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The American Civil War 1861-1865: An Editorial Meditation

Updated on December 23, 2016

If I stopped you on the street and asked you what the American Civil War (1861-1865) was "about," --- what do you think you might say?

Well, many of you, particularly the "liberals/progressives" might say that "the short answer is slavery." You might say something like that.

Now you cannot invoke "slavery," without recalling that the South was fighting to maintain slavery as their principal labor system and the North was fighting to "abolish" it. This is something that you cannot say without a certain implication hanging in the air.

The framing of the issue of the American Civil War in terms of "the short answer" of "slavery," rather implies that the North was more morally enlightened than the South. This is an implication that I would reject for reasons which I hope are so obvious, that I cannot even be bothered to allude to them in passing.

We have to back up a bit and recall that all of the original Thirteen American Colonies, of the seventeenth-century, had had slavery. By "slavery," I mean the lifetime and generationally inheritable bonded servitude of Africans and persons of African descent, as opposed to the five-to-seven-year enslavement of English and European "indentured servants."

Now, once again, the original Thirteen Colonies of America, in the seventeenth-century, had featured the lifetime and generationally inheritable bonded servitude of Africans and persons of African descent.

It is true, however, that the Northern colonial states legislatively ended slavery for themselves, during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. They did this, of course, "before" the Southern state colonies did; and indeed, slavery in the South had to be ended by the force of arms.

Now, does this mean, then, that the North "saw the light," or "reformed" "before" the South did? In other words, what I am asking is: Did the North come to the realization that slavery was wrong before the South?

Such an implication is equally unacceptable because it does not comport with what actually happened.

What I mean is this: While it is true that the Northern states did legislatively relinquish slavery for themselves, in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries....

  1. Slaves continued to be brought to and sold to the South from New England ports (1); and...
  2. The financing for the slave labor-based cotton production came from the New York City business community (2); and...
  3. While this is not very well known, it is, nevertheless, a fact that when South Carolina seceded from the Union (the very first Southern state to do so), the pro-Southern mayor of New York City, Fernando Wood, proposed to the city council that NYC secede from the Union as well (3).

With such facts in mind, the Northern states' legislative repeal of slavery, for themselves, starts to look like something I shall call relegation as opposed to renunciation.

What does that mean?

By "relegation" I simply mean that you get somebody else to do the "dirty work," as it were, while still holding on to the belief that such work is "necessary." The thing is, however, you reach a stage of preeminence in which this kind of work is now beneath your dignity to perform yourself.

Mind you, I am not talking about "delegation." I am talking about "relegation." With the former, one is talking about dividing up the work. With the latter, one is talking about fobbing off lower level, somewhat undesirable tasks to people of a lower level of dignity --- from the perspective of those doing the relegating, of course.

Does that make sense?

Think of it this way: Think about a young thug who enters in The Life, as it were, a career path of crime. He starts out hungry, energetic, and eager, willing and able to do "whatever it takes," as it were. He is willing to personally commit violence.

Brass knuckles, a club, and a pistol are his tools of the trade. Let us suppose that he survives in the Underworld, for the most part avoids arrest and prosecution. He prospers and moves up in the ranks. He grows wealthy and moves into policy planning areas of "the business," and so forth.

He starts dressing better; and, perhaps, he starts keeping better social company. Now he is not so keen to do the rough stuff himself (of course, he never, for a minute, stops believing in the necessity of the use of timely violence and intimidation). He no longer carries weapons on his person; he has no need to because his security is looked after by very competent bodyguards.

When someone's face needs to be rearranged, or worse, he turns to young, hungry, up and coming, rough-around-the-edges thugs to take care of it. Get it? In this way, our gangster friend has relegated the administration of violence to elements of lesser dignity than himself.

Now then, what we can say is that, in this way, the Northern states effectively---and the word "effectively" is stressed (4)---relegated the dirty, hands-on business of slavery to the Southern states.

Okay, well this would mean that there came a time when the Northern states thought of the hands-on handling of slaves, as beneath their dignity.

The question is: What on Earth could have happened to give the Northern states such an elevated, executive, upper management view of themselves relative to the Southern states?

Well, to try to answer that question, we have to back up, again, all the way to 1776; and recall a major motivation for the American Revolution against England. In a word, it was a set of policies amounting to mercantilism. Remember that word from your ninth-grade social studies class?

For our purposes, mercantilism, is a set of trade policies, imposed by England upon its American colonies, which effectively trapped the latter into the low-level position of being mere producers and exporters of raw materials.

England did not allow the American colonies to do the higher level work of high-tech manufacturing.

I realize that we're used to hearing the old, "no taxation without representation" stuff. But England's prohibition of American manufacturing is what is really important.


Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton

You have to remember that there were two, main, competing post-revolutionary visions of what America should become. One was embodied in the vision of Thomas Jefferson; and the other was embodied in the vision of Alexander Hamilton.

The Jeffersonian vision thought America would do best with a relatively weak, decentralized federal government, which gave maximum freedom and independence to the to the planter, big and small, to be "master of his domain," and all that. Thomas Jefferson thought that America should pursue an agriculture-based future.

Every man should have his own plot of land, his own farm, his own family, including employees, servants, and slaves.

Isolationist in foreign policy, the Jeffersonian vision sought maximum personal independence and freedom, at the expense of international prestige and power. Jefferson was a Francophile, a well known admirer of the French Revolution.

The Hamiltonian vision thought it essential for American to get back on good terms with Great Britain. This vision saw America's future in high finance and international commerce. America, according to this point of view, needed to get past the status of mere producer of raw materials, and into the world of high productivity, high-tech manufacturing.

In order for America to participate in the global economy of the future, she would have to put in a first-rate transportation and communication infrastructure. Financial sophistication and industrial modernization were absolutely essential to effective American power projection, in service to a globally engaged, internationalist perspective.

This scenario would require a relatively strong, centralized, and intrusive federal government. The formula, here, would entail the sacrifice of some personal independence and liberty, for the sake of maximized national greatness on the world stage.

I think we can say that today's libertarians are pure Jeffersonians.

At any rate, the ratio of personal liberty and independence to national greatness has remained a fundamental tension in American politics, to the present day.

The American Civil War (1861-1865) was the armed clash of the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian visions of America's future. The Northern states' victory determined that the whole country would be reorganized, unified, and developed going forward, on the Hamiltonian basis.

Question: If the Northern states had merely relegated the "dirty work" of slavery to the Southern states, without renouncing the practice, over the course of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, why did the Northern and Southern states fight each other over the issue of slavery six decades later?

The short answer appears to be that the South was not satisfied with the proposed territorially limited scope of slavery --- along with how such proposed geographical restrictions would limit Southern representative weight in the U.S. Congress.

Recall that Abraham Lincoln, the Republican campaigned for the U.S. Presidency on the basis that slavery should not be extended into the Western territories. He did not campaign on the abolition of slavery; he was not seeking the complete renunciation of the practice (5).

Recall, also, that Lincoln won the Presidency without having carried a single Southern state.

For this reason, then, the South began to fear---irrationally, in my opinion---that a Lincoln administration, in cooperation with Congress, would seek and get a total legislative termination of slavery throughout the country.

But I happen to think it is more likely that what the North wanted was for slavery to remain "relegated" to the original territorial space it had been relegated to in the first place.

You see, I think its like this, from the point of view of the North: The South, in trying to expand, and seek at least territorial and political equality, for its slave system, with the free industrial labor system of the North --- had gotten "too big for its britches," so to speak.

The South, in refusing to accept a limited territorial scope, that slavery had been originally "relegated" to, had become presumptuous and insubordinate. In other words, the South was no longer acting like the obedient, dirty work-handling thug to the criminal mastermind executive.

Is that clear?

Three Additional Points

I am going to quickly go through three last points I want to make. I will pose three basic questions: 1) How was slavery ultimately destroyed in the United States of America? (*the answer is not as simple as you may think); 2) Did slavery in the United States of America actually come to an end at the conclusion of the Civil War? (Spoiler alert: No!); 3) What does the nature of both Northern and Southern historiography tell us about their relationship to slavery?

I. How was slavery ultimately destroyed in the United States of America?

The answer is not the Civil War!

The answer is not Northern victory over the South! How could it have been? After all, the North had had no interest in actually abolishing slavery; the North had merely wished to discipline the South, which had gotten "too big for its britches," as we've been discussing.

The answer is not Northern victory over the South, because the former's relationship to slavery was, as I have said, one of "relegation not renunciation."

The answer is to be found in economic history, in what we might call the history of international economic relations, more precisely. Obviously, I am not relying on my own authority to make such a claim.

Let me invoke an important book by the historian, Sven Beckert: Empire of Cotton: A Global History. I would recommend one study chapter nine of Dr. Beckert's book, which is titled: A War Reverberates Around the World (6).

First of all, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. The United States of America only started to make a big splash onto the world economy through massive exports of cotton, in the nineteenth century.
  2. This massive export of the white fiber had been facilitated by two things: the invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s, which made is much easier to remove the seeds; and the Louisiana Purchase (1803), which doubled the size of America, and brought in more of the rich, deep, black soil ideal for cultivating cotton.
  3. The Louisiana Purchase, you may remember, had been facilitated by the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), which finally convinced the French to throw in the towel as far as their involvement in the Western Hemisphere.
  4. It is very important to understand that, in the nineteenth century, cotton was the "oil" of its day; and its principal producer, the American South, was the "Saudi Arabia" of its day.

The reason that slavery was destroyed in the United States of America is because the Southern rebellion failed.

The Southern rebellion failed because it did not receive international assistance.

The Southern rebels did not get international assistance.

The American rebels of 1776 did get international assistance --- decisive assistance from England's two main rivals, France and Spain (7). This difference is why the rebellion of 1776-1783 succeeded and the Southern rebellion of 1861 failed.

To understand what was going on, we should return to Dr. Beckert's text. Europe was in a ticklish situation in its relationship with the American South, which, as I said, was the "oil-producing" "Saudi Arabia" of its day.

To understand this ticklish situation, one must understand the relationship between industrialized, modern Western Europe and non-industrialized, or half-industrialized and half-modern America, particularly the South.

That relationship was one of raw materials producer and exporter (America, the South) and the mechanized finisher of raw materials (England, the Low Countries, France --- Western Europe). Remember, this relationship had been originally established during the start of the former colonial period, through a set of trade practices amounting to mercantilism.

Stay with me!

The American South supplied the cotton needed for the European factories, with which they could make the textiles and supply their vast global markets. Only the American South could supply them with the quantities of cotton they needed! Therefore, Europe was anxious about the Civil War because of their dependence upon the American South.

You see, its not that Europe endorsed slavery; for the most part, they did not. What they endorsed was the results of slavery with respect to quantities of cotton produced for their factories, from which they could service their global markets in finished cotton textiles.

These countries worked furiously to find a way to organize labor in the countryside, in such a way that could produce the needed quantities of cotton --- without resort to actual slavery.

Is that clear?

European nations were, you might say, "poised" to throw in their lot with the American South, in support of their own economic interests.

However, the good news, from the perspective of the Europeans, was that they finally did crack the code. They did manage to figure out a way to organize labor in the countryside (of their colonial installations in other parts of the world) in such a way that could produce the quantities of the white fiber, that they needed for their factories.

They had achieved cotton independence. They were free and the American South was basically on their own --- again, unlike the American rebels of 1776-1783!

II. Did slavery actually come to an end with the American Civil War (1861-1865)?

The answer, as I previewed, is no. That is not a trick answer and it is not something I, myself, am saying. Journalist and author, Douglas A. Blackmon says it. His book is: Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Anchor Books, 2009.

The title kind of says it all, doesn't it. And incidentally, the book started as a long article in the Wall Street Journal, which, as you know, is not exactly a liberal bastion!

Now, as I said before, the Northern victory determined, once and for all, that the country would be unified on a Hamiltonian basis of industrial modernization. Basically, Mr. Blackmon tells the story of how the South was allowed to hang on to black slave labor (in a different organizational form: "convict leasing") for another eight decades, this time, though, with an eye to bringing up the South's industrial infrastructure up to par with that of the North.

III. What does the Civil War historiography from both the Northern and Southern points of view, tell us about their relationship to slavery?

There is an old saying I've heard, but I do not know its source. The saying is this: The technique of infamy is to invent two lies, and get people arguing furiously over which lie is true!

Do you ever watch the ID channel, Investigation Discovery?

I do, every day. You want to know what a recurring theme, on those true crime stories is?

A group of friends, "partners in crime," as it were, conspire to commit murder. They commit the murder. But they are not too bright, of course, so they are immediately suspected and hauled into the police station to be "grilled," that is to say, intensively interrogated.

None of the criminal geniuses have any backbone; or whatever fortitude they might have had quickly evaporates as soon as things get real.

You know what comes next?

That's right, they all turn on each other. They each say that the project had really been this one or that one's idea. This one or that one had been the architect of the conspiracy. This one or that one had been the driving force. This one or that one had actually pulled the trigger or plunged the knife into the chest or bashed the skull in with the fireplace poker.

And so on and so forth.

The technical term for this, in criminology, is finger-pointing; and that is how I would generally characterize the Northern and Southern viewpoint-based Civil War historiography.

Thank you for reading!


References and Notes

1. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom: A History Of Negro Americans. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988 (sixth edition). p.87 Let me just quote Dr. Franklin and Dr. Moss:

"Antislavery interests both in England and the United States rejoiced in the year 1807. England had outlawed the slave trade; and in the same year the United States had followed. There was little reason for rejoicing in the United States, however, for from the beginning, the law went unenforced. Responsibility for the enforcement of the act fell first to the secretary of the treasury, then to the secretary of the navy. At times, even the Department of State was given some duties in connection with its enforcement. In the midst of such shifting of responsibility it is not surprising to find the law poorly enforced. Some Southern states reluctantly passed the supplementary acts disposing of illegally imported Africans, while others enacted no legislation at all. Violations of the law were numerous. New England shipmasters, Middle Atlantic merchants, and Southern planters all disregarded the federal and state legislation when they found it expedient to do so. Those who had an unselfish interest in the closing of the slave trade could say, within a few years after 1808, that hardly anything had happened to the nefarious traffic except that it had been driven underground. The first underground railroad was not that carried on by the abolitionists to get the slaves to freedom but the one carried on by merchants and others to introduce more Negroes into slavery."

2. For New York City's financial involvement with Southern cotton production, see: Strausbaugh, John. City of Sedition: A History of New York During the Civil War. published: 2016.

3. Lockwood, J., & Lockwood, C. (2011, January 06). First South Carolina. Then New York? Retrieved December 19, 2016, from

4. A vocabulary note: The word is effectively. When I say -- (The North effectively relegated the dirty, hands-on business of slavery to the South.) -- that is not the same thing as saying (The North relegated the dirty, hands-on business of slavery to the South).

The word "effectively," here, is my way of describing the concrete results of something. I am saying "its as if." I have no first-hand knowledge of intentions, you see. I have no knowledge of personal motivations.

I am talking about, what appears to me, to have been the structure of the outcome, of the Northern states legislative termination of slavery for themselves, while maintaining New York financial connections with Southern, slave-based cotton production, as well as continued New England port-based import and sales of slaves to the South.

The North structurally "relegated" the dirty, hands-on business of slavery to the Southern states, in this way.

Does that make sense?

5. Yes, it is true that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, "freeing the slaves," if you will. But it is generally understood by historians to have been a pragmatic tactic on President Lincoln's part to put more manpower on the side of the North against the South.

However, it is important to note that Lincoln's wartime tactical measure is no different from that which was undertaken about eighty-eight years before, during the American Revolution of 1776-1783.

I am, of course, speaking of "Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia," who "recognized the slaves' desire for freedom and realized the strategic advantage to be gained by attracting slaves and indentured servants to the British cause."

Lord Dunmore "well understood the psychological value of recruiting American slaves to fight against their former masters. A victory by black troops would be both humiliating and infuriating to the Americans. As Dunmore explained to his superiors in England, 'by employing them you cannot desire a means more effectual to distress your Foes.'

Furthermore, in "November 1775 he issued a proclamation offering freedom and a small payment to all slaves and servants who would fight for the British."

And so on and so forth. This slave division was known as Lord Dunmore's "Ethiopian Regiment." ---- From: Horton, James Oliver & Horton, Lois E. Slavery And The Making of America. Oxford University Press, 2005. p.59

In this first case, the American rebellion succeeded, with the international assistance of France and Spain, and slavery continued. In the second case, during the Southern rebellion of the Civil War, the revolt failed because it did not get international assistance, and slavery came to an end --- sort of; at least the plantation form of slavery ended... sort of...

6. See historian's discussion of the international economic history of the American Civil War, as it relates to cotton production:

Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. See chapter nine: A War Reverberates Around The World. pp. 242-273

7. Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. Our America: A Hispanic History Of The United States. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014. pp.106-108


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