Saturday, January 12, 2008

David Potter on Causes of the Civil War

I was browsing at the Strand several weeks ago when I ran across an old book of essays by David M. Potter. On the theory that David Potter can do no wrong, I grabbed it. I’m glad I did.

The third essay in the volume, entitled “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” is outstanding. Some excerpts:
To explain an antagonism which sprang up suddenly, and died down suddenly, the historian does not need to discover, and cannot effectively use, a factor which has been constant over a long period, as the cultural difference between the North and the South has been. He needs to identify a factor which can cause bitter disagreement even among a people who have much basic homogeneity. No factor, I would suggest, will meet this need better than the feeling, widespread in the 1850’s in the South, that the South’s vital interests were being jeopardized, and the region was being exposed to the dangers of a slave insurrection, as a result of the hostility of antislavery men in the North. Applied to the sectional crisis, such a view of the sources of friction would make possible the explanation of the Civil War, without making impossible the explanation of the rapid return to union after the war. No cultural explanation will do this.

* * *

Insofar as it is sound to regard the equilibration of interests as a condition necessary to nationalism, it follows that the American Civil War must be interpreted less in terms of antitheses and dissimilarities between North and South, and more in terms of the prolonged sequence of interest conflicts which crystallized along sectional lines. Southerners became progressively more alienated as they became more convinced, first, that the Union was sacrificing their economic welfare by its tariff policy; later, that it was denying them parity in the process of national expansion; and finally, that it was condoning the activities of men who would loose a slave insurrection upon them and expose them to possible butchery.

* * *

If the adjustment of conflicting interests rather than the elimination of cultural differences is in this instance the key to perpetuation of national unity, and if an equilibrium of power is the condition most favorable to the adjustment of conflicting interests, then the historian has an explanation for the seeming paradox that the crisis of American nationalism came not when regional diversity was greatest, but after many common denominators between the sections had developed and had substantially increased the measure of cultural uniformity. He has also a key to the anomalous fact that from 1787 to 1861 national growth always seemed to endanger national unity: it upset the equation between North and South by introducing new factors of power which potentially jeopardized sectional interests that had previously seemed to be in balance.

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