Causes of the Civil War, Term Paper Example
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It is an undisputable historical fact that the North and the South had different viewpoints concerning the issue of slavery, however is slavery the only reason why the Civil War itself was fought? The problem with suggesting that slavery was the etiological be all and end all of the Civil War is that it reduces a complex internal political situation to a single difference in policy, thus evoking many other aspects of the conflict, such as economics, foreign relations, and general ideology. The Civil War thus must be thought as the result of a diverse number of social and political antagonisms that ultimately set the war between the States into motion.
This is not to suggest that slavery was not crucial to igniting war. For example, Abraham Lincoln, an eyewitness to the Civil War if ever there was one, stated in his Second Inaugural Address the following: “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” (Blight, 28) Arguably, the most important aspect of Lincoln’s remark is when he states the “the interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” The “somehow” shows that the reasons for the war were related to the slave question, but perhaps as an epiphenomenon rather than as a direct cause. As Lincoln notes slaves constituted a large portion of the American population, at the same time the slaves were concentrated in the South. This meant that there was a large free labor force in the South, and this was essentially a question of economics, as opposed to some type of ethical response to eliminating slavery. In other words, there are questions of what kind of labor power should be used in the United States, and furthermore where should this labor power be located? The question of slavery leads into the deeper question of the type of economic system of production the United States wished to have, and furthermore, which part of the United States should be the center of this economic production. By seceding from the North, the South would take a sizeable aspect of the American economy with it.
This notion of where economic power should lie ties into the greater internal geopolitical question that sparked the conflict between the States. The secession of the South, if it were, successful would mean, clearly, the loss of a sizeable portion of American territory. In this regard, the war between the States was a war to control the entire continent, and all the benefits that come from having hegemony over a sizeable land mass. As Gaile and Wilmott note, the decision to not accept the South’s autonomy, can be interpreted as follows: “an increasingly nationalistic North expressed its imperial tendencies in the subjugation of the South in the Civil War and in renewed imperial expansion as part of the New Imperialism of the late 1800s.” (151) In other words, the narrative that the North fought the South for some ethical principle simplifies and furthermore covers over the crucial issue of geopolitical power on the continent. It is simply a naïve position to accept the absolute good of the North and the total evil of the South: one must consider the geopolitical ambitions of the North, and thus one must also include the “realist” aspect of the conflict when considering its causes.
This notion of Imperalism itself ties into a certain greater ideological conflict that defined the Civil War. A certain model of how a State should be run existed in the conflict, that extended beyond the issue of slavery, which was merely one of the epiphenomena of this world between viewpoints. As Foner suggests, “In the North, the war gave a tremendous impetus to the rationalization of capitalist enterprise, the centralization of national institutions, and in certain industries, mechanization and factory production. The foundations of the industrial capitalist sate…were to a large extend laid during the Civil War.” (33) The movement away from de-centralization and autonomous decision making by states was thus made clear during the war, as the Civil War itself represents a decision to understand that the United States must remain a homogeneous entity. This of course means that mot only was this homogeneity crucial in terms of territory, but also in terms of where political decision making power lies: this political decision making power should be centralized and the crucial decisions should be effective throughout the country. Furthermore, as Foner notes, this centralization coincides with a decision to modernize American industry, moving away from agricultural sectors to industrial sectors: the liberated slaves could now provide labor in the North in the industrial sectors. In other words, the movement to industrialization coincides with centralization and modernization, away from agricultural and the autonomy of independent producers of goods in favor of mechanized mass production.
Of course, this is not to discount the crucial importance slavery played in the Civil War. However, it would be an inaccurate to advance a historical narrative that merely cited this issue from some ethical perspective. This is a failure of historical imagination, as one must re-construct a diverse number of causes and avoid any simple narratives. Re-constructing the etiology of the Civil War is a re-construction therefore that includes the complex interrelationships of geopolitical, economic and ideological elements.
Blight, David W. Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory and the American Civil War. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.
Foner, Eric. Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Gaile, Gary L. & Willmott, Cort J. Geography in America at the Dawn of the 21st Century. Oxford,UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.
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