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The Past: Through A Contemporary Glass Darkly

 

When I was down in Springfield last week, go here to read about my family’s annual pilgrimage to the Lincoln sites this year, I purchased several books at The Prairie Archives.  That bookstore is a treasure trove for those interested in the Civil War and/or Lincoln.  Two of the books were written by James G. Randall, the first volume of his four volume study of Lincoln as President and his Constitutional Problems under Lincoln.  Randall, who died in 1953, was a history professor at my alma mater, the University of Illinois, for three decades.  The foremost Lincoln scholar of his day, his body of work on Lincoln demonstrates how historians are influenced by the contemporary history they live through, and how the march of history after they are dead can make their interpretations obsolete, at least until history shifts again.

The formative event in Randall’s life was World War I.  He viewed the immense carnage as a huge waste, a war fought over issues that were unimportant compared to the huge loss of life involved.  World War II confirmed his belief in the futility of war, as he interpreted that conflict as being brought on by fanatics, this time Fascists, who caused millions of deaths in a completely unnecessary conflict.

In regard to the Civil War, Randall saw it too as an unneccessary conflict brought on by fanatics, fire eating secessionists in the South and, especially, abolitionists in the North.  Randall viewed the abolitionists as earning most of the blame for bringing on the War, turning political differences over slavery to be settled by compromise, into a crusade that could only be resolved by rivers of blood.

Randall summed up his argument in a paper entitled The Blundering Generation delivered to the Mississippi Valley Historical Society on May 2, 1940 at a conference in Omaha, Nebraska.  Randall’s thesis was that the War largely came about over a controversy over slavery that was merely a phantom.  There was never a question that the Western territories were going to be free territories due to the greater numbers heading for the West from the North, and the unwillingness of slave holders in the South to risk their slaves in the West on land not suitable for large scale plantation crops such as cotton and where they would be without the legal protections afforded by slave states to slaves as a species of property.

Randall’s argument found considerable support during his lifetime, but now is rarely presented as a viewpoint held by contemporary historians.  Why?

Leaving aside problems with Randall’s thesis, and I find it unconvincing since it completely misses the deep passions, and the causes for those passions, that slavery was stirring up on both sides in the decades prior to the War, it is rarely heard today because of a major historical event after Randall’s death: the modern civil rights movement.  This movement and its success has largely transformed the view of abolitionists and abolitionism in pre-Civil War Americans.  Largely regarded as uncompromising fanatics in the eyes of Randall and many other historians in his day, in the light of the success of the civil rights movement of the mid to late 1950’s and 1960’s, the consensus among historians largely shifted to view them as heroic and far sighted champions of human rights.  Rather than an unneccessary war, the Civil War was now viewed as an essential conflict that finally ended slavery.  The historical record has not altered to any significant extent, but the contemporary political and moral landscape when it came to racial relationships and attitudes in this country certainly had, and thus the Blundering  Generation thesis of an avoidable war has largely itself been relegated to history rather than as part of the contemporary analysis of the Civil War.

How we view the past is ever influenced by how we view the present, and the study of the Civil War over the past century and a half is a clear example of that truism.  We can summon the facts of the past, and in movies and plays give a semblance of life to what has been, but ever our view of the past will be colored by our contemporary experiences, no matter how skillfully we attempt to make the dead speak to us.

 

 

 

 

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

15 Comments

  1. Both abolitionists and secessionists lacked the key insight into how the political struggle is a spectacle which, in order to be deciphered, has to be referred to the sphere of economics.
    Then all the arguments over slavery and the Tariff fall into place as a conflict between the landed interest on the one hand and the money interest (commercial/industrial) on the other.

    That, by the by, is why many of the abolitionists were willing to work for the end of slavery in the South but they were not willing to work to end discrimination in the North. This aligned perfectly, although, perhaps, unconsciously, with their economic interests and they rationalised their position accordingly.

  2. “That, by the by, is why many of the abolitionists were willing to work for the end of slavery in the South but they were not willing to work to end discrimination in the North.”

    Actually most abolitionists were willing to work against discrimination in the North, there simply was never that many of them to do anything about it. As for the economic argument as an explanation of the Civil War, that is often made but it is hogwash. Tariffs were quite low in 1860 and large parts of the South, Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky for example, were developing economically so that slavery was becoming relatively unimportant. If the War had been all about whether Scarlet could continue to sip mint juleps on the verandah at Tara, there would have been no secession and no War. Why slavery was the cause of the War, is because most white southerners feared what would happen after slavery was abolished with a huge number of black freedmen in the South. If it had been possible to both abolish slavery and then have the blacks magically transported to another land, I think slavery would have been abolished throughout the South within a few years. That is why the idea of colonizing free blacks in Africa enjoyed so much popularity in the decades leading up to the War long after it should have been clearly understood that the costs were prohibitive and that in any case few blacks wanted to go back to Africa.

  3. Michael Paterson-Seymour: “That, by the by, is why many of the abolitionists were willing to work for the end of slavery in the South but they were not willing to work to end discrimination in the North.”
    .
    Two notations are missing in your appraisal of the situation, the first being the Industrial Revolution. The North did not need slaves. The North had machines.
    .
    The second and most important of all is that the abolitionists recognized and acknowledged that the slaves were men, only of a different color of skin. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…”. In Dred Scott, the Supreme Court ruled that the slave, Dred Scott, was only two-third a sovereign person, which is plain stupid because “our Creator” endows sovereign personhood, not the Supreme Court. A Court who does not acknowledge whom God has created is not a court at all, but a bastion of hell.
    .
    The abolitionists of the North held that the slave was a man, created by God and they were in truth equal. Those individuals of the North who secretly or ignorantly held with the Court in Dred Scott were those who practiced discrimination…and condemned themselves in the process.
    .
    Thomas Aquinas defined the human person as “an individual substance of a rational nature.” The slaves was rational enough to recognize the freedom he was denied. The slave holder was rational enough to cobble, chain, beat and humiliate the slave. No beast of burden need apply.
    .
    Now, with Roe v. Wade we simply kill the unborn… and we sell his body parts for experimentation, food flavoring, DNA, medicine and cosmetics…read the labels everybody…they are those human beings of a rational nature who are not frozen for later consumption.

  4. “If it had been possible to both abolish slavery and then have the blacks magically transported to another land, I think slavery would have been abolished throughout the South within a few years. That is why the idea of colonizing free blacks in Africa enjoyed so much popularity in the decades leading up to the War long after it should have been clearly understood that the costs were prohibitive and that in any case few blacks wanted to go back to Africa.”
    .
    Of course. It was the African slave trader who captured his neighbor and sold him for money to the white men in Britain, America and througout the Carribean. Judging by the position and power Obama’s father held, it is estimated that Obama’s father was a slave trader. Unsubstantiated.

  5. Donald R McCleary wrote, “Tariffs were quite low in 1860”
    Yes they were; the Act of 1846 avoided sudden changes, but the trend was clear – free-trade, low duties, and economy in public expenditure. The Morrill Tariff Bill was set to reverse that.
    My point was that both slavery and the tariff were mere symptoms of the objective class conflict between the landed and the commercial interests in the country; the same conflict represented by Tories an Liberals in Britain and Légitimistes and Orléanistes in France.
    As for fears over the effects of emancipation, they already had before them the wholly peaacable results of abolition in Britain’s Caribbean colonies between 1834-1838 and in the French islands in 1848.

  6. On a personal note, one of my maternal ancestors was an African slave. Col Jonathan Gale of Fullerswood, Parish of St Elizabeth, Jamaica (b. 10.03.1675/76, d 21.04.1727) on 18.05.1699, at Parish of Vere married Eleanor, a Slave (d 1725), who bore him 11 children
    Her 11th & youngest child – Francis Gale of Liguania, Jamaica married Susannah Hall of Hyde Hall, Trelawney (sole heiress of Hall’s Delight, the only silver mine in Jamaica)
    Her granddaughter – Susannah Hyde Gale (b 03.05.1749, d 20.04.1823) (m 20.05.1769) married Alan Hyde Gardner, 1st Lord Gardner (1806) (b 12.04.1742, d 01.01.1809) Admiral of the Blue
    A remarkable example of upward social mobility!
    Miss Susannah Gale had her portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds
    http://tinyurl.com/lyfojqx
    It now hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia.
    My mother was a lineal descendant of a younger son of Susannah’s
    By a delightful quirk of colonial history, one of Eleanor’s descendants married the Earl of Onslow, who became Governor General of New Zealand 1889-1892 and their daughter married Lord Halifax and became Vicereine of India (1925-1931) I like to think Eleanor would have been amused.

  7. “The Morrill Tariff Bill was set to reverse that.”

    Which would never have passed Congress but for Southerners leaving their seats in the Senate after secession. The South knew it had nothing to fear in regard to tariffs which is why although there was endless talk about slavery during the secession winter of 1860-61 there was virtually no talk about tariffs.

    “My point was that both slavery and the tariff were mere symptoms of the objective class conflict between the landed and the commercial interests in the country;”

    And you would be incorrect on that. Many wise Southerners lamented prior to the Civil War the negative impact of slavery on their economies as a whole. Slavery would not have resulted in war if only economic issues had been involved. The economic issues were manageable within the political frame work of the time, as the give and take on the tariff indicated. It was the race issue which caused the Civil War, with slavery being the prime symbol of that.

    “As for fears over the effects of emancipation, they already had before them the wholly peaacable results of abolition in Britain’s Caribbean colonies between 1834-1838 and in the French islands in 1848.”

    Yep, and Southerners would no doubt have said that they would have had no problem with emancipation either if they too had been talking about emancipating slaves in far away colonies that no one cared about. I rather doubt that emancipation would have passed without bloodshed if large sections of England and France had slave populations approaching fifty percent.

  8. Michael and Donald – I remember reading something about this before. I’ve never heard it argued that the early/mid 20th century anti-war sentiment affected historians’ perspective. That’s really interesting. I have heard it argued that the mid/later 20th century saw a lot of Marxist influence among historians. I’m not accusing you of error, Michael, but I don’t think you’d find such a focus on class interests in more current analysis.

  9. I do not agree that the American Civil War was fought to free slaves out of any sense of an enlightened appreciation for the innate dignity of the African slave.
    .
    I would agree, though, that freeing the slaves was an effective strategy by Pres. Lincoln, on behalf of northern industrialist interests, to undermine a southern agrarian landed aristocracy dependent on a free labor force to plant and pick cotton (etc.) which was the raw material they exported, for profit, to industrialists in England.
    .
    In turn, the U.S imported from England finished products which competed with the products of industrial northern states.
    .
    By freeing the slaves, President Lincoln effectively introduced a significant cost factor (paid labor) to an agrarian raw material (cotton) which then undermined the southern plantation owners ability to cheaply export that raw product to England. The cost of labor passed on to to the English industrialists necessarily raised the cost of the finished import which was then forced to compete with northern state products.
    .
    At or about the time of the Civil War (early to mid 1860s), waves of German and famine Irish immigrants were continuing to pour into the northern states thus making industrial labor in the northern states very cheap.
    .
    Irish immigrants were viewed as beasts by the Know Nothing protestant establishment in places like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Witness the drawing in 1871 (just after the Civil War) by Thomas Nast in “Vanity Fair” entitled “Bravo, Bravo” featuring Columbia grasping the throat of an Irishman whose contorted features, missing teeth, and “tail” was that of a brutish animal.
    .
    http://thomasnastcartoons.com/irish-catholic-cartoons/something-that-will-not-blow-over-29-july-1971/bravo-bravo-thomas-nast-cover-24-july-1871/
    .
    The Vanity Fair image of the downtrodden Irish immigrant (or African slave as the case may be) was an accurate reflection of the American “Know Nothing” northern establishment mindset. Is one to conclude that this group had previously (during the Civil War) developed a conscience regarding the integrity and dignity of African slaves or the German or Irish immigrants? Not likely.
    .
    Freeing the slaves disrupted southern society, increased the costs of cotton, diminished or eliminated the profits of the southern landed aristocracy export business, and made the cost of finished imported English products expensive. Since English finished products competed with the industrialized northern state products, freeing the slaves made good business sense to northern industrialists.
    .
    I would submit that the northern industrialists and the southern plantation owners were aligned with Thomas Nash in their collective disdain and conclusion that slaves and immigrants were little more than brutes.
    .
    I will defer to Lincoln’s personal integrity that he may have freed the slaves for more noble reasons than his industrialist constituents.
    .
    I agree with MPS’ pragmatic approach.

  10. “I do not agree that the American Civil War was fought to free slaves out of any sense of an enlightened appreciation for the innate dignity of the African slave.”

    It was fought by the Confederacy to preserve slavery. We know this from the mouths of the leaders of the Confederacy who were quite clear on this point at the beginning of the War. The North fought to preserve the Union and Lincoln, in order to accomplish this, was able to destroy slavery that he had always hated
    .
    “I would agree, though, that freeing the slaves was an effective strategy by Pres. Lincoln, on behalf of northern industrialist interests, to undermine a southern agrarian landed aristocracy dependent on a free labor force to plant and pick cotton (etc.) which was the raw material they exported, for profit, to industrialists in England.”

    Northern industrial interests had nothing to do with it. As a matter of fact, slavery served Northern industrial interests by providing huge supplies of cotton for Northern mills.
    .
    “In turn, the U.S imported from England finished products which competed with the products of industrial northern states.”

    There was little direct competition, since plantation owners bought goods where they could get them the cheapest, and in regard to most manufactured goods the North was cheaper.
    .
    “By freeing the slaves, President Lincoln effectively introduced a significant cost factor (paid labor) to an agrarian raw material (cotton) which then undermined the southern plantation owners ability to cheaply export that raw product to England. The cost of labor passed on to to the English industrialists necessarily raised the cost of the finished import which was then forced to compete with northern state products.”

    None of that is true. Southern plantation owners in most areas of the South kept all their slaves throughout most of the War. What stopped trade with England was the Union blockade, and, initially, the decision of the Confederate government to withhold cotton from Europe in 1861 in an attempt to force European intervention on behalf of the Confederacy. The cotton embargo was one of the more futile efforts undertaken by the Confederacy.
    .
    “At or about the time of the Civil War (early to mid 1860s), waves of German and famine Irish immigrants were continuing to pour into the northern states thus making industrial labor in the northern states very cheap.”

    Immigration declined slightly during the War and industrial wages increased.


    .
    “Irish immigrants were viewed as beasts by the Know Nothing protestant establishment in places like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Witness the drawing in 1871 (just after the Civil War) by Thomas Nast in “Vanity Fair” entitled “Bravo, Bravo” featuring Columbia grasping the throat of an Irishman whose contorted features, missing teeth, and “tail” was that of a brutish animal.”

    http://thomasnastcartoons.com/irish-catholic-cartoons/something-that-will-not-blow-over-29-july-1971/bravo-bravo-thomas-nast-cover-24-july-1871/

    Know-nothingism was finished as a political movement by the time of the Civil War. The courage of Catholic troops, and the valor of priests and sisters in tending the wounded, eliminated quite a bit of anti-Catholicism North and South. Thomas Nast, an anti-Catholic bigot, was a German immigrant and a fallen away Catholic.

    .
    “The Vanity Fair image of the downtrodden Irish immigrant (or African slave as the case may be) was an accurate reflection of the American “Know Nothing” northern establishment mindset. Is one to conclude that this group had previously (during the Civil War) developed a conscience regarding the integrity and dignity of African slaves or the German or Irish immigrants? Not likely.”

    Completely mistaken. You really do need to read more of the history of the period. Bigotry still existed after the War but conditions improved for the Irish during the War. The Germans were already a power in the land as signified by the number of German and German-American generals that served in the Union army during the War. Blacks would face terrible discrimination North and South, but slavery, which the Confederacy fought to preserve, was as dead as John C. Calhoun and that was a giant step forward not only for blacks but for all Americans.

    .

    “Freeing the slaves disrupted southern society, increased the costs of cotton, diminished or eliminated the profits of the southern landed aristocracy export business, and made the cost of finished imported English products expensive. Since English finished products competed with the industrialized northern state products, freeing the slaves made good business sense to northern industrialists.”

    Not really. The South was set back on its heels for a generation and Northern plants lost their main customers as a result. The industrialists would have fared better if the large plantation owners had kept their slaves.

    .
    “I would submit that the northern industrialists and the southern plantation owners were aligned with Thomas Nash in their collective disdain and conclusion that slaves and immigrants were little more than brutes.”

    Amazing how those northern industrialists that you demonize had to pay their free labor rising wages throughout the War and never attempted to enslave their workers. Prior to the Civil War in the South there were already attempts to introduce slaves into factories which I suspect would have given “a new birth” of slavery but for the Civil War.

    .
    “I will defer to Lincoln’s personal integrity that he may have freed the slaves for more noble reasons than his industrialist constituents.”

    Lincoln’s writings and speeches are filled with his condemnations of slavery, usually given in a state, Illinois, where a white abolitionist was murdered by a mob. As Lincoln noted, if slavery isn’t wrong, nothing is wrong.
    .

  11. The South was led by men who profited from slavery. They seceded, set up a government, established a navy and an army and waged war to preserve slavery.

    Short of compromise, which wasn’t likely, war was inevitable. Grant and Sherman made sure the South would not think of waging war again for generations.

    Patton pointed out that the next war is a continuation of the previous one. Let’s face it. The German and Russian empires were bullies. They partitioned Poland. Russia ruled the Baltic people. Germany took Alsace-Lorraine. Ludendorff helped Lenin overthrow the Russian government.

    The current view held by some Trads is lamentation of the defeat of the Habsburgs. It doesn’t bother them that Poland was wiped off the map – part of their grudge against John Paul II excommunicating Williamson and kissing a Koran. Not me. The age of empire had passed. Germany never got the message.

  12. It is commonly assumed that slave labour is cheaper than free labour, but that is not, necessarily, true.

    The slave-owner does not have to pay wages, but he does have to meet the costs of the slave’s subsistence, along with the depreciation of a terminable, hazardous and wasting asset.
    In a free market, the cost of any commodity tends to equal its costs of production and, in the case of labour, that cost is the labourer’s subsistence.

    Moreover, the productivity of free labour, incentivised by piece-rates and fear of the sack tends to be higher and free labour can be hired, when needed, and put on short-time or laid-off when it is not.

    In the West Indies, the costs of sugar production did not rise after emancipation; they actually fell.

  13. .
    “‘I will defer to Lincoln’s personal integrity that he may have freed the slaves for more noble reasons than his industrialist constituents.’
    Lincoln’s writings and speeches are filled with his condemnations of slavery, usually given in a state, Illinois, where a white abolitionist was murdered by a mob. As Lincoln noted, if slavery isn’t wrong, nothing is wrong.”

    Lincoln’s primary focus was the saving of the Union. “Many historians have called this old conventional wisdom into question, arguing that Lincoln was not really motivated by commitment to end slavery. The proof, they claim, is his famous letter to Horace Greeley in which he wrote that ‘my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery, If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.'”

    http://ashbrook.org/publications/oped-owens-04-guelzo/

  14. Of course when Lincoln wrote to Greeley he already had drafted the Emancipation Proclamation and was merely awaiting a Union victory to announce it. Lincoln, ever the shrewd trial attorney, was already preparing his chief defense of the Proclamation, that is was undertaken solely as a war measure. If it were not undertaken as a war measure, he had no power to liberate the slaves.

  15. Relative statements from Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural address:

      “On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”
      “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

    http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres32.html

    There is ample evidence in my mind that Abraham Lincoln feared that God’s purpose in allowing the Civil War was to end the evil of slavery.

    http://www.beliefnet.com/News/2003/02/The-Almighty-Has-His-Own-Purposes.aspx?p=1

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