The Civil War was one of the most defining events in the nationâ€™s history, and at the time was the most important event since the American Revolution. Whereas the Revolution embodied the ideals, values, and principles of the new nation, setting it apart from the British Crown and forever altering the geopolitical landscape, the Civil War revealed the persistent hypocrisy that continues to plague American society. Unresolved conflicts left brewing in the American psyche led to built-up tensions, exposing fissures in the society along the lines of culture, ethnicity, religion, race, gender, and socioeconomic class. The causes of the Civil War can be traced in fact to the inability of the original framers to take a firm stance on slavery, and to divest too much of the federal governmentâ€™s power to the states. At the same time, protecting statesâ€™ rights was critical in the late eighteenth century when the nation was born. Rural residents of the new United States did need to ensure that the federal government did not unnecessarily infringe on the rights of the people, or that the federal government was not only representative of an elite segment of society. Had the framers considered female members of the society to be real people and given them the full rights of citizenship including the power to own property and to vote, then it would also have been possible to have eliminated the scourge of slavery much sooner than 1863, when Abraham Lincoln finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
A disproportionate number of abolitionists happened to be female, which is one reason why disempowering and disenfranchising women can be considered one of the main causes for the extension of slavery throughout the nineteenth century in the United States. Even when a litany of other nations abolished slavery, decrying America for perpetuating the institution, white males continued to show up to the polls in favor of gross human rights abuses. The women and men who supported abolition would have gained more political traction had women been able to actually exercise their rights instead of being pushed to the sidelines, their cause sideswiped by shrill capitalists. After all, slavery started simply as a system of labor exploitation and then degenerated into a race-based system of social hierarchies that was far worse than any of the oppressive measures, laws, or institutions perpetrated by the British Crown against its own citizens.
A clash between federalists and anti-federalists precipitated the string of acts and legislation that led eventually to war. Federalism was feared for the wrong reasons; it could have easily imparted a cohesive national character based on the principles of â€œliberty and justice for all,â€ but was instead viewed as an attempt to create a tyrannical regime. Driven by self-interest and unwilling to work together with their compatriots in the northeast, settlers eyeing new western territories laid the seeds for Civil War. They embraced anti-federalist sentiments during Westward Expansion because of a sense of entitlement and a belief in white supremacy. These settlers twisted their own Christian ethics into a warped, sociopathic worldview that culminated in the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans. Yet because the agricultural base of the budding American economy proved essential to the new nation, allowing it to gain power, prestige, and leverage in trans-Atlantic trade, Washington cowed.
Instead of remaining true to the values and principles embedded in the Constitution, lawmakers entered into Faustian bargains like the Missouri Compromise, and outright deals with the devil such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act and most notably, the Dred Scott decision. In the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court hid its decision behind presumed legal arguments but in fact, the Court could easily have used it as an opportunity to evaluate the Constitutional legality of slavery itself. The decision meant that the federal government did not have the right to stop slavery from expanding into the new territories, but that the states did have this right. The idiocy of this decision and all the people that supported it inevitably led to war, and for good reason. Slavery was in fact worth fighting against, even if union with the Deep South was not necessary worth fighting for. From a purely utilitarian or financial perspective taking a stand against slavery was something that the federal government needed to do to maintain its integrity with its trading partners like Britain, which had already abolished slavery in 1833. The United States risked isolating itself as one of the few remaining bastions of incivility, and as a joke of a country that proclaimed liberty and justice for all while keeping people in shackles and condoning all sorts of violence including whips and rapes.
Legally speaking, the Emancipation Proclamation was itself weak, a direct reflection of a decades long American tendency towards compromise over effective solutions. For example, Lincolnâ€™s mandate to emancipate slaves â€œapplied only to states that had seceded from the United States, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states,â€ (â€œThe Emancipation Proclamation,â€ 1). The Emancipation Proclamation was a public relations statement, something that the president needed to do in order to declare victory over the Southerners and to establish a new ethical system that would more truly represent the values upon which the country was founded. In the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln used lofty language about a nation â€œconceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,â€ which did align public policy with the principles that had been outlined in the Constitution. This language connects the reasons for the war with the reasons for the Revolution itself. Lincoln refers to the â€œconsecrationâ€ of the ground by the blood of the soldiers who fought bravely in battles throughout the Civil War (Lincoln 1). Given that the Civil War was even bloodier than the Revolutionary War, with more lives lost, it meant that standing up for human rights and civil liberties was the most important thing that the Union stood for. Confederate supporters simply did not like the federal government telling them how to behave, and like spoiled two year olds were willing to destroy anything in their room, including killing their own brothers, if it meant winning the argument.
That childishness continues to characterize a substantial portion of the American populace, which is why the effects of the Civil War still linger after more than a century of institutionalized racism. It is hard to undo so many decades of discriminatory policies and racist practices. The effects of the Civil War in fact continue to reverberate and are evident throughout the former Confederate states. With the Confederate flag still plainly visible on cars and private property, and even on some government buildings, it is no wonder the country seems to still be at war. An overly liberal policy towards racists and bigots has permeated the American consciousness and prevented the populace from taking stronger stands against hatred and injustice. The Confederate Flag represents all that is un-American: symbolizing the desire to secede from the Union altogether. Therefore, the image of the flag should be censured just as the flag of Nazi Germany has been. The Civil War is even sometimes referred to as â€œthe war of northern aggression,â€ so stubborn are the people who believe that they have a right to hurt people and do whatever they want (Oakes 1). As Oakes points out, a â€œrevisionistâ€ view of the Civil War also contends that â€œthe North did not go to war over slavery,â€ and simply wanted economic, social, and political control over the southern states (1). That may be the case, given the fact that abolishing slavery would mean a total restructuring of the American labor market and the economy, and that it would also empower the federal government to override dumb and certainly antiquated laws such as those that protected the rights of states to keep slavery. It was also true that the Northerners did not respect Southern culture and society; no one should respect a society that kept slaves so brazenly, wantonly, and unapologetically.
There were also racists in the North, whose attitudes and beliefs would also stymie efforts to reform the ethical consciousness of the country. One of the reasons that the Dred Scott decision went wrong was that out of the nine Supreme Court justices, seven had been â€œappointed by pro-slavery presidents from the South, and of these, five were from slave-holding families,â€ (Oakes 1). When Lincoln boldly addressed the nation about the meaning and purpose of emancipation, he finally echoed what millions of Americans did not have the courage or the ability to do. Lincoln had been willing to put the lives of Americans at risk for a higher, spiritual principle: the very same principle that patriots fought for during the American Revolution. It might have worked out just as well if Lincoln had simply allowed the Southern states to secede and become their own backwards, slave owning land. The South would then have perpetuated slavery to keep the prices of tobacco and cotton low enough to gain access to British and European trade routes. As it turned out, Lincoln helped liberate millions and millions more in posterity. Because racist views had so totally permeated the minds of Americans North and South, Reconstruction ended up failing. So sinister was the pro-slavery subculture that Lincoln was assassinated, leaving a Southerner in charge of the country. With just a slap on the wrist, Southern lawmakers were able to almost seamlessly transition from a slave-based economic model and labor market to one that was similar: one that was race-based. It meant, simply, â€œa revival of the antebellum Democratic Partyâ€™s relentless efforts to shift the terms of debate from slavery to race,â€ (Oakes 1). The Civil War was not fought for naught, but it did not lead to a sweeping, decisive victory either. From the Ku Klux Klan to Jim Crow, slavery just went underground, assuming new forms, shape-shifting into new laws and institutions like segregation.
Fortunately, the Civil War did result in a lasting and dramatic transformation of the American economy, culture, and government. In the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln promised, â€œa new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,â€ (1). His death, and the death of all those who fought for the Union, helped to abolish slavery forever and set a new moral standard for behavior in the United States. The Civil War resulted in several Constitutional Amendments that would make clear what the Framers did not, which was that slavery was no longer acceptable. The Thirteenth Amendment states, â€œNeither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,â€ (United States Constitution 1). The Amendment was then followed by a Constitutional Amendment that guaranteed that any person born on American soil would be an American citizen, whether they were white or not. Also, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed universal male suffrage, but not female. The South continues to leave a legacy on the nation, too, with a mentality that continually brings the American public to the brink but the federal government does have the power now to squelch any type of domestic terrorism that should ensue.
One of the most tumultuous periods in American history, the Civil War was the culmination of many years of divisiveness. After winning the Mexican American War and gaining access to an abundance of new territorial acquisitions, the federal government wanted to make sure that it would be in charge of setting the tone for the future of the nation. It succeeded, but at a cost.
â€œCauses of the Civil War.â€ PBS. http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/causes-of-the-civil-war/
Dred Scott v. Sandford. https://www.oyez.org/cases/1850-1900/60us393
â€œThe Emancipation Proclamation.â€ National Archives. https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/emancipation-proclamation
â€œDred Scott Fights for Freedom.â€ PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2932.html
Lincoln, Abraham. The Emancipation Proclamation. National Archives: https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/emancipation-proclamation
â€œMissouri Compromise.â€ Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/missouri.html
Oakes, James. â€œThe War of Northern Aggression.â€ Jacobin. 2012. https://jacobinmag.com/2012/08/the-war-of-northern-aggression
United States Constitution. Legal Information Institute. https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiii
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