GLEN COVE, NY — Many members of the present generation
of American professional historians are trying to rewrite Southern
history in a way that discounts over a century of important scholarship
and substitutes a simplistic view of the past.
In particular, they depict the conflict between North and South as
one waged exclusively over slavery, and they portray Reconstruction
as a noble struggle by New Englanders to protect the rights of black
citizens from a racist white Southern majority.
There was always more than one American civilization. New England
was settled by Calvinist Roundheads closely allied with the murderers
of King Charles I; they consistently insisted on rigid conformity in
their colonies. Virginia and the Carolinas were settled by Cavaliers,
or champions of the King, who tolerated a high degree of nonconformity.
Between the two were the Middle Atlantic colonies, settled in part
by Dutchmen, Catholics, and Quakers. In some places (Western New York,
for example) there was a resemblance to New England. In Delaware and
Maryland, the culture was much like that of Virginia.
Kevin Phillips wrote a book published by Arlington House in 1969
called The Emerging Republican Majority, in which he explored the migration
of Virginian culture to the South and from there to the Southwest,
and the migration of New England culture to the Great Lakes and from
there to the Pacific Northwest. In understanding why the North and
the South fought a bitter war, it is crucial to understand that American
cultures migrated West, not North and South.
Even before the adoption of the Constitution, it was generally agreed
that there would be slavery in the territories that are now Kentucky,
Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, and no slavery in the territories
that are now Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. If slave owners
were going to settle the West, they would take their slaves with them.
If the slave owners did not go West, Southern agricultural society
would not have done so.
Slavery did not emerge as a sectional conflict between 1791 and 1820
when five slave states and five free states were added to the Union.
Instead, the first major conflict between North and South arose in
1814 out of reasons unrelated to slavery. New Englanders had close
trade relations with Canada, hated the War of 1812, and resented the
dominance of the Presidency by distinguished Virginia statesmen. At
the 1814 Hartford Convention, the five New England states drafted a
series of demands with an ambiguous implied threat of secession. One
of the demands was for a Constitutional amendment prohibiting two consecutive
Presidents from the same state. They brought their demands to Washington
in 1815 and left in disgrace. All they accomplished was the destruction
of the Federalist Party.
Slavery became a national topic of discussion by 1821. Although the
huge Louisiana Purchase was completed in 1803, the issue of where to
draw the line between slavery and non-slavery in it had not been widely
discussed. In 1821, Congress did draw this line in the Missouri Compromise,
which was sufficiently fair that it satisfied both North and South
for a generation.
Relations between North and South, however, were fatally injured
a few years later when Congress passed and the President signed the
Tariff of Abominations. This new law imposed excessive protective import
tariffs on manufactured goods. This allowed the domestic manufacturers
to raise their prices, enriching the mill towns of New England but
imposing a huge expense on the populations of the cotton, tobacco,
and rice growing parts of the country. The tariff provided some protection
for domestic sugar, but it had a substantial negative economic impact
outside of the sugar-growing parts of the South. Northern tariff policy
became a Southern grievance well into the twentieth century.
Slavery began to become a divisive issue between North and South
in the 1850s for two reasons. First, Northern abolitionists, a small
minority, began to assist escaping slaves. Second, a growing number
of Northerners advocated a policy of excluding slavery from all of
the territory acquired from Mexico in the hope of eventually extending
Northern culture to the whole West and reducing the South to the status
of a political minority.
Most Southerners had become Democrats and most Northerners had become
Whigs. In the 1850s, however, the two-party system in the North began
to fall apart. A nasty anti-Catholic Party was created, officially
called the American Party but generally known as the Know-Nothing Party,
which became dominant in New England and California. The Free-Soil
Party advocated excluding slavery from all territories.
Democratic Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas engineered the passage
of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which opened up the entire West
to slavery. The South had little reason to extend slavery to places
like Montana and Idaho, but Southerners generally admired the bill
for removing a cause of conflict. The bill, however, infuriated a number
of people in the North who threatened to form an Anti-Nebraska Party.
In 1856, the Free-Soil Party became the Republican Party and appeared
here to stay. The following year, the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott
case decided that it was unconstitutional to forbid slavery in any
territory. By 1860, the Free Soilers, Anti-Nebraska people were all
gathered in the Republican Party, the Democratic Party split into two
parties, and the Know-Nothings became the Constitutional Union Party.
The result was the election of Lincoln as a minority and sectional
While the issue of slavery in the West was a significant part of
some of the issues that divided North and South, slavery had little
to do with others. To characterize the South’s secession as exclusively
about slavery is to try to turn a complex issue into a childish over-simplification.
In the next column I will discuss Reconstruction.
The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2011
by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com.
All rights reserved.
Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the
New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in
many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles
about the law.
See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.
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