I thought there was something wrong with me when a linked to a Salon article last month, and even made so bold as to assert it would never happen again. Now I know there’s something wrong with me, because I’m doing it again. When big-government-loving Salon admits the Civil War was in great part about extending Northern domination over the South, and throws the anti-Catholicism of some Northern evangelical Protestants into the mix, I thought I better post it.
Don’t worry too much, there was one line in particular that reminded me not to get attached to Salon magazine– when it referred to Lincoln as a “strict constitutionalist”. Ha!
Everything you know about the Civil War is wrong
Almost. Historian David Goldfield exposes how evangelical Protestants turned a conflict into a bloody conflagration
But there’s still room for smart revisionism. Instead of the traditional view that finds the Civil War a great moral and political triumph, David Goldfield calls it “America’s greatest failure” in his fascinating new book, “America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation.” It killed a half-million Americans and devastated the South for generations, maybe through today. And while many Northern Republicans came to embrace abolishing slavery as one of the war’s goals, Goldfield shows that Southerners are partly right when they say the war’s main thrust was to establish Northern domination, in business and in culture. Most controversially, Goldfield argues passionately — with strong data and argument, but not entirely convincingly — that the Civil War was a mistake. Instead of liberating African Americans, he says, it left them subject to poverty, sharecropping and Jim Crow violence and probably retarded their progress to become free citizens.
Whether or not you accept that premise – more on that later – Goldfield shows definitively that Northern evangelical Protestants were the moral force behind the war, and once they turned it into a religious question, a matter of good v. evil, political compromise was impossible. The Second Great Awakening set its sights on purging the country of the sins of slavery, drunkenness, impiety — as well as Catholics, particularly Irish Catholic immigrants. Better than any history I’ve seen, Goldfield tracks the disturbing links between abolitionism and nativism. In fact, he starts his book with the torching of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Mass., in 1834, a violent attack on Catholics which Goldfield shows was “incited” by Lyman Beecher, the father of the Beecher clan, most of whom turned out to be as anti-Irish Catholic as they were anti-slavery. To evangelical Protestant nativists, Catholicism was incompatible with democracy, because its adherents allegedly gave their loyalty to the Pope, not the president, and the religion’s emphasis on obeying a hierarchy made them unfit for self-government. Also, rebellious Irish Catholics didn’t show the proper discipline or deference to conform to emerging industrial America. The needs of Northern business were never far from some (though not all) abolitionists’ minds.
Still, though nativism was widespread in the North, and within the Republican Party (which absorbed some old Know-Nothing and nativist Whig party remnants), abolitionism remained at the party’s fringe. Most Republicans were seeking compromise, not the abolition of slavery, in the years before the war, including Abraham Lincoln. Our first Republican president didn’t like slavery, and he fiercely opposed its extension to the Territories, but he also expressed doubts about African-Americans’ capacity for democracy, and he opposed black suffrage. Lincoln supported the Fugitive Slave Act, which let slave-owners call on law enforcement even in free states to capture their runaway “property.” (As a lawyer, he’d represented a slave owner trying to recapture a fugitive slave.)
And as a strict constitutionalist, Lincoln resisted abolitionism, because like it or not, the Constitution made room for slavery. The president disliked slavery, but his priority was the union. He famously told abolitionist Republican Horace Greeley (who later turned against Reconstruction and ran for president as a Democrat, abandoning African Americans as did too many other abolitionists): “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”