences between North and South did not in themselves necessarily imply an irrepressible conflict. They did not mean that civil war had been decreed from the beginning by Fate.”[i] He points out that the federal system created by the founding fathers had room for differences and that England herself adopted the model of American federalism and used it to manage widely disparate regions.[ii]

Kenneth Stampp in his work, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink, suggests that “…1857 was probably the year when the North and South reached the political point of no return — when it became well nigh impossible to head off a violent resolution of the differences between them.”[iii] Stampp identified three primary factors that catapulted the country toward disunion within that twelve month period.

  1. The first was the increase in sectional conflict centered on Kansas.
  2. The second was President Buchanan’s fall from grace among most of the Northerners who had voted for him after he supported the Lecompton Constitution and thus broke his pre-election promises. This sparked one of the most vicious debates in Congress and led to…
  3. the third happening which was the crisis that occurred in the national Democratic Party from which “it did not recover until after the Civil War.”[iv] That schism in the party opened the way for Abraham Lincoln’s candidacy for the presidency which in turn raised sectional tensions between North and South to new heights.

Civil War historiographer Gobar Boritt suggests that the American Civil War only became inevitable after the attack on Fort Sumter (pictured right after Fort Sumter After Fallsurrender) and with this I agree. “The popular uprising, North and South, that followed the fight over Sumter, combined with willing leadership on both sides, made the Civil War inevitable. It was not that before.”[v] Boritt acknowledges that “the probability of war” continued to grow in the 1850s, but that “the country’s fate was not sealed until the ides of April, 1861.”[vi]

My conclusion is that the American Civil War was not inevitable but was, rather, the result of a confluence of factors which – taken in aggregate and flared by extremists – resulted in a war unwanted by the majority of Americans. Contributory to the war was the influence of specific individuals – not the least of which was Abraham Lincoln himself. Other politicians, by their action or inaction at critical moments, also had part to play in the circumstances that led to war. Debate over the war’s inevitability has been and will continue to be rigorous.

As always, I invite your comments.

© 2010 L. Rene Tyree
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Photo Credits:
Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1830. [Source: University of Virginia]. George Bourne.
Cotton – England’s God [Pictorial envelope] [LOC CALL NUMBER PR-022-3-14-19]
Fort Sumter after evacuation, flagpole shot away twice. 1861. LOC CALL NUMBER PR-065-798-22
Endnotes:
[i] Avery Craven. The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 1.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Stampp, Kenneth M. America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink. Vers. [book on-line] Internet. Questia.com.New York: Oxford University Press. 1990. available from questia.com, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=24268497 (accessed September 1, 2007), viii.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] ” ‘And the War Came’? Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 6.
[vi] Ibid.
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Civil War Historian Kenneth M. Stampp Dies, 96

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Kenneth M. Stampp

The folks at the Berkeley’s public affairs office confirmed for me today that Kenneth M. Stampp died. His book The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South  (1956) is required reading in my program and rightly so. The view into slavery was groundbreaking.

A full obituary will be posted shortly on Berkeley’s news site.

Condolences to his family.

(http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2009/07/13_stampp.shtml)

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On Slavery 9 – Partus Sequitur Ventrem

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When considering slaves, Colonial Virginians abandoned the English tradition of partus sequitur patrem (one’s status was determined by the disposition of their father) in favor of the Roman principle of partus sequitur ventrem, a “child inherits the condition of the mother.” (1) Thus offspring of slave women were the property of their mother’s owner whether fathered by freeman or not. Annette Gordon–Reed, in her book “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” speculates on why Virginian colonists made up this particular form of slavery that endured until the Civil War.

reed_annette“White men, particularly the ones who made up the House of Burgesses, the legislature in colonial Virginia, were the masters of a growing numbers of African women, owning not only their labor but their very bodies. That these women sometimes would be used for sex as well as work must have occurred to the burgesses. Inevitably offspring would arise from some of these unions. Even white males who owned no slaves could contribute to the problem by producing, with enslaved black women, children who would be born free, thus destroying a critical component of the master’s property right: the ability to capture the value of the “increase” when female slaves gave birth.” (2)

Gordon-Reed goes on to describe an actual court case that occurred in 1655 in which Elizabeth Key, a woman of mixed blood, “successfully sued for her freedom on the basis of the fact that her father was English.” (3) This ruling, if left to stand as precedent, would have created a gap by which a growing number of children could escape slavery, those fathered by free white men and black women in bondage.

The impacts were staggering. First, the law “assured that white men – particularly the privileged ones who passed the law, who would not likely have been hauled into court for fornication even with white women – could have sex with enslaved women, produce children who were items of capital, and never have to worry about losing their property rights in them.” (4)

Gordon-Reed suggests that the law was likely intended to reduce racial-mixing in that along with it was passed a measure that increased the fines for mixed-race couples that engaged in sex out of wedlock. But in effect, it meant “the private conduct of men would have no serious impact on the emerging slave society as a whole. White men could engage in sex with black women without creating a class of freeborn mixed-race people to complicate matters.” (5)

Second, the law implied that every person suspected of having African blood, was assumed to be a slave unless they could prove otherwise. “…The English common-law presumption in favor of freedom did not apply to Negroes; in all slave states (except Delaware) the presumption was that people with black skins were slaves unless they could prove that they were free.” (6)  Kenneth Stampp explains that this hyper race sensitive system required that “the offspring of a free white father and a Negro, mulatto (half), quadroon (one Negro grandparent), or octoroon (one Negro great-grandparent) slave mother was a slave.” (7) This ruling once again encouraged exploitation of women in that mixed-blood, often very white appearing women, were kept as slave prostitutes to service white men.

isaac-and-rosaParadoxically, the child of a black enslaved father and a free white mother was considered by law in most states, free. Likewise, children found to have descended from a female Indian were considered free because, with the exception of a short time in the 17th century, it was unlawful to enslave an Indian.

As might be imagined, interpretation of the rules governing race and thus one’s status as property varied by locale. “In Alabama a ‘mulatto’ was ‘a person of mixed blood, descended, on the part of the mother or father, from negro ancestors, to the third generation inclusive, though one ancestor of each generation may have been a white person.” (8) South Carolina didn’t specifically define terms such as Negro and mulatto but left interpretation to visible evidence of mixture and took into account “a person’s reputation among his neighbors.” (9) One was considered free in Kentucky if it could be proven that one had “less than a fourth of African blood.” (10)

The legacy of the men who created a country built upon laws that supported racial slavery was in part the creation of a culture that expended a great deal of energy establishing the racial status and thus property rights to a growing population of mix-blood “chattel personal.” It was a legacy that encouraged widespread abuses and the flagrant misuse of female slaves who had no legal rights at all. As contended by Gordon-Reed, “under the rules of the game the burgesses constructed,” there was no need to interfere with other men’s conduct. Whatever the social tensions and confusion created by the presence of people who were neither black nor white, Virginia’s law on inheriting status through the mother effectively ended threats to slave masters’ property rights when interracial sex produced children who confounded the supposedly fixed categories of race.” (11) Hyper-race sensitivity and all its implications would continue for centuries to come.

For more information on Elizabeth Key’s freedom case, see a paper by Taunya Lovell Banks from the University of Maryland School of Law, “Dangerous Woman: Elizabeth Key’s Freedom Suit – Subjecthood and Racialized Identity in Seventeenth Century Colonial Virginia” here.

(1) Kenneth M. Stamp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), 193.
(2) Annette Gordon – Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), 46.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid., 46-47.
(6) Kenneth M. Stamp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, 193-194.
(7) Ibid., 194.
(8) Ibid., 195.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Ibid., 196.
(11) Annette Gordon – Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, 47.

On Slavery – 6 Chattels Personal

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Kenneth Stampp’s chapter “Chattels Personal” is excellent. I suspect that “chattel” is not a word most of us learn unless we study law or Antebellum American history in depth. Its meaning in the context of slavery is, of course, that person’s slaves were consider legally as “chattel personal.”

slave-clapboard

Source: Library of Congress Reproduction # LC-DIG-cwpb-01005

Being a person quite taken with words, I did a little research on the origins of this one and found it informative. Interestingly, a search for the etymology of the word found some disagreement. The following perspective comes from French: A Linguistic Introduction.

“Chattel comes from the French noun cheptel used to designate all movable property, but now is restricted to ‘livestock’. English has gone a step further: cattle used to designate any movable property, then all livestock, and now is generally restricted to bovines. English also has the word chattel, legally any type of movable property, but more specifically in modern usage, it refers to slaves. All of these terms are ultimately derived from the Latin word capitalis, which has been reintroduced in modern financial vocabulary, e.g. capital campaign in fundraising. This term, in turn, is derived from the Latin word caput, ‘head’ (French chef), with the result that ‘head of cattle’, our original example, ultimately is a ‘head of things with heads’!” [1]

This from A New Law Dictionary and Glossary

“…the singular chattel seems to be immediately formed from the Fr. chatelle, or chatel, (q.v.); the plural chattels, (or, as it was formerly written, catals,) is supposed to be derived from the L. Lat., catalla, the ch being pronounced hard, as in the word charta, which is evident from the form of the old Norman plural, cateux, (q.v.). As to any further derivation, catalla or catalia is clearly shown by Spelman to be merely a contracted form of writing capitalia, which with the singular capitale, or captale, occurs frequently in the Saxon and early English laws. The primary meaning of capitalia was animals, beasts of husbandry, (otherwise call averia, q.v.) or cattle; in which last word it is still identically retained.

Capitalia is derived by Spelman from capita, heads; a term still popularly applied to beasts, as “so many “heads of cattle.” When the word took the form catalla, it continued to retain this primary meaning, but gradually acquired the secondary sense of movables of any kind, inanimate as well as animate, and finally became used to signify interests in lands.”

CHATTELS PERSONAL, otherwise called THINGS PERSONAL, comprise all sorts of things movable, as good, plate, money, jewels, implements of war, garments, animals and vegetable productions; as the frit or other part of a plant, when severed from the body of it, or the whole plant itself, when severed from th ground. Besides things moveable, they include also certain incorporeal rights or interestes, growing out of, or incident to them, such as patent rights and copyrights…” [2]

——

[1] French: A Linguistic Introduction
By Zsuzsanna Fagyal, Douglas Kibbee, Fred Jenkins
Published by Cambridge University Press, 2006
ISBN 0521821444, 9780521821445
337 pages (pp. 154-155), Accessed online, November 16, 2008, http://books.google.com/books?id=4yTA6SvGuekC&pg=PP1&dq=French:+A+Linguistic+Introduction#PPA154,M1

[2] A New Law Dictionary and Glossary
By Alexander M. Burrill
Published by The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 1998
ISBN 1886363323, 9781886363328
1099 pages (pp. 207-208), Accessed online, November 16, 2008, http://books.google.com/books?id=DeQYXYMBtwgC&printsec=frontcover&dq=etemology+of+the+word+chattel#PPA208,M1

Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South.

On Slavery – 3

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[This post continues the series On Slavery (1 here and 2 here).]

missourislavewhipping

"Flogging the Negro" (Cropped) Full Image Reference NW0213, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

Kenneth Stampp in his book, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, suggests that some owners of slaves were conflicted about the need to apply punishment in the control of slaves and yet most felt fully justified in imposing that control. He sites on numerous occasions the willingness of owners to overlook the cruelty of overseers if they met or exceeded production goals. This head-in-the-sand approach to ethics undoubtedly had many causes but the most obvious was greed.

Owners also considered their slaves to have a “duty” to their master by virtue of the fact that they were, after all, his property and that the master provided and cared for them. But the most prevalent justification for imposing control on the slaves was to achieve maximum production from them as a labor force. Poor performers, for whatever reason, were seen as impacting the bottom-line.

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