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The Confederate Lawyer
November 28, 2011

Rewriting Southern History
Part I: The Causes of the War Between the States
by Charles G. Mills
fitzgerald griffin foundation

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 President.

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.

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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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