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The Causes of the Civil War

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Writings on History: The Causes of the Civil War

The Civil War is a much studied topic in American history and the cause or causes of the war are hotly debated. Interpretations as to why the war between the states have evolved over time, from the arguments of historian and future vice president Henry Wilson shortly after the conclusion of the war to the arguments of current scholars in the field, the causes of the war have been a popular topic for scholars, politicians and the general public.

In his three-volume set, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, published from 1872-1877, Henry Wilson was probably the first historian to address the issue of the causes of the Civil War. Although he was vice president under Ulysses S. Grant at the time of publication, he wrote the book while serving as a Republican senator from Massachusetts. Although he is regarded as a historian, Wilson's party identification showed in his work, as he basically offered the same explanation for the Civil War as did the country's first Republican president -- Abraham Lincoln. Wilson argued that slavery was the most important reason the war took place and said that the war was fought over a moral issue -- whether or not it was right to keep human beings in bondage. He also devoted significant time in refuting the Southern argument that the war was based more on the principle of states' rights.

By the turn of the century, the conventional wisdom was beginning to shift away from the argument pioneered in the field of history by Wilson and supported by Hermann von Holst of Johns Hopkins University. A new generation of historians had grown up without any direct knowledge of the Civil War. The newer historians abandoned the blind partisanship of the works of the earlier generations, instead attempting to argue, instead, from a more unbiased point of view. John Bach MacMasters, Edward Channing, Albert Bushnell Hart and James Ford Rhodes were the primary proponents of this school of thought. Rhodes argued in History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (1893) that "All the right is never on one side and all the wrong on the other." The more balanced approach taken by these authors did little to change the root cause of the war that historians generally agreed upon -- slavery. And Rhodes was strong in his condemnation not only of slavery, but of secession and politicians like Stephen Douglas, who seemed to try and have it both ways. But for all the evils committed by the South in the institution of slavery, the North was equally wrong in its execution of Reconstruction. Rhodes was also clear to point out that the roots of slavery were economic roots and, therefore, he laid the groundwork for future arguments. Rhodes' work was well-received by historians from across the country, from William Dodd in the South to Frederick Jackson Turner in the West and Charles Francis Adams in the North.

Another future inhabitant of the White House would weigh in on the Civil War in 1893, when Woodrow Wilson published Division and Reunion. Wilson, who professed that he loved the South, praised the soldiers in the Confederate army and attacked the North's reconstruction efforts. Beyond that, though, Wilson strongly favored the North in the War and opposed slavery, which he maintained was one of the primary causes.

Other important historians of the time period after World War I would increasingly move away from slavery as a cause for the war. Frederick Jackson Turner argued, in a twist on his familiar frontier thesis, that Western expansionism and sectionalism were the prime causes for the War. He downplayed slavery not only as an issue in the war, but as an issue in the United States at all. Charles and Mary Beard wrote in The Rise of American Civilization (1927) that rather than slavery, the primary cause of the war was economics. The Beards argued that it was business interests that took over the Republican party in the North and that their primary goal was to make the South an "economic satellite" of the North. This argument was in the tradition of Henry Wilson's argument, in that it was largely taken from the argument a politician of the time made, this time, the Beards' argument basically repeated one made by Jefferson Davis. The moral question of slavery was pushed to the background and the overall importance of the Civil War was downplayed in American history. They also argued that no one in history ever gave the real reasons why they did what they did and that the real reasons were always economic and hidden. The very concept of abolitionism was not even a particularly widespread or important argument in the North, it was something confined to the political fringe. The Beards also rejected states' rights as a cause of the war, arguing that this argument was merely an accident based on climate, soil and geography. Algie Simons, who worked alongside the Beards at Columbia, had given an even more strict Marxist interpretation of the war in Class Struggle in America (1906). As with the Beards, his argument was almost entirely based on economic interests and not slavery itself.

These arguments began the shift that would mark the historiography of the period beginning in the 1930s. The economic analysis of Charles and Mary Beard and Algie Simons would be one of the underpinnings of the revisionist school of thought that would be the dominant paradigm of Southern historians. The revisionists can trace their beginning to the 1930 work of the Nashville Agrarians, I'll Take My Stand. Soon after the Southern Historical Association would emerge and important pro-South historians would take key jobs in New Jersey, Chicago, Columbia and Yale.

Charles Ramsdell offered one of the first revisionist arguments in 1929, when he argued that slavery was soon to die of natural causes and that the War was needlessly instigated by the North. His argument was echoed by E. Merton Coulter: "What good the war produced would have come with time in an orderly way; the bad would not have come at all." Ramsdell and his followers argued that the North held no great moral principle in engaging in the Civil War because the aim of abolitionism was to be met perhaps within the time of the generation that fought the war. The primary responsibility for the war fell on Abraham Lincoln, who they blamed for instigating the attack at Fort. Sumter by setting up a situation in which the South had no choice but to attack or betray the very principles for which they had seceded. The belief that the North engaged in war for noble causes was, to Ramsdell, propaganda that rose directly from John Nicolay and John Hay's biography of Lincoln published in 1890. Later historians merely copied Nicolay

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