Slavery and sectionalism, between the North and South

Categories: Slavery And Freedom

To what extent did the American Civil War succeed in removing the two main causes of conflict: slavery and sectionalism, between the North and South?

The causes of the Civil War are a subject that have fascinated historians for generations, provoking many different interpretations. From my study I have found slavery and sectionalism to be the most important causes. In the short term, the war did not succeed in eradicating these causes of conflict and actually incited further problems, such as racism and violence.

The Reconstruction period failed to achieve its main aims, which were to re-unite the two sections of North and South into the Union, and to help the Negro to infiltrate that country as a citizen, and not a slave. I also aim to show that these forces are still evident in American society today, and therefore bring the historical argument up to date.

Sectionalism is a multi-faceted cause, and many historians have stressed different aspects of this sectionalism as the cause of conflict.

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Cultural and social historians emphasise the contrast between the civilisations and values of the two regions, whereas progressive historians stress the economic gulf between the North and South, and Marxist historians believe the class difference was the overriding cause of conflict.

These views are valid as a detailed insight into particular areas of sectionalism, however their narrow viewpoint ignores other contributing factors. The most reliable view is provided by Kennet M Stampp, who demonstrates that sectionalism was a culmination of these factors which together were a major cause of conflict. He uses a variety of sources, both contemporary and secondary, to provide a balanced evaluation. This is juxtaposed to other historians who may have used a limited range of sources or been influenced by the predominant view of the time.

Other historians, however, have singled out slavery to be the cause of the sectional crisis, and indeed the war. Northern historians such as James Ford Rhodes particularly uphold this view:

"...of the American Civil War it may safely be asserted that there was a cause, slavery"

Slavery certainly was a huge force in America. In 1860, four million people were slaves with more that three million of these working in the South.

Nonetheless, revisionist historians have argued that slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War. This could possibly have been due to a new influx of evidence, or a particular historical debate. However, recently, historians have criticised these accounts for failing to appreciate the moral urgency of the slavery issue, and have given renewed emphasis to slavery as the cause of the conflict. Despite these different interpretations, it was both the multi-faceted nature of sectionalism and slavery, which caused the Civil War.

According to law, slavery was removed after the American Civil War with the Emancipation Proclamation of September 22 1862:

"All persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of a state... shall be...

forever free"

This however, did not free them from the racism and discrimination that their emancipation incited. The Southern image of the Negro was shaped by their slave past, and therefore the image had not changed despite the war. For example, Brogan says: "...the mind of the section... is continuous with the past" Cash and his book are themselves strong evidence of the continuation of these ideas, even one hundred and forty years later. Other historians are in accordance with this view:

"Southern bitterness ran deep... People still believed that what they had fought for wasn't morally wrong and... that Africans were meant to be slaves."

Thus, as Cable writes "the ex slave was not a freeman, only a free Negro." These ideas were furthered by evidence from sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists who presented what they regarded as convincing evidence of the innate racial traits of Negroes, indicating that they were intellectually inferior to whites. For example Dr J C Nott, a leading Southern ethnologist in the 1850s said:

"The Negro races stand at the lowest point in the scale of human beings." These ideas were also passed on through the government, for example Alexander H Stephens (vice President of the Confederacy) said:

"...equality does not exist between blacks and whites. The one race is by nature inferior in many respects, physically and mentally to the other." Thus, white people were indoctrinated by superior, and who they believed to be trustworthy figures of the time. This contemporary evidence is extremely useful to the modern historian to understand how the belief of the inferiority of Negroes was continued, and indeed reinstated, after the war, hence causing the degradation of the blacks.

Economic degradation of the Negro also strengthened the white man's belief in their innate inferiority. Emancipated Negroes were potential social and economic competitors, particularly owing to the rapidly rising population of the South; therefore white men felt that they had to keep them at the bottom of the caste and economic system.

This was achieved through sharecropping. Useless land was given to blacks who could take a share of the crop. The planters could therefore bring land to production without paid labour, whilst at the same time giving the chance for the black man to work under his own supervision and to sell his share of the crop to eventually buy his own land. However the blacks received poor treatment, were often cheated out of their money and remained under the control of the whites. Hence in all but appearance this was the same as the old plantation and slavery had effectively not been removed. Derrick Murphy upholds this view:

"Sharecropping.. kept them [the Negroes] in a position of poverty and social inferiority." Indeed sharecropping continued into the 1940s in some areas of America, such as Alabama, therefore it was another eighty years before slavery was abolished in the farms.

The black codes also endorsed this idea of the black remaining under white's control. For example, a leading Northern liberal, Carl Schurz, remarked that the codes embodied the idea that although individual whites could no longer have property of the individual blacks, "the blacks at large belonged to the whites at large." This could be seen as a prejudiced evaluation as Schurz is a Northerner remarking on Southern principles. However, this viewpoint is supported by fact. The black codes prohibited Negroes serving on juries or testifying against white men, disallowed Negroes marrying whites and stated that the Negroes were not allowed to leave their place of work without permission. The codes therefore limited their freedom, and reduced them to a state of pre-war slavery. Schurz's analysis is indeed correct, that the Negroes were far from being emancipated as they still belonged to the whites.

Whites disallowed blacks the right to better their position through education. Post war public education was only provisioned for whites, as they believed that the education of blacks was "a waste of effort, or even dangerous" (Degler). All over the South in 1865-7 any white person who attempted to instruct Negroes was subject to attacks and violence. Therefore the blacks were further denied rights, much the same as they were under slavery.

Under the driving will of the Radical Republicans, the fourteenth and fifteenth Amendment of 1866 and 1869 were adopted to the Constitution. These allowed the blacks to be full citizens, and equal in rights and voting privileges with white men. This threat of possible black power to white supremacy caused an upsurge of hatred towards the blacks, and an outbreak of violence and intimidation at the ballot box. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, Knights of White Camelia, The White Brotherhood and The Pale Faces began to emerge. Their aim is shown in the official charge to the new recruits of the Ku Klux Klan in 1867:

"Our main and fundamental objective is the maintenance of the supremacy of the white race in this Republic."

Therefore we can see that the emancipation of the slaves actually provoked worse reaction towards the Negroes, and made their life one filled with terror, which it had net been to the same extent before.

However, there were also some positive moves towards equality of blacks in the Reconstruction period. Radical Republicans believed that "all sons of Adam and Eve are equal in the eyes of God" and therefore that it was morally wrong for Negroes to be discriminated against. They pushed for the Force Acts passed on May 31st 1870, and February 21st 1871. These said that force or intimidation used to prevent citizens from voting would be punished by fine or imprisonment.

A third Force Act, the Ku Klux Klan Act of April 20th 1871, imposed heavier penalties on persons who "shall conspire together, or go in disguise... for the purpose of depriving any person or any class of person of the equal protection of the laws, or of equal privileges or immunities under the laws." They also pressed for a longer life span of the Freedman's Bureau, which provided food, clothing and medical care for refugees and Negroes. According to the original act, the bureau's work was to terminate within a year after the end of the war. However, through the work of the Congressional Committee on Reconstruction and the radicals, the Freedmen's Bureau Bill was passed in February 1866, which indefinitely extended its life span.

However the bureau was hated by most Southern men, and was subject to much criticism, for example that it was stirring up discontent among the Negroes and giving false hopes, or that the bureau employed corrupt and incompetent administrators who wasted federal money. Some of this is true, however a more trustworthy evaluation of the bureau's work is that of historian Kenneth M Stampp, who believed the bureau "played a constructive role in the transformation of the Negro from slave to citizen" and that the tradition that the bureau was rife with corruption and incompetence is an exaggeration. His evaluation can be regarded as more trustworthy owing to the fact that as a modern historian he is less likely to be influenced by past war views and the use of 'evidence' as propaganda. More than likely much of this corruption will have been exaggerated by Southern propagandists to try and close the bureau down and stop any aid to the Negroes. Stampp also has a wider range of source material and the value of hindsight to provide a more balanced argument.

However, the bureau did not manage the complete transformation especially as Congress stopped its activities in 1869. Thus ended "the one modest Federal effort to deal directly with some of the social and economic problems confronting the post-war South", as written by Stampp. The Radical Republicans began to decline, and were replaced with "stalwarts", who were concerned with the maintaining the status quo. This meant that they were no longer concerned with the issue of Negroes, and that its crusade had lost vitality. Brognan writes, "by the end of the mind 70s the Negro was seen, at best, as a bore and a nuisance."

Thus, by the end of the Reconstruction Period, the Negro remained a lower caste, economically discriminated against, faced with violence, and in a position no better than that of the pre-war slavery period. Towards the end of the nineteenth century their position became worse as they faced segregation. I t began with a movement led by Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890, which insisted on poll taxes and literary tests to remove blacks from the voting registers. This initiated a period of segregation in hospitals, theatres, cemeteries, housing, prisons and even with water fountains. This was not helped by the fact that the North had begun to look at a Negro through Southern eyes.

The post-war era may have united the Northern and Southern beliefs about the Negroes, however it caused a greater void between the two sections in other respects. The Civil War destroyed two thirds of Southern wealth, which was worsened by a population rise in the South, thus impoverishing the South. This was in direct juxtaposition with the North, who got economic benefits from the secession. It became easier for the North to go ahead with construction, for example of the transcontinental railway, without the South opposing it, and during the war years Northern wealth had grown by 50 percent. Thus, the war actually exacerbated the pre-war problems by creating an even greater economic gulf.

Slavery had also hindered the training of artisans and craftsmen, and education remained a low priority for the south. Any educated Southerners would travel to the North to go to university, thus draining the South of its intelligence, and possible makers of wealth. This therefore maintained the divisions between the two sections of the country.

The war also did not change the attitude of the two sections towards one another. If anything it strengthened them, and created patriotic ideas of either section:

"Four years of fighting for the preservation of their world, and their heritage, four years of measuring themselves against the Yankee... had left the South... more aware of their differences and of the line which divided what was South and what was not." Cash here provides a valuable and reliable view of the Southern viewpoint for an outsider. However, it is only a reliable view of the traditional Southern stance. Throughout his book it is interesting to note how revisionist ideas are not explored.

This can be viewed in a positive manner however, in that we are given deep insight into one type of historical viewpoint, a view that many post-war Southerners would have held, one that evidently still exists today. This idea of Southern nationalism was deeply rooted in their fear of losing their traditions and therefore the status quo of the section. It was an unwillingness to change into a section like the North. They had their stereotypical views of the North, thus to change they felt they would incite "moral and Physical ruin."

Therefore it can be seen that not only was slavery still apparent in America after the Civil War, but also the divisions between the sections still existed. Thus the reconstruction had failed in most of its aims, and the Civil War had not succeeded in removing its causes on conflict. Even in today's society, one hundred and fifty years later, the causes behind the war are still evident in America. We can see that when the causes relate to the opinion, habits and traditions of the people they are extremely difficult to remove, and the mid set is often passed down through generations. The range of sources that I have used have all been unanimous in one aspect: they all acknowledge that the Civil War has been and will continue to be one of the most influential events that America has ever experienced, and that it is difficult to assess whether the divisions underlying the war will ever be fully removed from American society.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Slavery and sectionalism, between the North and South. (2017, Aug 29). Retrieved from

Slavery and sectionalism, between the North and South essay
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