The War of Northern Aggression? It depends.

A friend pointed me to James Oakes’ piece in the latest Jacobin, titled The War of Northern Aggression and available on their webpage. There Oakes describes the contemporary consensus that the North went to war to preserve the Union, rather than to end slavery:

We are repeatedly told that the North did not go to war over slavery. The Civil War is once again denounced as morally unjustified on the grounds that the North was not motivated by any substantial antislavery convictions. Emancipation itself is described as an accidental byproduct of a war the North fought for no purpose beyond the restoration of the Union. A recent study of the secession crisis states that during the war, slavery was abolished “inadvertently.”

So far as criticizing the war as morally unjustified because a blue uniform or an office in Washington at the time did not transform one into an abolitionist or racial egalitarian, I’ve never encountered the argument except from the usual suspects who use it to deflect attention from the paramount interest in preserving slavery that the Confederates clearly, consistently expressed in word and deed.

I don’t know that I would go so far as the study Oakes quoted, but that would depend on the context that a single quoted word doesn’t supply. Certainly the secessionists did their part in inadvertently abolishing slavery, but only because they lost. Many northerners did not march off to war to free the slaves, but the slaves turned their advance into an emancipation movement by flocking to Union lines. In that context, calling abolition inadvertent also makes for what I consider sound history.

But all that said, I do think that a majority of white northerners and border state residents had little to no interest in suppressing slavery when they went off to war in 1861. Some certainly did, and the Republicans’ efforts to that effect. According to Oakes,

Unwilling to take seriously what contemporaries were saying, historians have constructed a narrative of Emancipation and the Civil War that begins with the premise that Republicans came into the war with no intention of attacking slavery — indeed, that they disavowed any antislavery intentions. The narrative is designed to demonstrate the original premise, according to which everyone at the time was mistaken about what the Republicans intended to do.

Fully aware of Oakes’ greater education and expertise, I still can’t entirely agree with him. I think that his piece, perhaps for reasons of space, perhaps at the hands of an editor, conflates a series of related but separate questions of interpretation. Separating them back out clarifies things greatly. One can tackle the issue from even more angles, but I think the two which follow cover the core of the dispute.

First one must consider what the Republicans did and why they did it. Here, I have no real quarrel with Oakes. The Republicans, from Lincoln on down, understood the election of 1860 as their great opportunity. Lincoln forbade his agents in Washington during the secession winter from making any compromise that would forgo restrictions on slavery in the territories, from Kansas on west, on the grounds that it would give up the whole point of their election. The people of the North elected then on an avowed platform of restricting slavery and placing it on the road to its eventual extinction. I don’t know of many historians who would argue otherwise. In that respect, the Republicans absolutely waged a war of at least containment against slavery. One can and should consider slavery coterminous with the South, as nineteenth century Americans did, and thus in a sense the Republicans did propose to wage at least a cold war against it regardless of any secession. Does that count as a war of northern aggression? Possibly, though given the normal context in which one sees that name used I do not rush to adopt it.

However, the Republicans did not eradicate the Northern Democracy. The Democracy arguably did an exemplary job of that all by itself, but even they had not destroyed the party completely. Thus one can’t fairly take the Republicans’ goals as synonymous with those of the North at large. Consideration of and cooperation with democrats, especially in the border states, placed a significant restraint on what the Republicans could do. The party of Jackson might not command a majority in the Congress, but early in the crisis much hinged on the loyalty of the border states where they had considerably more influence. Those politicians had constituents as well and they did not enthusiastically embark upon a campaign against slavery, even if many did eagerly sign up to preserve the Union. Many probably would happily received news that the Republicans had repudiated their platform not just out of partisan interest but also sincere belief. I don’t think one can fairly call them militants in a war of northern aggression. They fought against slavery only reluctantly and only as a means to what they considered a higher end.

I have yet to delve deep into the scholarship on why ordinary soldiers fought for the Union, but I understand that Gary Gallagher satisfied most scholars with his extensive look into their letters. He came down firmly in favor of the Union first interpretation. If Oakes condemns other scholars for not taking the sources at their word, then he should find Gallagher’s work rather persuasive. Maybe he takes it on in his books, and I’d love to hear if he does, but it appears in his essay only as a cause for criticism.

So did Northerners fight a war of aggression to end slavery? It depends on which Northerners one asks about. To that, we could also add when we ask about them. A soldier from Maine who signed up in 1861 and knew slavery only as a vague thing that happened far away might find ending it more imperative after seeing it up close. Of course changes of heart could go the other way as well. Northern-born white Americans had gone into the South and discovered there that they liked slavery quite well, or at least found it necessary to manage black Americans concentrated in such numbers. We can hope that people draw the right lessons from experiences, but not all of us do.

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2 comments on “The War of Northern Aggression? It depends.

  1. Brad says:

    Not to be a stickler but this was actually published over a year ago and is the premise for his book Freedom National, which he continues to develop in the Scorpion’s Sting. Whatever people might have otherwise thought, the Republicans who were in Washington definitely intended to rid the country of slavery. This was not an accidental policy but a purposeful one.

    I’m wondering if you’ve read those books.

    • Thanks for the correction on the date.

      I haven’t read Oakes’ books, so I can only quarrel with the Jacobin essay. It doesn’t seem to acknowledge the distinction between the North in general and the Republicans in particular. Maybe those passages were cut by the editor, but if so then it weakened the work.

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