Wednesday, 27 October 2010

A New Birth of Freedom


It will soon be the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of arguably the most important presidential election in American history, that of November 6, 1860. It was an election that saw the triumph of Abraham Lincoln over the Democrats, divided between Stephen A. Douglas and John C Breckinridge, his main rivals.

Lincoln was standing for the Republicans, a relatively new force in American politics, to begin with a coalition of interests, the most important of which was the vestiges of the older Whig Party, rather than a coherent political entity in the strictest sense. But, so far as the Southern States were concerned, the interest that the Republicans represented most was hostility to slavery, their own ‘peculiar institution’. The election of Lincoln was therefore the preamble first to secession and then to Civil War.

After English history my greatest passion is for the history of the United States, a kind of second home to me. I’m particularly intrigued by the early part of the nation’s story, that between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. It took the Civil War to test one crucial principle: that the United States was indeed a nation; that, in the final analysis, the Federal authority took precedence over State and sectional interests; that the Constitution could not be abandoned in the light of naked self-interest. If I can put this another way: before 1861 the United States itself was a coalition, an uneasy compromise structured around some stark contradictions. And there was no contradiction greater in a free nation than slavery.

The Preamble to the United States Constitution contains one of the most stirring declarations of principle ever written;

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The problem was that the Union, as it stood, was anything but perfect. The free States of the North were in continual danger of clashing with the slave States of the South. Time and again particular problems were simply shovelled away, covered in uneasy compromises that simply postponed a reckoning to a future date. Though people in the North were uncomfortable with slavery the Abolitionist movement was no more than a vociferous minority. In other words, most Northerners could live with slavery provided it remained where it was. But the most divisive issue of all was caused by Western expansion, raising one vital question; were the new territories to be free or slave?

In 1854, in what was to be the greatest and worst compromise in the nation’s history, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the work of Senator Douglas, Lincoln’s rival in 1860, which opened up the vast areas west of the Mississippi, previously free soil, to the prospect of slavery. This was the cue for the emergence of the Republican Party, as I have said a coalition, one representing a range of anti-Nebraska interests, all the way from abolitionists on the one wing to racist free soilers on the other, people who wanted to stop all black settlement in the West.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Lincoln emerged not as a radical abolitionist candidate, which he most assuredly was not, Southern perceptions to the contrary, but as a trimmer, someone who was prepared to compromise, someone whose caution was likely to appeal to more conservative voters.

When the Republicans met in Chicago in the spring of 1860 to choose a nominee for the presidency Senator William H Seward, the former governor of New York City, was widely expected to be selected. But he was considered too radical, especially in the light of a speech he had given stressing that the struggle between free and slave societies was an ‘irrepressible conflict.’ Lincoln emerged instead, simply because he was able to combine moral radicalism, a principled opposition to slavery, with legal conservatism. Slavery would remain, in other words, but remain where it was.

As far as the ‘peculiar institution’ was concerned the election of Lincoln was not a complete disaster for the South. But the prospect of a ‘Black Republican’, a term widely used to describe members of the party, in the White House caused a widespread panic. One by one the slave States jumped from the ‘more perfect Union’, jumped, it has to be said, in ill-considered haste. South Carolina was the first to start the snowball of secession rolling, declaring that it had rejoined the free nations. James L. Petigru, one of the state’s most prominent jurists, remarked caustically that South Carolina was too small for a republic yet too large for a lunatic asylum.

He was not the sole voice of reason here. There were others, plantation owners among them, who argued for a wait and see policy. After all, the Republicans did not control Congress or the Supreme Court, notoriously conservative and favourable to Southern interests. Lincoln, moreover, was not an abolitionist. But the mood was against them. The whole of the lower South became one giant lunatic asylum. Secession was the first disaster; the firing on the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour, effectively a declaration of war, was the second.

But for this slavery may have survived in the South for perhaps another two or three decades, like Brazil, but I personally cannot conceive that the United States would have entered the twentieth century with the ‘peculiar institution’ still in place. In the end it was abolished by Lincoln, though not until the country was well into the Civil War. For him legal conservatism was indeed uppermost, holding to the principle that the Union was indivisible, that citizens did not have the right to withdraw and fire on other citizens simply because they did not like the outcome of an election, fairly fought and fairly won. Otherwise government of the people, by the people, for the people really would have the shortest lease on the face of the earth.

34 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have no particular expertise concerning US 19th Century history, but the standard story of causes of a Civil War motivated largely by principle has always struck me as overly simplistic. Post mortem, Lincoln and the 'glorious' dead have been sanctified by the conceit that this was a war of principle: of States' Rights v. The Rights of Man. I think that the reality was rather different, that the whole ugly slaughter was fueled by arrogance, stupidity, greed, and the deleterious effects of syphilis and bad whisky.

    Without a detailed examination of the westward expansion of European settlement and the means by which it was accomplished, both before and after the War of Northern Aggression, I cannot make an explicit case, but it is clear to me that both combatants feared more than simply which new states and territories would be "free" or "slave." The old money power brokers were terrified of the new wealth and resources coming from those parvenues who were streaming West into the Lousiana Purchase, Texas, and, especially, California. The argument between Northern traders and industrialists, and Southern planters was more about how to maintain political dominance over these vast new resources than about any question of moral principle.

    As can be seen from their offhand abrogation of treaties with the Tribes, politicians North and South were equally willing to forget their humanity if there was a buck in it for them. The more gold discovered, the less 'human' the indigenous 'savages' became. Meanwhile, the failing grip of Spain on its Mexican colony was exploited as soon as noted, and what became the American Southwest was wrested from its former owners without a second thought.

    If the actions of Americans seem especially brutal, It must also be remembered that these were the years when Britain was attempting to expand its Indian Colonies into Afghanistan, and painting all of Africa that seemed profitable pink. Britons were potting Aborigines and Tasmans in Oz and imposing themselves on Maoris in NZ. Britain had suppressed the Atlantic Triangular Trade, but only because it had discovered it was more profitable to exploit lesser races in their homelands, so long as other countries' colonies could be made unprofitable by pushing up their labour costs. And then there were the Opium Wars . . .

    Historians usually write from the point of view of their sponsoring regime, but I like to look at world events in parallel without prejudice, and remember that many events usually treated as isolated narratives are, in fact, broadly influenced by ideas and decisions taking place oceans and continents apart. America's Civil War has long been exploited to justify or accuse - not always without merit. But I think it is still too recent and still too powerful a catastrophe to be understood for what it really was. Its real secrets still have energy to affect current politics, and that is reason enough for most people to gloss them over with myth.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks, Calvin for such a detailed and thoughtful response. I confess I had not considered bad whisky and bad sex to be high among historical causality! Actually, I don't think I'm saying that the Civil War came down to a division between States' Rights and the Rights of Man; anything but. I admit I've, for the sake of space, sidestepped some of the deeper complexities, but the fundamental argument is really one of self-interest, selfishness, if you prefer; that the Northerners were prepared to stop the expansion of slavery not always for noble motives; that the Southerners were prepared to challenge the Constitution because things were not going in the direction they desired. There are a whole set of additional arguments about the declining influence of the South, once the dominant section, the dominant section for several decades after the Revolution. The North was dominated by new forms of capital expansion totally hostile to the slave-based economics of the South. There was brutality on both sides, as the story of Bleeding Kansas shows. I try to be objective in looking at people in the past, but I personally find John Brown with his single-minded fanaticism a wholly repellent individual. We all, in the end, take perspectives, or perhaps advance favoured myths (not necessarily a bad thing!), as you do here in drawing on the expression the War of Northern Aggression, with which I am entirely familiar. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Adam, if I do write about this I can assure you it will not be from a partisan perspective. My view is simple enough: Yugoslavia was an impossible dream, only held together, first, by a royal and, second, by a communist tyranny. As a 'nation' (political entity is better) it was constructed around some of the deepest fault lines in European history, political, religious, cultural and ethnic, extending all the way back to the Roman Empire. This was the one place in the world were nationalism should have been avoided at all hazards. But it was nationalism, Serbian nationalism, that came as a demon in the night.

    ReplyDelete
  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Adam, I did not say that the Serbs were demonic; I said that the demon was Serb nationalism. There is a huge difference here. I dare say that the Serbs did feel sidelined in Tito's Yugoslavia, an impossible balancing act. But in reaching for the Milošević solution they themselves hastened the end of the federation, the end of the dream. States only work by the consensus of peoples. It's irrelevant if they are recognised by the UN or not. I'm happy to condemn all terrorism, all genocide, all ethic cleansing.

    ReplyDelete
  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Of course I do, without equivocation, just as I decry the murder of Kosovo Albanians by Serb police and paramilitaries. There is nothing at all vague about my sentiments, though I will never be pushed into one corner or another.

    ReplyDelete
  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  18. For anyone wanting to uderstand the tragedy of Yugoslavia post-Tito the best starting point is to have a look at what happened in the country during the Second World War, as I feel sure you have.

    ReplyDelete
  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I am sorry if I keep appearing contrary, but comparing my own observations of events during my lifetime with the public narratives that become official history has led me to believe that history is not to be trusted as a description of historical events - as I'm sure you are well aware. From subtle shifts of emphasis to exclusion of details to downright lies, histories serve their writers and the interests of those whom the writers serve. Yet something of the truth can be guessed by comparing histories, by seeking out contemporary evidence considered too trivial or peripheral by 'serious' scholars or by charting the 'holes' in the narrative - those aspects of recorded events that are conspicuously absent. I expect this is all part of your research procedure on the Stuarts, but you will have to play by the rules of your discipline, whereas as I can be as speculative as I like without penalty.

    I am attracted to the occult - those things others do not wish me to know - especially the secrets of those whose power and influence depends upon their secrets. Such people are natural reluctant to share, but that just makes the game more interesting.

    BTW - have your researches led you to any information about witches during the second half of the 17thC? With J1/6 being the notorious 'Hammer' and the Commonwealth being notoriously lacking in humour, I have wondered about the practice during the Restoration. If there was any tolerance in England, it certainly wasn't matched in the Massachusetts Colony. Have you ever come across evidence of witches in Virginia?

    ReplyDelete
  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Calvin, you have no need to apologise for a thing; I love contrary! One of the chief reasons I adore history so much is because it's like a good detective story, or, rather, one has to be a good detective to piece together some degree of truth. The facts will always be subject to varying interpretations, but once we have established the facts explanations are always secondary: they have to take these as their point of departure. It's a careful process, sifting through multiple sources, traces, fragments, all sort of shards of evidence. Even when accounts conflict, as they often do, there is still a hard nugget of common ground. Lies there are aplenty in official histories but lies never stand the test of time. Philosophically speaking I would agree that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Relative truth may be the best we can hope for, an interpretative truth, but one that would still have to withstand critical scrutiny. In my own work I discard nothing, no matter how trivial, taking every lead seriously. Inevitably there are dead ends but that can't be avoided. The fun of the chase is the thing!



    I had no idea you were interested in the occult, another of my passions, particularly everything connected with witchcraft. I have plenty of information on English witchcraft in the period of the Civil Wars. The person to look for, if you have not already heard of him, is Mathew Hopkins, the so-called Witch-Finder General. Persecution for witchcraft was never that intense in England. It was bad during the upheaval of the Civil wars, as the Hopkins case shows, though localised and dependant on circumstances. In general, though, England, no matter if a Commonwealth or Monarchy, avoided the mass hysteria that was such a feature of the Great Witch Hunt in Europe. It seems to me that the American colonies followed a close parallel, with Salem being a case sui generis, but one located very much in local community tensions and politics. I have nothing specific on witchcraft in colonial Virginia, though I do on Maryland. I'll certainly let you know if I come across anything additional.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I'm not a big fan of Abe, myself. Slavery would probably have fizzled out without the slaughter he presided over. Subsequent race relations in the US may have been more harmonious than they were/are.

    By the way, are you really a pagan or is this a "character" identifier? As in: Clio the Muse is an Anglo-Catholic; Ana the Imp is a witch. (If the two are compatible, I'll eat Judas Iscariot on toast [just the juicy bits].)

    I don't have email access at the moment so I don't know if you got my story or what you thought of it..it's on R&A as a draft post and you can add to that if you like..don't publish though. It occurred to me afterward that it lacks something because the context is missing and the context is really weird. I'll add it if you like. A real yarn for Halloween.

    Also, I found a couple of interesting blogs you may like to follow:

    The Voice of Today's Apathetic Youth

    http://todaysapatheticyouth.blogspot.com/

    and

    Witch and Wizard Miniatures.

    http://nikkinikkinikki72.blogspot.com/

    I think I figured out (after 24 hours) what you meant my 17th century novel concept was tickling...your epiglottis.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Nice post.. I know everyone wants to read this all over again..keep up the good work..
    Philwebservices

    ReplyDelete
  26. Ah, Retarius, you know me of old! Clio was and at some level still is Anglo-Catholic because that's her background. Ana is bolder, willing to confess that the attraction of witchcraft was always there, just sublimated. And, believe me, there is no contradiction between the one and the other.

    Sorry, I haven't been to R & A recently. I'll check tonight. Knowing you I feel sure it will be good. I'll also check out those links, thanks. I'm about to add a piece here that I think might surprise you. Do I still surprise you, Retarius? I certainly hope so.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Ooo - found this:

    http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~marc-carlson/witchtrial/na.html

    ReplyDelete
  28. @ Calvin: Well said on the American civil war , It was basically unnecessary.You have interest in the occult? On this i have done extensive research myself and have come to this conclusion. Majic,The craft Etc. is one's ability to acces higher mental functions ( alpha mind state ) Between dream and waking . In this state you can manifest change in your inviroment to some degree. All cultures have their own means of this ,They are just different formats for the same end. In essence the practitioner is harnessing energie and this can be used for positive or negative application.There is much to this and it is very real.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Not just "the Occult" but all kinds of hidden things, Anthony. Hence, I am very interested in the natural sciences, and in symbolism and hidden currents of meaning in the arts. I'm a curiously curious person! There are patterns of order and meaning that bind together the universe and our minds. The patterns find expression in countless manifestations that may carry meaning, or simply be reflections of an underlying order. When I see them, I begin to wonder . . .

    ReplyDelete
  30. This, yesterday, in the NY Times:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/opinion/31Horwitz.html?src=me&ref=general

    ReplyDelete