The Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction on the World Stage
A Global Impact
Americans demanded the world's attention during their Civil War and Reconstruction. Newspapers around the globe reported the latest news from the United States as one vast battle followed another, as the largest system of slavery in the world crashed into pieces, as American democracy expanded to include people who had been enslaved only a few years before (1).
Both the North and the South appealed to the global audience. Abraham Lincoln argued that his nation's Civil War "embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy... can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity." The struggle, Lincoln said, was for "a vast future," a struggle to give all men "a fair chance in the race of life" (2). Confederates claimed that they were also fighting for a cause of world-wide significance: self-determination. Playing down the centrality of slavery to their new nation, white Southerners built their case for independence on the right of free citizens to determine their political future (3).
People in other nations could see that the massive struggle in the United States embodied conflicts that had been appearing in different forms throughout the world. Defining nationhood, deciding the future of slavery, reinventing warfare for an industrial age, reconstructing a former slave society—all these played out in the American Civil War.
By no means a major power, the United States was nevertheless woven into the life of the world. The young nation touched, directly and indirectly, India and Egypt, Hawaii and Japan, Russia and Canada, Mexico and Cuba, the Caribbean and Brazil, Britain and France. The country was still very much an experiment in 1860, a representative government stretched over an enormous space, held together by law rather than by memory, religion, or monarch. The American Civil War, played out on the brightly lit stage of a new country, would be a drama of world history. How that experiment fared in its great crisis—regardless of what happened—would eventually matter to people everywhere.
Slavery and Nineteenth-Century Globalization
More obviously than most nations, the United States was the product of global history. Created from European ideas, involvement in Atlantic trade, African slavery, conquest of land from American Indians and European powers, and massive migration from Europe, the United States took shape as the world watched. Long before the Civil War, the United States embodied the possibilities and contradictions of modern western history.
Slavery was the first, most powerful, and most widespread kind of globalization in the first three centuries after Columbus. While colonies came and went, while economies boomed and crashed, slavery relentlessly grew—and nowhere more than in the United States. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the slave South had assumed a central role on the world stage. Cotton emerged as the great global commodity, driving factories in the most advanced economies of the world. The slaves of the South were worth more than all the railroads and factories of the North and South combined; slavery was good business and shrewd investment.
While most other slave societies in the hemisphere gradually moved toward freedom, the American South moved toward the permanence of slavery. Southerners and their Northern allies, eager to expand, led the United States in a war to seize large parts of Mexico and looked hungrily upon the Caribbean and Central America. Of all the slave powers—including the giants of Brazil and Cuba, which continued to import slaves legally long after the United States—only the South and its Confederacy fought a war to maintain bondage (4).
Ideas of justice circulated in global intercourse just as commodities did and those ideas made the American South increasingly anomalous as a modern society built on slavery. Demands for universal freedom came into conflict with ancient traditions of subordination. European nations, frightened by revolt in Haiti and elsewhere and confident of their empires' ability to prosper without slavery, dismantled slavery in their colonies in the western hemisphere while Russia dismantled serfdom.
Black and white abolitionists in the American North, though a tiny despised minority, worked with British allies to fight the acceptance of slavery in the United States. A vision of the South as backward, cruel, and power-hungry gained credence in many places in the North and took political force in the Republican party. The global economy of commodities and ideology, demanding cotton while attacking slavery, put enormous and contradictory strains on the young American nation (5).
European Models of Nation-Building
Meanwhile, a new urge to define national identity flowed through the western world in the first half of the nineteenth century. That determination took quite different forms. While some people still spoke of the universal dreams of the French and American Revolutions, of inalienable attributes of humankind, others spoke of historical grievance, ethnic unity, and economic self-interest. Many longed for new nations built around bonds of heritage, imagined and real (6).
White Southerners, while building their case for secession with the language of constitutions and rights, presented themselves as a people profoundly different from white Northerners. They sought sanction for secession in the recent histories of Italy, Poland, Mexico, and Greece, where rebels rose up against central powers to declare their suppressed nationhood, where native elites led a "natural, necessary protest and revolt" against a "crushing, killing union with another nationality and form of society" (7).
As the South threatened to secede, the Republicans, a regional party themselves, emphasized the importance of Union for its own sake, the necessity of maintaining the integrity of a nation created by legal compact. It fell to the United States, the Republicans said, to show that large democracies could survive internal struggles and play a role in world affairs alongside monarchies and aristocracies (8).
Once it became clear that war would come, the North and the South seized upon the latest war-making strategies and technologies. From the outset, both sides innovated at a rapid pace and imported ideas from abroad. Railroads and telegraphs extended supply lines, sped troop reinforcements, and permitted the mobilization of vast armies. Observers from Europe and other nations watched carefully to see how the Americans would use these new possibilities. The results were mixed. Ironclad ships, hurriedly constructed, made a difference in some Southern ports and rivers, but were not seaworthy enough to play the role some had envisioned for them. Submarines and balloons proved disappointments, unable to deliver significant advantages. Military leaders, rather than being subordinated by anonymous machinery, as some expected, actually became more important than before, their decisions amplified by the size of their armies and the speed of communication and transport (9).
The scale and drama of the Civil War that ravaged America for four years, across an area larger than the European continent, fascinated and appalled a jaded world. A proportion of the population equal to five million people today died and the South suffered casualties at a rate equal to those who would be decimated in Europe's mechanized wars of the twentieth century.
The size, innovation, and destructiveness of the American Civil War have led some, looking back, to describe it as the first total war, the first truly modern war. Despite new technologies and strategies, however, much of the Civil War remained old-fashioned. The armies in the American Civil War still moved vast distances on foot or with animals. The food soldiers ate and the medical care they received showed little advance over previous generations of armies. The military history of the Civil War grew incrementally from world history and offered incremental changes to what would follow. Although, late in the war, continuous campaigning and extensive earthen entrenchments foreshadowed World War I, Europeans did not grasp the deadly lesson of the American Civil War: combining the tactics of Napoleon with rapid-fire weapons and trenches would culminate in horrors unanticipated at Shiloh and Antietam (10).
Diplomacy proved challenging for all sides in the American crisis. The fragile balance of power on the Continent and in the empires centered there limited the range of movement of even the most powerful nations. The Confederacy's diplomatic strategy depended on gaining recognition from Great Britain and France, using cotton as a sort of blackmail, but European manufacturers had stockpiled large supplies of cotton in anticipation of the American war. British cartoonists, sympathetic to the Confederacy, ridiculed Abraham Lincoln at every opportunity, portraying him as an inept bumpkin—until his assassination, when Lincoln suddenly became sainted. Overall, the North benefited from the inaction of the British and the French, who could have changed the outcome and consequences of the war by their involvement (11).
Internal Changes with World-wide Implications
Inside the United States, the change unleashed by the war was as profound as it was unexpected. Even those who hated slavery had not believed in 1861 that generations of captivity could be ended overnight and former slaves and former slaveholders left to live together. The role of slavery in sustaining the Confederacy through humbling victories over the Union created the conditions in which Abraham Lincoln felt driven and empowered to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The Union, briefly and precariously balanced between despair and hope, between defeat and victory, was willing in 1862 to accept that bold decision as a strategy of war and to enlist volunteers from among black Americans (12).
The nearly 200,000 African Americans who came into the war as soldiers and sailors for the Union transformed the struggle. The addition of those men, greater in number than all the forces at Gettysburg, allowed the Union to build its advantage in manpower without pushing reluctant Northern whites into the draft. The enlistment of African Americans in the struggle for their own freedom ennobled the Union cause and promised to set a new global standard for the empowerment of formerly enslaved people. The world paid admiring attention to the brave and disciplined black troops in blue uniforms (13).
The destruction of American slavery, a growing system of bondage of nearly four million people in one of the world's most powerful economies and most dynamic nation-states, was a consequence of world importance. Nowhere else besides Haiti did slavery end so suddenly, so completely, and with so little compensation for former slaveholders (14). Had the United States failed to end slavery in the 1860s the world would have felt the difference. An independent Confederate States of America would certainly have put its enslaved population to effective use in coal mines, steel mills, and railroad building, since industrial slavery had been employed before secession and became more common during wartime. Though such a Confederacy might have found itself stigmatized, its survival would have meant the evolution of slavery into a new world of industrialization. The triumph of a major autonomous state built around slavery would have set a devastating example for the rest of the world, an encouragement to forces of reaction. It would have marked the repudiation of much that was liberating in Western thought and practice over the preceding two hundred years (15).
Driven by the exigencies of war, Northern ideals of color-blind freedom and justice, so often latent and suppressed, suddenly if briefly bloomed in the mid-1860s. The Radical Republicans sought to create a black male American freedom based on the same basis as white male American freedom: property, citizenship, dignity, and equality before the law. They launched a bold Reconstruction to make those ideals a reality, their effort far surpassing those of emancipation anywhere else in the world. The white South resisted with vicious vehemence, however, and the Republicans, always ambivalent about black autonomy and eager to maintain their partisan power, lost heart after a decade of bitter, violent, and costly struggle in Reconstruction. Northern Democrats, opposing Reconstruction from the outset, hastened and celebrated its passing (16).
If former slaves had been permitted to sustain the enduring political power they tried to build, if they had gone before juries and judges with a chance of fair treatment, if they had been granted homesteads to serve as a first step toward economic freedom, then Reconstruction could be hailed as a turning point in world history equal to any revolution. Those things did not happen, however. The white South claimed the mantle of victim, of a people forced to endure an unjust and unnatural subordination. They won international sympathy for generations to follow in films such as Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939), which viewed events through the eyes of sympathetic white Southerners. Reconstruction came to be seen around the world not as the culmination of freedom but as a mistake, a story of the dangers of unrealistic expectations and failed social engineering. Though former slaves in the American South quietly made more progress in landholding and general prosperity than former slaves elsewhere, the public failures of Reconstruction obscured the progress black Southerners wrenched from the postwar decades (17).
When the South lost its global monopoly of cotton production during the Civil War, governments, agents, and merchants around the world responded quickly to take the South's place and to build an efficient global machinery to supply an ever-growing demand in the world market. As a result, generations of black and white sharecroppers would compete with Indian, Brazilian, and Egyptian counterparts in a glutted market in which hard work often brought impoverishment. The South adapted its economy after the war as well. By the 1880s, the South's rates of urban growth, manufacturing, and population movement kept pace with the North—a remarkable shift for only twenty years after losing slavery and the Civil War—but black Southerners were excluded from much of the new prosperity (18).
Segregation and Race Relations
The destruction of slavery, a major moral accomplishment of the United States Army, of Abraham Lincoln, and of the enslaved people themselves, would be overshadowed by the injustice and poverty that followed in the rapidly changing South, a mockery of American claims of moral leadership in the world. Black Southerners would struggle, largely on their own, for the next one hundred years. Their status, bound in an ever-tightening segregation, would stand as a rebuke to the United States in world opinion. The postwar South and its new system of segregation, in fact, became an explicit model for South Africa. That country created apartheid as it, like the American South, developed a more urban and industrial economy based on racial subordination.
Americans read about foreign affairs on the same pages that carried news of Reconstruction in the South. Even as the Southern states struggled to write new constitutions, Secretary of State William Henry Seward purchased Alaska in 1867 as a step toward the possible purchase of British Columbia. President Grant considered annexation of Santo Domingo, partly as a base for black Southern emigration; he won the support of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who wanted to help the Santo Domingans, but was opposed by Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner.
Americans paid close attention to Hawaii in these same years. Mark Twain visited the islands in 1866, and Samuel Armstrong—the white founder of Hampton Institute, where Booker T. Washington was educated—argued that Hawaiians and former slaves in the South needed similar discipline to become industrious. At the same time, Seward signed a treaty with China to help supply laborers to the American West, a treaty that laid the foundation for a large migration in the next few decades. In 1871, American forces intervened militarily in Korea, killing 250 Korean soldiers. The leaders of the Americans admitted they knew little about their opponents, but brought the same assumptions about race to the conflict that they brought to their dealings with all non-Europeans everywhere. Koreans—like Hawaiians, Chinese, American Indians, and African Americans—needed to be disciplined, taught, and controlled.
No master plan guided Americans in their dealings with other peoples. In all of these places, the interests of American businessmen, the distortions of racial ideology, and hopes for partisan political advantage at home jostled with one another. As a result, the consequences of these involvements were often unclear and sometimes took generations to play out. Nevertheless, they remind us that Americans paid close attention to what was happening elsewhere, whether in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), where the evolution of warfare continued to become more mechanized and lethal, or the Paris Commune (1871), where some thought they saw the result of unbridled democracy in chaos and violence—and wondered if Reconstruction did not represent a similar path.
Some people around the world were surprised that the United States did not use its enormous armies after the Civil War to seize Mexico from the French, Canada from the English, or Cuba from the Spanish. Conflict among the great powers on the European Continent certainly opened an opportunity and the United States had expanded relentlessly and opportunistically throughout its history. Few Americans, though, had the stomach for new adventures in the wake of the Civil War. The fighting against the American Indians on the Plains proved warfare enough for most white Americans in the 1870s and 1880s (19).
The United States focused its postwar energies instead on commerce. Consolidated under Northern control, the nation's economy proved more formidable than ever before. The United States, its economic might growing with each passing year, its railroad network and financial systems consolidated, its cities and towns booming, its population surging westward, its mines turning out massive amounts of coal and precious minerals, its farms remarkably productive, and its corporations adopting new means of expansion and administration, became a force throughout the world. American engineers oversaw projects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. American investors bought stock in railroads, factories, and mines around the globe. American companies came to dominate the economies of nations in Latin America (20).
Americans became famous as rich, energetic, and somewhat reckless players amid the complexity of the world. As the Civil War generation aged, younger men looked with longing on possible territorial acquisitions in their own hemisphere and farther afield. They talked openly of proving themselves, as their fathers and grandfathers had, on the battlefield. Some welcomed the fight against the Spanish and the Filipinos in 1898 as a test of American manhood and nationalism. The generation that came of age in 1900 built monuments to the heroes of the Civil War but seldom paused to listen to their stories of war's horror and costs.
Asking Different Questions of the Past
The American Civil War has carried a different meaning for every generation of Americans. In the 1920s and 1930s leading historians in a largely isolationist United States considered the Civil War a terrible mistake, the product of a "blundering generation." After the triumph of World War II and in the glow of the Cold War's end, leading historians interpreted the Civil War as a chapter in the relentless destruction of slavery and the spread of democracy by the forces of modernization over the forces of reaction. Recently, living through more confusing times, some historians have begun to question straightforward stories of the war, emphasizing its contradictory meanings, unfulfilled promises, and unintended outcomes (21).
The story of the American Civil War changes as world history lurches in unanticipated directions and as people ask different questions of the past. Things that once seemed settled now seem less so. The massive ranks, fortified trenches, heavy machinery, and broadened targets of the American Civil War once seemed to mark a step toward the culmination of "total" war. But the wars of the twenty-first century, often fought without formal battles, are proving relentless and boundless, "total" in ways the disciplined armies of the Union and Confederacy never imagined (22). Nations continue to come apart over ancient grievances and modern geopolitics, the example of the United States notwithstanding. Coerced labor did not end in the nineteenth century, but instead has mutated and adapted to changes in the global economy. "A fair chance in the race of life" has yet to arrive for much of the world.
The great American trial of war, emancipation, and reconstruction mattered to the world. It embodied struggles that would confront people on every continent and it accelerated the emergence of a new global power. The American crisis, it was true, might have altered the course of world history more dramatically, in ways both worse and better, than what actually transpired. The war could have brought forth a powerful and independent Confederacy based on slavery or it could have established with its Reconstruction a new global standard of justice for people who had been enslaved. As it was, the events of the 1860s and 1870s in the United States proved both powerful and contradictory in their meaning for world history.
For other portrayals of the Civil War in international context, see David M. Potter, "Civil War," in C. Vann Woodward, ed., The Comparative Approach to American History (New York: Basic Books, 1968), pp. 135-45; Carl N. Degler, One Among Many: The Civil War in Comparative Perspective, 29th Annual Robert Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture (Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg College, 1990); Robert E. May, ed., The Union, the Confederacy, and the Atlantic Rim (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1995); Peter Kolchin, A Sphinx on the American Land: The Nineteenth-Century South in Comparative Perspective (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003).
My view of the workings of world history has been influenced by C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (MaldenMA: Blackwell, 2004). Bayly emphasizes that "in the nineteenth century, nation-states and contending territorial empires took on sharper lineaments and became more antagonistic to each other at the very same time as the similarities, connections, and linkages between them proliferated" (p. 2). By showing the "complex interaction between political organization, political ideas, and economic activity," Bayly avoids the teleological models of modernization, nationalism, and liberalism that have dominated our understanding of the American Civil War.
Lincoln quoted in James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, reprint (New York: Oxford University Press: 1992, 1991), p. 28.
The seminal work is Drew Gilpin Faust, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988). For an excellent synthesis of the large literature on this topic, see Anne S. Rubin, A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
For a useful overview, see Robert W. Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989).
David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984); Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), and Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford University Press, 2006).
For helpful overviews of the global situation, see Steven Hahn, "Class and State in Postemancipation Societies: Southern Planters in Comparative Perspective," American Historical Review 95 (February 1990): 75-98, and Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003).
Quoted in Faust, Creation of Confederate Nationalism, p. 13.
There is a large literature on this subject, not surprisingly. A useful recent treatment is Susan-Mary Grant, North Over South: Northern Nationalism and American Identity in the Antebellum Era (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2000). Peter Kolchin also offers penetrating comments on nationalism in A Sphinx on the American Land, 89-92.
Brian Holden Reid, The American Civil War and the Wars of the Industrial Revolution (London: Cassell, 1999), 211-13; John E. Clark Jr., Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and Defeat (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001); Robert G. Angevine, The Railroad and the State: War, Politics, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).
For a range of interesting essays on this subject, see Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler, eds., On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861-1871 (Washington, DC: The German Historical Institute, 1997).
See D. P. Crook, The North, the South, and the Powers, 1861-1865 (New York: Wiley, 1974); R. J. M. Blackett, Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001); James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); May, ed., The Union, the Confederacy, and the Atlantic Rim; and Charles M. Hubbard, The Burden of Confederate Diplomacy (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998).
See Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004).
13. See Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers (New York: Free Press, 1990).
See Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, 1st Vintage ed. (New York: Vintage, 1980, 1979) and the major documentary collection edited by Ira Berlin, Leslie S. Rowland, and their colleagues, sampled in Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War (New York: The New Press, 1992).
See Davis, Slavery and Human Progress, for a sweeping perspective on this issue.
The classic history is Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988). I have offered some thoughts on Reconstruction's legacy in "Exporting Reconstruction" in What Caused the Civil War? Reflections on the South and Southern History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005).
On the legacy of Reconstruction, see David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (CambridgeMA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001).
For a fascinating essay on the South's loss of the cotton monopoly, see Sven Beckert, "Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the American Civil War," American Historical Review 109 (December 2004): 1405-38. On South Africa: John W. Cell, The Highest Stage of White Supremacy: The Origins of Segregation in South Africa and the American South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982) and George M. Fredrickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).
See the discussion in the essays by Robert E. May and James M. McPherson in May, ed., The Union, the Confederacy, and the Atlantic Rim.
For the larger context, see Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1875-1914 (New York: Pantheon, 1987) and Bayly, Birth of the Modern World.
I have described this literature and offered some thoughts on it in the essay "Worrying About the Civil War" in my What Caused the Civil War?
Reid, American Civil War, p. 213.
Surprisingly, no one book covers the themes of this essay. To understand this era of American history in global context, we need to piece together accounts from a variety of books and articles. For recent overviews of different components of these years, see Jay Sexton, "Towards a Synthesis of Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era, 1848-1877," American Nineteenth-Century History 5 (Fall 2004): 50-73, and Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (CambridgeMA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
Robert E. May, in the introduction to the book he edited, The Union, the Confederacy, and the Atlantic Rim (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1995), provides a useful summary of the larger context of the war. Though it is older, the perspective of D. P. Crook, The North, the South, and the Powers, 1861-1865 (New York: Wiley, 1974) brings a welcome worldliness to the discussion. On the crucial debate in Britain, see Howard Jones, Union in Peril: The Crisis Over British Intervention in the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992) and R. J. M. Blackett, Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001).
James M. McPherson offers characteristically insightful, and hopeful, analysis in several places. Perhaps the single best focused portrayal of the interplay between events in the United States and in the Atlantic World is in his Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). McPherson's essay, "'The Whole Family of Man': Lincoln and the Last Best Hope Abroad," in May, ed., The Union, the Confederacy, and the Atlantic Rim, makes the fullest case for the larger significance of the war in encouraging liberal movements and belief around the world.
Peter Kolchin's A Sphinx on the American Land: The Nineteenth-Century South in Comparative Perspective (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003) offers an elegant and up-to-date survey that puts the conflict in the larger context of emancipation movements. A useful overview appears in Steven Hahn, "Class and State in Postemancipation Societies: Southern Planters in Comparative Perspective," American Historical Review 95 (February 1990): 75-98.
Another pioneering work is Drew Gilpin Faust, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988). Faust changed historians' perspective on nationalism in the South, which had been considered largely fraudulent before her account. Building on Faust are two recent books that offer fresh interpretations: Anne S. Rubin, A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005) and Susan-Mary Grant, North Over South: Northern Nationalism and American Identity in the Antebellum Era (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2000).
On the much-debated issue of the relative modernity and totality of the Civil War, see Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler, eds., On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861-1871 (Washington, DC: The German Historical Institute, 1997); the essays by Stanley L. Engerman and J. Matthew Gallman, Earl J. Hess, Michael Fellman, and Richard Current are especially helpful. Brian Holden Reid, in The American Civil War and the Wars of the Industrial Revolution (London: Cassell, 1999), offers a concise but insightful portrayal of the war in larger military context.
For a powerful representation of the role of slavery in this history, David Brion Davis's works are all helpful. His most recent account synthesizes a vast literature in an accessible way: Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford University Press, 2006).
Excellent examples of what might be thought of as the new global history appear in Sven Beckert, "Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the American Civil War," American Historical Review 109 (December 2004): 1405-38, and Gordon H. Chang, "Whose 'Barbarism'? Whose 'Treachery'? Race and Civilization in the Unknown United States-Korea War of 1871," Journal of American History 89 (March 2003): 1331-65.
Edward L. Ayers is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, where he is also the Hugh P. Kelly Professor of History. He has published extensively on nineteenth-century Southern history, his most recent publication being In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863 (2003), which received the Bancroft Prize. An earlier book, The Promise of the New South (1992), was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In addition, Ayers has created and directs a prize-winning Internet archive, "Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War," containing original sources related to two towns at either end of the Shenandoah Valley, one in Virginia and the other in Pennsylvania.
Beginning in the 1830s, the South developed a new and aggressive sense of â€œnationalismâ€ that was rooted in its sense of distinctiveness and its perception that it was ringed by enemies. The South began to conceive of itself more and more as the true custodian of Americaâ€™s revolutionary heritage. Southern travelers who ventured into the North regarded it as a â€œstrange and distant landâ€ and expressed disgust about its vice-ridden cities and its grasping materialism.
At the same time, southern intellectuals began to defend slavery as a positive factor. After 1830, white Southerners stopped referring to slavery as a necessary evil. Instead, they argued that it was a beneficial institution that created a hierarchical society superior to the leveling democracy of the North. By the late 1840s, a new and more explicitly racist rationale for slavery had emerged.
With the emergence of militant abolitionism in the North, sharpened by slave uprisings in Jamaica and Southampton County, Virginia, the South began to see itself as surrounded by enemies. Southern leaders responded aggressively. On the Senate floor in 1837, John C. Calhoun pronounced slavery â€œa good--a positive goodâ€ and set the tone for future southern proslavery arguments. Before the 1830s, southern statements on slavery had been defensive; afterward, they were defiant.
In the 1840s, a growing number of southern ministers, journalists, and politicians began to denounce the Northâ€™s form of capitalism as â€œwage slavery.â€ The condition of free labor, they argued, was actually â€œworse than slavery,â€ because slaveholders, unlike greedy northern employers, provide for their employees â€œwhen most needed, when sickness or old age has overtaken [them].â€ Northern workers, they declared, were simply â€œslaves without masters.â€
During the 1840s, more and more Southerners defended slavery on explicitly racial grounds. In doing so, they drew on new pseudoscientific theories of racial inferiority. Some of these theories came from Europe, which was seeking justification of imperial expansion over nonwhite peoples in Africa and Asia. Other racist ideas were drawn from northern scientists, who employed an elaborate theory of â€œpolygenesis,â€ which claimed that Africans and whites were separate species.
Seeking to free their region from cultural, economic, and religious dependence on the North, southern â€œnationalistsâ€ sought to promote southern economic self-sufficiency, to create southern-oriented educational and religious institutions, and to develop a distinctive southern literature. Beginning in 1837, southern leaders held the first of a series of commercial conventions in an attempt to diversify the southern economy and to rescue the South from northern â€œpecuniary and commercial supremacy.â€
Efforts to develop the southern economy were surprisingly successful. Southern railroad mileage quadrupled between 1850 and 1860--although southern track mileage still trailed that of the free states by 14,000. By 1860 Richmond manufactured more tobacco than any other America city and exported more goods to South America than any other American port, including New York.
Other southern nationalists strove to create southern-oriented educational institutions to protect the young from, in Jeffersonâ€™s words, â€œimbibing opinions and principles in discordâ€ with those of the South. Schoolbooks, declared one southern magazine, â€œhave slurs and innuendoes at slavery; the geographies are more particular in stating the resources of the Northern States; the histories almost ignore the South; the arithmetics contain in their examples reflections upon the Southern states.â€
The struggle for independent southern colleges achieved considerable success. By 1860 Virginia had 23 colleges and Georgia had 32, while New York had 17 colleges and Massachusetts just 8. In 1856 the University of Virginia had 558 students, compared to only 361 at Harvard.
Regional independence was also called for in religion. Due in large part to fear of antislavery agitation, southern Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians sought to sever their denominational affiliations with northern churches. In the early 2000s, only the Baptists remain divided. Southerners also called for a distinctive and peculiarly southern literature. More than 30 periodicals were founded with the word â€œSouthernâ€ in their title, all intended to â€œbreathe a Southern spirit, and sustain a strictly Southern character.â€ Authors such as Nathaniel Beverly Tucker and William Gilmore Simms called on the South to write on southern themes and to overcome the taunts of â€œEnglishmen and Northernmenâ€ that they were intellectually inferior.
Copyright 2021 Digital History
In Defense of the American System
February 2, 3, and 6, 1832
From the nation's earliest days, Congress has struggled with the fundamental issue of the national government's proper role in fostering economic development. Henry Clay's "American System," devised in the burst of nationalism that followed the War of 1812, remains one of the most historically significant examples of a government-sponsored program to harmonize and balance the nation's agriculture, commerce, and industry. This "System" consisted of three mutually reinforcing parts: a tariff to protect and promote American industry; a national bank to foster commerce; and federal subsidies for roads, canals, and other "internal improvements" to develop profitable markets for agriculture. Funds for these subsidies would be obtained from tariffs and sales of public lands. Clay argued that a vigorously maintained system of sectional economic interdependence would eliminate the chance of renewed subservience to the free-trade, laissez-faire "British System." In the years from 1816 to 1828, Congress enacted programs supporting each of the American System's major elements. After the 1829 inauguration of President Andrew Jackson's administration, with its emphasis on a limited role for the federal government and sectional autonomy, the American System became the focus of anti-Jackson opposition that coalesced into the new Whig party under the leadership of Henry Clay.
Henry Clay has been aptly labeled "the most influential member"' of the Senate during its golden age of the 1830's and 1840's. His personal 'Magnetism--his passionate, charming, and ingratiating manner--made Clay one of America's best-loved politicians; but his consuming ambition for the presidency led him to compromise his principles in a series of major blunders that frustrated those public figures and private citizens who sought his forceful leadership. One biographer concluded that "there was a serious statesman in him along with the gamester-politician; behind his never-ending series of plausible expedients there was a consistency of purpose. Clay has been overrated as a politician and underrated as a statesman."
The Kentuckian took his first Senate oath of office in 1806 at age twenty-nine, despite being three months under the constitutionally required age for membership. Filling out an unexpired term, he served less than three months, and in January 1810 he returned for another brief period. Moving to the House of Representatives in 1811, Clay was chosen Speaker on his first day in that body, a post he held intermittently for a decade. He served as Secretary of State in John Quincy Adams' administration, and following Andrew Jackson's 1828 defeat of Adams, Clay returned to the Senate in November 1831. Within months, the National Republican party nominated Clay to oppose Jackson in the 1832 election.
Clay's move to the Senate in 1831 symbolized the increasing prestige of the upper chamber, which was rapidly becoming the principal theater for the nation's intensifying legislative battles.
Early in 1832, as the Jackson administration moved closer to paying off its national debt, Clay recommended abolishing tariffs on foreign goods that did not compete with American products. This would have obvious political appeal to the purchasers of those goods and would reduce the flow of revenue into the treasury, preventing Jackson from extinguishing the debt in time to take credit for it in the 1832 election campaign. Southerners who hated protective tariffs argued that Clay's reductions were inadequate.
By 1831, the Kentucky senator enjoyed a national reputation as an outstanding orator. A book entitled The Speeches of Henry Clay had appeared four year ' s earlier, "the first such volume to be published in the United States and [an indication of] the importance parliamentary eloquence had attained in the nation's life. Clay's oratorical power, unlike that of Webster, lay not in his choice of words or extent of his knowledge, but in his style of delivery. Raised in a western tradition that valued oratory for its entertainment rather than educational value, Clay tailored his remarks for a wide audience, filling them with popular allusions while omitting the learned quotations that other classical orators favored. Unlike Calhoun, who delivered scholarly addresses with a maximum of speed and a minimum of ornamentation, Clay adopted a deliberative style that made effective use of calculated pauses, well-timed body gestures, and simple direct arguments. Carl Schurz, who served in the Senate in the 1870's with those who had known Clay, believed the Kentuckian possessed "the true oratorical temperament, that force of nervous exaltation that makes the orator feel himself, and appear to others, a superior being, and almost irresistibly transfuses his thoughts, his passions, and his will into the mind and heart of the listener."
On February 2, 1832, Clay used the first speech of his Senate career to launch a major attack on the Jackson administration. This three-day speech, entitled "In Defense of the American System," (pdf) focused principally on the importance of maintaining protective tariffs, despite complaints of such southern spokesmen as Senator Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina and Vice President John C. Calhoun that they would ruin the region's economy.
Historian Merrill Peterson reconstructed the image Clay conveyed to his audience during delivery of this address. "The chamber was packed to hear the man whose powers of persuasion—now charming, now badgering; now beseeching, now deprecating; now subdued, now vehement—were legendary, and who, if he did not command assent by the strength of his views, won it with his captivating manner and seductive voice." Friends and foes alike admired the sound of Clay"s voice. Another scholar concludes, "His voice was a magnificent instrument to express his emotions and ideas, remarkable clear, at times 'soft as a lute' and other times 'full as a trumpet,' beautifully modulated." Clay's modern biographer, Robert Remini, offers this cogent evaluation of the American System address:
Despite its frequent histrionic outbursts, its penchant for overkill, its wrongheadedness about southern interests and concerns, its statistical errors, its irrelevancies, and its overtly insincere courtesies it was a masterful speech, one of Clay's more triumphant efforts at influencing the minds and votes of his colleagues. It buttressed logical arguments with statistical data, all compellingly presented with humor, grace, passion, a touch of sarcasm here and there, and the force of personality and language.
Reprinted from Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994.
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