It Defined Us as a Nation

One hundred fifty years ago today, the American Civil War began in earnest when Confederate forces fired upon the Federal fort at Fort Sumter that guarded the approaches to Charleston. While the two day battle that led to a Union retreat marks the formal start to the War between the States, fighting had already been raging between pro-slavery and abolitionist forces in Kansas and Missouri on and off beginning as early as 1854. And while formal hostilities would cease in April 1865 after over 600,000 lives lost, the secessionist states would be occupied by Federal troops until 1877. And for some in the South, it sometimes seems that War has not yet ended.

While there are still a few people who first think themselves citizens of a given state, a custom perhaps most egregious in Texas, and then a citizen of the United States second, most Americans now, I would hope, see themselves as Americans first. Before the Civil War, this was certainly not the case. For John C. Calhoun, his country was South Carolina.

The War is no doubt the watershed event in American history. The most fundamental transformation brought forth by the Civil War is that before the War one would say that the United States are essentially defining the country as a collection of independent states but after the War, it became the United States is. In this regard, the War becomes the catalyst for a tightening of the American bond. Our conception of nationality was forged through the course of that bloody conflict. Indeed, the Civil War ushered in the first constitutional definition of US citizenship.

How that "are" became an "is" is the defining story of the country and that debate in the minds of some conservatives is not yet settled. The Tenther Movement is but one example how issues seemingly resolved by the Civil War continue to permeate our politics.

There is no escaping that the Civil War left an indelible mark on the South. It scarred the psyche of the southerners where the War is still to this day called the War of Northern Aggression, the War for Southern Independence, or alternatively the Slaveholders' Rebellion. Nor do all southerners considered the War a conflict over the issue of slavery but rather a war over states' rights.

Southern apologists often go to great lengths to paint the War as anything but a conflict over slavery. Southern revisionism remains a cottage industry to this day. Take for example, Llewellyn H. Rockwell, president of the Ludwig van Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama who writes "the South was being looted to pay for the North's early version of industrial policy." Rockwell isn't even a historian nor an economist but rather a proponent of the Austrian School of Economics. For that matter, he isn't even a southerner but rather from Boston with a degree in English from Tufts. But for free traders, the South is a cause célèbre because the cotton exporting, finished goods importing South was against a high tariff policy. Taxes, then as now, are not a Southern thing.

But no historian views tariffs as the cause for the war in part because in 1857 tariffs were actually lowered in response to the financial panic of that year. If there is a single cause for the dissolution of the Union, and hence, the War it is the prolonged debate over expansion of slavery into the territories. If at independence, the political balance of the country was tilted in favor of the South by 1850 that balance was decisively moving in the North's direction as more free states entered the Union and as the North's population simply exploded. By 1860, the South was headed towards a permanent status as a political minority having failed to elect a southerner to the White House in three successive elections.

There can be no denying that the South that by 1865 was a defeated force whose culture was shattered. Economically, the region was devastated. The destruction of slavery meant that the entire Southern economy had to be rebuilt. Cotton exports would not match their pre-war high until 1879. Its share of US GDP would fall over the next 75 years as the North and Mid-West industrialized while the South remained an agricultural backwater. Overall, the region did not fully recover until the post World War II boom. To this day, Mississippi remains the poorest state in the Union and lowest socio-economic indicators are most prevalent in the South.

Still politically, the South has held together more than any other region of country giving it an outsized influence in national affairs even if no southerner would be elected to the White House between Zachary Taylor and Lyndon Baines Johnson (Woodrow Wilson was actually born in Virginia but he was elected from New Jersey and Andrew Johnson was from Tennessee but he was an accidental President). Its dominance was most acutely felt in the Senate during periods of Democratic control when southern Senators through use of the committee system effectively controlled that branch of government. And they would use that power to protect a race-based southern culture well into the 20th century.

Here are some collected thoughts of historian Shelby Foote on The Civil War:

Tags: The Civil War, Shelby Foote, US History (all tags)


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