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This essay analyzes the extensive literature on Civil War causation published since , a body of work that has not been analyzed at length. This survey cannot be comprehensive but seeks instead to clarify current debates in a field long defined by distinct interpretive schools—such as those of the progressives, revisionists, and modernization theorists—whose boundaries are now blurrier. To be sure, echoes still reverberate of the venerable arguments between historians who emphasize abstract economic, social, or political forces and those who stress human agency.
The classic interpretive schools still command allegiance, with fundamentalists who accentuate concrete sectional differences dueling against revisionists, for whom contingency, chance, and irrationality are paramount. But recent students of Civil War causation have not merely plowed familiar furrows. They have broken fresh ground, challenged long-standing assumptions, and provided new perspectives on old debates.
This essay explores three key issues that vein the recent scholarship: the geographic and temporal parameters of the sectional conflict, the relationship between sectionalism and nationalism, and the relative significance of race and class in sectional politics. All three problems stimulated important research long before , but recent work has taken them in new directions. These themes are particularly helpful for navigating the recent scholarship, and by using them to organize and evaluate the latest literature, this essay underscores fruitful avenues for future study of a subject that remains central in American historiography.
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Historians of the sectional conflict, like their colleagues in other fields, have consciously expanded the geographic and chronological confines of their research. Crossing the borders of the nation-state and reaching back toward the American Revolution, many recent studies of the war's origins situate the clash over slavery within a broad spatial and temporal context. The ramifications of this work will not be entirely clear until an enterprising scholar incorporates those studies into a new synthesis, but this essay will offer a preliminary evaluation. Scholarship following the transnational turn in American history has silenced lingering doubts that nineteenth-century Americans of all regions, classes, and colors were deeply influenced by people, ideas, and events from abroad.
Historians have long known that the causes of the Civil War cannot be understood outside the context of international affairs, particularly the Mexican-American War — Potter's The Impending Crisis. The domestic political influence of the annexation of Texas, Caribbean filibustering, and the Ostend Manifesto, a widely publicized message written to President Franklin Pierce in that called for the acquisition of Cuba, are similarly well established. Clavin, among others, build on that foundation to show that the international dimensions of the sectional conflict transcended the bitterly contested question of territorial expansion.
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Rugemer, for instance, demonstrates that Caribbean emancipation informed U. Situating sectional politics within the Atlantic history of slavery and abolition, he illustrates how arguments for and against U. To slavery's foes, the same history revealed that antislavery activism worked, that emancipation could be peaceful and profitable, and that servitude, not skin tone, degraded enslaved laborers. Clavin's study of American memory of Toussaint L'Ouverture indicates that the Haitian Revolution cast an equally long shadow over antebellum history. Construed as a catastrophic race war, the revolution haunted slaveholders with the prospect of an alliance between ostensibly savage slaves and fanatical whites.
Understood as a hopeful story of the downtrodden overthrowing their oppressors, however, Haitian history furnished abolitionists, white and black, with an inspiring example of heroic self-liberation by the enslaved. By the s it also furnished abolitionists, many of whom were frustrated by the abysmally slow progress of emancipation in the United States, with a precedent for swift, violent revolution and the vindication of black masculinity.
These findings will surprise few students of Civil War causation, but they demonstrate that the international aspects of the sectional conflict did not begin and end with Manifest Destiny.
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They also encourage Atlantic historians to pay more attention to the nineteenth century, particularly to the period after British emancipation. Rugemer and Clavin point out that deep connections among Atlantic rim societies persisted far into the nineteenth century and that, like other struggles over New World slavery, the American Civil War is an Atlantic story.
One of their most stimulating contributions may therefore be to encourage Atlantic historians to widen their temporal perspectives to include the middle third of the nineteenth century. By foregrounding the hotly contested public memory of the Haitian Revolution, Rugemer and Clavin push the story of American sectionalism back into the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, suggesting that crossing geographic boundaries can go hand in hand with stretching the temporal limits of sectionalism. The internationalizing impulse has also nurtured economic interpretations of the sectional struggle.
Brian Schoen, Peter Onuf, and Nicholas Onuf situate antebellum politics within the context of global trade, reinvigorating economic analysis of sectionalism without summoning the ghosts of Charles Beard and Mary Beard. Readers may balk at their emphasis on tariff debates, but these histories are plainly not Confederate apologia.
As Schoen points out, chattel slavery expanded in the American South, even as it withered throughout most of the Atlantic world, because southern masters embraced the nineteenth century's most important crop: cotton. Like the oil titans of a later age, southern cotton planters reveled in the economic indispensability of their product. Schoen adopts a cotton-centered perspective from which to examine southern political economy, from the earliest cotton boom to the secession crisis.
It impelled westward expansion, informed planters' jealous defense of slavery, and wedded them to free trade. An arrogant faith in their commanding economic position gave planters the impetus and the confidence to secede when northern Republicans threatened to block the expansion of slavery and increase the tariff.
The Onufs reveal a similar dynamic at work in their complementary study, Nations, Markets, and War. Like Schoen, they portray slaveholders as forward-looking businessmen who espoused free-trade liberalism in defense of their economic interests. Entangled in political competition with Yankee protectionists throughout the early national and antebellum years, slaveholders seceded when it became clear that their vision for the nation's political economy—most importantly its trade policy—could no longer prevail.
These authors examine Civil War causation within a global context, though in a way more reminiscent of traditional economic history than similar to other recent transnational scholarship. But perhaps the most significant contribution made by these authors lies beyond internationalizing American history. After all, most historians of the Old South have recognized that the region's economic and political power depended on the Atlantic cotton trade, and scholars of the Confederacy demonstrated long ago that overconfidence in cotton's international leverage led southern elites to pursue a disastrous foreign policy.
What these recent studies reveal is that cotton-centered diplomatic and domestic politics long predated southern independence and had roots in the late eighteenth century, when slaveholders' decision to enlarge King Cotton's domain set them on a turbulent political course that led to Appomattox.
The Onufs and Schoen, then, like Rugemer and Clavin, expand not only the geographic parameters of the sectional conflict but also its temporal boundaries. These four important histories reinforce recent work that emphasizes the eruption of the sectional conflict at least a generation before the Missouri Compromise. In a series of encounters, from the closure of the Atlantic slave trade in to the opening fire bell of the Missouri crisis, slavery remained a central question in American politics.
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Even the outbreak of war in failed to suppress the issue. A complementary study by John Craig Hammond confirms that slavery roiled American politics from the late eighteenth century on and that its westward expansion proved especially divisive years before the Missouri fracas. As America's weak national government continued to bring more western acreage under its nominal control, it had to accede to local preferences regarding slavery. Much of the fierce conflict over slavery therefore occurred at the territorial and state levels.
Hammond astutely juxtaposes the histories of slave states such as Louisiana and Missouri alongside those of Ohio and Indiana, where proslavery policies were defeated. In every case, local politics proved decisive. Neither the rise nor the extent of the cotton kingdom was a foregone conclusion, and the quarrel over its expansion profoundly influenced territorial and state politics north and south of the Ohio River.
Bringing the growing scholarship on both early republic slavery and proslavery ideology into conversation with political history, Hammond demonstrates that the bitterness of the Missouri debate stemmed from that dispute's contentious prehistory, not from its novelty. In his study of the slave power thesis, Leonard L.
Richards finds that northern anxieties about slaveholders' inordinate political influence germinated during the Constitutional Convention. Jan Lewis's argument that the concessions made to southern delegates at the convention emboldened them to demand special protection for slavery suggests that those apprehensions were sensible.
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David L. Lightner demonstrates that northern demands for a congressional ban on the domestic slave trade, designed to strike a powerful and, thanks to the interstate commerce clause, constitutional blow against slavery extension emerged during the first decade of the nineteenth century and informed antislavery strategy for the next fifty years. Richard S. Newman emphasizes that abolitionist politics long predated William Lloyd Garrison's founding of the Liberator in Like William W.
Most recently, Christopher Childers has invited historians to explore the early history of the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Skeptics might ask where the logic of these studies will lead. Why not push the origins of sectional strife even further back into colonial history? Why not begin, as did a recent overview of Civil War causation, with the initial arrival of African slaves in Virginia in ?
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First, its extended view mirrors the very long, if chronically selective, memories of late antebellum partisans. By the s few sectional provocateurs failed to trace northern belligerence toward the South, and vice versa, back to the eighteenth century. Massachusetts Republican John B.
Memories of the Haitian Revolution shaped antebellum expectations for emancipation. And as Margot Minardi has shown, Massachusetts abolitionists used public memory of the American Revolution to champion emancipation and racial equality. The Missouri-to-Sumter narrative conceals that these distant events haunted the memories of late antebellum Americans.
Early national battles over slavery did not make the Civil War inevitable, but in the hands of propagandists they could make the war seem inevitable to many contemporaries.