Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Irrepressible Conflict

Deterministic views of history are not fashionable these days. Everything is contingent; nothing is inevitable. I recently reread an essay that runs against the grain. Since I tend to be a contrarian, I thought I’d discuss it.

In his essay “The Irrepressible Conflict” (found in The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War), Kenneth M. Stampp suggests that contingency can be taken too far. He does not argue that the Civil War was inevitable. He does observe, however, that it is hard to see how the country could have avoided some sort of showdown on slavery. Conflict was “irrepressible” in the sense that “the issues dividing the North and South were genuine and substantial and that conflict between them was a natural and logical result.”

Professor Stampp’s thoughts – the essay is more an exploration than a formal argument – are based, as he admits, on several assumptions. First, after a lengthy review of the historiography of Civil War causation, Professor Stampp makes clear that he accepts the contention that the dispute between the North and the South centered on slavery. “The abnormal irritant that created sectional tensions and placed so great a strain on the American political structure was the persistence of southern slavery far into the nineteenth century.” “The interplay of these proslavery and antislavery forces . . . brought on the” War. Second, he rejects the suggestion that slavery was “a decrepit institution about to die; rather it showed enormous vitality, remarkable flexibility as a labor system, and every prospect of a long life.”

Given these assumptions, Professor Stampp tries to imagine counterfactual scenarios in which Northerners and Southerners might not have reached an impasse over slavery – and rejects them all as unrealistic.

He addresses first the scenario implicitly presented by southerners and revisionist historians who have argued that Northerners artificially fanned antislavery sentiment for political gain: if only Northerners had shown more restraint, and suppressed their agitation against slavery, things would not have reached the point they did.

That, says Professor Stampp, is rubbish. First, any “plausible analysis of antebellum politics and of the options that were reasonably open to that generation must begin with the assumption that an antislavery movement would exist in the northern states.” That movement was the logical outgrowth of both secular, intellectual trends and religious trends. Moreover, “its characteristic rhetoric, tactics, and goals must also be recognized as quite normal for that age.”

In sum, it is not realistic, Professor Stampp submits, “to wish away the abolitionists” and their moralistic, condemnatory rhetoric. The burden therefore shifts to those who would “explain how an atmosphere favorable to political tranquility, compromise, and patient delay might have been maintained in spite of the irritant of an antislavery crusade.”

In the end, Professor Stampp concludes that it is equally fanciful to imagine a conciliatory South that turned the other cheek to such provocations, for such a hypothetical scenario “fails to recognize the predicament of the South.” “Slavery produced in the South . . . a special set of problems.” “Economic interests [i.e., the tremendous capital investment in slavery], racial beliefs [that helped to perpetuate slavery], and fear of slave insurrections impelled Southerners to make demands and take actions that precipitated a series of sectional confrontations culminating in the secession crisis of 1860-61.”

Professor Stampp concludes as follows:
There still remains the question of the evitability or inevitability of the Civil War itself – a question that will probably continue to be, as it now is, unanswerable. It may well be that the country reached a point sometime in the 1850s when it would have been almost impossible to avoid a violent resolution of the sectional crisis . . . and the point of no return may have been reached in 1857 . . .. This, of course, is sheer speculation, for, as Seward would have reminded us, to make a case for an irrepressible conflict is not to prove the inevitability of war . . .. The irrepressible conflict of the antebellum years made the war, if not inevitable, at least an understandable response to its stresses by men and women no more or less wise than we.

It strikes me that the issue of historical “inevitability” is something of a straw man: no one I know claims that historical events are inevitable. But, as I suggested at the beginning, I wonder whether the emphasis on contingency does not go too far. Is it not fair to suggest that at some point the range of likely options narrows to a precious few? Is it not reasonable to maintain that, at some point, the burden should shift to those who would argue that a radically different outcome remained feasible?

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