civil war essay
The Inevitability Of The Civil War & The Harmony Of The Declaration of Independence And The Constitution
March, 1997I. The Inevitability Of The Civil War
In light of the construction of America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Civil War was inevitable because of the chasm that existed between the industrial North, which did not need the labor of slaves, and the agricultural South, which could not have prospered without slave labor. As the nineteenth century progressed and the Industrial Revolution decreased the need to rely on slave labor, the North’s pressure to abolish slavery in the South placed pressure on the South to either comply with the North’s demands or fight for their “right” to own slaves. While it may seem that the South had a choice between the two alternatives, in this essay I explain why I believe they were forced, by virtue of the era and preceding philosophies of the nation’s leaders, to choose the latter.
A. The Philosophical Foundation of Slavery
The foundation of America, including the slave-holding South, is one of religion. The Puritans had a strong influence over the formation of the government, which permitted the institution of slavery to exist. While the Puritans believed in and paved the way for the existence of liberty, equality, democracy and the American dream (Davis, p.7), they simultaneously paved the road for the existence and sustenance of slavery. The Puritan belief supported the notion that the existence of the government was the will of their God, and that God provided for the authority and the power of the state and rulers (Davis, p.14). It would seem that logically, if their God was one who abhorred the owning and controlling of another as a slave, their God would have the power to eliminate this from the authority of the government and the rulers.
William Penn extended this notion of a divine foundation of government to his Quaker Pennsylvania colony when in 1682 he wrote in Preface to the First Frame of Government for Pennsylvania that “This [a speech of the apostle] settles the divine right of government beyond exception…so that government seems to me a part of religion itself, a thing sacred in its institution and end. For if it does not directly remove the cause, it crushes the effects of evil…” (Penn, p.38). Thus, Pen elaborated on the ideals of the Puritans, believing that government was a direct extension of God, and could do no wrong. Yet if it could do no wrong, how could it allow for the existence of an institution which we now view as morally abhorrent? The answer which the South offered was that the institution was simply not morally abhorrent, as defined by their God, and the logic of Penn and Winthrop would seem to support this.
The Declaration of Independence was written on the freshly-poured foundation of Calvinism and Puritanism, and this influence is reflected in the document. The person we associate with the greatness of the language in the Declaration is Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson expounded the virtues of a new utopian government where, “all men are created equal,” and equality “endowed by their Creator,” and with God-given rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Jefferson, p.60). What God-fearing human would not want to seek refuge in this new country, unless those words were written by a man who did not believe what he wrote, or intended them to only apply to a white definition of “man”? This is the only way to reconcile these words with the existence of slavery in the same nation designed by this man, indeed, by a man who himself encouraged this institution by owning slaves and refusing to free them even upon is death. The notions presented to us and to King George in the Declaration are certainly utopian and ideal, but Jefferson must have realized that the goals would never be realized without the labor pool of the slaves.
The foundation was therefore set for the existence of slavery in the new nation. Its existence allowed the nation to get on its feet and jump start the economy necessary for the survival of a new country. But once the Industrial Revolution took hold and the North found that they could economically fare better than the South without the use of slave labor, the North quickly lost patience with the Southern institution of slavery.
The Constitution, must like the Declaration, was proved a failure not by the existence of slavery, which it allowed, but rather by the Civil War itself. The Constitution has several clauses which allow for the existence of slavery (Article I, Section2; Article IV, Section 2), and it also contains language which would allow for the peaceful amending of the document to nullify these section and prohibit slavery by means other than war (Article V). But in the mid-nineteenth century, the Constitution was presented with the problem of slavery in a manner that even Amendment V could not remedy. Civic humanists were quick to purport that society would change for the better, almost in a Darwinist way, but the North was not willing to allow the South to continue slavery even for one more decade, and both were unwilling to compromise. Such a dichotomy does not lend itself well to a peaceful amending of the Constitution, and absent such an amendment or other such peaceful resolution, the only way to remedy the situation in the quick way the North sought was violence.
Alexis de Tocqueville, on his visit to the United States in the early 1830’s, wrote in Democracy in America that there were not vast differences in the distribution of money, power or social status (Davis, p.149). Clearly, Tocqueville never visited a plantation in South Carolina to view the distribution of money, power or social status between the blacks and the whites, or like many other influential people, he chose to ignore it. If he had visited a slave owner and had the courage to write about the institution of slavery, he would have found a distribution so unequal that he would have been writing about the virtues of Europe, not America. But he chose not to take issue with the existence of slavery, and allowed it to persist. In this fashion, he and other people with influence were as guilty as the slave-holders themselves for failing to act to stop such an immoral institution. The non-existence of this courage further led to the necessity of violence to finally put and end to the institution.
The Dred Scott decision handed down by the Supreme Court in 1857 was certainly the point of no return for the North. In the Dred Scott case, the high Court said that, “A free Negro of the African race, whose ancestor s were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States … Consequentially, the special rights and immunities guaranteed to citizens do not apply to them.” (Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 1857). The North was now in the position of having to defend their belief that the institution of slavery should not exist in the United States, and they did this by pressuring the South with the abolition movement to abolish slavery.
B. The Direct Causes of the Civil War
Once the philosophical foundation had been laid for the existence of slavery, it would take a movement unparalleled in American history to reverse the momentum supporting slavery. In the decades preceding the Civil War, the population of slaves, a self-reproducing labor force, expanded by 500%, and in a direct proportion, the South grew increasingly dependent on slaves for their labor (Davis, 160). At the same time, the physical size of the South was expanding, taking on Mississippi, Alabama and Missouri as slave states. The turning point was the crises involving the various compromises, designed to harmonize the division of the country, which in fact only added fuel to the fire of resentment and outrage. The abolitionist movement further fanned the flames, infuriating the South, and creating political divisions between those like Garrison who believed a peaceful end to slavery was unlikely and the new Republicans, who sought a democratic means to remedy the disparaging situation.
Out of this tumultuous upheaval rose Abraham Lincoln, a savvy lawyer whose goal was the maintenance of one America and preventing the division of the young country. For this cause he led the country to Civil War, gambling on the superior warfare of the North to be able to hold the country together and end slavery at the same time. Lincoln was successful in keeping the country together and ending slavery, but we are still living with the repercussions of a violent means to the end of slavery today in the form of persistent racism and discrimination.
The Civil War was inevitable because a foundation was laid which permitted its existence, and when a growing number of Americans decided the institution was wrong, but the government, through the Supreme Court, felt otherwise, a chasm in America was created that could only be solved through a violent end. The fact that slavery was a territorial issue as well as a moral one further compounded the inevitability of the Civil War. If today’s opinions on abortion were divided along territorial as well as moral lines, a war may very well break out between those two sides in much the same way that the Civil War decided the issue of slavery. But because supporters and opponents are intermixed geographically with each other, a war is more difficult. When a problem so large as the issue of slavery is divided among territorial lines, and the government is unable to mediate in an effective way, violence may not be the morally correct way to solve the problem, but with the issue of slavery, it did succeed.
2. The Harmony of The Declaration of Independence And The Constitution
The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution are largely harmonious with one another. While written by different people, at different times, and for different purposes, the two documents express ideals which are quite similar and mutually supportive. The authors of the Constitution were very familiar with the authors of the Declaration, as well as the reasons for declaring independence from Great Britain, and they were quick to include the language needed in the Constitution to prevent another tyrannical situation such as the one they just fought a war to escape. The Declaration exposes the fundamentals of freedom, equality of all men, and the God-given right to purse happiness. Yet these words were written by a man who fundamentally believed that he had a right to own, control and use other human beings as he pleased. This is certainly a paradox, and one which I do not attempt to explain or justify in this essay. Rather, I look at language and intent, and examine if the two are mutually harmonious, and if the reasons behind that harmony can be identified.
Despite the differences in authors, times, and purposes, both the Declaration and the Constitution have two goals: First, the statement of certain freedoms and rights which those in the new country of America shall enjoy, and second, the protection the citizens of America have from a bad form of government, in this case, a tyrannical ruler. The Declaration expresses the rights of the people as follows (Jefferson, p.60):
1. All [white] men are created equal;
2. They enjoy the God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;
3. They have the right to establish a democratic government to protect those rights; and
4. When the government fails to perform as the citizens desire, they have the right to modify or entirely dissolve the government.
The Declaration then goes on to list the problems with the existing form of government (the one headed by King George), among the problems enumerated (Davis p.61):
1. A lack of democracy and representative taxation;
2. A denial of due process;
3. Quartered a standing army within the homes of the citizens;
4. Failed to provide for the safety and welfare of the people.
Having established these rights of the people of America as well as the insurmountable problems they felt Great Britain’s government faced, the authors of the Constitution then had the task of incorporating these rights and preventing a repeat of the previous problems. They dealt with the latter first, ensuring a democratic government and setting forth the process in Articles I and II by which taxes could be levied, and provided for a judiciary in Article III. The safety and welfare of the country were further protected in Article II by the creation of an elected president, who would, by necessity of becoming elected, be responsive to the demand of the people, and who was empowered with the title of Commander in Chief, thereby giving him the power of the armed forces to protect and defend the rights and welfare of the people.
The prohibition against mandating the quartering a standing army in peacetime, as well as the protection of numerous other rights for which the founders of America sought protection, were established in the Amendments to the Constitution. Further, the Declaration lamented that the citizens of Great Britain had tried to change their government by legitimate means, without resorting to violence, but their petitions were unanswered. Article V establishes a relatively simple means to extend further rights to the citizens of America or to modify the existing government through the Constitution.
A point of contention often mentioned between the Declaration and Constitution is that of the right to pursue life, liberty and either happiness, as in the Declaration, or property, as in the Constitution. Some argue that the right to pursue happiness in the Declaration was a fallacy because slaves, Indians, women, and those of minority religious beliefs were unable to pursue happiness to the extent that the average and typical Protestant white male was able to. This helps explain why “happiness” was changed to “property” in the writing of the Constitution. The right to pursue property does not place any need for affirmative action on the government. The people simply need to work hard, and in doing so, they can have a greater chance of pursuing property. But for a government to guarantee the right to pursue happiness demands that the government provide an atmosphere where such happiness can be found, and surely a Southern slave plantation is not such a place for a Black man.
The Declaration, in expounding the pursuit of happiness as a right, and Constitution, in modifying this right to the pursuit of property, do not contradict each other. The writers of the Declaration felt it was important that King George know that the colonists were very unhappy with their government, and that this was the grounds for revolution. The Constitution did not need to guarantee happiness because its premise was that, upon gaining independence from Great Britain and securing the rights of the people through the other language in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the people would inherently be happy. Thus, it was only needed to protect the right of the people to hold property without having to worry about governmental intervention without due process (in the Fifth Amendment), later extended to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments do not guarantee life, liberty or property. They simply guarantee the people the right to be free from state intervention in enjoying life, liberty and property once they have them (Davis, p.117-8). The Declaration guarantees the right to have life and liberty (supported by the Constitution) and to pursue happiness (Jefferson, p.60). Excluding the words “pursuit of happiness” from the Constitution does not mean this right does not exist, because the Ninth and Tenth Amendments provide that the people of the United States may hold rights other than those listed in the Constitution. Therefore, I see no tension nor conflict between the two documents on this point.
The Declaration provides that “all men are created equal” with the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Jefferson, p.60). Yet the Constitution allows for the existence of slavery, which is inherently the absence of the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” in Article I, Section II, and Article IV, Section II. This dichotomy between the freedom-loving Declaration and the Constitution, which allows for and even supports the institution of slavery, can only be explained using logic which modern civilized times do not allow for: That either “all men” did not apply to slaves and Indians, or that all men were created equal, but for some reason the slaves and Indians were divested of this equality after their creation. Regardless to whom these rights applied, both documents were clearly not intended to apply to slaves or Indians. Rather, they were intended to apply to white males. Taken as such, they are harmonious. In the modern era, we look at these documents and try to apply them to the times they were written in, and do not succeed at this; therefore, we call them inharmonious. But this apparent lack of harmony must be reexamined, taking into consideration who wrote the documents and the reasons for which they were written. When they are examined in this light, I believe that they are indeed harmonious and justified as such.