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The United States Civil War: A Result of American Conflicts; a Reflection of American Character, Essay Example

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Essay

In the documentary film “The Civil War,” director Ken Burns offers viewers a brief look at the life of Wilmer McLean, a farmer who owned property in Bull Run, Virginia near the site of one of the first battles of the United States Civil War. The fighting took place so close to his home, Mclean would later recount, that a shell from the fighting “exploded in his kitchen” (Burns, 2013).  Seeking a quiet respite from the coming war, Mclean moved his family to the small village of Appomattox Court House. It was there in McLean’s Appomattox home, several years and many thousands of deaths later, that General Robert E. Lee would meet with General Ulysses S. Grant and formally surrender, effectively bringing the war to an end. This story exemplifies the very human and personal way in which the conflict between the North and the South touched the lives of the American people; even those who wished to avoid it could not avoid the far-reaching effects of the Civil War. The factors that predicated the war were varied and complex; it is far too simple to say that slavery was the only, or even the most significant reason underlying the war. It was a war that was fought not just over specific legal, social, or political issues, but was fought over the very nature of what it meant to be an American. Those on either side of the conflict believed that those on the other side imperiled the character and spirit of the United States, and each was willing to fight to the death to protect their respective visions of this American character and spirit.

The Evolution of American Character

Although the Civil War was fought in the middle of the 19th century, the underlying causes of the war were rooted in the earliest days of the colonial era that predated the United States. The first colonies established by British interests along the coast of North America were often ad hoc affairs with loosely-knit and poorly-organized political, economic, and social structures. Many of the earliest efforts by colonists failed as starvation and disease killed them off; those that survived were in dire and constant need of labor to work the plantations and farms that produced goods to be shipped back to England or sent off in trade with other nations. The seemingly-endless need for labor was filled by the burgeoning Atlantic slave trade, and it is no exaggeration to say that without this supply of slaves, the future of the British colonies would likely have been very different.

Over the course of the first few generations of colonists a number of distinctive regional social and political structures emerged. In the far north, colonists worked on family farms that were –or at least endeavored to be- largely self-sufficient. Cities began to coalesce in the North as well, and as advances in technology and trade made the cities and farms in the Northern colonies more economically stable, a growing independent streak informed the outlook of many colonists (Schultz, 2012). While the colonies were still greatly beholden to the British for the various forms of economic and military infrastructure that underpinned the trade-based economy, colonists also began to resent the implicit and explicit efforts of the British to keep the colonies under the heel of the monarch (Schultz).

In the Southern colonies, life was quite different. Nearly the entire economic system was built on plantations that grew cotton and other crops, with the plantation owners perched at the top of the political and social order.  At the bottom, of course, were the slaves who were imported by, and bought and sold to, the plantation owners. Most Southerners had little use for the types of big cities that bloomed in the North; members of the largely agrarian society tended to live their lives in or on farms and plantations (Schultz). Those few that could afford it found distraction and entertainment in the cities, but were also just as likely to spend their leisure time in Europe. From the 18t to the 19th century, the social and cultural order in the South remained largely unchanged, and many in the region were by necessity loyal to the British and the status quo of the international trade system.

The diverging development of the Northern and Southern colonies was manifested in a number of ways. In the North, the ideals of the European Enlightenment greatly influenced a wide sector of society. Long-held beliefs about the “divine law” and the rights of kings were displaced by new ideas about “natural law” and the rights and liberties of all men (Schultz). The aristocracy of Britain and other European nations was steeped in royal lineage and bloodlines; in the colonies, a new “natural aristocracy” emerged as individuals built businesses and amassed fortunes based on various combinations of hard work, good fortune, and new ideas (Schultz). The ideals and attitudes promulgated by the American enlightenment fueled the independent streak in the North, making an eventual revolution against British control almost inevitable.

The cracks in the foundation of the United States that would eventually lead to civil war a century later were already visible even before the Revolutionary War was over. Many in the South remained loyal to the King, for both practical and ideological reasons. On an ideological level, Southern plantation owners simply did not share the worldview of many in the North, and were influenced to a far lesser degree by the anti-monarchical views of men such as Thomas Paine and even Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson may have shared an affinity for a rural, agrarian lifestyle and eschewed what he saw as the vice and corruption bred in the cities of the North, but he was deeply influenced by the ideals and republicanism and democracy that were the fodder of much of the political discourse in the era (Schultz). On a practical level, Southern plantation owners relied on the steady stream of British ships into their ports and harbors that allowed them to trade cotton for the goods and products available through international trade.

A Nation LurchesTowards Civil War

The issue of slavery was a contentious one even before the Revolutionary War. The emerging discussions about liberty and freedom seemed at odds with the notion of slavery for many people, especially in the North. By the time the revolution was underway, the seeds had already been planted for the war that was to come a century later. As the Constitution was being authored, the Southern states sought to maintain the established tradition that slaves were property, while also counting the slave population in the South for the purposes of proportional representation in the House of Representatives. The Great Compromise what allowed them to do both also set the stage for the discussion and arguments that would play out in the first century of the new nation.

As the 18th century gave way to the 19th century, the market economy in the North transformed the way of life for many Americans; at the same time, life in the South remained virtually unchanged. Technological advances such as the cotton gin allowed the Southern plantation owners to exponentially expand their output of cotton, which only increased their desire to import more slaves. This was fundamentally at odds with the beliefs and views of many in the North who were clamoring for emancipation, and tensions mounted between the North and the South. It was not just slavery that fueled such tensions, however; many in the South believed that U.S. tariff policies and other economic policies favored the North and the growing territories in the West while leaving the South behind (Schultz). As southern farmers and plantation owners expanded westward into Texas and other parts of the southwest, these issues continued to be sticking points between the two regions.

By the time Abraham Lincoln, a supporter of emancipation, was elected President in 1860, the future of the Union appeared to be grim. Soon after the election, one Southern state after another announced that they were seceding from the Union; seven states in all decided to leave the United States and form the Confederate States of America by year’s end. While Lincoln, who assumed the office of President in 1861, did not immediately declare a state of war with the South, it appeared likely, or at least possible, that war could not be avoided. Several months would pass before the first shots would be fired in the war, and even when that line had been crossed both sides believed at first that war would not last long (Henretta, Edwards, and Self; 2011).

Looking at the circumstances that led to the war from a contemporary perspective may make it difficult to understand how the nation could have become so fundamentally divided that its citizens chose to go to war with each other. It seems unfathomable today to consider the idea that any state or group of states would make any serious, legitimate effort to secede from the United States. Even in the 21st century, where much of the political discourse is divisive and polarized, none but the most fervent extremists call for secession, and these calls are not likely to have any significant effect o the stability of the United States. In the 19th century, however, calls for secession, while not universally cheered even by those who staunchly supported slavery, were most assuredly taken seriously (Kent, 2011). To understand why, it is necessary to understand that the United States was never truly a unified whole, populated by citizens who shared a common vision for its future. There had always been fundamental differences among those who worked to establish the United States in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, and the compromises they reached together did little to do away with such differences. The issue of slavery may have helped light the fuse for the Civil War, but the nation had, to some degree, always been a potential powder keg

Much more significant than the single issue of slavery was the larger issue of states’ rights, and the degree of power and control the new central government would have over the states.  Factionalism among the founders of the United Sates quickly emerged as the Articles of Confederation were drafted, only to be supplanted soon after by the United States Constitution. One faction pushed for a strong federal government, while the other believed the states should maintain a great measure of autonomy. Despite the Great Compromise, and the myriad small compromises that were reached at the outset, those same issues underpinned the tensions and divisions between the North and the South that would lead to the Civil War almost a century later.

Although the North prevailed in the war, and the Union was saved, those on either side did not suddenly begin to share a common vision. While emancipation was now the law of the land, the former slaves in the South still faced lives that were often challenging, and sometimes brutal. As Reconstruction fell to Redemption, it became clear that there still existed fundamental differences in the way many Americans believed a post-slavery nation should function (Schultz). Many of these fundamental differences still exist today, and it is clear that unanimity is unlikely to ever be America’s legacy. Despite these differences, however, the newly-saved Union would go on to emerge as one of the world’s most powerful nations in the 20th century, and the divisions and differences that drove the country apart in the 19th century, while not forgotten, were largely set aside as the nation moved forward. The Civil War will likely continue to mean different things to different people, but it did test the solvency of the Union, and it demonstrated that those things that divided Americans were not as powerful as those things that bound us together.

 

References

Burns, K. (2013, February 10). The War by Ken Burns pt 1 ‘A Necessary War’ [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SidmJyPYVsU

Henretta, J. A., Edwards, R., & Self, R. O. (2011). America’s history. Boston, MA:    Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Kent, Z. (2011). The Civil War: From Fort Sumter to Appomattox. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow.

Schultz, K. M. (2012). HIST2, Volume 1. Retrieved from The University of Phoenix eBook Collection.

 

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