If you look at a map of the so-called Red States and Blue States in America today, you’ll notice something very interesting. It looks a lot like the way the country divided during the civil war. Now if you take the intensity of the feelings that divide us into Red and Blue today, and multiply them by about 1,000, you may come close to approximating what existed in 1861.
But why? If it wasn’t an evangelistic desire on the part of Northerners to free Southern slaves, what was it that motivated hundreds of thousands of nothern and midwestern boys and men to enlist and die in a war to subdue the south?
I believe the answer lies in the slave-power conspiracy theories that were then prevalent.
Despite the fact that it was plainly untrue, many Southerners were convinced that there existed a Northern conspiracy to strip them of their rights and liberties, impose taxes and tariffs on them to benefit northern industry (well OK, that part was true), and to incite a bloody slave uprising, following which there would be black rule, interracial marriage and social equality between the races. At the same time, it was widely believed in the North and Midwest that there existed a Southern conspiracy to put the country under the control of wealthy aristocratic Southern slaveholders, who would bring gangs of black slaves into their states and communities to take their jobs and demean their labor.
Those who believed these competing conspiracy theories had no shortage of evidence, in those tumultous days, upon which to base their claims.
For the Southerners, John Brown’s raid was first and foremost. John Brown was already notorious for mass murders in Kansas when he and 20 men under his command slipped into Virginia in 1859, armed with carbines supplied by Northern abolitionists, and seized the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Brown’s plan was to arm Southern slaves and lead them in an insurrection. His plan failed, of course, but it brought to Southern minds the Nat Turner massacre. And the fact that Brown had been financed and armed by Northern abolitionists convinced many Southerners that there was a widespread Northern conspiracy to foment a slave uprising in the South. Southerners were horrified that much of the northern press treated Brown as a martyr rather than a terrorist. It was as if they were threatened by terrorists, yet the North was indifferent, or even sympathetic to the terrorists. Many Southerners became convinced that they just couldn’t trust their northern countrymen.
The runaway success in the north of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin also fueled Southern fears, as did the northern advocacy of increased tariffs on imported goods, paid by the agricultural south, but benefitting the industrial north. Of course the election of Abraham Lincoln, without a single vote in most Southern states, firmly convinced many that Northern tyranny over them was imminent.
Many Northerners were also convinced that a tyranny-seeking conspiracy was underway, but they read the signs of the times to indicate a Southern conspiracy. To them the Dred Scott decision was proof that the “slave power” or “slaveocracy” controlled the Supreme Court. They believed the decision forbode a day when Southern slaveholding aristocrats would bring their slaves into free states (particularly in the midwest where black immigration, free or slave, was illegal) to steal their jobs and degrade their labor. They imagined themselves laboring alongside black slaves, while being lorded over by aristocratic white slavemasters. Many northerners were also convinced that southerners were violent and arrogant, disrespectful of their rights and contemptuous of the law. Their counterpart to John Brown’s raid occurred in 1856 when South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks attacked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of Congress , beating him brutally. Just as Southerners were horrified at the Northern reaction to John Brown, Northerners were outraged that Brooks’ attack made him a folk hero in the South. The attack demonstrated to the them the arrogance of the slaveocracy, its indifference to the law and its contempt for the North.
What galvanized the working classes of the north against the south wasn’t sympathy for the slave (indeed, by modern standards they were shockingly racist), but rather antipathy for slaveholders. They objected fiercely to the idea that a man could become rich upon the labor of another. Lincoln frequently referred to the Bible’s pronouncement that “by the sweat of thy brow shalt thou earn thy bread,” reversing it to insist that a man shouldn’t earn his bread by the sweat of another man’s brow. Of course this is poignantly ironic in light of the post-war ascendancy of industrialism and the Robber Barons in the North. And nevermind that it was a myth that Southerners were lounging in the shade sipping juleps while their slaves made them rich. The vast majority of Southerners, including most slaveholders, were sweating away earning bread much the same way their Northern countrymen did. But in the deep South states particularly, those few who were wealthy off huge plantations dominated the political establishment, and arrogance was part of the creed of this faux aristocracy. That is what Northerners saw, read about in popular novels and hated to their marrow. Many were convinced that this “slaveocracy” intended to someday dominate the entire nation, remaking it all to look like South Carolina.
Of course there was a delicate political balance of power in the country, that had always depended upon careful compromises with respect to the admission of new states. Both the industrial north and the agricultural south feared that the other region intended to impose unfair tax burdens on them once they could control Congress. And many in the North deeply resented the fact Southern states’ representation in the House was increased by inclusion of 3/5 of their slaves in the calculation of representation. Men like Henry Clay, through compromises and skillful balancing of power, had managed to keep the animosity and fears in check. But unfortunately for the country, there was no Henry Clay in 1860.
When the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Northern minds, already conditioned by years of distrust, immediately attributed it to the arrogant conspiracy of the slaveocracy. When Lincoln called for an army to respond, Southern minds, already also conditioned by years of distrust, concluded immediately that this was part of the Northern conspiracy and plan of conquest that they had long feared.
The fuse had been burning for a long time. In 1861 the flame finally reached the powder.
The sad fact is that neither North nor South were truly conspiring to overrun the other. There was no Slave Power conspiracy, but most of the hundreds of thousands of Northerners who marched off to war truly believed there was.
And hundreds of thousands of men on both sides died fighting threats that had never existed in the first place.
Tomorrow, I’ll finally conclude this…
Grace and Peace