The recent funeral ceremony for the Confederate sailors of the CSS Hunley generated a flurry of coverage in area newspapers. As we should have expected, many journalists who wrote about the ceremony felt it necessary to include a disclaimer to the effect that we shouldn’t forget that the Hunley sailors were "defending the institution of slavery." One journalist even stated that we should feel "lucky" the Confederacy failed in its mission
There is only one view of the Civil War that newspaper editors will allow to be printed. It goes something like this: Slavery was a peculiarly Southern institution that Northerners were morally opposed to, so much so that they were willing to risk their lives on the battlefield to end it. Had Southern states seceded and won the war, slavery would have continued and the United States would have crumbled.
But the truth is more complicated and less dramatic. Wars are not fought for moral reasons. A review of the assorted causes of war throughout history usually points up issues such as nationalism, sectionalism, and imperialism as well as military and economic expansion. And, of course, there are various prickly events along the way that eventually escalate beyond the negotiation stage.
Today, with an all-powerful federal government, it is difficult to imagine the concept of individual states that existed in the 1800s. At that time, each state was viewed, in essence, as a nation. A citizen’s loyalty was first to his state and second to the federal government.
But, by the mid 1800s, sectional conflicts between the North and South had been festering for decades. The most serious problem was the abnormally high and unfair tariffs assessed on the South. Remarkably, in the decades before the Civil War, the South paid approximately 87% of the nation’s total tariffs. To illustrate how grossly unfair this was consider that the South consisted of 11 states with a population of 5 million, whereas the rest of the nation consisted of 23 states, 7 federal territories and a population of 22 million. Is it any wonder Southern states wanted to secede?
A November 1860 editorial in the Charleston Mercury urged South Carolina to secede, stating: " The real causes of dissatisfaction in the South with the North, are in the unjust taxation and expenditure of the taxes by the Government of the United States, and in the revolution the North has effected in this government, from a confederated republic (a voluntary union of states) to a national sectional despotism." In the1830s, tariffs were so high that South Carolina nullified them and only the Compromise of 1833, that lowered tariffs, prevented an invasion of South Carolina that was being prepared by President Andrew Jackson.
Social critic H.L. Mencken held that had the South won the war, slavery would still have been substantially ended by the late 1880s. Also, he pointed out that a Southern victory would have negated the harsh Reconstruction measures that created the Ku Klux Klan. Menckenu2018s theories appear reasonable because the practice of slavery in the South was being phased out in the decades before the war. The 1860 U.S. Census indicated that the slave states had 259,078 free Negroes while the "free states" had 222,745. Thousands of property owning free persons of color flourished throughout the South. Charleston, in 1861, had approximately 3,500 free persons of color — almost 8% of the city’s population.
If journalists are going to become makeshift historians and make judgments about American history, they should, at the very least, make an effort to inform themselves. They must go beyond the one-dimensional versions of history they were taught in public school. Regarding the Civil War, there are numerous new historical analyses available. A recent and comprehensive examination of the period is This Terrible War: the Civil War and its Aftermath by Michael Fellman, Lesley J. Gordon and Daniel E. Sutherland. This well-researched book makes it clear that the war was not fought because of "moral opposition to slavery." There was concern about slavery spreading into the territories and taking jobs away from Whites. But this concern was based on economics rather than morality. The authors demonstrate that the institution of slavery was being phased out before the war began and would have ended without the conflict.
Journalists should carefully read the Emancipation Proclamation, a document they frequently refer to. This should convince them that the Civil War was not fought to end slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation did not free slaves in the four slave states; Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, that fought on the side of the Union. Nor did it free household slaves in other Northern states. It also allowed slavery in areas of the South that remained loyal to the Union, i.e., West Virginia and nine counties and cities in Virginia, New Orleans, and 13 parishes in Louisiana — areas that contained large thriving slave plantations.
And, finally, it gave Southern states the right to maintain the institution of slavery in exchange for discontinuing their war efforts. In Lincoln’s own words, the Proclamation was simply a "necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion." So, Abraham Lincoln, the sainted lord of emancipation, was actually a Machiavellian prince of hypocrisy.
Finally, as H.L. Mencken indicated, there is no historical precedent to indicate that the secession of the Southern states in the 1800s would have been counterproductive. Throughout history various smaller nations have sought and gained their independence from larger conglomerates without chaotic repercussions. Most recently, Scotland is seeking its independence.
It is a shame that weak-kneed newspaper editors wouldn’t print a solemn funeral observance of brave Confederate sailors without a PC disclaimer.
Gail Jarvis [send him mail], a CPA living in Beaufort, SC, is an advocate of the voluntary union of states established by the founders.