It’s not been a bad week or so for students of nineteenth-century American history. After one populist politician spurred a flurry of interest in the mugwumps of the Gilded Age, another has just sparked curiosity in the origins of the U.S. Civil War of 1861-65: a conflict that claimed more lives than every other war the republic has fought put together and concluded with the destruction of slavery. But ‘[p]eople don’t realize, you know, the civil war’, Donald Trump told a newspaper interviewer. ‘People don’t ask that question, but why was there a civil war?’

There’s probably not much point in fact-checking Trump but it seems obligatory to point out that the origins of the Civil War may well be one of the most written about problems of historical causality: surely only the Fall of the Roman Empire or collapse of the Ancien Regime approaches it in sheer weight of scholarly literature. Even before the fighting started politicians were trying to explain why war was about to happen. William Seward, in a speech of 1858 that launched a thousand essay questions, spoke of an ‘irrepressible conflict’ between North and South; that same year Abraham Lincoln declared the national ‘house divided’ couldn’t stand.

Lincoln and Seward’s interpretation has probably weathered better than most. Like them, ‘fundamentalists’, as they were called in a different age, have seen a stark divide between a South in which slavery shaped politics, society, and culture, and a North that increasingly embraced the economic and moral value of ‘free labor’. Only a small minority of white northerners supported immediate abolition of the South’s ‘peculiar institution’, and hostility to African Americans ran deep across the region. But when, after the 1840s, the question of whether slaveholders should be allowed to move with their slave property to newly acquired western territories came to the fore, the Union rapidly fell apart. In 1860, Lincoln’s Republican Party, formed just six years earlier to block slavery extension, won the White House with only northern votes. Soon after the Deep South state of South Carolina seceded, setting the stage for military conflict a few months later.

‘Revisionists’, on the other hand, have tried to understand the timing of the conflict. Slavery, they point out, divided the republic from its founding so why didn’t things collapse before the 1850s? Their argument, which perhaps peaked in influence after the seemingly senseless slaughter of the First World War, focused more on the breakdown of the political process. Either a ‘blundering generation’ of demagogic politicians or the dynamics of party conflict talked two sections – both of which were dominated by voters committed to white supremacy – into a four-year bout of bloodletting.

Where might Trump stand in this debate? In 1846, as U.S. troops marched into the Southwest to take on the republic’s southern neighbour, Ralph Waldo Emerson warned that ‘Mexico will poison us.’ Emerson saw that wars of imperial expansion would lead to bitter divisions over slavery’s place in a continental empire; Trump, taking him out of context, would probably retweet him today as a backer of his border policy. More probably, though, the president would side with the revisionists, even if their critique of corrupt, unstatesmanlike figures who placed personal gain ahead of national unity might have been written with him in mind. Trump, after all, wandered into the minefield of Civil War causality while talking about Andrew Jackson (in office 1829-37) and if he comes across as a little confused on the chronology, he shares with writers from the 1850s the conviction that Old Hickory would have staved off the secession of southern states through sheer force of personality.

‘Why could that one not have been worked out?’, asks Trump, that arch negotiator, in trying to make sense of the Civil War. Etched into the chronology of nineteenth-century America are a series of sectional compromises – 1820, 1833, 1850, 1877 – that sought to counterbalance the interests of northern and southern whites (usually to the detriment of African Americans). 1860-61 was the one occasion the art of the deal failed. The compromisers didn’t succeed that year because Lincoln – despite many calls from within his own party to back down – refused to budge on the issue of slavery extension. And in that regard, the Civil War was triggered by the presence, rather than the absence, of strong leadership.

Andrew Heath is Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the Civil War-era United States. You can see Andrew’s other History Matters blogs here, and find him on twitter @andrewdheath

Image: Donald Trump at the Marriott Marquis NYC, 7th September 2016 [Michael Vadon via Wikicommons]

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Andrew Heath

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