Did abolitionism cause the Civil War?

I recently came across a review on a conservative website of Thomas Fleming’s A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2013). Whether or not the review effectively captures the argument of the book (I assume it does), the argument of the review (and hence the book) merits a response, for it recapitulates some old ideas desperately in need of rebuttal.

According to the reviewer, Fleming’s shocking new take on the coming of the Civil War asserts that “it was hysteria over the issue of slavery, generated by wild-eyed, intolerant, and impractical Yankee abolitionists, that sparked the tragic conflict between North and South.” This is a rather startling claim, not only because it is not a “new understanding” at all, but also because it is difficult to sustain.

Fleming argues that the main villains were antislavery activists, and “the mingling of religion and politics that was intrinsic to the abolitionist cause.” John Quincy Adams succumbed to the lures of antislavery celebrity in adopting the cause after returning to the House following his presidency. William Lloyd Garrison’s crime was “an almost total lack of empathy” for slaveholders. Particularly evil is John Brown, whose religious fanaticism led this purported man of god to commit indiscriminate murder.

If the abolitionists are to be condemned for their radicalism, what should have happened? Fleming forwards colonizationism, with its offer of compensated abolition, as the more reasonable alternative. Lincoln is the hero here, for steadfastly retaining his preference for colonization, not kowtowing to the Radicals, and asserting executive authority “conservatively” (?).

This is all about as ridiculous as could be.

For one, Fleming’s argument is not at all a “new” take on matters, but the resurrection of very old ideas. As even his praising reviewer notes, early twentieth century historians such as Avery Craven and Frank Owsley pioneered this line. If Fleming differs, it is only in furthering a discredited interpretation in the face of decades of conflicting evidence.

More importantly, Fleming is vulnerable on just about every claim he makes. Colonization was a viable scheme that could have diffused the conflict over slavery. The abolitionists’ crime comes down to an extremism born of the moral arrogance of a false religious certitude (an interesting claim from a representative of modern conservativism). The war thus resulted only from northern fanaticism over slavery.

I’ll shortly suggest the problems here, but let’s start with Fleming’s central question, which is a good one. Why did it take a national bloodbath to destroy slavery in the U.S. whereas one was not required to abolish it in Latin America or (with the exception of Haiti) the Caribbean?

It’s not quite the case that slavery ended elsewhere without bloodshed, but it never entailed anything like what happened in the United States. In mainland Spanish South America, slavery ended as a consequence of the revolutionary independence movements that began in 1809 (Chile). In the wars of Bolivar and San Martin, slaves were often offered their freedom in exchange for military service, an offer that Royalists soon matched. Slavery collapsed, then, largely as a requirement of fighting these long wars of independence. This pattern of “revolutionary” abolitions succeeded in freeing several hundred thousand slaves.

It preceded the other great pattern of Atlantic abolitions, those undertaken by European mercantile empires. In this “metropolitan” pattern, leaders of colonial empires abolished slavery within their colonial dominions. The process began with Britain (1834), and continued with France (1848), Denmark (1848), and the Netherlands (1863). In each instance, the political subordination of the colonized plantation zone kept it from mounting the defense required to maintain an institution increasingly seen as outmoded, unchristian, and counter-progressive.

The United States, though, held out. Emancipation here may be considered part of the third pattern of abolitions – the “late” abolitions of Cuba (1880) and Brazil (1888). Yet while in the latter two societies slavery fell largely due to exogenous pressure and without enormous social or political dislocation, in the United States abolition required a massive war.

Slavery fell so late in the U.S., and required such violence to end, not because the abolitionists were fanatics, but because the defenders of slavery were able to mount a uniquely powerful defense of their institution. They could do this because they were not relegated to far-flung and politically disempowered colonies, but because they occupied states with an equal say in the national government. Indeed, through measures such as the Three-Fifths Clause of the Constitution, they enjoyed political power beyond their mere numbers. The planters of the U.S. South thus constituted a hyper-empowered slave periphery, existing within the confines of a modern industrializing nation.

Moreover, the nation to which they belonged was politically organized not as a mercantile empire, but as a republic. In the U.S. it was impossible to impose abolition from on high, for such exercise of centralized power conflicted sharply with a national ethos of democratic rule and decentralized authority. Moreover, southern planters proved all too adept at manipulating the democratic political system to sustain themselves. They exercised their disproportionate control over the House of Representatives and Electoral College.  The margin of advantage they enjoyed allowed them to pass important pro-slavery measures (the Indian Removal Act of 1830) and secure the White House for their representatives (Thomas Jefferson, 1800). They controlled the Democratic Party through patronage, and suppressed civil liberties to keep discussions of slavery out of Congress and out of the South. While no abolitionist sat in the halls of Congress during the 1830s, many slaveholders dominated the institution. Eight occupied the White House before an abolitionist was ever elected to Congress.

Given the planters’ advantages, the bar to abolishing slavery in the United States was far higher than it was elsewhere. Ultimately, it took the dismantling of the political system to accomplish the task. When the party system collapsed in 1860, along with it went the most viable means for settling the slavery dispute without recourse to arms.

Responsibility for the war that followed must be placed properly. The war came not because the abolitionists’ refused to sympathize the planters, nor did it come because northerners, or the union government, failed to make reasonable compromises. And it certainly did not come because the northern public had become infected with the ideological disease of radical abolitionism. As Fleming himself would concede, the original goal of the Union war effort was not to abolish slavery, but to reverse secession. The Union public supported the war not because it crusaded against slavery, but because a small but powerful political minority had sundered the union – which Lincoln would term “the last, best hope of liberty.”

The war came because the planters led the southern states to secede from the Union. They did this because a party had been elected to the White House – fairly and squarely – with the avowed purpose of limiting slavery in the territories. Nothing compelled them to secede other than their own commitment to a pre-emptive independence movement. The slave states left the union not because powerful opponents had rigged the game against them, but because their own manipulation of democratic politics was failing. They seceded because politics was working precisely as it should have. They left because they could not achieve the impossible levels of security for slave property which they demanded. They left because they refused to concede to the growing popularly idea that humans should not be property.

It’s frankly amazing to me that Fleming-style nonsense is still published.  Blame the right-wing echo chamber, I guess, for creating a virtual alter-academy, devoid of peer review, and dedicated solely to espousing outdated dogma such as this.  Part of me doesn’t want to bother even responding, and giving credence such views.  On the other hand, these kinds of arguments often command public discussion, and to concede this ground to absurdities that often pass as history seems the worst possible option.

Anyone interested in a broad-scale interpretation of slavery’s end that offers a decidedly different take is welcome to check out my book, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777–1865, available here from Amazon.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Comments on “Did abolitionism cause the Civil War?

  • The sad thing is that Thomas Flemming wasn’t always like this. In Now We Are Enemies, his 1960 book on the Bunker Hill Campaign, he emphasized the contributions of African-American soldiers fighting in integrated units.

    Still, hardly the first time this sort of thing has happened. Roger Taney went from a man who liberated his own slaves early in life to a man who lied about American history and subverted the Constitution to protect slavery in his declining years.

Comments are closed.