Sara Toth | Guest Writer
There are many ways to look at and study the Civil War and the events leading up to it, but Daniel Walker Howe offered a new way of looking at the crisis of secession at his 10:45 a.m. lecture Thursday.
In his lecture, “The Secession Crisis,” Howe put the Civil War into the context of the dramatic revolution occurring a generation prior to the war in the way of communication and transportation.
In the years between the War of 1812 and secession, the world was reshaped, Howe said.
Howe, an author, historian and professor emeritus, has taught at Yale University, UCLA, the University of Oxford and Wofford College. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848. The title comes from the first telegraphed message tapped out by Samuel Morse, a message the accelerated the reshaping of the country.
Morse sat in the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1844 and tapped out the message on a “funny-looking device of coiled wires.” In Baltimore, 40 miles away, “What Hath God Wrought?” was received and returned to Morse in D.C.
“This demonstration would change the world,” Howe said. “For thousands of years, messages had been limited by the speed messengers could travel, or the distance that eyes could see signals.”
Men from Alexander the Great to Benjamin Franklin had never known anything faster than a galloping horse, and now instant communication became practical for the first time.
The United States in 1812 resembled a third-world country, Howe said. The people on isolated farmsteads had lives that revolved around the weather and hours of daylight, kept in primitive stages because of the difficulty of communication and transportation.
“Information from the outside world was the most precious of luxuries,” Howe said.
By the end of the war with Mexico in 1848, Howe said, the country was a transcontinental major power because of the revolutions in communication and transportation, chief among them the telegraph, the steam printing press and innovations in paper-making, the steamboat, the Erie Canal and the railroad.
The spread of public education also created a mass literate audience for the printed media, Howe said, and the innovations liberated people from the “tyranny of distance … liberated them from isolation.”
Increased travel and communication encouraged democratic participation, Howe said, with huge political implications. The telegraph facilitated the growth of newspapers, which in turn facilitated the growth of mass political parties, among them the Republican Party still recognized today.
Schools and post offices were thrown into the center of political life, with increased literacy and communication in turn increasing civic involvement, Howe said. More people voted in the record-setting presidential elections of 1860 and 1876 than in comparison today. Then, Howe said, 80 percent of the qualified electorate turned out for the vote.
“Now, the best we can hope for is 60 percent,” he said.
Political parties were by no means the only groups benefiting from the potential of mass communication, Howe said. Many movements, like the women’s rights movement, received publicity. Most explosive of these was the crusade to abolish slavery.
The ideals of this movement often were communicated through religion, as tent revival meetings were as much social as religious gatherings and an opportunity to preach social reform. Former slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth made use of transportation innovations like the steamboat and railroad to speak at lyceums and tent meetings, Howe said, and preached two messages: the second coming of Christ and the end of slavery.
“She expected both very soon,” he said.
In the meantime, Howe said, the country had gone to war with Mexico, and while the public “devoured the news of war transmitted by the media,” the conflict was in no way universally popular.
“The North saw it as a war of aggression waged in order to expand slavery,” Howe said.
A young congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was “vociferous” in denouncing President James Polk and the war, saying the conflict was like “the blood of Abel crying to heaven.”
The United States won the war, and with it, acquired “Texas and California and everything in between,” Howe said.
A transcontinental railroad seemed necessary to link California with the rest of the country, Howe said, and the dispute between the North and South was renewed.
The South wanted the railroad to run from New Orleans from Los Angeles; the North, from Chicago to San Francisco. As the Gadsden Purchase of 1854 seemed to further the argument for a southern railroad, Senator Stephen A. Douglas tried to salvage the northern route by bargaining with southern senators.
“If the railroad went from Chicago to San Francisco, then the territories through which the tracks would travel — Kansas and Nebraska — would be open to the possibility of slavery, if the settlers who went there so decided,” Howe said.
That was a dramatic change, as the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had closed the Plains to slavery. The south voted to approve the Chicago-San Francisco line.
“It proved a disaster,” Howe said. “The settlers raced out from North and South and started fighting each other over whether or not to introduce slavery. A virtual civil war broke out in the Great Plains.”
The North mobilized, rapidly using the new communication technology, Howe said, and the Republican Party — determined to stop the growth of slavery — put Lincoln in the White House in 1860.
“The southern states refused to accept the outcome, refused to live under his presidency,” Howe said. “One by one, they secede from the Union.”
The question, Howe said, was why the South seceded; after all, he said, Lincoln did not propose to end slavery, nor did he have the power to, since his party had no majority in Congress.
But Lincoln could deliver on the promise to keep slavery from expanding, Howe said, by vetoing slave codes, appointing anti-slavery officials in the territories and by significantly weakening slavery where it already existed. Lincoln, for example, ended the policy established by Andrew Jackson allowing southern post offices to label abolitionist mail as “incendiary” and refusing to deliver it.
The most serious blow was the long-term threat of a Republican Party that could use its power to restrict interstate slave trade.
The long-range issue was not just a legal, political one, Howe said, but one of world opinion.
“The southern slaveholders knew their distinctive institution was broadly condemned by the opinion of the outside world, by the western world in general,” Howe said.
While the Constitution in some ways protected slavery, Howe said, that didn’t matter. Opinion mattered, and as the anti-slavery North’s population grew, southerners’ opinions were becoming more and more of a minority sentiment.
“Secession was a desperate effort to establish a quarantine, to seal the South off from the opinion of the rest of the world,” Howe said.
Many Americans had hoped the revolutions in transportation and communication would knit the 19th-century country together but the innovations provided new occasions for dispute.
The country currently is experiencing its own revolution in communication, Howe said, comparing the telegraph to the Internet earlier in his lecture and pointing out the Czar of Russia had worried about the democratic importance of the telegraph in the same way nations like China worry about the democratic importance of the Internet now.
“Like the Americans of 150 years ago, we also seem to be having difficulty compromising our political differences,” Howe said in conclusion. “I hope we will not come to blows over our clashes in values as our predecessors did in 1861. I hope that we might prove more successful than they were at using our technology constructively to foster nationwide community.”
Q: So how much is this communications revolution just sort of speeding up the inevitable from happening? So it happens in 1860 rather than 1875, say, if Morse hadn’t invented the telegraph?
A: Well, the Civil War itself, of course, speeded up the end of slavery, and that’s one of the great ironies, is that the Southern leaders, by seceding, far from protecting slavery, set in motion the events that destroyed it, and destroyed it very quickly within a couple of years of their secession. If they had not seceded, I suppose it might have taken, who knows, till the year 1900 or something, but I do think that world opinion would eventually have forced it upon them, and I would offer as an example of the way world opinion forced an end to apartheid in South Africa in our own lifetimes.
Q: Did the slave trade between Virginia and the Deep South benefit from improved communication and transportation?
A: Oh yes. You could transport slaves either by water or by land. The cheapest mode of transportation was just to make the slaves walk most of the way, and then they could go down the Mississippi the last bit. You would do this in the winter, because that’s when the labor of the slaves could most easily be spared from agricultural activities. The interstate slave trade was a very big business, and although some slave trade firms were small, there were also some that were very large and had offices in both Alexandria, Virginia and New Orleans — in other words, in both the sending and the receiving end. The fact that you could make the slaves walk rendered the trade less dependent on modern innovations and communication than transporting other goods. I mean, you didn’t need to pay a railroad fare for transporting the slaves. You just make them walk, but you might well pay a boat trip down the Mississippi. As long as you were traveling with the current, you didn’t need to have a steamboat. A barge would do; just let it float with the current.
Q: We’ll use this question to promote one of your other books. This is from the retirement community in Ithaca: your book on the age of (Henry) Clay has been highly acclaimed. What were the forces behind Representative Clay’s perspectives on the Union and slavery?
A: Ok, Henry Clay. Henry Clay was a very hopeful and optimistic man. He always thought that in any dispute, there always ought to be a compromise solution. I guess Barack Obama was trying to be a Henry Clay earlier. But Henry Clay did mastermind several monumental compromises. Clay was a great advocate of America’s economic development. That is, he wanted industrialization. He wanted to diversify the economy so that it depended less on agriculture. He himself grew hemp for rope-making on his plantation in Kentucky, and then the hemp was made into rope in a factory in Louisville not far away, and he offered that as an example of the way America ought to develop a balanced economy, and he had a vision that in such a balanced economy, the United States could afford to do away with slavery. Henry Clay attended two constitutional conventions in Kentucky. One was in 1790, when he was a young man; one was in 1850 when he was an old man. At both of these state constitutional conventions, Clay advocated Kentucky abolishing slavery, and he proposed the masters should be compensated — in other words, the taxpayers would have to foot the bill for compensated emancipation. Of course, he didn’t get anywhere in 1790 or in 1850, but it shows what his point of view was. He wanted an America that was economically developed. He wanted the federal government and state governments, too, to assist in this, and that made him the opponent of the Jacksonian Democrats, who were believers in strict laissez-faire.
Q: Yesterday, Ed Ayers noted what a powerful economic force the slave-dependent cotton industry was, so other economic thinkers such as Jane Jacobs have described the rural economy of the South as stagnating, thus locked into repetitively replicating its successes and wedding it to slavery. Can you comment?
A: Well, it certainly is a mistake to think of the southern economy as stagnant. The southern economy was expanding dramatically, except during the occasional recession or depression — which they had then, too — and then the price of cotton, that happened when there was a temporary glut in the cotton market, and the price would fall, but for the most part, cotton expanded. Southern slave owners could have used their slaves in any number of activities, and in fact, they did, but cotton was the favorite way to employ slave labor, because that was the most profitable to employ slave labor, and remember that cotton was at the very heart of the industrial revolution that was going on in the world. Remember that England was the center at that time of the industrial revolution, and where did the English get their cotton for their great mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire? Well, they imported them from the port of Liverpool, and they imported them from the United States. That’s where the cotton came from, and the British turned it into textiles. New England — New England, that is, on this side of the Atlantic — also had textile mills, also made cotton. However, the American cotton mills did not produce as good a quality textiles as the British ones did. So what could be done with the inferior textiles that were made in New England? They made perfectly acceptable clothing for slaves. So ironically, the textile mills of the north were turning out the clothing for the slaves who grew the cotton that then fed the mills.
Q: From the Ginger Cove Community in Annapolis, Md.: was Douglas’ proposal regarding Kansas and Nebraska the cause of the split between Douglas and Lincoln?
A: I’m not sure I can remember what Douglas’ proposal about Kansas and Nebraska was.
Q: Concerning the railroad, as you spoke to, with opening up the territories.
A: In any case, even if I could remember what Douglas said about that, I don’t think it was the cause of problems between Lincoln and Douglas. I think the problem was that Lincoln started out by endorsing what was called colonization. That is, the idea that one of the ways of getting rid of slavery might be to encourage African-Americans to migrate, and maybe their migration should be subsidized either by private philanthropy or state government or the federal government. And this migration might take them to any number of places, but the favorite destination was West Africa, on the grounds that they would be going back to Africa. Of course, it’s kind of a mistake to think of them as going back to Africa, because they would have lived in the United States for several generations. It would have been their remote ancestors who had gone to Africa. Anyway, Lincoln started out by proposing this. He backed away from it when he found that it didn’t seem to enlist meaningful support. Douglas did not support the colonization project, although by the way, a few African-American leaders did support it, but Douglas didn’t, and I think it was the colonization issue that created the initial breach between Lincoln and Douglas.
Q: Did the proponents of secession use communications to build majorities?
A: Oh, certainly. In fact, it’s kind of surprising, and I’m not sure historians have altogether figured out why the secession movement was as successful as it was, because there were certainly people in all but a few southern states who opposed secession. There were people opposed to secession in Georgia; there were people opposed to secession in all of the upper south states, which took the longest to secede; and indeed, several of the upper south states did not secede until after Fort Sumter had been fired upon, and Lincoln had called for troops, and it had become clear that there was going to be a Civil War. At that point, the question people in Virginia and North Carolina, for example, had to face was really not “Is there going to be a war?” but “When the war comes, which side do you want to be on?” And that’s when North Carolina and Virginia decided, well, they’ll be on the South.