Weathering the Storm

It is, I suppose, an unalienable truth that the American Civil War was, in some senses a Revolution. Certainly that was true for enslaved African Americans who were legally freed, often displaced, sometimes reunited with separated family members, and, in a few cases, managed to acquire new wealth and some improvement in their political status in the post-war world. It was also a revolutionary experience for millions of young men who joined mass armies, and for the millions more who were left behind or whose property and livelihood was destroyed. In a more schematic sense, there is a venerable tradition of arguing that the Civil War marked a revolutionary shift in the political economy of the nation: towards a more capitalist, bourgeois, bigger-state sort of ‘modernity’. Not surprisingly, historians have usually found change more compelling than continuity, and have been drawn to the revolutionary figures who drove change — which, in the case of this war means, on the one hand, the Abolitionists and their fellow-travelers in the North, and the secessionist ‘fire-eaters’ in the South. These were, after all the people who upset the status quo and, wittingly or otherwise, generated a conflict that escalated from a war of words to riots and violence and ultimately to full-scale carnage.

But the interesting thing, to me at least, about revolutions lies at least as much in the ways in which people who were in no sense revolutionaries were caught up tumultuous events tried to cope. In most times of trial, most people just try and get on with their lives, and when they are forced to take sides and to take action, most still do so with the hope of a return to normal afterwards. That is the great yearning of ‘war weary’ people, understandably so. It is not just a desire to return to familiar comforts and routines, but to feel that their previous world-views were validated. This is the starting point for the book I’m writing at the moment — ‘The Stormy Present: Conservatism in American Politics in an Age of Revolution, 1848-1876’. I published an essay along these lines in a book that Iwan Morgan edited and which has just come out (the book is subtitled ‘Civil War Transformations’ so my essay slightly cuts against the grain).

I’m not trying to argue that the great changes of these years didn’t happen or didn’t matter, but I’m trying to understand how most people — and I really think it was most — tried to cling to familiar ideas. My title comes from a paper by Lincoln — his 1862 Annual Message to Congress (not, strictly speaking, a speech since he didn’t read it out himself) — in which he said ‘the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.’ Well I think he was probably right about that — Americans did need to ‘think anew’ in stormy times. Yet many found that hard, and many refused to do so. The Republican New York banker George Templeton Strong, whose frank diary has made him a familiar commentator on the war’s progress in countless books on the Civil War, captured the tentative nature of the North’s embrace of emancipation as late as 1864 when he observed that one would think abolition “a good word and likely to be popular with a free people, but it isn’t.” He went on to confess,  “I never call myself an abolitionist without the feeling that I am saying something rather reckless and audacious” – neither of which were traits normally associated with this sober, cautious banker. Strong, despite his class privilege offers an insight into how many others may have felt. A conservative man by temperament, he was also  one who had always hated slavery and identified with the antebellum Republican Party. If even he was hesitant to call himself an abolitionist even as the rebellion was on its last legs, how much more challenging a journey it was for Northerners who came to accept emancipation having never previously given slavery much thought other than to condemn abolitionists as reckless zealots. Those conservative white Northerners who nevertheless came to accept emancipation by 1865 did so because it seemed to them to have become essential to securing order and nationhood. For them, the transformations of the war were wrapped in a cloak of continuity.

Nineteenth-century Americans dreaded, as well were drawn to, change; their faith in the future was balanced by  devotion to precedent and their acceptance of certain kinds of hierarchies and privileges. Despite the absence of a coherent intellectual tradition, or of a long-lived political party rallying under that label, the term ‘conservative’ carried such apparent weight that electoral politics in the years between the late 1840s and the 1870s could be characterised as a battle over the mantle of conservatism. Republicans attacked the hypocrisy of Democrats for calling themselves conservatives while supporting “revolutionary” doctrines that would break up the Union. In their eyes, the Democrats were no more than “pretended” or “false” conservatives. In almost identical language, Democrats attacked Republicans for dressing in conservative clothes in order to conduct a revolution. For many in the North, whether Whig, Democrat or, later, Republican, the invocation of “conservative men” or “conservative principles” was talismanic, and a faith in the “conservative masses” a reassuring anchor. The adjectives attached to conservative—manly, sturdy, principled, honest—testify to a deeply ingrained sense that conservatism was a positive virtue. The antonyms of “conservatism”—Jacobinism, mobocracy and fanaticism—reflect the role of foreign and domestic images of disorder and bloodshed in shaping the nineteenth century political imagination.    

Nowadays it is easy to track how much a word pops up in newspapers and other publications by using Google n-grams and word searches of digital newspaper achives. What this shows is the word conservative (and also conservatism) becomes far more visible in America after 1848.  The European Revolutions of that year – and the counter-revolutions that followed – changed the vocabulary of politics. I think what we seeing here is an important cultural and intellectual shift in US political culture: an erosion of a revolutionary mindset and the emergence of a predominantly counterrevolutionary culture. The social order of the American republic was seemingly under threat  from European radical ideas,  the increasingly turbulent, violent, and socially divided cities that ensued from  large-scale immigration, and the rising sectional challenge to the very existence of the Union. Even those most likely to be tagged as “radicals” – antislavery Republicans – were also those most concerned to counter what they saw as the revolutionary doctrine of secession and most likely to support notions of a strong state and the importance of established institutions. Not everyone in Civil War America wanted to be known as a conservative, but that so many did – even while embracing other labels and identities at the same time – tells us something important about the way in which men sought to anchor themselves and their politics in that most revolutionary and tumultuous age.

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