This is my inaugural lecture as the Edward Orsborn Professor of US Politics and Political History, delivered in the Exam Schools in Oxford on April 25, 2022.
The American Civil War as a Conservative Revolution
Vice Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you all so much for taking the trouble to be here this afternoon.
As the inaugural Edward Orsborn professor, I want to take this opportunity to thank the donors to this chair, some of whom are here today.
The principal donor wishes to remain anonymous but the chair is named for that donor’s grandfather, Edward Arthur Orsborn, known as Ted.
Ted Orsborn was born into a working-class family in South London in 1916.
He left school at 14 and worked as a shipping clerk.
After service in World War II, he trained as a teacher.
By 1959 he was head of a primary school in South London, and in the following years was a pioneer of inclusive child-centered learning
– he was one of a handful of educationalists in Britain in the 60s who transformed teaching by applying Jean Piaget’s model of children’s cognitive development.
Ted received an OBE for services to education in 1974 and in his later years was much in demand as a speaker at education conferences and appeared on BBC programmes to discuss his approach.
By all accounts he was above all an intelligent and kind man who clearly transformed the life chances of countless young people.
Being a university professor is hardly comparable to those kinds of achievements
But as someone who came into the academic world in part because I personally love teaching –
as someone who believes that education should be as open to as many people as it possibly can be
and as a member of a university that I think is making great strides to open our education to people who have not had the benefit of a privileged background
— I am deeply honoured to hold a chair named for Ted Orsborn.
The creation of this chair is also a signal of the importance to this university of understanding the United States and its place in the world, a project that is as urgent now as it has ever been. I am very proud to join brilliant colleagues here in that endeavour, and to lead the Rothermere American Institute which supports research and public engagement in this area.
And now to the lecture…
We are familiar with the idea that the United States as a new country, with the forward-looking orientation that implies. In the words of John O’Sullivan, an influential journalist and advocate for the Jacksonian-era Democratic Party, the American republic was the “great nation of futurity.” In this view, Americans were a people unanchored from the past with a blank slate to write on, their faces set towards the west, boldly going where no man had gone before.
But at the same time, America’s future prosperity and freedom nevertheless depended—so it was frequently proclaimed—on adherence to the institutions and traditions established by a previous generation.
Because in a deeper sense the United States of America is really an old country.
Old in the sense that its political institutions, and to a great extent its political culture, are still shaped by its eighteenth-century moment of origin, its politics curiously distorted – in a way that has no real parallel in this country — by arguments about what the founding fathers intended.
In America, the past is not just prologue; it confers authority.
This pose of being trapped by an imagined moment of origin is characteristic of nations founded in revolution. We can see similar traits in Cuba or the Soviet Union. The perceptive French liberal Alexis de Tocqueville observed that early nineteenth century Americans “love change, but dread revolutions.”
In the frequently quoted line of the great historian Richard Hofstadter, the Americans were “born in perfection and aspired to progress.” But progress that was too quick or too drastic threatens to tarnish the veneer of perfection.
To adapt the metaphor of a great American writer, it is tempting to think of US political history as a boat beating against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.
I believe this framing helps us to understand the American Civil War – how it happened, how it ended, and how we should understand its place in American history.
My argument is that the war was shaped by a political culture, which for all its embrace of change was in important ways also profoundly conservative – a term which came into broad use in American politics as the sectional crisis was intensifying, and almost always had positive connotations even while meaning different things to different people.
The Civil War was the greatest, and certainly the most violent disjuncture in American history.
Perhaps as many as three quarters of a million people died — the equivalent of 7 million today as a proportion of the population.
Four and a half million enslaved people were freed. And by the way, that amounted to a forced expropriation of perhaps three and a half billion dollars of wealth, slaves being by some measures the largest category of financial asset in the United States in 1860 – worth more than railroads and factories combined.
The nation that emerged from the war even had a new name – it was increasingly known as “America” rather than “the Union” – and its governing structures, and its dominant political class were, to some degree altered.
The Civil War was certainly not a conservative revolution in the sense that term has been used in the twentieth century to describe the radical right’s insurgency – their attempt to take control of the government and the Courts and overthrow the liberal New Deal order.
But the concept of a conservative revolution is helpful in thinking about the Civil War insofar as it helps us to see this as a revolutionary situation which arose as much because of the conservative dimension of America political culture, as in spite of it.
When Civil War era Americans described themselves as conservative they weren’t identifying themselves with a policy programme. They did not mean the term as an antithesis of liberal. What they meant was usually something closer to the definition outlined by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who wrote about conservatism as a disposition; a way of signalling a measured, mature approach to the problems of the world. It implied an ethic of self-discipline, of self-restraint.
Beneath this gendered and perhaps racialised understanding of political character and appropriate behaviour, the “conservative” substructure of antebellum American political culture boiled down to the consensus that the prevailing constitutional order must be preserved.
By the 1830s, the leaders of the American Revolution of the 1770s and 80s had passed away (with a timing that would be implausible in fiction, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was signed.)
The rising generation of politicians defined themselves as the inheritors of their father’s “sacred trust”, tied by a thread of gold to those who had gone before. In the providential reading of the vast majority of nineteenth-century Americans, it was their fate as one of God’s chosen peoples to bear a precious burden. Their revolution had set in motion a free republic that was destined to do no less than redeem mankind.
This underlying consensus that defence of the revolutionary settlement was a moral good –what I am calling the conservative substructure of American political culture — was what enabled Nathaniel Hawthorne to write that “all the greatest statesmen of America stand in the attitude of a conservative”; and it was what the Whig politician Daniel Webster had in mind when he said in 1848 that “the whole progress of the American system, [is] marked by a peculiar conservatism.”
It was peculiar because it was exceptional: only in the American republic, the argument went, was a conservative posture necessary in order to defend liberal Enlightenment values. Under a monarchy, explained an Ohio newspaper in 1858, conservatism was “the foe of popular liberty”; but in a republic “where political and social movements, being accorded the largest liberty, tend to extremes” it operates as a “wholesome check, restraining excesses.” As James Fennimore Cooper put it, “here [in America], the democrat is the conservative, and thank God he has something worth preserving.”
And sure enough, there were plenty of European radicals who self-consciously took on conservative postures when they emigrated to America. Immigrant British Chartists usually found outlets for their continued advocacy of the rights of white working men, but in the different circumstances of the United States they found themselves no longer so clearly arrayed against the established order. After all, in America almost all the demands of the People’s Charter, including universal suffrage (for white men anyway), were already a reality.
If preservation of the revolutionary settlement of the 1770s and 80s was the prerequisite for the Union’s expansion and onward progress, how was this best achieved?
The most common answer was to celebrate the practice and ideal of “compromise.” The Union was the first republic in the world to extend over so great an area, to contain such a multitude of people. Consequently, its maintenance required its people to be willing to develop a compromise mindset – to conciliate one another, and like the Founders to exhibit a moderate temperament – to be calm, dignified, and non-dogmatic – the temperamental embodiment of conservatism.
There would not have been a war if it were not for the fact that people who all thought of themselves as defenders of the existing order were divided by profoundly different interests and values.
The issue that fatally divided antebellum Americans, in the end, was of course slavery. But it did not do so in a straightforward way because it was impossible to straightforwardly address the moral problem of slavery if you also wanted to maintain, as almost everybody did, a constitutional order in which slavery was in some sense protected.
The coming of the Civil War is a story of how different groups of Americans developed alternative understandings about the nature of the compromises that had been made at the founding moment — and therefore what compromises were acceptable in the present.
The only people who stood four-square outside the constitutional consensus were those like the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who publically burned a copy of the Constitution and denounced it as a “covenant with death” because of diabolical compromise with evil.
But Garrison was an iconoclast; more prudent antislavery politicians tried instead, with varying success, to find ways of reconciling the abolition of slavery with the preservation of the constitutional order. Notably, Frederick Douglass refused to concede that the Constitution was inherently proslavery, instead arguing that the promise and the logic of American institutions were on the side of freedom.
The reality was that the American Revolution and the Constitution of 1787 left a legacy that was neither straightforwardly pro- or anti-slavery.
They were deeply and deliberately ambivalent.
Antebellum Americans could find plausible political agreements and judicial decisions that provided precedents both for highly racist and for more egalitarian readings of the constitutional order.
One way of thinking about the founding is that it was in effect a power-sharing agreement between the slaveholders of the Southern states and the leaders of New England states where slavery was already illegal by 1787, and the mid-Atlantic states where it was in some way or other being signalled as on the way out. The agreement, in essence, was that the national government would not formally sanction property in man (the word “slave” does not appear in the final text of the Constitution), but nor would the national government be able to regulate slavery without Southern consent. Political arrangements were put in place that slaveholders in the South believed would prevent anyone other than themselves determining when, if or how slavery ended.
So, although almost all the contending parties in the divided republic claimed to be defending the old constitutional order, in reality they were arguing about whether the original commitment to compromise even on issues of deep moral principle should be modified or abandoned. The real question was never whether the Federal Constitution was pro- or anti-slavery but how much slavery it tolerated.
One version of a “conservative” defence of the eighteenth-century revolutionary settlement was to argue that morality and politics should be kept separate — or at least that the higher moral good of maintaining the political order trumped everything else.
This was the normal position of white southerners. But it was also the conventional position of northerners within both the Whig and Jacksonian traditions through most of the antebellum decades — although by the 1850s it was a perspective increasingly associated with Northern Democrats
— an emblematic example is James Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian who had a decades-long career in the Democratic party culmination in his election as president in 1856, and who was willing to make almost any concession to keep slaveholders happy up until the moment when they left the Union – (and even, one might add, afterwards).
For Buchanan’s kind of conservative, the gravest threat to the republic came from radical reformers with their restless quest for perfection. Such challengers were dismissed as “one-ideaists” – people who pursued a single cause with no sense of context or understanding of its practical application.
A Democratic Party newspaper explained that “one-ideaists” did not understand that “politics [is] compounded of many calculations and considerations, and comprehend[s] a variety of subjects.” The pursuit of supposedly faddish and quixotic “one-idea” causes like ending capital punishment, temperance, or abolitionism seemed politically dangerous if the argument could be portrayed as based on “abstractions” not the reality of the world in all its messy complexity.
A Presbyterian minister made this case when he told a meeting of a Young Men’s Lyceum in upstate New York in 1848 that the greatest challenge to the stability of the Union came “when an ardent, self-opinionated, perhaps ambitious man has strongly imbibed one idea, or enlisted himself to effect one particular object.” Quoting the scriptural injunction from St Paul’s epistle to the Phillipians, “Let your moderation be known unto all men,” the minister warned that one-idea fanatics “think and act as though he believed that the only one in the world worthy of pursuit” and would say to others who disagreed “like the Pharisee of old, ‘stand you by, I am holier than thou.’”
Back in the 1790s, the Reign of Terror in France had set jitters through propertied Americans. And the 1848 revolutions, at first a source of optimism, rekindled for a certain kind of conservative American a horror about the insidious influence of socialist ideas.
You might say that if twentieth-century Americans feared reds under the bed, nineteenth-century Americans feared Jacobins were a pathogen.
But in the context of the rising controversy over slavery, this kind of anti-radicalism could itself be a source of instability.
One figure who warned early on of this danger was Abraham Lincoln, when he was still just a 29-year old lawyer and state legislator, in an address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, in January 1838. His speech was entitled in a truly conservative-sounding phrase, “The Perpetuation of our institutions.”
“Let every American swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country…
let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty.
Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap…
in short, let it become the political religion of the nation;
and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.”
That sounds like a staunchly conservative defence of the status quo, and up to a point it was – but what we really see here is Lincoln taking a conservative position which turned out to have revolutionary potential. On closer examination, the context in which Lincoln was talking gives clues to how and why he began his journey towards a recognition that radical means might be necessary in order to preserve their highest good – the republic, the last best hope of earth.
As his audience in Springfield knew all too well, three months earlier, the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy had been murdered in Alton, Illinois — a river town bordering slaveholding Missouri. Lovejoy, a Presbyterian minister who produced an antislavery newspaper was the target of violent anti-abolitionist mobs. Alton’s town leaders had offered Lovejoy what they called “a compromise”: he would stop producing his newspaper and get out town, and in return they would refrain from killing him. Lovejoy refused the deal, and four days later he was dead, his printing presses tossed into the Mississippi river. The mob action—seemingly sanctioned by the town’s authorities—was widely covered in newspapers. Protest meetings were held in many northern states, but in Illinois, although not a slave state, majority public feeling was sympathetic to the mob.
Just the previous year, 1837, Lincoln, as a young Whig member of the state legislature had opposed a motion declaring that the right of property in slaves was “sacred” and that we “disapprove of the formation of abolitionist societies.” The motion was nevertheless passed by 77 votes to 6. So, when Lincoln spoke so passionately about the need for reverence for the law, everyone in the audience knew why he was making the point. For the young Lincoln, whose family had been members of an antislavery Baptist congregation, slavery was dangerous to the perpetuation of republican institutions not only because it was unjust but also because—as in Alton—it inspired mob violence.
If the basis of the political order was compromise, and if the hardest issue by far to compromise was toleration of slavery, Lincoln was subtly signalling in his Lyceum Address that the compromise was under strain. The republican political order was both precious and precarious. Yet in 1838 Lincoln was laying the groundwork for what was in effect a conservative antislavery case – identifying radical threats to the republic from the tyranny and violence of slavery.
There were a small minority of Northerners who responded to increasing violence over slavery by abandoning the commitment to the existing constitutional order. For them there could be no compromise with the evil of slavery and the revolutionary settlement that had made such compromises had to be overthrown.
Lincoln could not have known it the time, but among those radicalized in this way by the murder of Elijah Lovejoy was John Brown, who, on hearing of the death of the abolitionist editor, publicly vowed: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!” In 1859, Brown was to lead an armed raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to set off a slave insurrection.
Brown’s response to Lovejoy’s murder was to meet diabolical violence with righteous force.
Lincoln’s response, far more typical, was to urge moderation and respect for the law — but with a view to building the case for an antislavery future.
Brown was a true Jacobin, his ends justifying any means.
Lincoln, was not a revolutionary instinctively or theoretically, — but as events turned out his desire for preservation and respect for the law were to lead him—and millions of other Northerners—to take positions that had revolutionary consequences.
The Alton civic leaders’ so-called “compromise” offer to Elijah Lovejoy foreordained the problem of any attempt to compromise on a question that involved absolute moral principle.
And the trouble was that slavery affected everything. There was no political issue in antebellum America – whether it was regulation of alcohol, or immigration, or free trade, or Federalism—that did not raise the issue of whether the South still retained its effective veto over slavery.
As the sectional struggle intensified, people were pushed into making political choices that most would prefer to have avoided: forced to make calculations about what course of action would be most likely to preserve the political order without making more concessions to evil than were necessary.
If you were a radical abolitionist like John Brown, this calculation was not hard. For all the internal differences within the abolitionist movement, it self-evidently started from the assumption that ending human bondage was the highest moral good.
On the other extreme, there were growing numbers of radicals in the South who became convinced that the only way to preserve slavery in the long run was to break up the 1787 political order and start anew. (By 1861, that faction of Southerners had won control in first seven and eventually eleven slaveholding states. They passed ordinances of secession that appealed to the same principles of the right to self-government as had the 1776 Declaration of Independence, consciously re-enacting the nation-building struggle of their grandfathers. But crucially the new Confederate States of America was a polity created without the need to compromise with those who rejected the principle of property in man.)
A few Northerners resolved for themselves the problem of reconciling slavery with the constitutional order by the expedient of embracing new racial theories that justified slavery. An example was the Irish-born John Campbell, a “Physical Force” Chartist who was exiled for political organizing in Manchester and moved to Philadelphia in 1843. Committed to advancing the cause of white working men, by the early 1850s, Campbell was an excitable advocate for the new theory of polygenesis – the idea that Black and white people were separate species — which he used to defend slavery as the appropriate condition for Black people in pamphlets like the one shown here. Campbell satisfied himself that slavery (for Black people) did not in any way contradict the freedom and equality promised in the American Revolution. But this remained a fringe position in the North.
A larger number of Northerners of whom James Buchanan is emblematic since they were mostly Democratic Party voters – doubled down on the idea that whatever concessions were necessary to appease the South needed to be made because the alternative – disunion – was so catastrophic.
And then there were those Northerners – and here, once again, Lincoln is a good example—for whom the moral calculus was far harder.
These were the people that one newspaper observed on the eve of Civil War constituted a “conservative but silent majority” in the free states. These people were, to extend the Nixonian paraphrase, the non-abolitionists, the non-radicals. They never doubted that slavery was wrong – at least in the abstract – but they also thought that the survival of the Union was a moral good of at least equal importance. What gave the American Union providential purpose was the advancement of freedom throughout the whole world. So slavery could be no more than a temporary exception.
For them, the answer to the question of “how much slavery should the constitutional order” protect was therefore: “no more than it absolutely has to”.
A major turning point for such people was the passage through Congress in 1850 of a new fugitive slave law that hugely enhanced federal power at the expense of states. Under this law, a slaveholder who believed his human property had escaped into a free state could go through a special federal process rather than having to run the gauntlet of unsympathetic juries in free states. There were numerous high-profile cases of African Americans—some of whom had been living as free men for many years—being captured by federal forces and returned to bondage.
Perhaps the most notorious was that of Anthony Burns, who was working in a clothing store in Brattle Street, Boston when he was arrested by slavecatchers in May 1854. Under the 1850 law, Burns could not be bailed or claim the right to a jury trial. Nor was he even permitted to testify in his own defence.
Angry mobs gathered outside the Court House where Burns was being held, while ministers sermonized about the destruction of liberty in the cradle of the Revolution. Handbills urged “the yeomen of New England” as “the chief conservative element of the republic” to come to Burns’ aid in defiance of Federal authority.
The “sons of liberty” groups that formed in New England to resist such federal encroachments on liberty clearly did not think that to violate this particular law was to trample on the blood of their fathers.
The study yeomen came — but they were no match for Federal troops who marched Burns to the docks in chains and back to enslavement. The Burns capture was a nightmarishly intensified version of the Alton riot sixteen years earlier – instead of it being a small-town mayor who led the mob it was Federal troops backed up the President.
There were many other, similar moments during the 1850s when the “silent majority” in the free states had to come to difficult reckonings about the nature of their polity.
One came in 1857, with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case, which the incoming President – James Buchanan — saw as the final resolution of the slavery crisis. The Court ruled that Congress had no power to ban slavery from Federal Territories since to do so would violate the fifth amendment property rights of slaveholders. The same logic would appear to threaten the ability of free states to effectively bar slavery.
Although historians and legal scholars have almost universally condemned the Dred Scott decision as bad law, it was based on an interpretation of the revolutionary settlement that was, in its own way, as plausible as those of its antislavery critics. For Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a Jacksonian Democrat from Maryland, for Congress to ban slavery from the national territories without the acquiescence of the South was a violation of the sacred compact of 1787, in which North and South had agreed to share power without either dominating the other.
But Lincoln didn’t see it that way. He argued that the founders of the republic had believed that slavery was “on the course of ultimate extinction.” If so, the Dred Scott decision reversed that formulation. This was why Lincoln warned in 1858 that the country could not remain “half slave and half free” but would become “all one thing or all the other.” Even the Constitution, as it was now interpreted by the Court, seemed no longer to embody the spirit of the revolution as Lincoln understood it.
Everything seemed topsy-turvy. Law no longer aligned with order. The Federal government and the Constitution no longer protected freedom.
The framers of the Constitution had expected sectional politics and partisanship to exist. What they hoped was that they had created institutions and set in motion a constitutional politics in which it would be impossible for any one faction to gain complete control. For many decades, that was broadly how it worked. Both the Jacksonian Democratic Party and the much less successful Whig party could wield national power only by stitching together bisectional coalitions. This was not high-mindedness, or – notwithstanding the rhetoric – some abstract patriotic commitment to compromise. It was just basic numbers – they needed to do it in order to win.
But at this point we need to pause and take note that, as always in modern history, electoral systems matter – a lot! By the 1850s, it was clear that the Electoral College system of electing presidents now offered a path to victory for an antislavery party even though it had little hope of winning a majority of the national popular vote.
That was the political reality that enabled the success of the new Republican Party of which Lincoln was a leader.
The Republicans argued that the so-called “Slave Power” — the conspiracy of southern oligarchs who were controlling the Supreme Court – were, in effect, a counter-revolutionary force, subverting the institutions of the republic and replacing them – as the people of Boston had witnessed when Burns was carried off by Federal forces — with the tyrannical methods of despots.
Consequently, the Republican Party pledged, at a minimum, to prevent the further expansion of slavery. Since in the wake of the Dred Scott decision this position was now contrary to the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court, you could fairly call it radical.
Yet Republicans repeatedly and emphatically emphasised their “conservative” aims. Theirs was was the “only true conservatism,” wrote one party member, because it proposes to restore the administration of public affairs to the “principles and policy established by the founders of our political system.”
Clearly, the language of preservation was a source of legitimation. But this does not mean that it was insincere or unimportant
– on the contrary it goes to the heart of how the Republican party saw their mission: to save the republic by imposing on the South their deeply felt and plausibly articulated antislavery version of the political order created in the 1780s. As one Republican editor put it, “we seek to conserve and perpetuate the original principle on which our republican government is based, that freedom is the rule, and slavery the exception.”
In November 1860, by capturing a plurality in almost every free state, Lincoln won an Electoral College majority even though he had just 39.8 percent of the national popular vote.
Southerners who had resisted the siren calls for separation now began to waver – Lincoln’s election seemed to indicate that their understanding of the political order created in 1787 – in which the Southern slaveholding states would be accorded at least equal respect – had been overthrown.
On April 12, 1861, South Carolina artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter, a lightly garrisoned US military installation on an island in Charleston Harbor. The response in the North across party lines was a determination to defend the republic. And the war began.
This painting by Frederick Edwin Church, a Connecticut-born artist, was inspired by the flag which had flown over Fort Sumter.
Unlike the flag flying over Fort McHenry the morning after the British bombarded Baltimore in the War of 1812 – the flag that was “still there” and inspired the song The Star Spangled Banner – the Fort Sumter flag was lowered, tattered and torn, by the commander Robert Anderson. Raising it there again became the symbolic goal of the Union war effort. The question was how this was to be done, and how much the country had to change in order to do it.
Most white Americans did not want to transform their world, they wanted to rid it of enemies. The slaveholders who had been exposed as counter-revolutionary oligarchs—had become the main enemy of the republic. Yet had the Confederate capital – Richmond, Virginia — fallen in the spring of 1862 – a not implausible scenario — the rebellion may have been suppressed and the Union saved without emancipation—and if that had happened a majority of Northerners would have been satisfied with that outcome, including Lincoln and most Republicans.
But what actually happened was that by the summer of 1862, the US military assault on the South had stalled in the crucial Virginia theatre. Thereafter, until the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox Court House in April 1865, what the abolitionist Frederick Douglass called the “inexorable logic of events” made it ever more likely that Northern victory would mean the total destruction of slavery and thus of the entire pre-war Southern social and economic order.
At least in retrospect, when there was no longer any doubt that it did not undermine military victory, Northerners reimagined the abolition of slavery as natural and inevitable.
In the minds of most white Northerners, there should have been no more fitting ceremony to mark the restoration of the Union than this raising of the Union flag at Fort Sumter on 14 April, 1865. Yet when the reports of that great symbol of the defeat of the rebellion appeared in the Northern newspapers, they were tragically overshadowed by another unlooked-for symbol of the end of the war — That very same evening, the evening of Good Friday, President Lincoln was shot. For those clergymen who for the previous four years had echoed and amplified Lincoln’s case that the cause of the Union was the cause of freedom everywhere, the sermons they gave that Sunday wrote themselves: the President had died that his country might live.
The dominant narrative of the Civil War dismisses the moderate majority as by-standers, hapless as radicals drove change. But at best this is only half the story.
The choices this silent majority made were the ones that, in the end, led to the election of Lincoln as President in 1860, triggering secession and leading to war. Trying to make political judgements that would preserve their free institutions, the political order in which they had grown up and which they believed was the most perfect the world had ever seen, — trying to preserve all this they stumbled, eventually, into a situation where they felt compelled to use immense force to preserve the Union, and to destroy the institution of slavery not just for themselves but, to quote Lincoln once again, for the “whole family of man.”
When the war was over, the dominant tone on the winning side was relief that the republic, shorn of slavery had survived, and the original American Revolution vindicated. To people at the time, the Civil War mattered as much as for what it preserved as for what it transformed, for the changes it foreclosed as much as for those it advanced.
The war transformed the country in many ways, some temporary, others long-lasting
In the 1850s, slaveholders had attempted to enhance the reach of the Federal government to enforce property in man across the whole country;
after their defeat, the Federal government eradicated slavery once and for all – also by enhancing the reach of the Federal government.
The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, fundamentally re-cast the relationship between the national government and citizens (citizenship was defined for the first time — and in a way that included Black people). The Amendment remains by far the most significant change in the Constitution, and other subsequent transformations such as the growth of the welfare state and the enforcement of civil rights in the twentieth century depended upon it. Had America been more like France, the post-Civil War constitutional settlement might have been called the “Second American Republic.”
But America is not France, as Americans never ceased to point out.
Even so drastic a change as this was rhetorically downplayed.
And even in the postwar moment of maximum willingness to reimagine institutions, congressmen were unwilling, for example, to inscribe in the Constitution anything so drastic as enshrining the right of citizens to vote—an omission that haunts the United States today.
In any case, while it was vital to twentieth century movements for social justice, the Fourteenth Amendment was quickly neutered by the Supreme Court, paving the way for the racially rigid Jim Crow South. As W. E. B. DuBois memorably put it, after the war, “the slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun, then moved back again towards slavery.”
Historians, so often captured by narratives of progress and regression, typically ask why Northerners, having supposedly endorsed a biracial postwar settlement after the war, then ‘retreated’ from their commitments by the mid-1870s. But I don’t think this is a mystery at all.
If the Civil War was driven by fundamentally preservationist objectives, then the key question of Reconstruction was simply how best to secure national stability after the Confederacy’s military defeat – advancing Black rights was regarded by many white Northerners as a righteous cause. But just as they had balanced their moral opposition to slavery with the moral imperative of preserving the Union, so they once more balanced their understanding of racial justice with what seemed to them, in the end, to be more important objectives.
A dozen years or so after the Civil War, Henry James – I think the fourth American novelist I’ve quoted today — wrote sadly of the “absent things in American life”: “no cathedrals, no abbeys, nor little Norman churches — no Oxford.” In short, the United States—a country with “barely a specific national name” – had no resistance to strain.
Yet even as James was writing, others were struck by how impressively America’s eighteenth-century republican institutions had withstood the strain of a massive insurrection.
The Constitution may not be ancient, exactly – though plenty claimed it was the final fruition of a growth of liberty that began with Magna Carta – but one lesson of the rebellion was that holding fast to established institutions may be the only anchor of security in a turbulent world.
In the end, the United States’ greatest disruption serves to illuminate its very striking continuities.
After the war, politics continued to be shaped, just as it had been in the antebellum years, by preoccupation with the various sources of opposition to liberty, with narratives of history in which freedom did battle with despotism and generally won, and by an enduring faith in the providentially blessed, world-historical importance of the American republic.
Everything had changed, and yet nothing was different.