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The Catharsis of the American Civil War: How the Near Division of the United States Served to Strengthen the Union

February 28, 2010
 by Kimberly Ruff


Public schools have a tendency to teach children an abridged, and highly inaccurate, version of the Civil War: the heroes of the North, under Lincoln, fought the scoundrels of the South to free the slaves. What children don't learn is that there were several core issues in this debate-turned-war, and heroes and scoundrels abounded on both sides of the aisle. In this essay, I look at these issues, their stakeholders, and the motivation behind the actions of Lincoln.

When Lincoln issued the first of two executive orders, both of which later became commonly known as the “Emancipation Proclamation” on September 22, 1862, three things happened. First, as is most widely recognized, it freed the slaves, although the slaves in question were limited to those in Confederate states that refused to return to federal control by the deadline of January 1, 1863. Border states and Southern states under Union control were exempt from consideration. Second, in a move that is illustrative of Lincoln’s political artistry, it marked a significant shift in the Civil War in which the scales tipped in favor of the North and the preservation of the Union. After a series of stunning defeats that summer at the hands of General Lee’s Confederate Army, the Emancipation Proclamation was delivered on the heels of Union General McClellan’s decisive victory at Antietam five days earlier. Later, as the Union slowly worked its way farther South, gaining territory and emancipating slaves, the slavery-fueled Confederate war machine began to come undone, crippling its Army (Wicker, as cited in Cowley, 2001). Third and most importantly, Lincoln’s politically expedient Emancipation Proclamation finally put to rest a series of arguments concerning states’ rights to secession and slavery that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 failed to address. Had the growing tensions between the free North and slave-holding South not reached critical mass and erupted in Civil War, it is doubtful either issue would have been so decisively addressed. 

Throughout American history, political and social tensions that result in violent conflict have invariably forced Americans to reevaluate the functional legitimacy of their established government and its accompanying ideological framework. The American Revolution was born out of a growing dissatisfaction with colonial rule that manifested in an armed uprising and aggressive bid for independence from the British Crown. This ultimately led to the establishment of a sovereign nation and the Articles of Confederation as our governing framework. A decade later, Shay’s Rebellion exposed the inherent weakness of the Federal Government under the Articles of Confederation by illustrating its inability to check and suppress insurrection. Revisions were necessary, forcing political elites to form the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, which gave birth to the much stronger Constitution. Nearly a hundred years later, another violent conflict, the American Civil War forced the issues of slavery, race, and secession that Americans had so deftly avoided taking a stand on since the country’s founding.

Slavery, to some degree or another, has always functioned as the proverbial elephant in the room for American society. It existed and, for many, was of great economic benefit, fattening the wallets of those intimately involved in the trade itself as well as those that owned and worked slaves on their plantations. Despite this benefit, it was at odds with the philosophical and moral groundings of many who practiced it. Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (Jefferson, as cited in Dolbeare & Cummings, 2004, p. 49), retired on his slave-run estate in Monticello, Virginia before passing on the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of these very words. Certainly Jefferson wasn’t the only political elite who benefited from slavery while espousing liberal rhetoric. Rather than ease their cognitive dissonance and risk alienating anyone, the framers of the Constitution opted for compromise during the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Article 1, Section 9 offered the arbitrary date of 1808 for cessation of the slave trade (The Federalist, 2003, p. 550) while Article IV, Section 2 agreed to return fugitive slaves to their masters (The Federalist, 2003, p. 554). In exchange, slave-holding states agreed in Article 1, Section 2 to count their servants as 3/5ths a person on the census so as not to overload the legislature with their interests (The Federalist, 2003, p. 545). Done in the name of political expediency, everyone won a little, except slaves who won nothing at all.

Of course, it would be deeply unfair and inaccurate to vilify the Founding Fathers for this political maneuver. Given their need to cobble together the disparate interests of the primarily agrarian South and the burgeoning industrial North to “form a more perfect Union” (The Federalist, 2003, p. 545), they had to compromise. Compromise, in fact, described the preferred behavior of politicians in the period between the adoption of the Constitution and the eve of the Civil War. As new states were introduced into the Union, various compromises were struck to insure political representation in the Senate that did not tip the scales in favor of one side over the other. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 followed by the Compromise of 1850 admitted Missouri and the territory of New Mexico as slave-holding states while Maine and California were designated as free. In addition, slavery was outlawed in all land North and West of Missouri.

Despite the various compromises and strategic maneuverings of elected officials, the political and social climate had changed to such a degree as to find the Mason-Dixon to be the line of demarcation between two completely different people. In a period of less than a hundred years, the differences between the Industrial North and agrarian South became pronounced. Their economic, social and political needs were sharply divided and at direct odds with one another. The era of compromise was replaced with a period of great anxiety for the South who felt their political clout waning and economic considerations being superseded by those of the rapidly modernizing North. According to Hofstadter (1948), “Although Southern politicians held a disproportionate number of executive offices, federal policy continued to favor Northern capital, and Southern wealth funneled into the pockets of Northern shippers, bankers, and manufacturers” (p. 101).

At the same time that Northern business was benefiting off of Southern wealth, however, Northern culture was highly critical of the manner in which the South accrued their wealth. A growing anti-slavery sentiment was shared by a variety of interests desiring to see the abolition of slavery in whole or in part. Ardent abolitionists like Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, and the fugitive slave-turned-advocate, Frederick Douglass, argued for a complete end to slavery brought about through civil disobedience and activism (Thoreau, Douglass, as cited in Dolbeare & Cummings, 2004), while groups like the Free Soil Party were less concerned with eradicating slavery than they were with confining it to its “constitutional limits” (Douglass, as cited in Dolbeare & Cummings, 2004, p. 210). A myriad of anti-slavery arguments were presented, but it was hardly a humanitarian concern for many of its critics. Certainly Douglass and Thoreau, as well as suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, perceived it as a human rights issue, but for most it was simply a matter of politics. Some of slavery’s more out-spoken critics had rather uncharitable views of African-Americans. According to Wicker (as cited in Cowley, 2001), even Abraham Lincoln, who later freed the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation, “belie[ved] that whites and blacks could not live together amicably [and] blacks, therefore, should be sent to Africa or elsewhere to rule themselves” (p. 557). Certainly in the South, the dominant view of African-Americans was one of inherent inferiority to the white race. Despite the fact that only a small fraction of Southerners actually owned slaves, the culture of hysterical racism managed to transcend class, education and wealth, binding the poorest farmer to the richest plantation owner. Although Southern thinkers like Virginian writer, George Fitzhugh, did an admirable job attempting to depict black slavery as more ethical and thus desirable over the “wage slavery” of its Northern cousins (Fitzhugh, as cited in Dolbeare & Cummings, 2004), it did little to sweeten the sting of being deprived of their wealth and dignity by Northern industry and intelligentsia or conceal the pervasiveness of racist sentiment.

Although Civil War primers have a tendency to depict the Confederacy as rebellious actors who bucked American values and traditions in favor of their own rule, it was actually a combination of an American sentiment with two American documents that provided the ammunition necessary for secession from the union. Invoking the Lockean concept of the right to revolution as depicted in the Declaration of Independence, the Confederacy argued that, aggrieved by the Union, they had every right to cast off the yoke of oppressive federal control in favor of their own. Ironically, it was the precise same sentiment that led to the establishment of the very union Confederate states were seeking secession from. Furthermore, since the Constitution was, as noted in Ball (2003), “also silent on the question of whether any state might at its discretion ‘nullify’ national legislation that adversely affected it, or even secede from the Union” (p. xxxi), the Confederacy had carte blanche to do as they pleased according to the tenth Amendment under the Bill of Rights which delegated all powers not expressly granted or denied to the United States by the Constitution to “the States respectively, or the people” (The Federalist, 2003, p. 558). Indeed, nearly thirty years earlier, the United States had witnessed the struggle between South Carolina and then-President, Andrew Jackson, over the question of a states’ right to nullify the economically crippling tariffs of 1828 and 1832 imposed by the federal government. Without reaching any sort of agreement on this particular question, the Nullification Crisis of 1832 was simply solved through Jackson simultaneously reducing the tariff while threatening South Carolina with military action if it failed to overturn its Nullification Ordinance. (Hoftstadter, 1948). In effect, the crisis was averted but the central cause was never addressed. Thus, when Republican candidate and President-elect, Abraham Lincoln, officially took office for his first term on the 4th of March in 1861, he was already burdened with the knowledge that seven southern states had seceded from the Union (Hofstadter, 1948). It was, in part, his election that prompted the action; the Republican Party was the first political party with no appeal to the South and their Presidential candidate had been in open opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act seven years earlier. Lincoln’s election may well be considered the straw that broke the Southern camel’s back, but origins of the Civil War clearly began far earlier than 1861 as mounting tensions illustrated. Shortly after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Lincoln called for more troops prompting four more Southern states to secede. So began the “bloodiest and costliest war ever waged by the United States” (The Federalist, 2003, p. xxxii) lasting until 1865.

After four years of watching the political tensions of the preceding decades lead to the death and destruction of hundreds of thousands of Americans at the hands of fellow Americans, it became evident that the Constitution drafted during the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 was in need of revision. Slavery could no longer afford to be swept under the rug through compromise or turning of the cheek; it had to be dealt with in a decisive manner. The Emancipation Proclamation offered the first solution, but being a military order issued under Lincoln’s authority as Commander in Chief, many worried it would lack teeth beyond the battlefield and demanded legislation. Furthermore, simply freeing the slaves would not insure legal equity; the pervasiveness of racism both subtle and overt, demanded legislation guaranteeing the same civil and legal rights afforded to white males. Finally, States had to be compelled to comply with Federal law, otherwise the Union would appear more symbolic than legitimate when it came to enacting and enforcing legislation under the Constitution. Thus, during the period of the Reconstruction, three Constitutional Amendments were passed addressing these very concerns. The Thirteenth Amendment, passed in 1865, abolished slavery (The Federalist, 2003, p. 559; Dolbeare & Cummings, 2004, p. 261). The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons born in the United States, prohibiting States from denying them the rights designated to them by the Constitution (The Federalist, 2003, p. 560; Dolbeare & Cummings, 2004, p. 261). Finally, the Fifteenth Amendment, granted suffrage to all males, regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude (The Federalist, 2003, pp. 561-2; Dolbeare & Cummings, 2004, p. 261). While the text of the Thirteenth Amendment was very plain and had, as Dolbeare and Cummings (2004) write, “the one-time significance of completely abolishing slavery in the entire country, not just in the Confederate-held areas, as did Lincoln’s war-induced Emancipation Proclamation of 1863” (p. 261), the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments served to bind states to the Constitution by holding them accountable to the rights enumerated within it (Dolbeare & Cummings, 2004, p. 261).

Of course, it would be foolish to ignore the immediate practical political purposes of these amendments, which was to keep the Republican Party in power by freeing up the black vote. Rarely do politicians act based on principle alone; generally, there is some sort of immediate pay-off for political expedience as the Civil War Amendments as well as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation illustrate. As previously mentioned, the Emancipation Proclamation was prompted by Lincoln’s desire to assert the Union’s political strength by piggy-backing it on its military strength. It was, as the Copperhead Democrats of the North called it, Lincoln’s “trump card”. Lincoln himself admitted, in a letter to Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that also. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause” (Lincoln, as cited in Cowley, 2001, pp. 558-9).

Exposing the motivation behind the action, however, does not make the action any less grand or noteworthy. It simply illustrates the irrefutable fact that government in a liberal democracy like the United States is never proactive and always reactive in its behavior. Guided by politicians who require voter approval in their quest to seek and keep power, it putters along its general trajectory of status quo maintenance and docile complacence until its hand is forced by mounting tension manifesting in always downright panicked, sometimes outright violent, conflict.

While violent conflicts like rebellions, revolutions, and civil wars invariably lead to twin sorrows of death and destruction, they can also clear the way for positive changes. Indeed, the bloodiest war in American history allowed for the emancipation of nearly four million souls that had been held in bondage for a century and served to strengthen the Union. Like new growth springing from the ashes of a forest fire, the American people were better for it. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson was right; perhaps it would behoove us to have a revolution every generation. A cursory glance at American history would seem to suggest a revolution now and then is just what the doctor ordered for keeping our humble Republic healthy and strong.


Dolbeare, K. & Cummings, M. (Eds.). (2004). American political thought. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press.
Hamilton, A., Madison, J. & Jay, J. (2006). The Federalist with letters of ‘Brutus’ (Ball, T., Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hofstadter, R. (1948). The American political tradition and the men who made it. New York: Vintage Books.

Wicker, T. (2001). If Lincoln had not freed the slaves. What If?Eminent Historians Imaging What Might Have Been (Cowley, R., Ed.). New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Related Content:

Is The United States Built on a Foundation of Christian Principles? - Kimberly Ruff
Negotiating Face in Vietnam: American Neorealism and Face-Negotiation Theory - Kimberly Ruff
Designed to Fail: National Security, Intelligence, and 9/11 - Kimberly Ruff

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