A Civil War question: Can one hate both slavery and war equally?

Jan 30, 2019 by

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I have long been interested in a quite challenging moral issue: How can we overcome evil without adding to the evil? This issue is central to the philosophy of nonviolence, and I think it should be central to any sense of ethical truthfulness. This is a good way to get at the heart of Gandhi’s philosophy as well as that of Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the big problems idealistic human beings have struggled with is the problem of working for social change or working to resist injustice and finding oneself actually contributing to making things worse.

Of course, our wider culture in North America (and presumably elsewhere) is not all that interested in this question. We Americans tend to take a pretty narrow and superficial view of social dynamics, constantly barraged as we are by American exceptionalism and corporate feel-goodism in our mass media. So, we have to stop and turn away in order to get a sense of what we actually face in terms of systemic brokenness and cycles of injustice.

But when we do pay attention, we realize that warism, racism, economic inequality, sexism and many other problems remain all too present and each has a long history of intractability. Gandhi sought, with only partial success, to break a spiral that is all too apparent in liberation movements of responding to violence with violence in ways that have only led to more centralized power and continued injustice.

This moral question about evil lays at the heart of my energized interest in the American Civil War. This is how I would characterize the conventional wisdom in our society as I have encountered it: The Civil War was indeed a terrible thing with a lot of death and destruction. But slavery was an unacceptable evil that had to be stopped. It was costly, but ultimately worth the cost, to end that plague in our land. So, one of the lessons to be learned is that war can be a force to defeat evil. It is sad that it is necessary because it certainly is destructive. But sometimes war is our only option. Another lesson, then, that follows is that we have to prepare for such possibilities of a necessary war by maintaining the readiness of our military.

Questioning conventional wisdom

As a pacifist (one who denies the moral validity of war under any circumstances and who also rejects the preparation for war), I question this “wisdom” that accepts the acceptability of the Civil War. But I think anyone who desires to take a morally serious view towards war should also question that “wisdom” — even if they might not be as sure as I am about a negative assessment of the Civil War. The just war tradition at times has made the important claim (not taken nearly seriously enough) that humanity’s benefit of the doubt is against any particular war — in part simply because of the enormous destruction that each war causes. In thinking about any war — past, present or future — according to this claim we have an obligation to assess its cost and to insist on a clear rationale for why that cost is worthy of being borne. If the costs are not worthy of being borne, almost certainly the war will once again be a matter of a response to evil that only adds to the net moral dynamics of evil.

Since I have started reading about the Civil War, I have only very rarely encountered anyone asking such questions about its costs and benefits (an important exception is Harry Stout’s book, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War). Most people’s general sense seems to be that, of course, the cost was terrible but it was worth it — and we don’t need to make a case for why that’s true. We may simply know that it is. One consequence of that easy assumption about the worthiness of the cost is that few people carefully question whether the Civil War did indeed accomplish something crucial — the abolition of slavery. Or, to state it more precisely, we have little discussion of the long-term effects of the Civil War on the quality of life of the people for whom it was supposedly fought, those who were enslaved.

I came across an idea a few months ago: Perhaps we should more accurately say that slavery did not in fact end in the U.S. It only evolved. Many people have noted that life for the descendants of the enslaved in the American South did not in fact improve in the decades after the war and in some ways seems to have gotten worse. Only with the Civil Rights Movement nearly a century later was significant improvement made.

However, I am not aware of anyone who links this sense of the persistence of an evolved form of “slavery” (or, at least, of white supremacy that results in profound oppression; I will use “slavery” with quotes of this on-going oppression) with questions about the value of the Civil War. If “slavery” did not actually end, what does that tell us about the moral validity of the Civil War? And, if we recognize that the Civil War actually was ineffective, should that lead us further to question the general assumptions about the necessity of war in general? What if this one example of where war did defeat evil (i.e., lead to the end of slavery) actually does not prove to be valid? Does that undermine the case for other wars — and the preparation for war?

The conventional wisdom

I very recently read a book review that reminded me of these questions. Sean Wilentz, a historian at Princeton University and a prolific and influential writer, wrote a quite laudatory review of a newly published book on the lead up to the Civil War in the New York Times. Andrew Delbanco, The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, tells the story of the growing conflict between the slaveholders in the South and those who opposed slavery in the North. This conflict coalesced around the laws that required the federal government to return escaped slaves to their enslavers.

Wilentz’s review is helpful, and it seems clear that Delbanco has written an important and useful book. I am persuaded that it is a book I need to read in order better to understand the Civil War. I have no reason to question Wilentz’s conclusion: “Delbanco’s account is accurate as well as vivid. . . . He makes a strong case for the centrality of the fugitive slaves to the sectional crisis. . . . Without question he has . . . written a valuable book, reflective as well as jarring, concerning the most violent and enduring conflict in American history.”

However, this review touches on some of my questions simply by several assumptions that Wilentz states as a matter of course in describing the issues around interpreting the Civil War. The statement of such assumptions gives us a good sense of the conventional wisdom among those who study and write about the Civil War — and who shape the broader sensibility we have about the war in our society.

Why was the Civil War fought?

Wilentz states, “the Civil War began over one basic issue: Was slavery, the ownership of human beings, a legitimate national institution, fixed in national law by the Constitution? One half of the country said it was, the other said it was not.” Now, I assume this assertion is not meant to be taken as comprehensive, or even to be taken literally, as definitive fact. More, it’s a general, kind of rhetorical, statement that the basic issue was slavery. But I wonder.

It is seeming to me as I study it, that a better statement of the issue would be: Was the Union inviolable or not? The South initiated the war in April 1861 because it wanted out and wanted to be an independent nation — and the North denied that initiative. Abraham Lincoln stated in 1861 that he cared only about the Union, not about slavery. My sense is that if the South had been content to stay in the Union and retain its practice of slavery, the North would have found that acceptable.

In fact, right after I read Wilentz’s review, I came across a Lincoln quote from the summer of 1864 that reiterates the centrality of the Union (not slavery) for him. The historian James McPherson writes, “no one could doubt that [Confederate President Jefferson] Davis’s irreducible condition of peace was disunion while Lincoln’s was Union.” As Lincoln stated to Congress, Davis “cannot voluntarily reaccept the Union; we cannot voluntarily yield it. Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory” (Battle Cry of Freedom, 768).
Wilentz’s way of framing the core issue as a way of reading the Constitution does not seem to be borne out by the facts. I have had the sense that most political leaders basically agreed that the Constitution at least implicitly did endorse slavery. That this is the case may be seen in how after the North won the Civil War, one of the first results of the victory was formally to change the Constitution in order to abolish slavery, not simply to insist on a different interpretation.

Also, it would not appear that the nation was split 50/50 on slavery in 1860. Lincoln was the only major party candidate who was perceived as anti-slavery (and even he was not even remotely campaigning to end slavery in the South) and he received less than 40 percent of the popular vote. Almost no one in the South supported him and only a bit more than half of the people in the North did. There was no polling in those days, of course, but it’s hard to imagine that very many of the people who voted for Lincoln did so because they believed that the Constitution did not legalize slavery.

Part of the reason that I think it matters that we accurately understand the reasons why the war was fought is that the lack of commitment to racial justice in the North helps explain why the Civil War (and the consequent constitutional amendments) did not actually end “slavery” but only allowed for an adjustment for how it was implemented. Many in the North opposed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, even as a largely symbolic tactic that did not actually free any slaves. The American political community accepted the ending of efforts to enforce actual freedom for formerly enslaved people with the ending of Reconstruction in 1877 and the gradual withdrawing of political rights for blacks in the South in the decades that followed.

“The ghastly but necessary price”

Wilentz, though, clearly does believe that the Civil War indeed abolished slavery, and that the massive death and destruction (and whatever other hurtful effects) that resulted were necessary. He writes that Delbanco, in his earlier writings, inclined too much toward “revisionist interpretations” arising “from an admixture of pacifism and an insistence on diminishing the moral as well as political disaster of slavery.” Happily for Wilentz, “in this book Delbanco sticks to viewing the war as the ghastly but necessary price for abolishing slavery.”

I don’t know enough about Wilentz’s “revisionists” to understand his reference to “pacifism” here. But he seems to link it with downplaying the evil of slavery. My sense of the actual pacifists of the Civil War era is that nothing could be further from the truth.

As far as I know, there were three main communities of pacifists in American society. All opposed slavery. The “Peace Democrats” who wanted to end the war and were pro-slavery actually were far from being committed pacifists.

One pacifist community was made up of associates of the leading American abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, who founded and led a well-known pacifist organization called “The New England Non-Resistance Society.” Garrison, with varying degrees of coherence, devoted his life to combining pacifism with unceasing efforts to end slavery. The second pacifist community would have been the Quakers, also known as providing the core of the early abolitionist movements in both Great Britain and the United States. And the third would be the Mennonites. They were not active in the abolitionist movement, but they nearly universally rejected the acceptability of slavery. As well, the Mennonite stronghold in Lancaster County, Pa., sent to Congress probably the most effective radical abolitionist legislator on the national scene, Thaddeus Stevens, who also was a staunch supporter of conscientious objector rights during the Civil War.

I doubt that Wilentz had these pacifists in mind with his comment. However, in bringing that philosophy up, he makes me see that in our need to think about the evil leading to evil dynamic, we might pay more attention to the combination of pacifism and unalterable hostility toward slavery that we find in the history of the Civil War era. Clearly it was possible to recognize the evils of slavery without assuming war is “ghastly but necessary.” Given the failure of war actually to end “slavery,” more serious attention to that pacifist witness is warranted.

What might we learn?

As it turned out, William Lloyd Garrison did not oppose the Civil War. And he seems to have concluded that the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments signaled the success of his life work to end slavery. I would like to think, though, that he would have realized over time that that was not the case had he lived a couple decades past his death in 1879. That “slavery” did not actually end but only evolved.

An alternative way of ending slavery without war was not a realistic option in the mid-19th century. Perhaps it would be useful to try to imagine what such an alternative could have been. But we can’t redo history. More instructive is the effort to think through the reality that, whatever the option might have been, war in fact did not work. I believe that American society has learned the wrong lessons from the Civil War, with disastrous consequences. The lesson that war was “a ghastly but necessary price for abolishing slavery” has only led to more war and preparation for war that has continually resulted in more injustice and brokenness.

Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. He blogs at Thinking Pacifism, where this post first appeared. 


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