by John Dudley ’95
Their country was at a crossroads and the future they faced was more complex than deciding between entering the workforce or going to graduate school. In March of 1860, Virginians were deciding whether they would remain a part of the United States of America or join the rapidly growing number of states breaking away.
In recognition and remembrance of this critical time in our national history and as a part of the celebration of the inauguration of Dr. Christopher B. Howard, Hampden-Sydney College's 24th president, on February 3 the noted historian and President of the University of Richmond, Dr. Edward L. Ayers, asked, "Why should we care about the Civil War?"
Before joining Richmond in 2007, Dr. Ayers was the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, where he was named National Professor of the Year in 2003 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Among his many distinctions as a historian of the American South, Ayers has written and edited ten books, including The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction, which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
"We've got to forget this idea that it was somehow in the soil that the South was all about states rights and the North is all about 'big government.' There's no 'big government' in 1860."
First, the South was not, as the argument stated, financially dependent on the North. The two regions had a symbiotic arrangement. Ayers points out that in 1860 the South, with its slave-based workforce, was the fourth-largest economy in the world, white Southerners were remarkably literate for the time, the South had an extensive railroad system, voter turnout among white men was above 80 percent, and the South controlled the cotton that fuelled the economic growth of the North, England, and France.
Ayers also contended that the states' rights argument, which Confederate President Jefferson Davis developed after the war ended, is "nonsensical." He said, "Why would the South claim 'states' rights?' Before the Civil War, the South largely controlled the federal government and was the main beneficiary of it. A majority of presidents had been Southerners and slaveholders. The Supreme Court was dominated by Southerners. Federal law said if slaves ran away you must return them; the federal government was on the side of the slaveholders. The war with Mexico was fought largely at the instigation of southern states. The Dred Scott Act used the power of the federal government to extend slavery into the territories. So, the South was not touting 'states rights' when [the federal government] was advantageous to it. Similarly, the North was all about states rights when they were asked to do something they didn't want to do: the War of 1812 or the Fugitive Slave Law."
He added, "We've got to forget this idea that it was somehow in the soil that the South was all about states rights and the North is all about 'big government.' There's no 'big government' in 1860. They barely have an army. The fact that the Confederacy fought against them for so long shows how little of an army they had."
The third possibility popular among those who have studied the Civil War is that an overwhelming tide of the abolitionist movement crashed head-on against the South's devotion to the slave system. However, Ayers pointed out that only two or three percent of Northerners were abolitionists. Rather than being staunchly anti-slavery, most Northerners actually were complicit with slavery in the South.
"All the Republicans said was that you cannot use the power of the federal government to extend slavery into the territories," explained Ayers. "They did not support John Brown; in their platform, they denounce John Brown. Frederick Douglas says the Republican Party is the worst thing that has ever happened to African Americans in 1860. They're not going, 'Yes, [Abraham Lincoln is] really an abolitionist.' Because he wasn't. He hated slavery but he says, 'Folks, there's nothing I can do about slavery where it is. The Constitution does give them the right to have it. There's nothing I can do about it.' Even when the war starts he says, 'Slavery is going to continue in Kentucky and in Maryland because the Constitution does not give me any authority to get rid of it.' So, we need to be suspicious of this idea that the North was really against slavery but didn't know it."
If these popular and long-held positions are not supported by evidence from the time, what does the evidence tell us? To find out, Ayers and the University of Richmond are using modern technology to tell us more about the issues of the day that drove people to war.
"We are going to find a new language, a more supple language, a more honest language, which is not about beating up anybody's ancestors, not about casting doubt on anybody's honor. It's about accounting for evidence. One hundred and fifty years is a long time to have the same argument."
Ayers said that we have had the story backwards, that for Southerners the issues were security and the sanction of slavery. Along with demands for the non-slave North to respect Southerner whites' economic rights, racial rights, and electoral rights, Ayers said Southerners also "demanded that the North respect the ethical basis of slavery." This ethical battle over slavery pitted the South against the North.
Meanwhile, Ayers said Northerners were upset with slave-owning Southerners' desire to expand slavery westward, for their previous dominance in the federal government, and their "contempt for working, white men."
He said, "This conflict was not about slavery itself, not about injustice to enslaved people, but about the implications of slavery for white people. That's what the Civil War was about: the implications of slavery for white people."
Once we understand why this country was torn apart by civil war, we can begin learning the lessons of this period in our history. With a truer understanding of the people and issues of the day, and with the technology to discover more evidence about the time, we can carry on a new conversation about the American Civil War.
Ayers ended his provocative and insightful presentation with this thought: "We are going to find a new language, a more supple language, a more honest language, which is not about beating up anybody's ancestors, not about casting doubt on anybody's honor. It's about accounting for evidence. One hundred and fifty years is a long time to have the same argument. I think that finally in our time we have a chance to hand our kids a richer language in which they can have a more productive conversation about the things we've been talking about for so long."