Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Two Issues of the Civil War

The Civil War was not a sudden occurrence. This event was a long way in coming, almost since the beginning of the USA. The process to Civil War might have begun even as the Declaration of Independence was being debated.

If one was to ask, “What caused the Civil War?” it would be like opening up a can of very angry worms. The causes were so various, according to which region one comes from, and so contentious that it stirs emotions even today. Even today, the number one cause, slavery, still makes headlines today:

Several African-American have been calling on the US Government to make reparation payments to the descendants of slaves.

Reenactments of slave auctions have been banned when some African-Americans were “traumatized” by the event.

There have been rallies by African-Americans to ban symbols such as the Confederate Flag, seen as a symbol of slavery, racism, and intolerance. There was a successful effort to have such a flag removed from the South Carolina State House when an economic boycott was threatened. This action even became an issue in the 2000 Presidential Election when candidate George W. Bush called that issue something for the people of South Carolina to decide. When the flag was finally taken down and relocated to a Confederate war memorial, it did not satisfy the protesters.

The issue of slavery, amongst others, was the hot button issues of the mid 19th Century, issued that divided a nation, not unlike today. This part deals with the issues that somehow forced a section of the US to actually break away.

Any opinions expressed here are those of the writer


This was the #1 issue out of all the issues that had to be dealt with. However, this was not totally a US problem. As a matter of fact, the African slave trade was in full motion even before there were plans to settle what would one day become the US East Coast. Since 1444 Portugal had been involved in kidnapping Africans and putting them to work, before the New World was discovered.

Spain soon took over and dominated the trade, bringing over Africans to work newly settled lands. Some were with the conquistadors in Mexico and accompanied explorers who discovered the Pacific Ocean. They were also put to work on plantations that produced food for the home markets.

The Dutch wrestled the trade rights from the Spanish and dominated it for fifty years. It is during this point that a certain English colony entered the picture.
August, 1619: A Dutch ship entered the small harbor at Jamestown, Virginia Colony and offloaded 20 Africans taken off a Spanish ship. These Africans were designated “indentured servants” and were put to work. This is when the American involvement began.

Crops such as rice and indigo were labor intensive, and there were not enough workers coming over from England so plantation owners jumped at the idea of importing workers. This became popular in the southern colonies, but this also became a money maker for New England merchants as well. As a result, England took over the slave trade in 1713 and that nation itself became a slave holding country.

What took place became known as the Triangle Trade. Ships would depart Boston with fish, grain, rum, and raw materials and sailed for the West African coast. There, they would trade their cargo for newly captured Africans. From Africa, the ships would sail for the West Indies. On arrival there, the Africans would be traded for sugar, molasses, “experienced” slaves, and their profits. That cargo would be taken to the Colonies, the “experienced” slaves would be sold to the auction houses, the sugar and molasses sold to merchants (usually turned into rum), and the profits went into the pockets of the businessmen backing the venture.

The trip from Africa to the West Indies was known as the “Middle Passage.” The newly caught Africans were dense packed into the holds of the slave ships, chained to the deck or to bunks, with the barest of sanitation, if that. Add to that meager food, and you had the ingredients for unimaginable horrors. Deaths from disease and suicide were common on these journeys. Those who were sick or who had died were thrown overboard for the sharks to eat. Even if one survived the trip, there was still being sold and put to work for the remainder of ones life.

As the Colonies strove to break away from England, there were paradoxes to the ideas that the colonists were fighting for:

George Washington, commander of the Continental Army and the future 1st President of the Unites States, had slaves at his Mount Vernon farm. They had belonged to his wife and they were freed upon his death.

Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, was built with slave labor. He did have his reservations about the practice as he was writing “all men are created equal.”

Many of the Founding Fathers either had slaves, or were fighting to free them. Many Africans were in the ranks of Washington’s army, accepted there without any fuss. (Some say that it was because the British Royal Army planned to increase their ranks with freed slaves.)

From 1775 to 1776, the Continental Congress took on the issue while hammering together the Declaration of Independence. There were many precedents that were being considered:

There was a vocal anti-slavery group in the colonies. In 1688, there was the first anti-slavery demonstration at Germantown, Pennsylvania Colony. In 1700, the first anti-slavery pamphlet, The Selling of Joseph was published.

1754: John Woolman, a Quaker minister, published Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, another anti-slavery pamphlet.

There were, on the other hand, trouble between Africans and Whites, resulting in a slave revolt in South Carolina in 1739 and riots in New York City in 1741, just to name a few.

In a draft of the Declaration of Independence, there was a charge leveled against England’s King George III about the slave trade and charged that the Crown prohibited the colonies from abolishing the practice. This was opposed by the southern colonies, already heavily involved in agriculture and needing the labor. Under pressure, that language was stricken out of the final draft. It is at this point (writers opinion) that the countdown to Fort Sumter began in Independence Hall.

All was not lost for the anti-slavery forces. Vermont actually abolished slavery in 1777, with Pennsylvania gradually ending the practice in 1780 and Massachusetts in 1783.

In 1787, as delegates were meeting in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, the Northwest Ordinance had been already passed, allowing for new territories like Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois to come into being. These territories, as new states, would be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery.

When the US Constitution was written, slavery was still a contentious issue, but there was compromise as far as Africans were concerned:

US involvement in the slave trade was to end in 1808.

Slaves, as property, were taxable.

A slave, or Free African, was counted as 3/5 of a person for the purpose on representation in Congress.

As the 19th Century was entered, the states on the North were already considering abolition of slavery. This as the Industrial Revolution began in 1790, making slavery uneconomical, at least in the North. In the South, any general drift toward emancipation was quashed when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a machine that plucked seeds out of cotton boles, a very labor intensive activity. This resulted in cotton becoming a cash crop, in itself labor intensive and requiring more slaves.

In the South, it was felt necessary to keep control the slaves with both legal and physical methods:

A slave marriage was not considered legal, allowing families to be split up at auctions.

Teaching a slave to read and write was declared illegal, in many cases punishable by death.

Minor infractions, like not working hard enough, were punished by whipping.

Escape was highly discouraged, there were professional slave catchers who were backed up by bloodhounds. They were also backed by the Fugitive slave Act of 1793, which made escape a Federal offense and prohibited local authorities from assisting runaways. In one of the first cases of civil disobedience in US history, many Northerners ignored this law, in many cases helping escapes slaves to British North America (Canada).

But then, who would blame the slave for trying to escape, they lived in log cabins, wore the most basic (and cheapest) clothes, fed usually meager food (learning how to make do with what they had actually led to several types of cuisine that people enjoy today, but at the time it was not so hot), woke up and were in the fields at the crack of dawn and worked until after sundown (not the idyllic condition depicted in the movie Gone With the Wind), punished for the least infraction, could be sold at the Master’s whim, killed, and, basically condemned to a life of hard work.

There were slaves who were freed, a process called manumission, but there were restrictions on even that, a Freeman could not vote, hold public office, usually had poor jobs at little pay, and had to deal with the racial prejudices of neighbors, even in the North.

There was also the issue of political power as far as slavery was concerned. The South was leery of Northerners getting more power in Congress. Of course the North was wary of the opposite happening. There was a compromise that came out of the Northwest Ordinance, for one state that allowed slavery to enter the Union, that had to be followed by one state that did not allow the practice, and vice versa.

Example: 1803: Ohio entered the US as a Free State.
1812: Louisiana entered the US as a Slave State.

Now there were other methods being considered to tackle the question of slavery, in 1816, the American Colonization Society was formed with the aim of sending freed slaves to Africa. There was one problem with that, most of these persons were probably second and third generation African-Americans who probably never heard of Africa, but facts sometimes fail to trump good intentions. The first boat load of “colonists” landed on the coast of Africa. The colony was called Liberia and its capital was called Monrovia, after President James Monroe. This colony, which became a republic in 1847, was the only independent nation on the African continent at the time, the rest of Africa having been carved up into European possessions.

The first half of the 19th Century became very combative; groups were organizing in the North to press for a political solution, meaning abolition while the South tried to expand the practice westward, especially into new lands such as Texas. The Southern view was reinforced by revolts such as Denmark Vesey’s in 1822, or the Nat Turner revolt in 1831. The Northern view was reinforced by people like William Lloyd Garrison publishing the Liberator and the New England Anti-Slavery Society forming in Boston, MA.

There was much political discourse, but there was also much violence, as there were riots in places as diverse as Charleston, SC and Boston, where Garrison was abducted and led around the city with a noose around his neck. In New York, an anti-slavery rally was broken up by those who did not want to see Blacks and Whites mingling. In Georgia, it became a death penalty offence to advocate abolition, or in their minds, “inciting a slave insurrection.”

The political discourse were not much better, in 1837, Congress passed a Gag Rule, prohibiting and discussion, resolutions, or petitions mentioning slavery until 1844! The following year, it was lifted; the North pounced with an anti-slavery petition while the South presented a resolution calling for the disbanding of the United States. A stricter Gag Rule was then put into place. This prevented former President John Quincy Adams from offering 350 petitions calling for the abolishment of slavery. Adams would go on to represent a group of slaves who captured the Spanish slave ship Amistad. He would win the case and the would-be slaves were returned to Africa.

Even as the Congress, and the nation, was embroiled in the Mexican War, there was an attempt to limit the spread of slavery, David Wilmot, Representative from Pennsylvania, introduces a proviso to prohibit any land taken as a result of the war to allow slavery. Not only was that shot down, but Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina put forward the provision that Congress had no right to limit the spread of slavery.

In response to that was the idea of “popular sovereignty,” that is let the states themselves decide whether or not to have slavery. This would bypass Congress entirely, but would open up more troubles.

Congress did try to establish a balance on the issue with the Compromise of 1850, allowing California to enter the union as a Free State, establishing the New Mexico and Utah Territories, set the borders of Texas, strengthening the Fugitive Slave Act, and finally abolishing the slave trade (but not slavery) in the District of Columbia.

In several Southern states, it was resolved to hold the North to a very high standard concerning the Compromise of 1850, or else secession would be on the table.

The public was split concerning the whole slavery issue all together, with action coming in the form of the Underground Railroad, a system of safe houses that runaway slaves could go to in order to get food, medical attention, and protection on their journey north. This was done at great risk to those running the operation, prison under Federal law or death under State law. Harriet Tubman, a runaway slave herself, became to most famous of the “conductors.”

Another method of activism was the written word. There were several anti-slavery publications, but a series of stories began to appear in the National Era under the title, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly.” These stories, soon published as a novel, caused cheers in the North, where it became a best-seller, and a firestorm in the South, where it was banned. It’s author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wife of abolitionist Henry Beecher, became both a celebrity and a villain overnight.

Then came Kansas.

There was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened areas west of Missouri to settlement. Both pro and anti-slavery forces rush people to the area in order to influence a future on allowing slavery into the territory. These settlers were usually well armed and bringing more arms so that the other side could be intimidated.

In 1855, Kansas voted to allow slavery and expelled dissenting opinion from the new Kansas Legislature. Anti-slavery elements met in Lawrence and declared their own Legislature, setting the stage for armed conflict.
On the political front, a new party was emerging; the remains of the old Whig Party, plus smaller parties such as the Know-Nothings and the Wide-Awakes, joined together to become the Republican Party. They soon became the anti-slavery party.

In 1856 the Republicans attempted to win the White House with the explorer John Fremont, but lost to the Democrat Franklin Buchanan.

1857 saw a momentous decision from the US Supreme Court: Dred Scott vs. United States.

Dred Scott was a slave owned by a US Army officer, who took him to Minnesota during his career. After the officer died, his widow planned to sell Scott. He made an attempt to sue for his freedom, citing his recent residence in Minnesota, a Free State. The Court ruled that as a slave, he had no right to sue in Federal courts, neither was he (and by extension all African-Americans) afforded the fights of any citizen. Another ruling was that the Federal Government could not deprive citizens of their property rights, including slaves.

In the Mid-Term Election of 1858, a one-time Congressman and self-taught lawyer named Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination for the Illinois Senate seat held by Democrat Stephen Douglas. They both embark on a series of debates from 21 August to 15 October. Lincoln takes an anti-slavery position while Douglas pressed for popular sovereignty. Douglas wins the election.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
---Abraham Lincoln before the Illinois Republican Party convention, June 1858

Throughout the nation, the strains of the slavery issue were stretching to the breaking point. There were conventions calling for secession, court cases either upholding current laws, or calling then unconstitutional, depending on what side one was on.

Then came Harper's Ferry.

October, 1859: Abolitionist John Brown led a group of Blacks and Whites and seized the Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, VA. The plan was to seize the arms and give them to slaves in order to ferment a revolt. They ended up blockaded in the main building and were overcome by a force of US Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart. Brown was tried for treason by the State of Virginia and sentenced to be hanged. On 2 December, as he was led to the gallows, he declared that only blood could wash the stain of slavery away.

1860: the Presidential Election was in full swing, the Republicans, after several ballots, nominated Abraham Lincoln. The Democrats, however, were another matter; their party was split along regional lines, with the Northern faction selecting Stephen Douglas, and the Southern faction selecting John Breckenridge, Buchanan’s Vice-President. As the campaign progressed, several Southern states declared that if Lincoln was elected, Articles of Secession would be considered.

6 November, 1860: Abraham Lincoln is elected President.
20 December, 1860: South Carolina voted to secede.

The nation was now running down the road to war.

Slavery would die, first by the Union victory, then by the 13th Amendment, outlawing the practice. Everything beyond that would take further.

States’ Rights

The second most mentioned issue was States’ Rights. The premise here was that a state can better decide what to do within their borders than the Federal Government. Prior to the Civil War, a US citizen though of themselves as of their state first, then of the nation. For example; Robert E. Lee was a Colonel in the US Army at the beginning of 1861. When he was offered command of the entire Union war effort, he had to decide between the nation and his state. When Virginia seceded, Lee felt he had no choice but to resign his commission and go with his state. He was expressing a common attitude at the time.

It was the same as far as the relationship between the State and Federal Governments were concerned. The USA started out with the Articles of Confederation, creating a weak central government and strong state governments. This created problems in matters such as defense and taxation. Finally, the Constitution was written, granting exact powers to a central, or Federal, government, such as, defense, taxation, interstate commerce, and relations with other countries. The 10th Amendment spelled out that any powers not granted to the Federal Government were reserved to the States.
Herein was the conflict. When Congress passed a law, usually the states went along with it. Sometimes, the states were not happy when the Federal Government did something that they did not agree with.

For example:

December 1814 to January 1815: A convention of New England Federalists met at Hartford, CT to consider secession over the War of 1812. Nothing came out of this meeting.

19 May, 1828: Congress passed a tariff on imported goods from Europe, making those imports more expensive then US made goods. This “Tariff of Abominations” was greeted with anger in the agricultural South, who needed such imports. John C. Calhoun, at the time Vice-President in the Andrew Jackson Administration, wrote an article blasting the tariff as unconstitutional and called on his home state, South Carolina, to nullify, or refuse to enforce, the tariff. Calhoun ended up resigning the Vice-Presidency in 1832 over the issue and would be at odds with President Jackson.

January 1830: Senator Daniel Webster asserted in a series of debates that the states derived their power from the Constitution and that the Federal Government was the final authority. That did not sit well with most Southerners.

24 November, 1832: Congress passed another Tariff Act. South Carolina responded by issuing an Ordinance of Nullification against it. President Jackson threatened to order 50,000 troops to Charleston in order to enforce the law. The Governor of South Carolina called for 10,000 militia to repel what was being called a “Federal invasion.” Calhoun, at this point a Senator, met with Senator Henry Clay and the two hammered out an agreement which managed to avoid a civil war. The following year, the Compromise Tariff of 1833 was passed, which reduces tariffs, and South Carolina followed suit and repealed their nullification ordinance.

In the North, many citizens, and some politicians, had a beef with the Fugitive Slave Law, which gave the Federal Government power to assist in catching runaway slaves. Many citizens organized to impede those efforts, hiding runaways and blocking slavecatchers and bailiffs from carrying out their duties, at risk of jail time themselves.

I will not obey it, by God!
---Ralph Waldo Emerson on the Fugitive Slave Act.

In the South, many people saw the conflict over slavery as a Federal intrusion into their lives. Many politicians believed that it was State business to decided id slavery was to exist (pity they did not want Missouri and Kansas to have that choice), not the Federal Government. During the 1850s, as the Republican Party was on the ascendant (and adopting an anti-slavery platform), people in the South believed that they would be forced to give up their slaves at the point of a bayonet. Almost all of the Deep South states resolved to secede if a Republican was elected President, which did happen in 1860.

As the South began to secede, President Franklin Buchanan felt that even though the states could not leave the Union, the Constitution did not address what the Federal Government could do about it. He was right, the addition of new states was provided for (there were 36 states at the time) but nothing on what it a state wanted to express their rights and leave.

Because of a perceived violation of their “rights,” the Southern States began to break

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