Of all the periods of American History none is as polarizing, and often misunderstood, as the American Civil War; more accurately called the War of Northern Aggression. Few people know the truth about why it started; few know what it was truly fought over; and fewer still know how it forever altered the political landscape in America. Yet aside from the drafting and ratification of the Constitution it is the single most important period in our country’s history; and as you will soon see, both events are inexorably linked together.
The Civil War may have begun in 1861 but the causes leading to it date back much further; to 1787 and the ratification of the Constitution. If you want to understand the former, you need to understand the significance of the latter.
The Civil War lasted 4 years, and Reconstruction longer than that. To think that a high school history textbook can thoroughly, and accurately, cover so much history in one or two chapters is foolish and naive. I have been studying the Civil War for nearly 10 years now, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of all there is to learn. Yet I can say with complete confidence that I probably know more about that period of our history than do the instructors who teach it to our children in their U.S. History classes.
I can almost guarantee that if the truth were told about that period of American History it would not be the Confederate Battle Flag that was being taken down across the country; it would be the Stars and Stripes; it also wouldn’t be statues and monuments dedicated to men like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson that we would see being torn down, it would be monuments dedicated to Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln is idolized while Lee and Davis are scorned because people have not been taught the truth about this crucial turning point in American History and how Lincoln, and the radical Republicans that took over the government after he was assassinated, completed the visions only dreamed of by Alexander Hamilton 3/4 century earlier. If the truth were taught, people would be urinating on the Lincoln monument, not worshipping him as one of the greatest presidents we’ve ever had.
It both saddens and angers me to see anyone displaying even a modicum of Southern Pride being ridiculed and treated as if they were inferior; subhuman even. But what saddens and angers me even more is when those who do so refuse to even examine facts that bring into question everything they believe to be true about the Civil War. Nothing angers me more than willful ignorance and a refusal to face the truth; and that is what I get from people whenever I attempt to share the truth with them about the Civil War.
If the truth matters to you, if you have the courage to change your convictions based upon facts and not emotional reactions, then by all means, continue reading. If however you are among that sub-species of humans for whom facts do not matter, stop reading now; for all you’ll find here is truth.
Part 1: How It All Began
As to the history of the revolution, my ideas may be peculiar, perhaps singular. What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected … before a drop of blood was shed.-John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, Aug. 24, 1815
It is my belief, and one I hope to prove valid, that the cause of the Civil War was not slavery, it was not tariffs; it was the ratification of the Constitution that eventually led to the Civil War. Simply stated, had the Constitution never been ratified I believe there is a very good chance that the Civil War could have been avoided altogether. However to explain why I say that will require that we take a look at how things were in America prior to and immediately following the adoption of the Constitution.
It matters little as to what the causes behind the American Revolution were; what matters is that prior to it the Colonies were 13 distinct and separate entities bound together only by the fact that they were all subject to British rule. When they severed the bonds that had tied them to Great Britain, they also severed the bonds that had tied them together; meaning each Colony became a sovereign and independent State.
The fact that they believed themselves to be free and independent States is found in Richard Henry Lee’s resolution to the Continental Congress, “Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States…” If you’ll notice, the word States is plural.
That fact is further attested to in the treaty of peace negotiated between Great Britain and America, where it states, “His Brittanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and Independent States…”
These facts are beyond dispute, or to steal the phrase used by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, ‘self-evident.’ Now you can argue against that premise until you are blue in the face, but you can’t deny the facts I present to support it; not if you wish your argument to hold any water.
During the period immediately preceding the Revolution the members of the Second Continental Congress, particularly those pushing hard for independence, realized that they couldn’t go it alone; that there was strength in numbers and that if they wanted any chance of gaining their independence they must unite together. However, in so uniting, not a single Colony relinquished its sovereignty and independence from the other Colonies.
Even so they realized that even if they were to gain their independence, as small sovereign Colonies they would be subject to much larger and powerful empires, and that some kind of bond between themselves would be the best means of ensuring their common defense and overall general welfare.
It was with that thought in mind that the Articles of Confederation were written. They weren’t seeking to, nor did they want to establish a strong central government. What they were basically doing was entering into an agreement where they would all work together for the common good and defense of each other. The Congress established by the Articles of Confederation was to serve the States as political entities, while the State governments would serve the needs of those living within each individual State.
The purpose of, and powers given to this Congress are found in the 2nd and 3rd Articles of the Articles of Confederation:
Article II-“Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”
Article III-“The said States hereby severally enter a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.”
Skipping ahead a bit, today we have the Constitution, which contains both the Supremacy Clause, and Article IV which states the means by which the Constitution could be amended. The Supremacy Clause states, “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land…” and Article 5 states, “The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof…”
Now I won’t go into the flaws of those two provisions of the Constitution; at least for the time being. What I want to share is the fact that the Articles of Confederation, (which was considered to be established law), also contained such a provision. This provision is found in Article XIII, where it states, “And the Articles of this Confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State, and the Union shall be perpetual; nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.”
Before I go any further I need to spend a few moments talking about the social attitudes and economics of both the North and the South; for there was a huge difference between the two regions.
While there were some farmers in the North, overall the Northern soil, plus the short growing year, made it unsuitable for large scale agriculture. That was not true of the South; so the economies of the two regions were different. The North had an economy that was heavily invested in business, manufacturing, shipping, and banking, while the South remained pretty much an agricultural based economy.
The South did not require much from any system of government. For instance, could the government provide them with rain; with fertile soil; with an abundant crop? Nature provided all that the South needed to sustain its economy; all that they really needed was a labor force to work the fields and plantations – which means slaves.
I do not wish to enter into a discussion of slavery now; for I will discuss it in much greater detail later. Just let it be enough to say that the Southern economy, (not the individual Southerners), depended upon a labor force to thrive; and slaves provided that labor force.
The North, on the other hand, faced stiff competition from European manufacturers with well established manufacturing and textile facilities; so they could benefit from government subsidies so that they could grow and deliver their goods, as well as protective tariffs designed to create an even playing field for them on the world stage.
In short, one segment of the country could benefit much from a strong government that worked to establish and grow their economy, while the other segment didn’t; which lies at the root of both the Civil War and why they abolished the Articles of Confederation and established the Constitution to replace them.
As it took a unanimous vote of all 13 States for any measure to become law under the Articles of Confederation, the government was powerless to enact any measure that benefitted the North; while the South was more than content to maintain the status quo; for they neither wanted nor needed governments help; so long as it did not interfere with the institution of slavery.
Now that the stage has been set, it is time to take a short intermission, and when I return I’ll begin by discussing the drafting and ratification of the Constitution.