U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Debating the Causes of the Civil War—Pedagogy style

I’ve been rereading The Metaphysical Club in preparation for teaching US Intellectual History next semester and I noticed something–Menand argues that slavery was not the cause of the civil war, though it became central to the conflict as the war progressed. In African American history, whether or not you consider slavery to be the primary cause of the civil war reflects upon your seriousness of purpose and dedication to the field (i.e. it is argued that slavery was most definitely the cause of the Civil War). I’ve decided to use The Metaphysical Club as a jumping off point for a debate about this with my class.

But, hmmmm, what is “this”–is it the history of the way that the cause of the Civil War have been debated, or the causes themselves? Which is more important to discuss with students? When we teach intellectual history, does it behoove us to talk about the birth of an idea and its aftermath all in one day, or stretch it out across the semester? (I ask, because I am contemplating playing this episode of “Backstory” about “Evolution and Creation” in America for my students, but it discusses centuries of science in one hour, rather than discussing the first introduction of Darwin to the US as I had planned.)

To decide which “this” (causes or debate of causes) to discuss, let me first quote Menand:

“As it had been all along, the issue for most Northerners was not the morality of slavery; it was the balance of power between the North and the South. But the more the South intervened in the North’s affairs and frustrated the North’s political will, the more corrupt the institution of slavery began to seem. When it was relatively out of sight, slavery could be kept relatively out of mind. The more belligerently the South thrust its business in Northern faces, the more distasteful that business became.” (27)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been debating the causes of the Civil War on his blog for months, in preparation for a book he is writing. The debate has culminated in an article in The Atlantic which captures succinctly the consensus among many historians of African America. He argues that the reining narrative about the causes of the Civil War was created to unite the US by alienating black people.

Our alienation was neither achieved in independence, nor stumbled upon by accident, but produced by American design. The belief that the Civil War wasn’t for us was the result of the country’s long search for a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other, one that avoided what professional historians now know to be true: that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stopped them. In the popular mind, that demonstrable truth has been evaded in favor of a more comforting story of tragedy, failed compromise, and individual gallantry. For that more ennobling narrative, as for so much of American history, the fact of black people is a problem.

The fallen Confederacy’s chroniclers grasped this historiographic challenge and, immediately after the war, began erasing all evidence of the crime—that is to say, they began erasing black people—from the written record.

I’d suggest reading the whole article, but I can’t help quoting a few more lines:

The 20th century, with its struggles for equal rights, with the triumph of democracy as the ideal in Western thought, proved [Frederick] Douglass right. The Civil War marks the first great defense of democracy and the modern West. Its legacy lies in everything from women’s suffrage to the revolutions now sweeping the Middle East. It was during the Civil War that the heady principles of the Enlightenment were first, and most spectacularly, called fully to account.

In our present time, to express the view of the enslaved—to say that the Civil War was a significant battle in the long war against bondage and for government by the people—is to compromise the comfortable narrative. It is to remind us that some of our own forefathers once explicitly rejected the republic to which they’d pledged themselves, and dreamed up another country, with slavery not merely as a bug, but as its very premise.

In August, I returned to Gettys­­burg. My visits to battlefields are always unsettling. Repeatedly, I have dragged my family along, and upon arrival I generally wish that I hadn’t. Nowhere, as a black person, do I feel myself more of a problem than at these places, premised, to varying degrees, on talking around me. But of all the Civil War battlefields I’ve visited, Gettys­burg now seems the most honest and forward-­looking. The film in the visitor center begins with slavery, putting it at the center of the conflict.

 For the portion of the country that still honors, or traces its ancestry to, the men who fired on Fort Sumter, and thus brought war, the truthful story of the Civil War tells of a defeat richly deserved, garnered in a pursuit now condemned. For the blameless North, it throws up the failed legacy of appeasement of slaveholders, the craven willingness to bargain on the backs of black people, and the unwillingness, in the Reconstruction years, to finish what the war started.

I should note that Menand does traces the “blameless North” side of that statement, without the same kind of moral conviction that Coates has about the evils of slavery. Menand seems to feel sympathy for the northerners who were exhausted by war and the moral certitude that took them there and thus did not fight to assure that the freed slaves would have some amount of their freedom preserved.

“The lesson Holmes took from the war [and never modified] can be put into a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence.” (61) “Abolitionism came to stand in his thought for the kind of superior certitude that drives men (frequently men other than the ones who are certain) to kill one another.” “Still Holmes did not think that the world would be better off without people like this, because he thought that everyone was like this” (62)

It is strange, as Coates points out, that it was Abolitionism that Holmes blamed for causing violence instead of the violence already existing within slavery that the war attempted to put an end to. Coates writes,

The Confederate army, during its march into Pennsylvania, routinely kidnapped blacks and sold them south. By the time Lee’s legions arrived in Gettys­burg, virtually all of the town’s free blacks had hidden or fled. On the morning of July 3, General George Pickett’s division prepared for its legendary charge. Nearby, where the Union forces were gathered, lived Abraham Brien, a free black farmer who rented out a house on his property to Mag Palmer and her family. One evening before the war, two slave-catchers had fallen upon Palmer as she made her way home. (After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, slave-catchers patrolled the North, making little distinction between freeborn blacks and runaways.) They bound her hands, but with help from a passerby, she fought them off, biting off a thumb of one of the hunters.

Faulkner famously wrote of Pickett’s Charge:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863 … and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet … That moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time.

These “Southern boys,” like Catton’s “people,” are all white. But I, standing on Brien’s property, standing where Mag Palmer lived, saw Pickett’s soldiers charging through history, in wild pursuit of their strange birthright—the license to beat and shackle women under the cover of night. That is all of what was “in the balance,” the nostalgic moment’s corrupt and unspeakable core.

Personally, I agree with Coates, but I think it would make sense in an intellectual history course to examine the debate, rather than the causes themselves. Perhaps I will ask students to read the Coates articles in addition to the first section of Menand’s book (we are reading it in chunks) and then hold a discussion. Do you all have suggestions for high points within the “causes of the Civil War” debate, which Coates does not mention?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Coates’s argument is heavily indebted (and I believe he has acknowledged this) to David Blight’s scholarship, especially Race and Reunion. Blight (and, I argue in a paper I am currently writing) Foner are likewise indebted to W.E.B. DuBois — to “Dawn of Freedom” and, later, his monograph on reconstruction, among other things.

    As I have mentioned many times in the blogosphere, David Blight’s book rocked my world and pretty much changed my life. I am working on a conference paper about “this” — how historicizing historical narrative, recognizing the contingency not only of the past but of all accounts of it, is a (the?) essential work of history, because it frees us from having to carry the burden of “memory,” and we can travel more lightly into the future.

  2. Not just David Blight but Michael Kammen and Cecilia O Leary before made the point that for many whites reunion and reconciliation depended on erasure of the slave cause of the war and the freed people presence in post war life.

  3. It’s been some time since I’ve looked at *The Metaphysical Club*, so I accept your account of it. Still, it does seem to me different to say, as you quote Menand saying, that Northerners didn’t go to war to fight slavery, and to say that slavery wasn’t the cause of the war. Surely we can identify as the historical cause of the war something that the participants themselves would not have so identified? Maybe that’s the thing to teach?

    LD: there’s an interesting and relatively short Pocock essay, “Historiography as a form of political thought” in a recent issue of *History of European Ideas* that would maybe be useful for you.

  4. Lauren–
    There are several important distinctions to make here: between the motives of various actors and the causes of the war; between the original war aims of the CSA and the USA and the evolution of new war aims, especially after the emancipation proclamation; between the causes of the war and the way the war was remembered; between history and memory. The historiography of the causes of the Civil War is deep, but what’s interesting is that, to the best of my knowledge (and maybe somebody knows better), the generation since the Civil Rights movement has moved away from this question, often focusing on questions such as soldier’s motives, the experience of war, the memory of it, and the consequences of it, rather than the big question of causality. Perhaps this is because for historians, if not for the larger public, this question has largely been answered, or there is some degree of consensus about it. Or perhaps it’s because historians have come to distrust big questions about causality, and have preferred pluralistic accounts. I agree with Eric Brandom that Menand is not talking about “causes” in the sense that historians do, but about the notion of an abstract ideal as motive on the part of historical actors. My sense is that Coates’s argument is not with historians at all, but with the popular memory of those who would invoke Lost Cause and States Rights images absent of the question of slavery. In a way, he’s fighting over how to remember, which involves taking up what Blight calls the “emancipationist” meaning of the war. But historians are largely agreed not that slavery in the abstract was the cause of the war, but that sectional divergence raised the issue of slavery expansion in a particular Constitutional context that was unresolvable–given the ideological demands of free labor vs. slave expansion–within the existing political system. Phrasing the question as “was slavery the cause of the war?” I don’t think really get at the complexity of the causes of the war, but I can see why it might be an opening gambit in a context where there appears to have been a massive amount of denial about the centrality of slavery and the slave question to the Civil War.

  5. Eric and Dan–I agree with the nuances you trace out, particularly in the difference between what northerners believed and what were the putative causes of the war.

    However, one of the things I wonder about is what work Menand is doing. He, through his Club, sees abolitionism as the icon of moral certitude that leads James and Holmes and others to develop Pragmatism as a way to avoid war. Shouldn’t it be the slaveholders that were the icons of moral certitude? In other words, what is the message Menand (and me by assigning his book?) are communicating. Have I dropped into the pacifism zone I tend towards? Anyway, I thought I could improve the students’ experience of Menand by encouraging debate, not just acceptance (which might seem obvious, but I tend towards learning from everything I read first, before arguing with it, and my advisor fed that part of me).

    Dan, I’m not sure that Coates would agree with you. He says that professional historians agree “that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stopped them.” He wants the issue to be slavery first, whereas I think you and Menand are saying it was sectional conflict (over slavery’s expansion, but that was secondary to the question of union or secession). Perhaps I am misreading? Coates’ “raise a country wholly premised” suggests the conflict over slavery’s expansion.

    I do agree that Coates’ primary target is a “popular mind” for whom the above statement “has been evaded in favor of a more comforting story of tragedy, failed compromise, and individual gallantry. For that more ennobling narrative, as for so much of American history, the fact of black people is a problem.”

    Black people are absent for most of The Metaphysical Club, until Du Bois and Locke are introduced as adopters of pragmatism. Is this because black people were absent in the mind of James, Holmes and others? Or did Menand miss something, which Coates is point to?

    I’m realizing that one of the joys of teaching is facing in a dynamic way the big and little narratives that have been given to you and deciding if you understand, but even more so, whether you accept them, enough to present them to someone else.

  6. I think I conflated too many things in that last comment, namely:
    –Holmes’ response to the Civil War
    –Menand’s overall thesis
    –Menand’s overall purpose
    –students’ response to the text (which I can only predict, and yet I seem to want to control)
    –My use of the text in class.

    So I arrive back at my original point–give the students the chance to learn about the debate over the causes and/or lessons of the Civil War…if I think that’s the most important thing from the first five chapters of The Metaphysical Club.

  7. Well, Lauren, while I think that addressing the causes of the Civil War is an important topic, I guess I can’t quite see why using _The Metaphysical Club_ to do that is the best use of that text for that topic. In other words, if you want your students to think about the causes of the Civil War, there are a lot of better texts to use than Menand. If you want them to understand an intellectual shift from abstract, formal, universalistic moral idealism to pragmatic, naturalistic, and pluralistic (or “modern”) thought, then Menand is a good book for that, since that is what Menand is trying to address. It would appear to me that attaching the issue of the cause of the Civil War to this text is really tangential. Moral idealism didn’t cause the Civil War is any meaningful sense, even if Holmes and others came to believe that it did.

    As far as the role of blacks in Menand’s text: Menand devotes a substantial portion of the text to debates over race by the likes of James and Agassiz, and particularly to the challenge of Darwinism to polygenetic race theory. That is, race is both an object of thought and important to the development of pluralist thinkers like DuBois and Locke later in the text.

    I have followed Coates on much of his writing about race, slavery, and the Civil War, and while I think he’s a little wedded to a kind of Whiggish narrative of freedom unfolding, he’s a careful and broad thinker who seeks to understand the complexity of motives of those who lived through that era and to appropriately contextualize them. Nothing in what you have quoted suggests that he is arguing that the Union was committed to an abolitionist project, rather than to a project to prevent the extension of slavery into the territories and future states. And the motives for that attempt to restrict slavery were diverse.

  8. Thank you Dan for helping me work through my thoughts and mis-thoughts. I really appreciate the time you’ve taken.

    I’ve only re-read the first fourth (on Holmes) and the take-away I got from it was that Holmes believe moral certitude (i.e. abolitionism) led to violence and thus he rejected moral certitude (Menand’s way, I think, of leading to pragmatism). I’m trying to decide if this is what I teach for the week I’ve assigned chapters 1-5 in Menand (I’m still rereading Chapters 4 and 5, which are about James’s childhood and Aggasiz).

    Anyway, thanks again for your response Dan. I appreciate it.

  9. It might be interesting to see what Blight says in his new book, “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.”

    It seems that he tackles part of this issue during the 1960s by looking at R. Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, James Baldwin, and Edmund Wilson.

    I’m eagerly awaiting my copy through snail-mail. . . .

  10. “In other words, if you want your students to think about the causes of the Civil War, there are a lot of better texts to use than Menand.”

    I just want to corroborate what Dan Wickberg says on this score. There are lots of issues for which Metaphysical Club could serve as a vehicle. The causes of the Civil War isn’t one of them. As someone who doesn’t study the period (the Civil War or what Menand covers), I would not get that out of it, nor did I when I read it. The Civil War is certainly in the book, but that’s not what it’s about. In the same way a book about the Baby Boomers might have WWII in the background, but wouldn’t be about WWII. A rough analogy, I know, but something like that.

  11. Do you all have suggestions for high points within the “causes of the Civil War” debate, which Coates does not mention?

    I would suggest considering the “Nullification Crisis” during Andrew Jackson’s tenure. Jackson, no friend to blacks or abolitionists, violently opposed nullification and South Carolinas threat to secede even though he was sympathetic to states rights positions. The crisis was a consequence of the Tariff of 1828 and was symptomatic of economic conflicts to come between north and south. In my mind slavery was ultimately the prime cause of the civil war but not the only cause. If the question asked were something along the line…If slavery did not exist would there have been a civil war? I would say no, too much of the culture, economy and society were dependent and rooted in slavery.

    Sorry to come in late on this thread but I just found this site and find it very interesting.

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