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Post Causes of the US Civil War
Created by John Eipper on 01/14/13 6:37 AM

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Causes of the US Civil War (David Gress, Denmark, 01/14/13 6:37 am)

The matter of the Civil War, its antecedents, causes, course, and aftermath is probably far too complex for a little WAIS discussion. Let me just say for JE's, our ever-patient host's, information that the currently fashionable belief that the "North fought to preserve the Union," whereas freeing the slaves was a "tactical" outcome, is, to say the least, faulty.

I recommend that JE read or re-read David M. Potter's The Impending Crisis: America before the Civil War, 1848-1861, the best book ever written on the antecedents of that horrible war. Professor Potter, a native Southerner, died at Stanford in 1971 at age 60 leaving the book unfinished; it was completed by his Stanford colleague Don Fehrenbacher, author, among many other good books, of The Dred Scott Case (Pulitzer Prize winner in 1979) and won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1977.

It is a cause of regret to me that I didn't have the guts, when I was a fellow at the Hoover Institution in the 1980s, to make contact with Prof. Fehrenbacher. But then, I was on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, with the alleged Reaganites at Hoover, and moreover I was not a historian of the US.

I once mentioned in this Forum that my paternal great-grandfather was a Union soldier in that war. And, for the information of WAISers who may have some historical interest, I may add that (finances and foundations permitting) I am writing the first full-length history of the American Civil War ever to appear in Danish; I hope it will appear in 2015, the 150th year of the war's end.

JE comments: That the North fought the Civil War to preserve the Union: how is this interpretation faulty? Granted, the North/South divide was not just about slavery, but about different economic systems and even cultural roots (the "English" North vs. the "Celtic" South). Or we can go with the Southern interpretation that the USCW was about Northern Aggression, period.

In any case, I hope David Gress will keep us updated on his writing project.  I wish him the best of success. It's surprising that no book on the USCW has ever appeared in Danish. In the US, no other four-year period has been as dissected and scrutinized.

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  • US Civil War and Slavery (David Gress, Denmark 01/16/13 1:49 AM)
    In response to JE's comment of 14 January, the North did indeed fight to preserve or rather restore the Union, and the South to break it. But slavery was at the heart of the rebellion. Had the Southern states not feared that Lincoln's administration would begin an assault upon their "peculiar institution," they would not have rebelled or seceded. JE is right: there were other issues, such as the tariff, which protected Northern industries while penalizing Southern cotton exporters. But the Southern fear that Lincoln meant doom to slavery, whatever he said to soothe southern nerves, was decisive.

    JE comments: We must make a distinction between a "cause" of the Civil War and the reason the North actually fought it. Yes, the South would have had no reason to secede if slavery did not exist as an institution, but this is not the same thing as saying the North fought the war "to end slavery."

    It boils down to a few hypotheticals: could the USCW have been avoided if Lincoln had not been elected? More importantly, might US slavery have come to an end peacefully, as it did in Brazil 20 years later? These are fascinating questions, but as with all "what if?" speculation, there is no correct answer.

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