On April 12th, 1861, the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina lit up as the bombardment of Fort Sumter began. Years of speeches and seething hatred dissolved into a blur of cannon balls and bloodshed. The Civil War was on. Exactly 150 years later the echoes of this horrible conflict run through our culture as we continue to digest exactly how we came to intense destruction and what it meant.
Studying history is not important for the purpose of blaming those who took part in it, but to avoid the mistakes made. A straight line from where we were to where we are today is the only reasonable extrapolation into our future and progress. It is imperfect, but it is what we have.
The anniversary of the start of the Civil War is a great time to look back and see how far we have come – and yet see the same destructive arguments that play out to this day.
There can be no question that the root cause of the Civil War was slavery and the easy geographical division of the nation. From the South Carolina Articles of Secession, the first passed in any state legislature on December 24th, 1860:
A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
Over the course of 2,186 words slavery is mentioned 18 times in this document. This is what compelled them to “Declare that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved.” We have to take those who precipitated this action at their word, and the only word they gave us was their defense of the vile institution of slavery.
But that does not mean that they had to take the action they did. The Articles of Secession were passed long before Abraham Lincoln took office, and the bombardment of Fort Sumter was opened up by Confederate Army only six weeks into his presidency. No actions had been taken by his administration – it was all in reaction to talk and supposition, a preemptive strike fueled by fear.
While the cause of Secession was a demand to continue slavery, the precipitous action was caused by something else. The Confederates clearly believed they would be better off on their own.
The Panic of 1857 has come to be overshadowed by the Civil War in our history, but the two are related. On August 24th, 1857, the New York branch of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust company failed spectacularly due to massive embezzlement amid many bad investments. The news traveled quickly across the nation on the new telegraph system that linked financial institutions as never before, causing a widespread panic. Pressure had been building for years on the financial system, but years of tremendous profits made by speculation kept everyone looking the other way. As President Buchanan declared in his Annual Message:
We have possessed all the elements of material wealth in rich abundance, and yet, notwithstanding all these advantages, our country in its monetary interests is at the present moment in a deplorable condition. In the midst of unsurpassed plenty in all the productions of agriculture and in all the elements of national wealth, we find our manufactures suspended, our public works retarded, our private enterprises of different kinds abandoned, and thousands of useful laborers thrown out of employment and reduced to want …
It is apparent that our existing misfortunes have proceeded solely from our extravagant and vicious system of paper currency and bank credits, exciting the people to wild speculations and gambling in stocks.
The reaction in the agricultural South was very different. The corruption of the North and its manufacturing system based on credit was believed to be holding them down. The rallying cry came from a speech by Sen. James Hammond of South Carolina in a speech on March 4th, 1858, often called the “King Cotton” Speech:
If we never acquire another foot of territory for the South, look at her. Eight hundred and fifty thousand square miles. … Is not that territory enough to make an empire that shall rule the world?
The great West has been open to your surplus population, and your hordes of semi-barbarian immigrants, who are crowding in year by year. They make a great movement, and you call it progress. … The South have sustained you in great measure. You are our factors. You fetch and carry for us. One hundred and fifty million dollars of our money passes annually through your hands. … Suppose we were to discharge you; suppose we were to take our business out of your hands; we should consign you to anarchy and poverty.
Translating this out of 19th Century speech – we are the great empire, and you are holding us back. The jab at immigrants stands on its own. The long speech is also full of racism, slurring over the inferiority of blacks and slavery as a way of controlling poverty:
The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South. We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity. Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race.
Slavery, and the racism that was used to justify it, was at the core of the economic system that was deemed to be superior because it had continued through the Panic of 1857 largely untouched.
We know what happened after all of this. The bloody Civil War destroyed the South and we all understand slavery was vile and evil. The economic system of the North, called a drag by the South, was not only victorious but went on after a few fits and starts to be the real power that defined the world over the last 150 years.
As terribly wrong as the arguments were that existed for Secession, they seemed very right at the time. Some of them echo in today’s political speech in ways that are equally short-sighted and dangerous.
If we have learned one thing in 150 years it should be that prejudice and irrational action that destroys our union leads us to destruction. Short-sighted arguments born out of panic and fear are no substitute for the lessons of history.