In February, 2014 former Judge Andrew Napolitano, a paid shill of Roger Ailes Ministry of Propaganda (aka Fox News) expressed the view that Abraham Lincoln could have avoided the Civil War and all the death and financial strain it entailed. He subsequently stated the opinion that Lincoln wanted the war and precipitated it.
Subsequently Jon Stewart on The Daily Show has effectively shown that Napolitano was simply pulling an idiotic, factually unsupported opinion out of his own ass or, more likely, the right-wing propaganda writers for Fox. My main interest here is the historical facts, where Napolitano’s perverse and willfully uninformed view comes from and why it would get air time at all.
Let me approach the latter question of why his nonsense got air time at all first with some recent history for those who don’t know it or forget too easily.
The reason that Napolitano’s revisionist history got an airing at all goes back almost seventy years. Harry Truman may have been less of a committed Liberal than his predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but he did have a sense of decency and justice. Thus, in the 1948 presidential election, the Democratic Party affirmed Truman’s desegregation of the Armed Services and included platform planks opposing the poll tax (a method of enforcing segregation by denying the vote to poor citizens of all races) and supporting anti-lynching laws and a Federal equal employment practices commission. Those parts of the platform led segregationist Governor of South Carolina, Strom Thurmond, to break with his party and run as the presidential candidate of the States’ Rights Democratic Party commonly know as the Dixiecrats. Thurmond’s candidacy established him as a national leader of the racists, white supremacists, Ku Klux Klansmen and ultra-right wing in the states of the old Confederacy. Amid the McCarthyite red scare and with solid racist support, Thurmond became a U. S. Senator in 1954 a position he would hold until 2003.
Shortly after the Republican Party Convention is San Francisco in August, 1964 at which the party of Lincoln turned to Senator Barry Goldwater as its presidential nominee and away from its roots in equal justice, Thurmond announced that he had changed his party affiliation to Republican leading into that party’s fold the segregationists, racists, Klansmen and ultra-right wingers who were not already there as members of the John Birch Society and other neo-fascist extremist organizations. Goldwater’s overwhelming defeat in the 1964 election was something that neither Thurmond nor Goldwater could reverse but the presence of Thurmond’s racists in the Republican Party became the basis for Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in 1968 and his narrow victory over the divided Democrats and the hopelessly tainted Hubert Humphrey.
For the first time in its 112-year history the Republican Party owed its ascendance to the racists of the old Confederacy. Ambitious Democrats in what had, since before the Civil War, been the Democrat “Solid South” changed party affiliation to Republican and created the new Republican “Solid South” we see today. With that sea change came the ideological shift from which Napolitano’s nonsense originates but also an obligation. That obligation requires the shills and mouth pieces of the ultra-right wing Republican Party (there is now no other “wing” all others having been driven out by successive purges of which the current Tea Party/Libertarian purge is just the latest) to completely accept the segregationist and white supremacist views of the ante-bellum South. Yes, there is some lip service even from Napolitano stating that slavery was evil and wrong. Yet at the same time Republicans support voter registration restrictions that seek to stand in for the now Constitutionally prohibited poll tax. Segregation rears its ugly head in multiple ways and “stand your ground laws” hold harmless white murderers in a new form of lynching.
To hold the racists who form the southern spine of the current Republican Party the right wing propaganda machines must publicize their perverse and perverted view of history. We hear that the majority of slaveholders in the Old South were kind masters in response to the film dramatization of Twelve Years a Slave. That is, of course, true if you are willing to ignore the fact that turning another human being into a chattel, a commodity to be disposed of at the will or whim of the owner is more than violence enough to condemn the practice of slavery and any who participated in it. Fox News trots out some shill like Napolitano and gets him to spout the Party line with no regard for the facts or even the Republican Party’s own history. Still, since when has Fox News had any regard for facts at all?
So that is why Napolitano’s fictional nonsense got an airing. Where it comes from I’ve already alluded to in general terms. It’s time now that I turn to specifics. Specifics, however, require a review of a lot of history.
Even during the Civil War itself Southerners referred to the conflict as a war of “Northern Aggression”. With the final defeat of the secessionist armies and the dismantling of the Confederacy this bit of cognitive dissonance gained acceptance and became rooted in the Southern psyche. The lost war was one in which the South was victimized by the more numerous and powerful North. The “War of Northern Aggression” became both a trope and an excuse for defeat. So, if you’ll pardon a further history lesson I will explore why the “War of Northern Aggression” was nothing of the kind.
The issue is now and always was states’ rights. Is the United States a unified nation or a confederation of largely independent republics? When we started out in 1775 with the Continental Congress there was little doubt. The thirteen colonies were each independent states that were temporarily throwing their lot in with one another in the face of oppression from the British Crown. The Continental Congress created a framework for coordinating activities of those thirteen sovereign republics in the Article of Confederation. Those Articles are a current Libertarian’s wet dream. Their only defect was that they didn’t work at all just as the minimalist government peddled by such snake oil salesmen as Ron and Rand Paul would fail to work today. The Revolutionary War held in check some of the most glaring defects of the Articles of Confederation but as soon as the war was over the defects made the new nation a joke and impossible to administer. Just as one example, we have a proverbial phrase for something that is utterly worthless. The phrase is that something is “not worth a Continental”. The “Continental” is the paper currency issued to pay the members of the military and suppliers of both the military and the Continental Congress itself. That paper money was worthless not because the Congress’ treasury had no intention of making good on the payments. It was worthless because the Congress hadn’t any money. The Continental Congress hadn’t any money because it could assess the individual states for funds to carry on governmental operations but it could not make the states pay up. The states paid some of their assessments but often little or none. It was as if one had a landlord who was obliged to provide heat and electricity as well as a roof over the person’s head for $1,000.00 per month yet the tenant could pay all or none or some fraction of the rent entirely at his option.
Another issue with which the Articles of Confederation could not adequately deal was interstate commerce. The textile mills that were springing up in Rhode Island and Massachusetts or the weapons factories of Connecticut might sell their goods to vendors in New York or Pennsylvania. A bolt of cloth leaving Pawtucket, Rhode Island would have to pay a duty at the border of Connecticut or Massachusetts, then another at the New York border. If it continued to a store in Philadelphia there would be further duties to be paid at the New Jersey and Pennsylvania borders. The retail price of that bolt of cloth might double or triple or increase even more simply by travel from one state to another.
The guns of the Revolution at Yorktown had barely fallen silent when our new nation found that the Libertarians’ dream was truly a nightmare prompting a new convention in Philadelphia to draft a Constitution that established Federal supremacy and a truly national government. What emerged was full of compromises but also full of wisdom and expectation. The Constitutional Convention determined that if the document they produced were ratified by two-thirds of the states it would become binding on all thirteen of them, thus creating a unified nation amongst the established states of the world.
Unfortunately within the Constitution lay a seed of destruction. The Southern states, those below the Mason-Dixon line that set the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, had an economy based on large agricultural plantations. The work was very labor intensive which labor had been provided since 1607 first by indentured servants and later by mostly African slaves. In the north, by contrast farms tended to be relatively small and worked by farmers and their families. Well into the 19th Century some Northern farmers held slaves. The Constitution deferred to Northern worries that the large population of slaves in the South would lead to excessive representation by slave states in the U. S. House of Representatives by declaring that slaves would count as two-thirds of a free citizen for census purposes. The Constitution also deferred a decision on the future of slavery by giving the states twenty years from the adoption of the Constitution, through 1808, to resolve the issue. Effective with 1809 the slave trade outside the United States would be banned though the Constitution left to the states its internal disposition.
In fairness there was a brief period in which slavery seemed set to die. Immediately after the Revolution a certain egalitarian spirit further inspired by the activity of preachers from the Quaker, Methodist and even Baptist sects accounted for slaveholders freeing slaves even in the South though the 1790 census found less than 60,000 black freedmen out of a population of some 4,000,000 of whom 800,000 were black. Thus about 13% of the 20% of the nation’s population were freed blacks. Still, given the rare but significant incidents of slave revolts, this number of freedmen presented a problem for the larger white society. One solution to that problem was resettlement of slaves in Africa based on the model of Great Britain that had established a colony for free blacks in what is now Sierra Leone. Beginning in 1817 the colonization of what is now Liberia by freed American slaves began. However, this program of colonization was never wildly popular with either the slaves most of whom knew no home other than in America nor with the slaveholders eager to hold onto the people they considered their property. Once Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and cotton replaced wool as the staple for the looms of the North slave labor was cemented as the way to wealth in the South and the practice of freeing slaves became a rarity rather than a minor trend.
The fact that Napolitano and like minded shills for the ultra-right wing ignore is that by the time that the slave trade with Africa and the Caribbean ended in 1809 the population of black and brown skinned people within the United States was large and growing. A limited external trade continued illegally for many years but the internal trade was sustainable and flourishing in the Southern states. As the Northern states abolished slavery within their borders the injustice and obscenity of human slavery became clear while the necessity of slavery in the Southern states grew and did so in part because of the Northern states.
Cotton became the fabric material of choice for the mechanized textile mills of New England. With more and larger mills the demand for cotton grew. With the demand for cotton also grew the size and number of large plantations and the need for slaves to work them. Slaves fed the mills of Pawtucket, Salem, Lowell and Lawrence filling them with cotton that would not be as cheap were it tended by paid farm hands.
Yet even as the nation debated the Constitution dissenters thumped for states’ rights. They wanted unity. They wanted nationhood. They wanted international respect. Even so they wanted their individual fiefdoms. So long as relative uniformity in laws prevailed there was little to make states’ rights a significant issue or, at least, one that could not be dealt with through compromise in the national Congress. However, when that uniformity broke down the ugly head of the states’ rights monster rose above the muck in which it dwells.
Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison supported states’ rights in limited circumstances over those of the Federal government. Both men were committed enthusiasts for the idea of revolution as a matter of principle so their support for states’ rights in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions respectively are opinions that stand in contrast to their actions in the presidency. However attractive the idea of a constant cycle of revolution may be in the abstract the chaos and dislocation it entails yields an ineffective and weak nation in practical reality.
As the nation became polarized over slavery the concept of nullification became more significant. Yet it first created a major national crisis over tariffs. The South found itself in the unenviable position of most exporter nations. The plantations of the southern states exported the produce of their farms, cotton in particular, and, absent a significant manufacturing base, had to import finished goods. In the great line of unintended consequences John C. Calhoun, the satrap of South Carolina, was one of the chief voices urging the United States into the War of 1812. Calhoun, among others, had their eyes on conquering the Spanish territories of Florida and Cuba as well as expansion into Canada. The War of 1812 failed to achieve any of those optimistic objectives but it ran up a great deal of national debt which needed to be paid. To make matters worse, the aftermath of the war brought about a major recession. Of the very few options for repaying that debt tariffs were the primary recourse for the Federal government. Whence came the Tariffs of 1816 which Calhoun supported. With the nation’s productivity reduced the initial tariffs both were insufficient and more onerous than expected. The insufficiency of the 1816 tariffs entailed further tariffs which, under the administration of John Quincy Adams, became the Tariffs of 1828 which placed the burden on the import of finished goods and export of raw materials. Because the South was on the short end of both increases in tariffs, the foment over the slavery issue spilled over into national revenues.
All this time swimming close to the surface of national dissention was the problem of slavery in the territories acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Since Colonial times the Mason-Dixon Line which established the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland was the demarcation between Northern Free and Southern Slave states. However, the course of the Ohio River broke that old distinction when the new states south of the river, Kentucky and Tennessee, chose slavery while those north of the river, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, chose to be free states. The balance of slave and free states was getting out of whack. In 1819 the United States acquired Florida from a Spain that was drained of cash after more than a decade of war but the special status area at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers was thriving as the gateway to the western territories and staking an undeniable claim to statehood.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 brought together the giants of the Senate, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and Henry Clay of Kentucky. The northern counties of Massachusetts, separated from the original Bay Colony by New Hampshire’s access to the sea at Portsmouth, would become the free state of Maine while Missouri would be admitted as a slave state and slavery would henceforth be limited to those states and territories south of 36° 30’ North latitude, the southern border of Missouri. This compromise largely worked for 30 years yet held within it the seeds of disaster.
So we have a confluence of factors with which the Southern states might feel aggrieved: economic recession, unequal impact of tariffs, the elimination of the external slave trade and growing opposition to slavery in the North with a sense that the number of free states would, one day, overwhelm those adhering to slavery tipping the balance in the national Congress against slavery, all coming together in the opposition to the Tariffs of 1828. Still, the opposition remained muted because of the looming presidential election.
In 1828 Andrew Jackson of Tennessee and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina were elected president and vice-president respectively. I seemed as if there would be a period of Southern supremacy. However, Jackson felt that he had to be president of the whole nation rather than just the Southern states. The Tariffs of 1828 didn’t disappear because they simply couldn’t if the Federal government were to remain solvent. Given that Jackson was disinclined to cede control of anything to anyone, least of all a Calhoun who had his own issues with being second to anyone and presidential longings, tensions grew within the Administration. The Jackson Cabinet was divided into two camps with Calhoun and his loyalists openly trying to thwart Jackson and the cabinet members allied to the president. In 1831 that division led to Jackson’s firing of every member of his cabinet except the Postmaster General but the larger effect was that Jackson determined that Calhoun would not be his vice-president during his re-election campaign in 1832.
In 1832 Jackson proposed and Congress passed reduced tariffs that addressed many of the South Carolinian and other Southern concerns but by that time the tariff issue had become irrevocably enmeshed with slavery abolition. The hysteria in the South generated by Denmark Vessey’s attempted slave revolt of 1822 and Nat Turner’s actual uprising in 1831 further fanned the flames. Opposition to tariffs became a popularizing vehicle for right-wing radicalism over the slavery issue.
I want to interject an aside here. Not long ago the certifiable lunatic and neo-fascist gabbler, Glenn Beck, demonstrated his utter lack of historical knowledge when he told the National Rifle Association that gun control made slavery possible. His vacuous question about how quickly slavery would have ended had slaves had their alleged Second Amendment rights is ignorance embodied. The slaveholders of the South worked mightily to insure that no slaves had access to weapons. Manifestly the slaveholders knew that the wrong they perpetrated on their slaves daily could have a bloody resolution were slaves armed. Beck, like Napolitano, has never had more than a distrustful, brief encounter with facts. Each starts with an ideology and tortures the merest hint of fact into some ugly, unrecognizable monster in service of their twisted vision of the world. Indeed Fox News generally is a veritable Island of Dr. Moreau in which history is tortured into support for a world that never was and never should be. Not a single one of the gun rights fanatics to whom Beck spoke would object to limits on gun ownership were they faced with millions of armed black men and women whom they had personally wronged.
To return to the topic at hand, Calhoun, for his part, resigned the vice-presidency following the election of Jackson and his new vice-president, Martin van Buren and returned to South Carolina to reclaim his place in the Senate, a place he would hold until his death in 1850. In the meantime Calhoun supported South Carolina’s Convention in late 1832 which proposed and passed through the legislature an act to nullify the Federal tariffs. Not only was nullification as a principle passed in South Carolina but a right-wing militia was funded, raised and armed. Perhaps the one moment when South Carolina pulled back from the brink came when a prominent resident of that state went to visit Jackson at the White House. When the topic of armed resistance came up Jackson told his visitor that if one drop of blood from one Federal soldier were spilled Jackson would personally hang the first South Carolinian he could find from the first tree that came to hand. Both sides retreated to rhetoric only. However, it is very hard to understand the level to which the ant-Federal hysteria rose in South Carolina without linking the actual and imagined hurts to South Carolinians to Calhoun’s political ambitions. Certainly, as abolitionist agitation grew in the North, Calhoun came to support secession along with nullification.
Both nullification and secession are and were fundamental attacks on the U. S. Constitution though with the cognitive dissonance typical of fanatics and ideologues they were and are propagandized as rights under the Constitution. The point here is that the foul stew of ambition, fear, fanaticism and the essential inhumanity consequent on slavery and racial bigotry bubbled in South Carolina and spread from there throughout the states that would become the Confederacy where they linger to poison American politics down to the present day.
Before we leave the Jackson Administration I should observe one more matter that would have far-reaching effects in the run up to the Civil War. Andrew Jackson famously opposed the power of the U, S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall. While Marshall stood firmly for law and the Constitution, Jackson stood just as firmly for his own biases, power and practically expediency. When Marshall died in July, 1835 the obvious candidate to replace him was Associate Justice Joseph Story. Not only was Story and eminent jurist but he was a law professor and author of the authoritative text on U. S. laws to that time. Absolutely no candidate for Chief Justice was more or better qualified than Story. Yet in Jackson’s eyes he was a Northern Federalist and no amount of judicial experience or legal knowledge could surmount that. Rather than appoint Story, Jackson selected his former Attorney General, Roger B. Taney, from the slave state of Maryland. Taney, twenty-one years later, would issue the decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford that essentially made anyone who had been a slave a slave forever within the borders of the United States, the first of the two great self-inflicted wounds that the Supreme Court has visited upon this nation.
Slavery ultimately was a victim of what all saw as a good, the expansion across the continent framed as the “manifest destiny” of America to control the continent “from sea to shining sea”. The Missouri Compromise line of 36° 30’ North latitude worked more or less until Texas was annexed and the United States forcibly accreted the Mexican Territories north of the Rio Grande and Colorado Rivers. With the addition by treaty with Britain in 1846 the current parameters of the contiguous Continental United States was basically fixed and geography alone stood against slavery.
Along with the North-South divide there was in Congress a third faction that ultimately was the most important of all. From the time that Kentucky and Tennessee entered the Union as slave states they and the newer states north of the Ohio River represented a Western faction in Congress. Each of these factions had their champions. Representing the interests of the industrial North in the U. S. Senate was Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. His Southern opposite was, of course, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina while the champion of the newer states of West was Henry Clay of Kentucky. Those varying regional interests to some extent determined their roles especially Clay’s as “The Great Compromiser”. The commitment to slavery in most of these western states was weaker than their commitment to expansion.
This seems to be a good point to address Andrew Napolitano’s contention that slavery was “on its way out”. Very clearly the majority of states coming out of the territories from the Louisiana Purchase, Mexican War and Oregon Treaty would be free states. The precarious balance of slave and free state member of the U. S. Senate would inevitably tip toward free states and doom slavery. Yet to argue that the evolution of the Senate toward free states made the Civil War unnecessary is pure ideological madness. By 1833 South Carolina and other Southern states had explicitly stated their intention to secede and go to war if the institution of slavery were in peril of its life. The inevitability of making slavery illegal within the United States was a cause of rather than a postponement of the Civil War. To make that clear let me jump forward to 1850.
The United States had reached the Pacific Ocean with the settlement of the Oregon disputes with Britain and the annexation of the greater part of Mexico. Once gold was discovered there in 1849, California’s admission to the Union became inevitable so Henry Clay of Kentucky with his protégé and ally Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois crafted an ad hoc series of bills that looked like a compromise but ultimately satisfied none of the parties. California would enter the Union as the 16th free state as opposed to the 15 slave states. The Utah and New Mexico territories despite their misfit within the Missouri Compromise line that Clay had drawn 30 years before could each choose the status of slavery within their ultimate borders. To sweeten the rather bitter deal for the South, Congress passed The Fugitive Slave Act already obliquely referenced in discussing Roger B. Taney and of which I will have more to say later.
Calhoun was dying but had himself carried onto the floor of the Senate where his attack on the Compromise was read for him. Calhoun predicted anarchy and civil war if the North did not simply accede to slavery in the South and cease all agitation for abolition. He stated the obvious that admission of a 16th free state without a balancing slave state was the beginning of the end for slavery and, in his estimation, the national union. Andrew Napolitano take note, the inevitable withering of slavery was a causus belli for the South in the 1820s and explicitly stated as such by the great champion of the odious institution from that period unto nearly his dying breath. This while Abraham Lincoln had served his single term in Congress and was back in Springfield practicing law and not even a murmur on the scene outside of Illinois.
In the bills that we call the Compromise of 1850 the citizens of the Utah and New Mexico territories were to determine to be slave or free states under the doctrine of “popular sovereignty”. In this doctrine the people of the state would determine the status of slavery within their borders at the time they voted on statehood. It sounds like a logical way in which to proceed. Stephen Douglas championed the doctrine but, in fact, it was a prescription for disaster.
By the time Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was elected president in November, 1852 not only Calhoun but Clay and Webster too were dead. With them for the most part died the direct link to the Federal period. Gone were the majority of men who could say that they had personal experience of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Marshall. Douglas, hyped as “The Little Giant” may have meant well but he, though five foot two, stood shoulder to knee cap with Webster, Clay and Calhoun. Nowhere was Douglas’ ambition and inadequacy so evident as in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The idea of “popular sovereignty” led to factions in open war with one another over “Bleeding Kansas” where fanatics like anti-slavery John Brown and pro-slavery William Quantrill vied for the perpetration of the worst atrocities, atrocities no less horrible than the genocides of our own time in, for example, Rwanda. “Bleeding Kansas” was an incubator for the fanaticism of the Civil War in both sides but Douglas saw appeasing the Southern slavers while appearing to support additional free states as the ticket to his great ambition, the presidency. The irony for Douglas, however, was that the abolitionists despised him and the slavers didn’t trust him making his defeat in 1860 almost as inevitable as the Civil War. To be fair Douglas’ failure to assume Clay’s mantle as compromiser had as much to do with the increasing polarization of the nation as with his own shortcomings as a thinker. No one, however great a soul or skillful a diplomat could stitch the fanatics of the North and South together though it seems wrong to attempt to do so. The inherent wrong of treating human beings as chattel to be bought, sold and used at the whim of the owner was never going to be mitigated by even the best of treatment. Such an affront to anyone’s humanity is in fact an affront to the humanity of every one regardless of skin color, ethnicity or any other factor. That is a fact that also escapes the blinkered notice of Andrew Napolitano.
The disaster of “popular sovereignty” on the slavery question in the 1850s is no less a disaster when applied under a different name to the same nonsense in denying equitable marriage rights to couples who are not heterosexual in our day. That disaster was compounded by The Fugitive Slave Act. Before 1850 the question of slaves that escaped from slave to free states had varying legal decisions but mostly the law tended to run in favor of property rights. That infuriated the abolitionists who ipso facto denied that human beings should be property. When Dred Scott’s case came before the Supreme Court in 1856 the essential issue was whether Scott was a person under the law or property and whether Scott’s status as property had changed based on his owner’s and Scott’s residence in a free state. Chief Justice Taney’s decision that property rights prevailed carried the corollary that Dred Scott was not a person under the U. S. Constitution; something that abolitionists could accept no more than a Southern plantation owner could accept abolition.
Resistance to the Dred Scott decision in the North swelled in reaction to the obvious wrong. Meanwhile, the Southern slaveholder’s nightmare of an uprising of the more numerous slaves on a plantation, never far from white Southern thought, came to the fore in 1859 when John Brown, the murderous, anti-slavery thug who’d cut a swath through Kansas descended on the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia with an aim to arm the slaves for a revolution, Southern hysteria reached a peak. Northerners whether radical abolitionists or radicalized by the obvious injustice of The Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott decision, for their part made a martyr of Brown undeserving though he was. Brown was a murderous fanatic but he was on the correct side of history and of humanity. Thus there is but little irony in the lines of the popular Civil War song, “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, But his truth keeps marching on!”
Contrary to Andrew Napolitano’s blinkered, venal view of Lincoln most parties, South and North, had retreated to extremes. Ironically, Lincoln was the most moderate candidate put forward at the Republican Convention in Chicago and the Republican platform was more moderate than those of the National Democratic Party that nominated Stephen A. Douglas, the Constitutional Union Party that nominated John Bell of Tennessee or the Southern Constitutional Democratic Party (please note the abuse of the term Constitutional) that nominated John C. Brekinridge. The Constitutional Union Party presented itself as the status quo party, a status quo in which no one then believed or accepted. It peeled off a few votes here and there. The pro-“popular sovereignty” National Democrats and the Constitutional Democrats so thoroughly despised one another that serious opposition to Lincoln and the Republicans was impossible. The fragmented pro-slavery forces dissipated their political effectiveness among the non-Republican candidates handing Lincoln the presidency.
Let me be clear; Abraham Lincoln was opposed to slavery but he had no program for eliminating slavery in the South as he entered office. It took him until September, 1862 to even draft the Emancipation Proclamation which then freed slaves only in those parts of the country still in rebellion against the United States government. Had any states of the Confederacy sued for peace before January 1, 1863 slavery would have remained legal and legitimate in those states. That does not sound like the actions of a leader bent on the destruction of the South. Rather it was the hysterical fanatics of South Carolina who seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860 that proceeded to precipitate a war. Abraham Lincoln was still at home in Springfield, Illinois and not due to take the oath of office as president until March 4, 1861 when South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and, over the strong objections of Sam Houston, Texas seceded. Even after Lincoln’s Inauguration no further states seceded for more than a month. In the meantime the right-wing fanatics of South Carolina and Florida forced Federal troops to withdraw to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and Fort Pickens in Pensacola Harbor.
This seems as good a time as any to rehash the situation. The United States was barely fifty years old when Southerners, particularly in South Carolina, were asserting a right to nullify any Federal statute they disliked and raising militia units to oppose the Federal government. No parallel action was underway in the free states of the North though anti-slavery agitation was strong there and being exported into the South. The essential impossibility of having a popular democracy that asserted the primacy of the citizen in which human slavery continued in large parts of the nation was tearing the nation apart. The unwillingness of the agrarian South to give up slave labor or modify its economy while the more industrial north modernized apace exacerbated the conflict over slavery. All this conflict came to a head with the election of an avowed opponent of slavery in the election of 1860 though that president-elect had not even taken office much less implemented any policy. Before Abraham Lincoln took office seven deep South states led by South Carolina had seceded from the national union and raised armies to oppose action that had not been taken. The only Federal troops in the states that had seceded were loyalist forces already in place that had retreated to fortifications on Federal property that were most defensible and farthest from the belligerent rebel militias nearby. That represents a whole new definition of aggression that utterly perverts the meaning of the term.
In March, 1861 after the new Lincoln Administration took office the supplies of food and other staples and including ammunition were running low at Forts Sumter and Pickens. An attempt to re-supply Fort Sumter had already bee driven back by the student body of The Citadel under the tutelage of their fanatical militarist faculty. By early April the supply situation in the two forts had become dire prompting a major mission to relieve the posts, neither of which had so far fired a single shot. The first ship in the relief expedition arrived off Charleston Harbor on the evening of April 11, 1861. That arrival prompted the secessionist military commander in Charleston, Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard, to dispatch a delegation to Fort Sumter to meet with the commander of the fort, Major Robert Anderson in an attempt to secure the fort’s surrender.
Major Anderson felt that he could not surrender his command and the delegation of secessionist military officers returned to Beauregard to report their findings. After consulting with the Secretary of War of the new Confederacy, Beauregard ordered his delegation back to the fort with final terms for surrender and orders to evaluate the fort for a coming attack. Major Anderson kept the delegation waiting until 3:00 A. M. on April 12th before refusing their terms. The delegation of officers returned to Fort Johnson where one of their number, Col. James Chestnut, Jr., ordered the bombardment of Fort Sumter to begin at 4:30 A. M. that morning. It was after 6:30 A. M. before any of the guns at Fort Sumter returned fire.
Once again it requires some serious mental acrobatics or simply mental derangement to interpret these opening shots of the American Civil War as Northern aggression. Yet, just as the Nazis murdered some Poles, dressed them in German uniforms and used them to justify invading Poland and starting World War II, the heirs of and shills for the Klansmen and fanatics of the Confederacy made the leap that agitation against slavery represented Northern aggression against a pitiable, unwilling South. Worse yet this mythical Northern aggression became the excuse for defeat. General Lee’s apotheosis was so thorough that no responsibility could devolve upon him. Nor could it fall on the rash and maimed John Bell Hood. And defeat could certainly not be laid at the door of the racist thug, Nathan Bedford Forrest. All the various heroes of the Confederacy were exempt so the fault for defeat could not fall on them though James Longstreet got some blame during his lifetime. Still less than the officers of the Confederate armies no Southerner could blame the slavers and plantation owners whose intransigence and racism made the war inevitable. Thus the war on which the slave states insisted and which South Carolina initiated became the fault of the North and, of course, the Negro slaves themselves.
Now let’s turn to Napolitano’s claim that the ends of the Civil War could have been accomplished on the cheap had Lincoln not been a bloodthirsty fanatic.
Napolitano is willfully blind to the facts of financing the war. Salmon P. Chase, the Treasury Secretary before becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court replacing Roger Taney and the eponymous head of what is now Chase Bank, had borrowed money wisely and increased taxes commensurately so that by the time the war was a decade gone the U. S. Treasury was faced with a major surplus. This stands in stark contrast to the policies in place from 2001 through 2008 when fighting wars, borrowing money and cutting taxes created the huge deficits loudly decried today by those who created them.
But, Napolitano and like minded Confederate apologists and ignoramuses argue, what of the human toll? Wouldn’t it have been better to buy out all the slaves than to have all those dead on the battlefields? Of course, it would have been better to avoid all those deaths. If one’s not lost in the perverse fantasy land where an evil Lincoln and a cabal of abolitionists thirst for war and seek to visit destruction on the poor, defenseless, sleepy South one might notice that the anti-slavery forces had explored every way of accommodating and appeasing the Southern slavery fanatics from the Constitutional Convention onward.
To recapitulate, the Constitution did not ban slavery. Rather it accommodated it and gave the slave trade twenty years from the adoption of the Constitution before the external slave trade became illegal. Once the slave trade became illegal a coalition attempted to deal with freed slaves in a predominately white and racist society by creating a colony for them in west Africa. Congress repeatedly compromised from 1820 onward by admitted slave and free states in tandem so that the balance of pro- and anti-slavery forces in the U. S. Senate remained equal and thereby insuring that slavery could not be abolished by law. The Federal Courts with great consistency approached slaves and slavery as a property issue which had to be preserved for the property holder. The South’s answer to every attempt to compromise and accommodate was met with escalating threats and challenges to Federal authority by asserting states’ rights in areas clearly ceded to the Federal government in adopting the Constitution. Even after South Carolina’s secession there was a conference in the waning days of the Buchanan Administration that attempted to appease the South. Finally, with seven states in open rebellion against the Federal government, the most aggressive act that Lincoln and his Administration took was an expedition to re-supply the garrisons of Federal troops in two Federal forts on Federal property with food primarily. Clearly there was no possible way to accommodate the right-wing fanatics of the South.
Andrew Napolitano and those who pay him to spout nonsense as if he actually knew something plaintively suggest that rather than war the Federal government could have bought the slaves and freed them as if what was at stake was purely a property transaction. The most important point to make at this juncture is that, like most of his fellow shills at Fox News, Napolitano’s utter ignorance of history doesn’t stop him from stating an opinion. The first point is a practical one. Economists who have studied such things have placed the value of the 3,950,000 slaves counted by the 1860 Census at somewhere between $2.7 and $6.4 billion in 1860 dollars. The gross national product of the entire nation in 1860 came to $4.2 billion. Thus, at a minimum a buy out of slaves would have cost more than half the gross wealth of the nation. Clearly such a transaction would not have been affordable but let’s put that aside for a moment. To have a financial transaction there must be a buyer and a seller. The Lincoln Administration did, in fact, offer to buy out slaves in some border states only to be rebuffed. The Federal government as buyer had no sellers to accept its offers. Once again, Napolitano and his puppet masters are spouting nonsense because the very people for whom they seek to apologize had no desire to participate in the transaction they present as an alternative to war.
Still further who would think it right and proper for the Federal government to hand out vast wealth to the perpetrators of a manifest evil, human slavery? The effect would have been to transfer at least half the wealth of the entire nation into the pockets of the perpetrators of an essential crime against humanity. If the Fugitive Slave Act incensed the North on moral grounds how much more would impoverishing the North to enrich an aristocracy of Southern slaveholders have incensed everyone with a sense of fairness and even a cursory glance at the egalitarian spirit that created this nation? Even had there been buyers the sale would have been stopped.
Finally, the idea of a buy out of slavery fails because it was not the issue. Slavery was the vehicle. The real issue as I stated at the beginning was the unwarranted elevation of states’ over Federal rights. No purchase could resolve that issue. Nothing has resolved that issue as the lunacy of our own times demonstrates.
The American Civil War was the bloody resolution of the fact that in ratifying the Constitution and joining the Federal union states become organs of the greater national government permanently. They retain a limited amount of autonomy within their borders but the Federal government stands above them to maintain a uniformity of the rights, privileges and duties of the individual citizens. States are a part of the whole and the Federal government, of the people, by the people and for the people at large exists to preserve the rights of the individual against the whims of those states and to benefit the greater society as a whole even at the price of displeasing a state and the majority of the citizens within that state.
The eleven states that seceded from the United States could not make their secession stick. They had some brilliant military commanders and a lot of eager troops to follow them but the defeat of the Confederacy, despite the multitude of fantasy fiction that postulates some turn of events by which the South wins its independence, was inevitable. The North had superior numbers, superior wealth and a superior industrial base. Further, as I’ve already discussed, the cotton plantations of the South could not function without the major market for their cotton, the mills of New England. A Confederate victory would have ended in economic disaster. The Confederacy’s perversion of the concept of states’ rights was bent in the service of slavery and the plantation system and the wealth of the plantation owners. Having fought to retain that system the South was not going to give it up condemning the region to the poverty and stagnation that persisted into the 1960s and, in many areas down to today.
The defeat of the South is itself the driver for the idea that the Civil War was a “War of Northern Aggression”. Those who are quickest to demand “personal responsibility” from everyone else are also and always the quickest to evade any responsibility themselves. In the minds of the defenders of the Confederacy defeat wasn’t their fault. The fact that their cause was a perversion of Constitutional rights in defense of an indefensible institution, thoroughly wrong and unjust can’t possibly be correct in their dissonant minds. The inadequacy of the South’s industrial base to provide for fighting a war at the level of technology available in 1860 couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with the South’s defeat according to this perverse line of thought. No, the defeat of the South had to come because the defenseless South was subject to the wanton violence of the North. The relative backwardness and poverty that beset the South from 1865 onward, according to this flight from responsibility, came from oppression by the victors rather than a self-defeating adherence to old ways that abjured the development spreading elsewhere in the nation. All the racism and neo-fascism we find in the states of the old Confederacy today stems from the failure of the South to admit that it was wrong; it lost because it was wrong and accept that there is a way forward from there.
Let me now return to Napolitano’s perverse, unsupported and unsupportable view of Lincoln. There were lines of communication open between Washington and Richmond throughout the war. In January, 1865 using the French incursion into Mexico as the rationale for a common cause, Lincoln proposed an end to the war. The result was the Hampton Roads Conference on February 3, 1865 in which Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward met with the Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell and Senator Robert M. T. Hunter. The terms that Lincoln proposed were an end to the war, return of the seceded states to the Union, amnesty for all who had participated in the rebellion, the return of all property confiscated by Union forces except for slaves and payments of $400 million to the former Confederate states. Additionally there were efforts in Congress to delay passage of the 13th Amendment. The terms were exceedingly generous. Jefferson Davis, however, characterized the terms as “unconditional surrender” and demanded that the war continue. In fairness, the terms ended the Confederacy and put Davis out of a job. They also represented a softer version of defeat because slavery would end and the primacy of the Union under the Constitution would be established. Yet the fact remains that Davis could have ended the killing months before the final battles but, as he’d done five years earlier in leading Mississippi into secession, Davis chose violence over peace.
A month later the ignorant right-winger’s and Confederate apologists’ vicious, blood thirsty Lincoln ended his second inaugural address wit, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
In March 27, 1865 with the siege of Richmond in its last stages Lincoln met with his main military commanders on board the streamer River Queen at City Point, Virginia. He’d come to General Ulysses S. Grant’s Headquarters where both General William T. Sherman and Admiral David Dixon Porter were present. They discussed peace terms and the surrender of the Confederate forces. The terms Lincoln proposed sounded much like the terms stated at the time of the Hampton Roads Conference in February. We don’t have Lincoln’s account of the surrender terms he expected his commanders to give to their opposing Confederate officers but we do know what Sherman understood were the terms and that Admiral Porter backed up Sherman’s understanding.
On April 3rd Richmond fell. The next day Lincoln with his son Tad on Tad’s 12th birthday, made good his four year old promise to visit Richmond. The president’s carriage was surrounded by a throng of freed slaves and poor whites who want to see and touch their liberator. Some tried to kiss his boots. Finally the throng was moved back when the small contingent of Marines was augmented by a larger group from the Army. As the carriage made its way to the Confederate White House, by then the headquarters of the Union Army, Lincoln noticed a house guarded by troops. He asked who lived there. An officer in his guard explained that it was the home of General George Pickett and his wife, the rabid secessionist, LaSalle Corbell Pickett. Lincoln had known Pickett when, as a young man living in Springfield, Illinois, Pickett had sought advice on a possible legal career slightly before his appointment to West Point. Lincoln asked that the carriage stop. He and Tad got out and walked up to the door where the president knocked. Mrs. Pickett, now bereft of the slaves who’d been her servants, came to the door carrying her baby son, George, less than a year old. She knew Lincoln at once from the caricatures that filled the Confederate press and broadsides. Lincoln took of his hat as did Tad and introduced himself. He told her that he hoped that she was being well treated and cooed over the baby. Lincoln then asked if he might hold the boy. What could she do? Surrounded by soldiers, Mrs. Picket handed her son to Lincoln who cooed a bit more over the child before passing him back to his mother with the words, “I’m sure that he’ll grow to be as fine a man as his father.” Clearly the sentiments of a blood thirsty, vengeful warmonger.
Within a week after Richmond’s fall Grant had cut off all hope of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from escaping either south to the Carolinas or west to Tennessee. On April 9th Lee and Grant met in the front sitting room of Wilmer McLean’s home in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Since the fall of Fort Donalson in February, 1862 U. S. Grant had been nicknamed “Unconditional Surrender” for the terms he’d given the Donalson defenders. When they got down to the terms of the surrender for Lee’s army the Confederate general was surprised. Neither his officers nor men would be imprisoned or prosecuted as traitors. Officers were allowed to keep their side arms and all soldiers were allowed to keep their horses or mules to assist in spring planting. Further, Grant offered to provide food for Lee’s army. When Lee presented his sword as a token of surrender, Grant gave it back to Lee. Shortly afterward as Lee rode away Grant’s soldiers sent up a cheer. Grant ordered the troops silenced saying, “The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”
I would suggest that something happened to change Grant and that some of that change occurred during the conference at City Point. In support of that suggestion I would offer an additional bit of evidence.
Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth dying on April 15, 1865. Two days later General Sherman and his opposite number, Confederate General Joseph E Johnston met to discuss the surrender of the Confederate armies in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. We remember Sherman most for his March to the Sea that split the Confederacy’s heartland just as the capture of the Mississippi river from south and north to Vicksburg had divided the Confederacy east from west. Sherman famously took the war to the plantations that fed the armies of the rebel region in a “total war” that even shocked many in the North. Yet it was this same Sherman who initially offered Johnston terms even more generous that Grant’s in that there was no mention at all of slavery and the current state governments of the Confederate states received recognition as legitimate and they signed the agreement on the 18th. Congress and President Johnson refused to agree to those terms forcing the renegotiation of terms all but identical to those in the Appomattox surrender on April 26th.
Almost immediately a din of criticism of arose around Sherman. How dare he offer such generous terms? Sherman for his part defended himself by explaining that the terms he offered were exactly those that Lincoln outlined at City Point. Now it was Sherman’s word against that of the dead Lincoln except that the fourth person present at City Point, Admiral Porter, backed Sherman’s claim. In any case the decency with which Sherman treated Johnston and his army affected Johnston deeply. He and Sherman continued to meet whenever they both were in Washington, D. C. The bond remained so strong that Johnston was asked to be an honorary pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral on February 19, 1891. It was a cold and rainy day in New York and the 84-year old Johnston stood hatless in the weather. When urged to put on his hat Johnston, referring to Sherman, answered, “If I were in his place and he standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat.” Johnston caught cold that day that developed into the pneumonia that killed him on March 21, 1891.
Johnston found the respect Sherman showed him worthy of honor but it’s clear that something had changed for Sherman too just as it had for Grant. The genesis of that change almost certainly came in the meeting with Lincoln at City Point. We have mythologized Lincoln in many ways but it is hard to find a point at which that mythology descends into fiction when it comes to Lincoln’s generosity and human decency. If anything we fall consistently short of his plea, “With malice toward none, with charity for all….” It is a call which Andrew Napolitano and Roger Ailes’ flock of flacks at Fox have never heard. And so we are treated to this gaggle of con men and fools standing shoulder to ankle joint with Lincoln, shaking their impotent and pitiful fists at the colossus they decry while they accuse Lincoln of the venality and violence as far removed from his character as basic human decency is from theirs.
The end result is that once more Fox News and Andrew Napolitano have proved that if they say that the sky is blue any prudent person ought to run to a window quickly because there’s a better than ninety percent chance they’re lying to make some neo-fascist ideological point.
History may be written by the victors as Winston Churchill and a variety of others may have said but we can check the accuracy of what the historians have to say by examining the statements and actions of the participants. That is what I have attempted to do here. True, I despise the right-wing scum to whom Fox News gives a forum to spew their hate and ignorance but I could not condemn the Confederate apologists, thugs, bigots, Klansmen, con men and lunatics who spout this nonsense so effectively if the verifiable facts of history did not support my view and make a mockery of theirs.