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The Coming of the Civil War
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Roundtable Discussion

[Picture of academic discussion group]

Miller: Waldo, it's November, mid-November, 1860. We're in Mississippi. They've just learned that Abraham Lincoln's been elected President of the United States. Why did they think they had to secede at that point?

Martin: Well I think it's critical to understand that Abraham Lincoln, as the Republican nominee, represented a party which was essentially a Northern party. The Republican Party was a sectional party, and did not really have sort of a Southern constituency. The Republican Party was really committed to a vision of society and politics which, on a fundamental level, was opposed to the way in which a lot of Southerners thought about the world.

[Picture of Abraham Lincoln]

Miller: Why did they feel that slavery had to expand in order to survive?

Martin: Well I think it depends a lot on where you locate that argument. But I think you've located it in a place where there was growth, in the cotton economy. And the idea of cotton is that cotton needs land. Cotton needs a continuous body of land to develop. Cotton exhausts the soil. And so the notion of expansion is not only tied to the notion of cotton, the growth of the cotton economy, but it's also tied to the notion of the growth of the American republic.

Miller: But you know, it intrigues me that, you know, when we talk about big geopolitical issues, and geographic political issues, there's those Border States up there. And I include as part of the Border States southern Illinois, places like Cairo, southern Indiana, strong secessionist feelings in states like that. That whole area, before the development of transportation, would have gone with the South. What happened?

[Picture of Stephen Ambrose]

Ambrose: The railroads ran East-West. The Midwest had been developed by people coming, for the most part, out of New England, or out of Europe. But they weren't Southerners. And these people weren't about to secede. They understood the idea of Union. And they were committed to it, in a way that it turned out, most Southerners weren't--most white Southerners weren't. And thus, the war came. The technology for building a railroad that would go all the way to California existed at the time that Sutter found the gold on the American River. There wasn't a great technological advance in railroads between 1848 and 1869, when they finally drove in the golden spike and brought the country together. What kept us from building a transcontinental railroad before the Civil War? It wasn't technology, it was--the Southerners were damned if they were going to let the Northerners have Chicago for a terminus, or even Omaha for a terminus. It was either going to be New Orleans or nothing. And the Northern politicians, they were damned if they were going to let New Orleans be the eastern terminus of a railroad that ran out to today's Los Angeles. They weren't going to have that happen. So that what could have been, had it not been for slavery, 10, even 15 years before it actually happened, came about only because the worst mistake the South ever made was to walk out of the Union.

Miller: Now why didn't those ties between cotton growers and textile manufacturers in New England, and bankers in New York who were subsidizing this whole cotton trade, why didn't those economic ties, those commercial ties, which you'd see to redound to the South's self-interest, why didn't they prevent the South from pushing this to war?

[Picture of Professor Martin]

Martin: Well I think this gets at the heart of what causes the Civil War. What do you think is the fundamental issue here? And it strikes me that the war is not just about sort of those economic connections; but they're also about the economic disconnections. The North is an increasingly industrializing society; the South is still primarily agricultural. And those particular visions of how you order a society were in conflict fundamentally. Especially if one system of labor in the South is a slave labor system, and the system of labor in the North is a free wage system of labor, even though there are these connections which would seem to tie the nation together, there are also these profound differences which are, you know, rending asunder the nation. So I think the other issue that I would argue is, ultimately, I think of it as an ideological and political war. But why do you think we get a war?

[Picture of Professor Miller]

Miller: I think it's emotion. I think it's really emotion. I think, you know, the Southern culture built on, it's a culture of honor; it's a culture of pride. The abolitionists are attacking them on moral grounds. And they're pushed into a corner on this. And combined with that, there are these young, aggressive planters who need more slaves and more land. And they use these arguments, these emotional arguments of Southern honor and things like that, and defending the country, to whip the South into a frenzy on this issue. And it happened. You read the Southern diaries...

Martin: But what about the argument that slavery, at some point, the contradiction between freedom and slavery had to be resolved. And that this was a point not necessarily where it had to be resolved at that point in time, but ultimately the nation was going to have to pay for that original sin.

Miller: Yeah, I think so.

Martin: So how does that fit into, sort of, your particular argument?

Miller: Well I don't know. Because once you get Lincoln into this, it's over. There's going to be a war. Because Lincoln was obdurate. Lincoln wouldn't bend on this. People talk about Lincoln being wily, and he was a great politician. But on this one, you know, he stood straight as a spear.

Ambrose: And slavery is a system built on the fundamental premise that the worst white man can own the best black man. And that's wrong. And even the most fanatic John C. Calhoun supporters, in their heart, knew that. It was wrong, morally wrong. All right, Lincoln is the one who spoke up. And many, many followed Lincoln. And exactly what Waldo says. It had to come, turn around a bit. Can you imagine the United States going into the 20th Century with slavery intact? Just leave aside that there had been a Civil War or that...

Miller: It seems inconceivable. But only because, you know, it didn't happen. It seems inconceivable.

Ambrose: It didn't happen because it is inconceivable. And I hate to keep quoting the master, but he deserves to be quoted here. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all man are created equal." And it is self-evident. And we had to understand that, and we had to live up to it. And we did, finally.

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