In 2016, 155 years after the war began, and 151 years after the war ended, the Civil War still matters. It is important to understand why it matters. It is not the impact of the war on the South. Rather, it was the reason the fight began in the first place that matters most because that same root exists today.
The Civil War was a clash of wills between individualism and Federal power.
The Right to Secede
Despite everything you have heard and read, the American Civil War was not fought over slavery and to be fair, was not fought over States’ Rights, either. The Constitution was (and still is) a voluntary union of states that joined a country. It requires the ratification of the Constitution by popular state consent after that state is invited by the Union to join. That mechanism of voluntary association with the United States has held true since 1789. Consequently, leaving that country “at will” was not necessarily a controversial position in 1860. When I hear individuals call the Confederate South “traitors” I laugh at their utter lack of knowledge. Nationalism, in the 18th and 19th Century American context was defined by state as a country, not the collection of states as a nation.
The right to secede, therefore, may very well have been upheld in the Supreme Court had Jefferson Davis been able to sue for such a peace and amicable divorce.
Rather, this was a contest of individuals – in this specific case, from the South – fighting for independence from an ever intrusive Federal Government. The seeds of that individualism were sown long before the issue of slavery was at the forefront.
Could history repeat itself? Maybe. The very same issues that drive many to despise the ever increasing intrusion of the Federal Government would resonate with the 19th Century Georgian as they do with the 21st Century Georgian. The political party that espouses greater governmental control over individuals, Democrats, fare poorly in the South for exactly that reason. When the political positions were reversed, and the Republican Party was the party of greater Federalism, the South was a Democrat stronghold.
In this regard, the South has remained culturally consistent – everyone else has changed. That is why the Civil War matters today. The challenges are similar.
The Cultural Conditions for Southern Independence
The Civil War (or War of Northern Aggression; War of Southern Independence) was an important event in Southern history, but it does not necessarily define Southerners. Yes, it had a deep impact on the cultural and economic identity of the South. But the Civil War did not ‘make’ the South. Rather, to get a better understanding of Southern identity, a more telling series of events in American history would serve the reader better: the second half of the American Revolution.
To know why the Civil War matters in 21st Century America, you need to go back to 18th Century America.
Southerners, well into the Revolutionary War, had seemingly little interest in fighting English suppression, despite some of the most passionate rhetoric coming from her native sons. However, when the British invaded the American South, the otherwise laid back American colonists of the South fought hard – perhaps harder than their Northern brethren. No doubt, the depredations of their fellow Southerners at the hands of men like Banastre Tarleton played a role in changing indignation into determination. But there was something more at play.
The South largely derived from the underclass and underprivileged members of British society. These were Scots-Irish Calvinists and British Low Church Methodists. Whereas seemingly no one went to the colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries if they derived from privilege back home, Southerners seemed to come from particularly lesser regarded areas of British society. They had been exploited members of that nation. High Church (Anglican) Anglo-Saxons had dominated social status for generations.
One need only visit Williamsburg’s House of Burgess to see the segregation instilled in the institution to ensure higher Anglo-American elites from the common ‘others’ who represented areas of Virginia that were occupied by Celtic-Americans, especially Scots.
The North, pre-Irish immigration, was a hodgepodge of religious zealots, merchants, and financiers. The British, recently having undergone its own civil war, understood the New Englander’s philosophical and economic desire to be free. They just did not like it. But clearly, so the British thought, the slower, less sophisticated Southerners would remain easily subjugated because they were… culturally inferior. To the British, Southerners, unlike their passionate but superior Northern counterparts, would know their place. In some ways, the disdain showed toward the South by the British would yield consequences for centuries to come.
The North would inherit that tradition of disdain and dismissal to its detriment.
But what happened next was nothing short of extraordinary.
Loyalist support early in the war seemed to vindicate this British assumption of Southern culture. After an overwhelming victory against a largely defenseless Charleston, followed by another victory at Camden, command of the American Army shifted from English-born American General, Horatio Gates, to fellow Southerner, Daniel Morgan, and later, Nathanael Greene. This is important. Gates, a higher born Englishman seeking status in a new Empire, never understood his men or the culture around him. Morgan, a Virginian from the frontier edge of modern day West Virginia, understood them well. As for Greene, it seems he fell in love with the people and its culture (eventually relocating to Georgia).
All of a sudden, out of nowhere, Southerners fought back – HARD. They beat the pants off the British or at least fought them to a draw on several fronts. Eventually, they trapped the British in an obscure Southern seaside village called Yorktown. Almost as soon as they had won the war, they just went home. The British never attempted to attack the South again despite the fact that raids would continue against New England for another year and a half. But Southern soldiers seemed to melt back into their agrarian or frontier lives.
They had no interest in fighting or getting involved in another person’s business. When pushed, they grabbed their muskets, beat back the British, and went home. Just like that.
This is incredibly telling about Southern culture. First, they just want to be left alone. Individualism is important. Second, when their family and friends are attacked, they react. The family and community relationship is far more important than some ethereal concept or distant government. Third, when pushed to fight, they will do so without reservation, until the fighting is done. Finally, in the same simple, loving manner in which they will protect their own, when the fighting is over, there is no reason to gloat or push for some additional achievement. There is work to be done. Time to simply go back home.
While other cultures in the United States may feel they share similar traits, I would say only the agrarian Midwest and the Rancher West share similarities. Many are, after all, descendants of the South. But there is a totality in the simplicity of the individualistic culture and how it approaches challenges that adds a unique dynamism to the Southern ethos which was most pronounced in 19th Century America.
The Calvinist influences of Presbyterian Scots-Irish settlers on Southern culture played a large role in defining Southern independence and their community contributions. Unlike the Anglicanism of dominant colonial elites during this country’s founding, Calvinism places a great deal of emphasis on the individual. By contrast, Anglicanism held a rigid adherence to social stratification and rank.
The Calvinist individual must learn of God through a relationship with His word, the Bible. The individual must come to conclude that he has to accept Jesus Christ to enjoy eternal salvation. Divine inspiration, while an important factor in predestination, is still an individual journey to redemption. The onus is subsequently on the individual to become a Christian and then join the Christian community.
This Calvinist emphasis on joining by choice to submit oneself to a cause greater than himself stands in stark contrast to the more static traditional faiths like Catholicism, where joining is involuntary. The traditional faiths, especially of the 17th and 18th Century, within which the faithful were baptized as babies with little say in the matter, stood in stark contrast to the intellectual progression of faith by individual means of spiritual examination. Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans share very little theological differences and even less differences in the rigidity of societal rank in the 18th Century. By contrast, Calvinists emphasized the individual to the point at which it liberated persons from rank.
This manifests over time in the South as evangelicalism, a very independent-centric variant of faith, deeply embedded itself in the South. As the Presbyterian faith became more mainstream, Southerners gravitated to more independent faiths, like those of the Baptist or Pentecostal variants. Given their history, this spiritual graduation of Southerners should not be surprising. The individual relationship with Christ was and still is important. So, too, is the independent nature of Southerners entering a union by choice, not by force.
With the roots of those distinct cultural differences well entrenched by the middle of the 19th Century, the seeds were set for a war between individuals and the Federal Government.
It was not an Economic War for the South, but it may have been for the North
Despite this individual ethos, many attempt to paint the causes of the war as economic in nature. This is not true, at least for the South. This is the unfortunate manifestation of Marxist ideology into the education system, which sees all conflicts as extensions of economics. This was not the case for the South, but it may have been for the North, which is an important distinction.
Economically, the South was indeed agrarian; the North was industrial. But that was not a function of plantation exploitation as often posited by future historians. Nor, for that matter, was that the result of Southern intellectual laziness. Rather, it was a product of climate. Simply put, the South was better built to grow crops and livestock year round than the North.
When individuals say to me, “How could the South think it could beat the North… look at the number of railroads as an example…” It is important to point out that the South’s rivers and estuaries did not freeze like they did in the North. Thus, the less expensive and more efficient method of moving crops, by barge, was available to Southerners unlike their Northern counterparts. When someone says, “Look at the number of factories in the North…” It is important to point out that those factories never stitched a textile without Southern cotton.
In other words, the two Nations were different, with their own mechanisms of economic output, with neither necessarily superior to the other.
However, if the South were to secede, the North would lose three key economic benefits which came from forcing the South into a perpetual union. First, raw materials necessary for Northern factories could no longer continue to be purchased in the 19th Century without prohibitive tariffs if the South left the Union. Second, the South was a large and expanding marketplace for Northern manufactured goods. Secession would likely encourage Southerners to not only build their own factories, they would likely do so with the benefit of immediate access to cheap raw materials. That would have devastated Northern factory advantages over their British competitors, let alone future Southern ones.
Finally, the flow of cash to the South was a money maker of significant proportions. It especially helped if you could cheat them out of their crops, which occurred in 1837 (I delve into that in a moment). As it stood in 1860, Southern plantations borrowed significant amounts of money from Northern banks who earned not only interest, but an advantage in profitable commodities speculation.
If you were the South, there was no economic benefit to stay in the Union; if you were the North, you needed to keep them at any costs.
Slavery is not the reason, either.
As for slavery, the role of the North as it pertained to slavery never seems to be examined. Yet again, the Revolutionary War and the Founding Fathers give us a better understanding of the North’s role in perpetuating slavery in the South while simultaneously eradicating the institution in the North. Enter two Southern men, Virginians, of very different personalities, but instrumental in the foundation of the United States: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
George Washington was not only an industrious man, he was an excellent money manager. Jefferson, for all of his intellectual brilliance, was a horrible businessman. Thus, the two men died with different options at their disposal.
When Washington died he was so meticulous in his record keeping that he was able to free all of his slaves, but he did not free the slaves of his charge, George Washington Custis (his step-grandson). Washington felt that they were not his to manumit. Ron Chernow, in his biography, “Washington: A Life,” retells the painstaking methods that Washington took to manage his home affairs. Washington kept separate ledgers of those items and human beings that were previously the property of Daniel Lewis Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s deceased prior husband. His rationale was simple: they were the inherited property of Martha’s children and therefore, not his to use or dispose as he felt fit. However, Washington implored Custis to ultimately free those slaves. Custis would do so upon his death, through his chosen estate executor, his son-in-law, Robert E. Lee.
Washington had those options because he was independently wealthy.
Jefferson, by contrast, never met a dollar he could not burn fast enough. He was a bit of a dandy that enjoyed the finer things in life. But his indebtedness came at a price to both Jefferson and his slaves. The fact that Jefferson wanted to free his slaves is well documented. The problem for Jefferson was that he could not free them. He did not have that right. As property, New York financiers held them as collateral against his debts, especially debts incurred by his father-in-law, John Wayles.
In other words, the true slave holder in the relationship was not Jefferson, they were Wall Street. Yes, THAT Wall Street. The same guys that exist today also existed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. When he died, Jefferson’s desire to manumit his slaves could not be honored. The Monticello Organization describes it best:
“In his will, George Washington granted freedom to his slaves and their children. By 1804, all the northern states had set dates for ending slavery within their own borders. Thomas Jefferson, however, freed only seven slaves. He freed two in his lifetime and five in his will. Why didn’t he grant freedom to the rest, at least after his death? When Jefferson died in 1826, he was $107,000 in debt (about $4 million in today’s dollars). Six months later, crowds flocked to Monticello for an auction. There they bid on Jefferson’s property, which would be sold to help pay his debt. This included “household furniture”, crops, livestock, and “130 valuable negroes.”
To whom was Jefferson indebted? If you read John Ferling’s, “Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation,” they were New York bankers. If anyone sold those slaves, it would have been at their direction.
Think about that for a moment. No doubt, your leftist professor of American History probably said something like this:
The South fought to keep slavery. Yes, it may have been called “states’ rights,” but that states’ right was slavery. The right to remain slave states. When Lincoln’s election threatened the institution of slavery the South fought back.
To which, if given the opportunity, I would answer: Not true.
Northern factories bought raw materials picked by slaves and never complained. Northern financiers loaned the money to Southern planters to purchase slaves, and never raised moral misgivings. When Southern planters defaulted on their loans, Northern financiers ensured that the slaves were liquidated – sold – to repay estate debts, and yet there was no righteous indignation. Northern Wall Street brokers speculated in agricultural commodities, cultivated by slaves, yet none ever forswore profits derived by such immoral gains. The North’s economy was just as wedded to slavery as the South’s economy.
If the North wanted to rid the United States of slavery, it had a funny way of doing it.
More to the point, after both Lincoln’s election and the South’s secession, the US Congress passed the first 13th Amendment on March 1st, 1861. That original version of the 13th Amendment, which was not ratified due to the timing of the Civil War, ensured slavery would remain in perpetuity as an institution never to be infringed. The original 13th Amendment stated:
“No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”
The authors of “The South Was Right!,” James Ronald Kennedy and Walter Donald Kennedy, further point out that Lincoln, when issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, only chose to free slaves not yet in his power to free. As the Kennedy brothers aptly note, Lincoln could have freed those slaves in conquered Southern territories within his power to do so. He did not. New Orleans, West Virginia, and I would add, Maryland (whose government was nearly arrested en masse), all retained the right to their slaves even after his Emancipation Proclamation. They remained slaves until well after the war was over.
Thus, if Lincoln was not fighting to end the institution of slavery, why therefore would the South fight so aggressively to keep an institution that the North had no intention of removing? More importantly, why would the South find Lincoln so abhorrent, when Lincoln was not only an avowed racist, he stated he had no right to interfere with slavery. The words of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address indicate no hostile intention toward the institution of slavery:
“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered…. I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
So, what could be the reason that the South seceded?
The Real Reason for Secession: We are better off without you
A series of events, beginning with the War of 1812, led Southerners to conclude that the two Nations, the Northern United States and the Southern Confederate States of America were not a good fit. But two small, often ignored events in US history probably did more to finally light the flame of Southern Independence: The Aroostook War and the Panic of 1837.
The Aroostook War was a little known series of skirmishes between British Canada and the State of Maine over territorial rights for lumber. While the chief consequence of the Aroostook War was the defined territorial boundaries of Maine and New Brunswick, there was another consequence as well. The state militia of Maine was forced to acquiesce to Federal control, and by extension, all states were to do the same. While this helped Maine in 1839 (which was picking a fight with superior British and Canadian forces), it did not help the overwhelming number of Southern states that were faced with incessant challenges from threats bordering their territories external (e.g., Mexico) and internal (Natives, slave insurrections).
By Congressional decree, the Aroostook War allowed Washington control over internal and external security. In other words, militias were now at the conscription discretion of the Federal Government. If you were an independent Southerner, especially one beset by so many potential enemies, this newfound power of the Federal Government to subordinate your security interest would not sit well. But things turn worse…
During the prosecution of the Mexican-American War, the North, dominated by Whigs, dragged their feet in support of Texas. They opposed the war as something that might lead to the expansion of slavery or Southern influence. In defense of their Texan brothers, Southern units responded with weapons, materials, troops, and funds. Despite an otherwise well blended cadre of West Point officers, few units from the North contributed to the conflict.
In other words, Southerners were expected to fight for Maine, but New Englanders were not expected to fight for Texas.
No greater proponent of that one sided arrangement was Illinois Congressman, Abraham Lincoln, who introduced the “Spot Resolution,” reinforcing Southern suspicions of an increasingly exploitative relationship in 1847.
If you were a 19th Century Southerner weigh the following. In 1839, your state prepared to contribute some portion of a Congressionally authorized Federal force of 50,000 men, drawn from local militia units, to fight for Maine; your taxpayers were expected to contribute some portion of the $10 million to fight the Aroostook War; yet the North did not wish to contribute to the defense of the South – so they did not. You, a 19th Century Southerner, would have been rightfully annoyed by the reluctance of the North to do the same for Texas that the South was willing to do for Maine. The former was the result of actions by lumberjacks stealing Canadian lumber; the latter was the result of a Mexican invasion of Texas instigated by English and French financiers of Mexican debt. The former led to a few “political prisoners”; the latter led to dead Texans.
Why should we, the South, contribute to Northern causes so willingly, while the North discards our own concerns?
This dismissal of Southern needs was only more pronounced by Northern financial interests hurting the South.
The Panic of 1837 was an economic Depression generated by a sharp deflation in the US dollar. That deflation was caused by New York financiers and it hit the commodities dependent South hardest. Specifically, New York bankers unilaterally chose to devalue commercial paper (stocks, bonds, etc) after Andrew Jackson (a Southern President) moved the US economy from a fiat currency to one backed by hard commodities. Jackson’s move would have greatly assisted the agrarian South. By simply choosing to re-value commercial paper to their fiscal benefit, Northern bankers effectively walked away from significant amounts of debts owed to Southern paper holders.
The fact that New York bankers could simply choose to dishonor their debt obligations was bad enough. However, the Federal Government’s inaction only further enraged the South. The Federal Government tacitly supported the right of New Yorkers and other Northern commercial interests to demand full payment of Southern debts in devalued collateralized commodities while simultaneously devaluing the bonds held in Southern hands. It was an outrage. Those who failed to pay Yankee financiers either had their properties foreclosed upon or property seized, to include livestock, crops, and/or slaves.
The double standard was crushing and nothing short of abusive.
In other words, from 1837 to 1841 the Van Buren Administration crushed Southern economic interests through clear bias. Additionally, such anti-Southern policies were supported by the increasing number of Congressional Representatives who hailed from the growing North. The South would not truly recover for nearly a decade financially. Upon emerging from that recovery, the North was doing quite well economically while the South was just catching its breath.
Looking into a crystal ball, the South saw a country that was becoming increasingly pro-Northern at their expense.
Now, let us go back to that Calvinist tradition. The emphasis on individual inquiry into faith set a intellectual tradition in the South in which one did not enter unions without knowledge. When they did so, as a Southerner might embrace Christ, it was through a careful understanding of the benefits of that relationship. Southerners, as Calvinists, did not readily embrace social stratification like their traditional Christian counterparts. Rank was not automatically gifted by decree, it was earned.
If that faith yielded no benefit to the believer, the theologically exploratory Southerner would move on until he or she found a union that better fit his or her needs.
If you were a fiercely independent person who was told to fight for someone else, but that same person would not fight for you, would you stay in such a union?
If you were told that you had to pay your debts in full at threat of financial destruction, but the other party had no obligation to honor their debts to you, would you want to stay in that relationship?
If you were individually inquisitive by nature, and made a simple cost-benefit analysis of the relationship – stay in the Union or not – would you stay?
The individualism of the South kicked in. As stated earlier, the cultural predisposition of the Southerner, who joined communities through voluntary associations of willing individuals, ultimately arose. Since the United States of 1860 was not working for us – the South – it was time to form its own country.
Thus, the real reason that Lincoln’s ascension to the Presidency instigated secession had less to do with slavery than to his Congressional record in opposition to the Mexican-American War and his overall Congressional support for financial policies that hurt the South with fellow Whigs. His abolitionist tendencies (albeit, he supported resettlement), were troublesome, but not a deal breaker.
A lot of Northerners were anti-slavery but acceptable candidates. Few took so hard a position against Texas as Lincoln. Few benefited economically from Northern manipulative financial behavior that hurt the South, like Lincoln.
For the South, the deal had been broken by Northern manipulative behavior at the expense of Southern interests.
Now, think about the following actions that occurred between 1837 and 1861:
- A group of individuals, Southerners, who placed a high value on the Christian faith found themselves at cultural odds with collectives of groups that seemed to place a higher value on personal gain to the South’s detriment;
- A financial mess created by Wall Street which disproportionately hurt the South’s Main Street;
- A war within which Southerners disproportionately served and yet Northerners largely protested, even questioning its legitimacy;
- The election of an anti-war President from Illinois that used Executive Authority to get his way, rather than Congressional support;
- A Congressional bill that supported the limitation of guns/armed militias in favor of Federal control;
- The dissolution or attempted dissolution of Southern institutions through Federal or Judicial actions;
- The rise of a political party that advocated greater Federal control at the expense of the individual.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Now you know why the Civil War matters in 2016.
 Monticello Organization, Monticello Classroom, http://classroom.monticello.org/kids/resources/profile/263/Middle/Jefferson-and-Slavery/
 Richard Albert, NPR News, “The ‘Ghost Amendment’ That Haunts Lincoln’s Legacy,” 18 Feb 2013, http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2013/02/18/the-other-13th-richard-albert
 Abraham Lincoln, Reprinted by Yale University, “First Inaugural Address,” 4 Mar 1861, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp