That Uncivil War

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James M. McPherson, America’s foremost historian of the modern “neoabolitionist” school, reviews five new volumes on that most American of uncivil conflicts, the war that destroyed the republic in the name of saving it. Included among this selection is David Goldfield’s magisterial America Aflame: How the Civil War Created A Nation. McPherson is not pleased with the anti-war “revisionism” of Goldfield’s sweeping endeavor, and takes him to task for his scholarly attempt to demonstrate that Lincoln’s “cruel and senseless war” against the Confederacy was unnecessary and motivated by more than the lofty motives ascribed to it by his apologists such as himself.

Goldfield places his interpretation in the tradition known as “revisionism” after a school of historians in the 1930s and 1940s. The revisionists denied that sectional differences between North and South were genuinely divisive. Disparities that existed did not have to lead to war; they could have, and should have, been accommodated peacefully within the political system. But self-serving politicians—a “blundering generation,” as one revisionist historian described them—whipped up passions in North and South for partisan purposes. The most guilty were antislavery radicals, even moderates like Lincoln, who harped on the evils of slavery and expressed a determination to rein in what they called the Slave Power. Their rhetoric goaded the South into a defensive response that finally caused Southern states to secede to get rid of these self-righteous Yankee zealots.

Although not as stark in his presentation of a similar thesis, Goldfield makes clear his conviction that the war should have been avoided. His villains, however, are not self-serving and blundering politicians, but “the invasion of evangelical Christianity into the political debate as an especially toxic factor in limiting the options of political leaders.” The “elevation of political issues into moral causes,” especially antislavery, “poisoned the democratic process.”

I have commented upon Goldfield’s undertaking in a previous LRC blog. I simply add that his work has met my highest expectations, and its powerful narrative content and style is truly Rothbardian in scope.

(Thanks to Walter E. Grinder)

1:29 pm on July 4, 2011