Wood: Go back to the Revolution to understand the Civil War


Gordon S. Wood takes questions after delivering Monday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Josh Cooper | Staff Writer

Answering the question of why the South seceded is not a major historical conundrum, historian Gordon S. Wood said in his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater. The more difficult question, he said, is why the North cared.

“Why was the North willing to go to war to preserve the Union?” Wood asked to begin his lecture.

The title of his lecture, designated as the Chautauqua Lecture for 2011, was “The Revolutionary Origins of the Civil War.” It was the first in the Week Nine lecture series, a week devoted to the origins of unrest that led to the American Civil War.

Chautauqua President Thomas Becker said that in planning a week devoted to commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War, the week’s organizers wanted to make the connection between the founding of the nation and the Civil War.

“In 1619, this country had its first democratic assembly. That was also the year that slaves first appeared in this country,” Becker said. “That combination, that duality, existed and wove its way in remarkable ways to the beginning of the Civil War.”

Wood is Alva O. Way Professor and professor of history emeritus at Brown University and also has taught at Harvard University and the University of Michigan prior to joining Brown’s faculty in 1969. He has authored many award-winning books on the founding period in American history. He lectured in Chautauqua in 2009 during a week on the history of liberty.

Wood began by trying to explain the question of why the North cared so much about preserving the union.

“It was not because the North was bent on the abolition of slavery, at least not at first,” Wood said. “Many Northerners … were especially opposed to the expansion of slavery into the West … because they knew that slavery would create a society incompatible with the one they wanted for their children and grandchildren, who they thought would settle in the West.”

Wood said this was not the only reason the North cared enough to engage in a long and bloody war that cost several hundred thousand lives. To fully understand why the North cared enough to resist the secession of the Southern states, Wood said, it is necessary to go back to the Revolution and the ideas and ideals that came out that Revolution.

Wood said the words of Lincoln emphasized the connection between the Revolution and the North’s resistance to the South’s secession.

“Lincoln’s words, which have been aptly called his ‘sword,’ were crucial in sustaining the struggle to maintain the Union,” Wood said. “With his words, he reached back to the Revolution to draw inspiration and understanding of what the Civil War meant for the nation and the world.”

“The American people of 1860,” Wood said, quoting Lincoln, “deeply felt the moral principle of equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence.”

Wood said the disconnect between the founders’ talk of liberty and equality and their periodic acceptance of slavery was troubling to them.

“At the outset, the Revolutionary leaders were well aware … that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of the Revolution,” Wood said. “Indeed, it was the Revolution that made slavery a problem for Americans. All the Revolutionary leaders realized that there was something painfully inconsistent between their talk of freedom for themselves and the owning of black slaves. If all men were created equal, as all enlightened persons were now saying, then what justification could there be for holding Africans in slavery?”

Wood said the Revolutionary rhetoric made this contradiction excruciating for many Americans, both in the North and in the South.

He said the Revolutionaries did not act to end slavery when they could, because many in the country saw the end of slavery as an inevitable event.

“Many of them, perhaps most, thought that time was on the side of abolition,” Wood said. “As incredible as it may seem to us … the leaders tended to believe that slavery was on its last legs and was headed for eventual destruction naturally.”

He said the fact that the Philadelphia Convention was scrupulous in not mentioning slaves or slavery in the final draft of the Constitution seemed to point to a future without the institution of slavery. If the Revolutionary dream that slavery would naturally die away had been realized, he posited, there never would have been a Civil War.

Wood said they couldn’t have been more wrong.

“Slavery in the United States was not on its last legs at all,” Wood said. “Far from being doomed, American slavery, in fact, was on the verge of its greatest expansion.”

Wood noted that there were initially some signs that the institution would die out after 1776. He said that the Northern states, where slavery was not as integral a part of the economy as in the South, began to make provisions for the eventual end of slavery. The South, he said, was slower to act, but there were still some encouraging signs of movement against slavery, especially in Virginia.

The growing of wheat rather than tobacco in the upper South was changing the nature of slavery, Wood said, and many of the planters began hiring out their slaves. He also pointed to the fact that there were more anti-slavery societies created in the South than in the North around the end of the 18th century, and that so-called “freedom suits,” wherein slaves could be freed if they proved any Native American or Caucasian ancestry, were on the rise in the upper South. Wood said many Americans simply ignored the issue because of these promising signs.

In the meantime, he said, the differences between the North and the South only grew.

“During the three or four decades following the Revolution, the North and the South grew much further apart,” He said. “They were fast becoming very different places with different cultures and values.”

One such distinction was in the different opinions of labor, Wood said. The North, he said, valued manual labor as the supreme human activity, while the South thought of manual labor as mean, despicable and fit only for slaves.

He says this attitude toward labor dated back to the ancient times of Aristotle, who said men who worked for a living would never possess virtue and could never exercise political leadership.

Wood argued that there were other changes that drove a wedge between the two sections of the country.

“During the antebellum decades, when the North was commercially exploding, the South remained essentially what it had been in the 18th century: a staple-producing, slave-holding society,” he said. ”Cotton replaced tobacco and rice as the staple, but the slavery determined the organization of the society.”

As the North and the South grew apart, Wood said, their frustrations with each other grew, and the people of the North began to realize their earlier hope for the eventual inevitable end of slavery was not coming to fruition. Southern examples of racial integration and laxer slave laws were all but eradicated as Southerners felt the institution being attacked by the North, Wood said.

Wood said the tipping point came in 1819, when New York Congressman James Tallmadge attempted to attach a prohibition of slavery to admitting Missouri to the union.

“The Missouri crisis caused the scales to fall from the eyes of both Northerners and Southerners,” Wood said. “From that moment, Americans clearly saw signs of a storm on the horizon, at first no bigger than a man’s hand, but signs of a storm that would grow larger and more ominous every year.”

Q: Wasn’t the motivation to maintain the Union stronger than the need to eliminate slavery, and how did the rest of the western world manage to end their slavery so much earlier than the United States?

A: Actually, Brazil didn’t end its slave system until the 1880s, so we weren’t the last nation in the New World to end slavery, but the western states: Britain couldn’t end slavery because slavery existed in Jamaica and Barbados and not in Great Britain itself, and they simply could do that without internal politics seriously interfering with their moves. But, it’s certainly true that in the Constitutional Convention, Georgia and South Carolina would have walked out of that convention if it had been a move — there were suggestions by Northern members, Gouverneur Morris, for example — to abolish slavery in the Constitution, but that would have broken up the convention and the Union right then and there. And as I say, given the expectations — the false expectations — that slavery would naturally die away, no one wanted to run the risk of breaking up the Union in 1787. They simply lived with that illusion that it would die away naturally. Now, I don’t want to indict them for living with illusions because we live with illusions, too, only we just don’t know what they are. Some historian will say 200 years from now, “How could they have been thinking that? What was on their minds?” So, we have to be, I think, compassionate about looking back to people in the past who don’t know the future. That’s the big problem that any historian faces: the realization that the people you’re studying don’t know how the story turns out. We have an advantage, it’s an interesting question whether the historian knows more about the past participants’ lives than they knew about their lives themselves, and that’s a major problem in writing history.

—Transcribed by Patrick Hosken