“Fundamentalists” and “Revisionists” and the state of Civil War scholarship

img_7433.jpgCivil War historians are more rancorous now than for a generation. The reason for this, I think, is that historians who see the war as the inexorable consequence of divisions over slavery are alarmed at the apparent revival of  “revisionism” and they want to stamp it out. “Revisionism”, in this context, is a historiographical term that like many political epithets is defined more by its enemies than its supposed adherents, but the historians who broadly fall into this camp are those who emphasise contingency, the intersection of slavery with other economic and cultural issues, and the preservation of the Union rather than the abolition of slavery as the motivation for war among Northerners.

My recent book, perhaps rashly, tries to offer an interpretation that doesn’t fit neatly into either camp. What I like about much “revisionist” scholarship is its openness to the complexity of politics and human motivation. For example, my approach has been profoundly shaped by the work of Edward L. Ayers whose work shows how overwhelming to people were the events of the 1850s and 60s and how rapidly old political allegiances shifted and old certainties crumbled.[1] And like Michael F. Holt, I think we need to pay close attention to chronology and contingency in politics.[2] But I probably see more intractable differences between North and South than those scholars do: at the end of the day I think slavery constituted a profound and increasingly unbridgeable divide between the free and the slave states, which is a so-called “fundamentalist” position. Like James Oakes, “fundamentalist” éminence gris, I think that the insurgent Republican Party, by its very existence as well as by its policy towards slavery expansion, was a real and present danger to slaveholders.[3] Where I part company with Oakes, however, is that I see politics within the free states as considerably more complicated and fluid than he does.

One of the main themes of The Stormy Present is that the terms “antislavery” and “proslavery” are frustratingly blunt tools for describing the range of views about slavery, its relationship to the Federal Government, and its relative importance compared to other issues. Oakes and other “fundamentalist” scholars think that Northerners in the 1850s were divided into two warring camps: antislavery Republicans versus proslavery Democrats. To put it mildly, I think this is an oversimplification. Yet mine is an argument that has to be made cautiously because I’m certainly not trying to say there were no meaningful differences between Republicans and Democrats (that would be silly) nor that there weren’t hundreds of thousands of highly committed antislavery men in Republican ranks. But I have tried to take Democrats, Constitutional Unionists and moderate Republicans seriously, trying to understand their emotional commitment to the Union, their fear of “Jacobinical” abolitionism and their dislike of slavery and fear of the encroaching Slave Power. In the end, the views of these people—self-described “conservatives” all—mattered when it comes to explaining the revolutionary transformations of these years.

Politicians in both main parties (and in other parties too) feared that the Southern “Slave Power” was steadily taking over the Federal government and undermining the freedoms of Northern free white men—not only their freedom to move into the Western territories, but even their freedom to resist the incursion of slavery into the free states.  Republicans offered what in the end was the most electorally successful response: they (the Northern-based Republican Party) should take over the Federal government and cut the Southerners out entirely. Republicans were probably right that this was the only way to stop the Union becoming (in Lincoln’s words) “all slave”, but as events proved it led ineluctably to secession and war. Northern Democrats promised an alternative: resolve the conflict between the Slave Power and the free North over the Federal government by taking the whole issue of slavery and slavery extension out of the hands of the Federal government entirely. This was the policy that they named “popular sovereignty” but was really just radical decentralisation.

Underlying these differing policy prescriptions were a range of different attitudes towards black people among the white people of the North. If I were writing a review of my own book, I would criticise myself for not being more explicit about the varieties of racial attitudes among the people I write about, and what political implications that had. For example, I completely agree with Professor Green that, to generalise, Republicans were far, far less likely than Northern Democrats to use the “n-word” and I think this difference must surely have influenced their attitudes to the right policy response to the threat of slavery. But even so, I don’t think the (relative) Republican liberality on race negates my core purpose, which was to suggest that if these were revolutionary times (which they were) that doesn’t mean the victorious party set out with revolutionary intent.

I have framed my book in terms of “conservatism” not because, in my judgement, Civil War Era Northerners met some a priori definition of conservatism but because — demonstrably, as the evidence shows — they used that term about themselves. Not everyone wanted to be known as a “conservative” of course — but the centre ground of politics where elections were won and lost was occupied by voters and politicians who thought that to be “conservative” was an unequivocally good thing. They did not mean the same thing by that term, naturally (and in particular Democrats and non-Democrats often meant very different things by it). And they certainly did not mean what modern-day “conservatives” mean by the term. There was no “conservative movement” in mid-nineteenth century America; in fact, American nineteenth century conservatism was characterised by an anti-ideological disposition. They called themselves “liberal” (less often) and “progressive” (quite often) with no sense that this contradicted their preference for “conservative measures” or “conservative men”. Unsurprisingly perhaps, as tensions mounted and the threat of disunion grew, it became ever more important for politicians to assert their fundamental conservatism. Democrats who in the 1840s prided themselves on their radicalism called themselves conservative by the late 1850s.

In this era, white Americans almost universally believed the American Union to be the freest and most perfected polity in human history, and so preserving it was not only their generation’s best policy choice it was their divinely-ordained responsibility. It is unsurprising, though telling, that many of the radical Chartists who emigrated from Britain to the United States in the 1840s and 50s called themselves “conservative” in America (a country where the People’s Charter had, in almost all respects, already been put into effect) when they had been revolutionaries at home. That defence of a past Revolution, and valorisation of existing institutions (along with a pragmatic desire to reform them as needed) is a fundamentally conservative posture so it is not surprising that this was a term that resonated. But the challenge for self-defined conservatives in all times and places (the Conservative Party in Brexit Britain being a case that springs to mind) is what do you do if revolutionary measures are needed in order to preserve the things you think are important and are in danger?

In the period I write about, Northern voters were confronted by crisis after crisis and what I’ve sought to do is to suggest some of the ways in which they tried to navigate their way out of these stormy waters. While I am concerned to elucidate what people at the time meant by “conservative”, I am also very struck by the persistence of “Jacksonian” and “Whiggish” political traditions, each of which had a different orientation towards the nature of political change even while people within each tradition came to different views about the correct policy towards slavery at a given moment.

In the end, a critical mass of Northerners of whatever political tradition supported what were, by any standards, revolutionary changes. My reading of the evidence simply suggests that most of them came to these revolutionary positions for what were — by their own accounts — conservative reasons. This is not true of everyone, of course. There really were Jacobins and “one-idea” reformers who spent their lives fighting for sweeping change. But this characterisation does, I think, describe those voters who tipped the balance in elections — the middle-of-the-roaders, the “non-agitators” and “non-shouters”, the people who (I was delighted to discover) an 1860s newspaper called “the silent majority”.

There is a not-so-subtle presentist subtext, I think, to the current “fundamentalist” interpretation of the Republican Party as antislavery heroes and the Northern Democrats as a basket of deplorables in hock to the South. Understandably scholars want to recover a past moment when a radical vanguard party triumphed electorally over a conservative force. At the same time there is an understandable desire to recover a history of white antiracism as an antidote to the tired assumption that white racism is just some immovable and unchanging factor in American history rather than something with a history of its own. I have every sympathy with this agenda, but unfortunately, I don’t think party politics in the free states in the 1850s was the mirror image of US politics in the age of Trump. Far from it. Apart from anything else, the antebellum North was not so neatly bifurcated: as well as the years in which the new Republican Party arose, it was also the era in which the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic “Know Nothing Party” surged to dramatic election victories, in which there were continual expectations of a Whig revival, and in many elections voters were offered the choice of more than one variety of Democrat (pro-Lecompton Constitution and anti-Lecompton Constitution for example) as well as a variety of non-Democrats. And crucially, unlike today, politicians, it seems to me, saw electoral advantage in emphasising common ground with their opponents rather than simply rallying “their” people. The irrepressible conflict was between North and South far more than it was within the North.

[1] Ayers’ most recent work is The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017).

[2] See, for example, Michael F. Holt, The Fate of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Hill & Wang, 2005).

[3] See especially, James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007); The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the American Civil War (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014).

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