When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession, by Charles Adams, New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 255 pages, $24.95
The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina, by Manisha Sinha, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 362 pages, $19.95
Apart from the American Revolution itself, the Civil War is the event that has most defined the United States. More than 130 years later, we still argue over its causes, effects, and meaning. Some argue that the main, though not only, cause of the war was slavery. Others insist that the war was provoked by an overreaching federal government that refused to recognize the Southern states' rights.
This debate isn't merely historical. As could be gleaned from the flaps surrounding statements by Attorney General John Ashcroft and Interior Secretary Gale Norton during their confirmation periods, issues stemming from the Civil War go to the heart of many current political debates: What is the proper role of the federal government? Is a strong national government the best guarantor of rights against local despots? Or do state governments stand as a bulwark against federal tyranny? And just what rights are these governments to protect? Those of the individual or those of society? Such matters are far from settled.
So why was the Civil War fought? That seems a simple enough question to answer: Just look at what those fighting the war had to say. If we do that, the lines are clear. Southern leaders said they were fighting to preserve slavery. Abraham Lincoln said the North fought to preserve the Union, and later, to end slavery.
Some can't accept such simple answers. Among them is Charles Adams. Given Adams' other books, which include For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization and Those Dirty Rotten Taxes: The Tax Revolts that Built America, it isn't surprising that he sees the Civil War as a fight about taxes, specifically tariffs.
In When in the Course of Human Events, he argues that the war had nothing to do with slavery or union. Rather, it was entirely about tariffs, which the South hated. The tariff not only drove up the price of the manufactured goods that agrarian Southerners bought, it invited other countries to enact their own levies on Southern cotton. In this telling, Lincoln, and the North, wanted more than anything to raise tariffs, both to support a public works agenda and to protect Northern goods from competition with imports.
Openly partisan to the South, Adams believes that the Civil War truly was one of Northern aggression. He believes that the Southern states had the right to secede and he believes that the war's true legacy is the centralization of power in Washington and the deification of the "tyrant" Abraham Lincoln. To this end, he collects all the damaging evidence he can find against Lincoln and the North. And he omits things that might tarnish his image of the South as a small-government wonderland.
Thus, we hear of Lincoln's use of federal troops to make sure that Maryland didn't secede. We don't learn that Confederate troops occupied eastern Tennessee to keep it from splitting from the rest of the state. Adams tells us of Union Gen. William Sherman's actions against civilians, which he persuasively argues were war crimes. But he doesn't tell us of Confederate troops capturing free blacks in Pennsylvania and sending them south to slavery. Nor does he mention the Confederate policy of killing captured black Union soldiers. He tells us that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus; he doesn't mention that the Confederacy did also.
Adams argues that Lincoln's call to maintain the Union was at root a call to keep tariff revenues coming in from Southern ports. Lincoln, he notes, had vowed repeatedly during the 1860 presidential campaign that he would act to limit the spread of slavery to the West, but he would not move to end it in the South. Lincoln was firmly committed to an economic program of internal improvements -- building infrastructure, in modern terms -- that would be paid for through higher tariffs. When the first Southern states seceded just after Lincoln's election, Adams argues, it was to escape these higher taxes. Indeed, even before Lincoln took office, Congress -- minus representatives from rebel Southern states -- raised tariffs to an average of almost 47 percent, more than doubling the levy on most goods.
Lincoln was determined to collect the tariff on goods flowing into Southern ports, even if locals dragged their heels on collections. That's why the conflict began at South Carolina's Fort Sumter. If the Union kept Sumter, it could control shipping into the key port of Charleston.
Regardless of Northern motives, however, Adams never offers a convincing argument for why the first Southern states left the Union. After all, tariffs were still moderate when they left. And if they'd stayed, their representatives in Congress likely could have blocked the higher tariffs. More to the point, what about slavery? Before and during the war, almost every Southern political leader explicitly said the Southern states seceded to protect slavery.
Perhaps the most famous statement came from Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens. In 1861, in Savannah, Georgia, Stephens bluntly declared that slavery was "the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution." He said the United States had been founded on the false belief that all men are created equal. The Confederacy, in contrast, had been "founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural moral condition."
Well, Adams says in effect, Stephens was lying. Southern leaders knew that people couldn't be roused to fight over something so unappealing as tariffs. So they whipped up a fear that slavery was at stake. "Men will not willingly, and with zeal, die for an economic purpose, but they will die for some 'cause' that has a noble purpose," writes Adams, neglecting to lay out precisely why slavery was so noble. Indeed, Adams' thesis is a completely unsatisfying one. Even if true, he can't answer an important question: Given that most Southerners didn't own slaves, why was this a more attractive issue for raising fighting passions than tariffs? Why would so many die with "zeal" for a "noble" purpose from which they were excluded? After all, less than one third of Southerners owned slaves.
Manisha Sinha, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, shows how slavery did in fact became the rallying cry for the South. In The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina, Sinha traces the growth of Southern "nationalism" -- that is, a sense of the South as a distinct region with a common culture and set of political priorities that were in conflict with the rest of the U.S. -- in the decades leading up to the Civil War. At the heart of that nationalism was slavery. Earlier Southerners such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had seen slavery as an evil, albeit one they could not or would not abolish. Their descendants, Sinha writes, articulated defenses of "slavery as a benevolent and harmonious system that allayed the conflict between capital and labor, as a guarantor of social and political stability, as the engine of economic prosperity, as a result of the allegedly natural racial differences, and as a divinely sanctioned institution."