That slavery above all else caused this historic war, both within the South and between the Union and the Confederacy, seems indisputable. Contention about slavery shared or transcended the importance of all other contentions at almost every critical pre–Civil War moment. Even in 1832–33, a Nullification Controversy ostensibly about only protective tariffs actually also involved slavery’s future.24 Even in the early 1850s, northern controversy over immigrants swiftly gave way to Yankee blasts against the Slave Power. Even apparently nonslavery causes of the Civil War grew distended because of slavery’s omnipresent impact. Southern yeomen’s demand for equality swelled because slaves were despised emblems of inequality. State’s righters’ insistence on a state’s right to withdraw consent expanded because only slaves lacked consent. Slaveholders’ obsession with preserving honor inflated because Yankees cursed them as dishonorable tyrants and sexual monsters.
Yet how slavery caused the Civil War remains elusive despite these puffed-up antagonisms, for heightened resentments often plague human affairs without ending in the blow-up. (Witness, for example, the twentiethcentury cold war between the United States and Russia.)25 Most Northerners, after all, never much liked abolitionists, or voted for Lincoln in 1860 as some Great Emancipator, or disapproved of that unamenable proposed Thirteenth Amendment, keeping federal hands forever off slavery. So too, most Southerners never liked fire-eaters, or saw slavery as a permanent blessing, or disapproved of remaining in the Union, unless and until Lincoln committed an overt antislavery act or coerced departing brothers.
Nor did most white Southerners ever own a slave (or much dream of owning one, after the 1850s inflation in slave prices made the investment forbiddingly expensive). Nor did many fugitive slaves escape to the North in any year, or many slaves ever inhabit Kansas, or many avid disunionists care much about Caribbean expansion, or many avid Caribbean imperialists care much about disunion. Out of such decidedly minority materials, how could the slavery issue have smashed the Union?
Purely abstract answers to that question (to any historical question) must always be partially distrusted, for personality, accidents, timing—in a word, contingency—deflect and condition the most remorseless trends. That is why stories about how trends progressed, step by crooked step, offer crucial information about when and why the most penetrating impersonal abstraction fails to explain enough about personal responses. No abstruse theory can convey the feel of the Southron’s visceral hatred of the Yank. Nor can any impersonal theory capture the personalities of Alexander Stephens and James Henry Hammond, or the flash of Margaret Garner’s knife across her daughter’s jugular, or the Democratic Party local infighting between Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis and Albert Gallatin Brown and between Missouri’s Davy Atchison and John Clark, or the exaggerated hesitations and then exaggerated spree of Preston Brooks, or the brilliant tactics of William Lowndes Yancey and Robert Gourdin, or the coincidences of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad’s celebration, or the winds that deterred Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar before the 1860 Association could repudiate the loose cannon, or the oddity that John Brown lived to talk because his captor brought the wrong sword, or the errors that wrecked Lincoln’s first Fort Pickens strategy. Without, in short, the faces and accidents that partially deflected the impersonal trends, the road to disunion pales toward incomprehensibility.
Still, throughout the nation’s movement toward civil war, and especially at the crucial turning points, recurring impersonal forces wrenched the sections apart and made some form of civil war, at some time, highly probable. Embattled minorities’ power over sleepy majorities, for example, repeatedly drove the drama. Outnumbered Southerners scored numerous national victories by controlling the National Democratic Party. Outnumbered abolitionists inspired more sympathy for blacks’ rights by fanning Yankee outrage at whites’ trampled rights. Outnumbered slaves brought an ultimately emancipating civil war closer (and helped win that war and point it toward emancipation) by wielding the leverage of individual massacres and especially of flight. Outnumbered secessionists impelled most of the South toward Armageddon by pressing the leverage of one state’s disunion on the next state’s decision. And outnumbered slaveholders demagogically used racism to provoke black belt whites to vote for the supposed supremacy of their skin, whatever the inferiority of their purse.
The dialectic between southern division and unity multiplied the destructive sway of minority leverage. On the one hand, many Souths collided. On the other hand, colliding Southerners could usually unite behind indignation at Yankees and defense of white consent to be governed. So multiple southern initiators provoked multiple crises from multiple directions, with the tribe usually massing behind dissimilar first agitators. While most Southerners did not initially covet Kansas, proslavery Missourians did; and the fragment could propel the rest behind rage at Yankee intruders and insulters. While most slaveholders did not find fugitive slaves a menace, slaveholding borderites did; and the fraction could arouse the rest behind wrath at Yankee supposed kidnappers. While most Southerners did not quake at mobocratic democracy, South Carolinians did; and the initial secessionists could inflame most of their tardier brothers against Yankees’ coercion.
The collisions between democratic and despotic systems added the killing force to the leverage of minorities and to the dialectic of southern division and unity. A thriving democracy usually must allow dissenting voices. A thriving despotism usually must repress contrary opinions. Thus despotic social systems usually strain democratic political systems, often to the breaking point. Slaveholders’ attempts to silence critics, whether by cries of disloyalty to slavery or by lynch mobs or by gag rules or by censoring the mails or by precluding Lincoln’s appointees’ campaigning—all these dictatorial methods demonstrated the increasing tension between the Old South’s colliding governing systems.
Slaveholders particularly dreaded the impact of open debate on duplicitous slaves and suspect nonslaveholders. Usually, the sorest points pockmarked the southern periphery, where slim black belts slowly grew slimmer (as had slowly happened when slavery waned in the Border North). Always, the main controversies’ relatively few first precipitators sought to stifle democratic procedures at the section’s exposed edges, whether to annex Texas, in order to abort English antislavery agitation, or to enact despotic fugitive slave laws, in order to stop runaways at the South’s porous borders, or to buttress Kansas, in order to keep a free soil regime away from vulnerable Missouri, or to secede from Lincoln’s menace, in order to prevent Southern Republican discourse.
Always undemocratic closures within or beyond the South’s peripheries switched the major northern issue from (rather unpopular) abolitionist crusades, seeking to liberate blacks in far-off states, to (wildly popular) mainstream campaigns, seeking to keep the Slave Power’s filthy hands off our white procedures on our terrain (including the western territories that we may enter). Always, northern castigation of southern filth provoked insulted Southerners to line up behind their minority of precipitators.26
In the secession crisis, these escalating clashes came to climax. The northern majority would no longer tolerate the southern minority’s sway, either in the National Democratic Party or in the nation. South Carolinians would not tolerate the supposedly mobocratic agitation of a Southern Republican Party. James Buchanan would not tolerate the losers’ failure to obey the election winners. Lower South states would not tolerate Buchanan’s Star of the West. Abraham Lincoln would not tolerate southern possession of Forts Pickens and Sumter. The Middle South would not tolerate Lincoln’s coercion of seceded states. Once South Carolina’s tiny minority of Southerners dared, three decades of mounting intolerance—and hatred—had eaten away too many pillars of majoritarian Union.
The crash of the republic mocked the southern contention that slavery provided the cornerstone of republicanism. Instead, the white minority’s protection of black slavery savaged cornerstones of white republican procedure. But while prewar Northerners protected white republicanism from the Slave Power, most of them had hardly been exemplary republicans, demanding despotism’s removal from democracy’s nation. Even Lincoln’s wartime nation would free the slaves and arm the freedmen only after white rebels could be conquered no other way. A redeemed democracy for whites must end despotism over blacks! That colorblind cornerstone of liberty had to be learned the hard way (and incompletely) in the racist North.
Southerners called their cornerstone establishment the Peculiar Institution. The peculiarity lay not in enslavement itself (a most unpeculiar institution in almost every human culture’s history). Rather, the oddity lay in the entrenchment of the New World’s most powerful slavery system inside the Western World’s most egalitarian (for whites) republic.
That signature United States exceptionalism turned despotism into the poison stuck in the democratic body politic. A national creed that led the world in celebration of freedom belatedly inspired some republicans to denounce silent complicity in tyranny. In the 1830s, that small minority of abolitionists thrust the antislavery antidote a little down the nation’s throat. The panacea could not be regurgitated, not in liberty’s nation. Nor could the cure be readily swallowed, not in a land where racism and property rights were as American as black slavery and white democracy. In the South, Yankee abolitionists inspired nothing except rage to save pride, honor, racial control, property, and our own control over our own problems. In the North, zealots for colorblind freedom scored some conversions but suffered more antagonism and still more indifference, until Yankees’ outrage at Slave Power defenses matched slaveholders’ wrath at abolitionists’ insults.
End slavery peacefully, in democratic deliberations? The road to disunion did not augur peaceable emancipation. Slice out the cancer with the sword? Only after Yankees had overcome some of their indifference to blacks’ rights. Celebrate America’s new birth of freedom? Only if celebrants remember that 500,000 Civil War corpses did not hallow a democracy’s capacity to solve social problems peacefully—or consecrate racism’s removal from the flawed republic.