MANN TALK: The Why of the American Civil War

by Perry Mann
“William H. Buffington told the crowd that the war was inevitable due in part to the ‘Puritanic, intolerant sentiment of New England’ being ‘incompatible with the brave and generous spirit of the Cavaliers of the James River.’” -- Charleston Gazette, April 17, 2011.

To assert that the cause of Civil War was not slavery is to poke a hornet’s nest .  Or to side or not to side with those diehards who insist on flying the Confederate flag over the capitol building of South Carolina also provokes  stinging retaliation. So  in order  to  get on with my thesis,  I  am not going to take a stand here on either issue except to  say that  on the cause I have a theory. It is the why or cause of the American Civil War that I wish to explore; and  upon  looking  at  the war from a historical perspective,  I see the why of it to be certainly more than the issue of slavery.

In a historical context the American  Civil War of 1861-1865 was a replay of the English Civil War of 1642-1649, culminating in the beheading of Charles I. If  one  could have had a cosmic view of the historical forces and players , he could have seen that not only was  the English  conflict  inevitable  but that so was the America  conflict inevitable for the same historical reasons.  In short, both wars were a struggle for power between the forces of a moribund feudal system and the  forces of a burgeoning capitalist system.  The royalists versus the bourgeoisie. The Cavaliers versus the Roundheads or Puritans.

\ Elizabeth I had kept successfully, owing to her popularity, a lid on  Parliament, which  increasingly was making demands for the rising middle classes to have  greater political and economic  power. James I, who succeeded her, was no Elizabeth. He took seriously the theory of the divine right of kings and thus was adamantly opposed to any diminution of royal power and prerogatives. He could not see that feudalism was dying and that democratic capitalism was in the wings waiting to replace it and the royalists who profited from it.  Charles I, who succeeded James, was as inflexible  and historically blind as his father and it was he who paid the ultimate price for bucking  fate and  inevitable change.

 The struggle between Parliament, representing the rising middle classes, and Charles I, representing the declining  aristocrats,  continued   non-militarily  until  Charles attempted to seize the leaders of  Parliament and Parliament  attempted to have the militia put under its control, then all England took sides and civil war broke out with the Cavaliers  being led by Prince Rupert and the Roundheads led by Oliver Cromwell.

From a historical perspective, it  is  clear that the Cavaliers were fighting for a lost cause. And a lost cause it was; for Cromwell and the Roundheads, after three years of civil strife, finally   annihilated the Royal army at Naseby, June 14, 1645,  opening the way to the subsequent execution of Charles I on  January 30, 1649, and the conversion of England from a monarchy to a commonwealth with Cromwell as Lord Protector.

 Thus,  with the establishment of the Commonwealth, the middle classes and the Puritans stood  triumphant over the  Royalists and the Episcopalians.  The urban merchants and traders stood victorious over the landed aristocracy. The   proletarians  replaced the serfs at the base of the economic system. And capitalism moved from the wings to  the center stage where it was eventually to all but crowd out the agrarian actors.

Then began the migrations of the Puritans and the Cavaliers to the New World, the former to the northern colonies and the  latter to the southern colonies of the  original Thirteen. The Puritans built cities and factories and ships for trade , imported immigrants to do the work and set up a capitalistic society; the Cavaliers  carved out plantations, planted cotton, imported slaves to do the work and set up an agrarian and feudalistic society.

 All was well until  capitalism and feudalism moved west  and the issued arose as to which  system was to dominate in the new states being formed. The North knew and the South knew that the South could not  extend its feudalism without slaves. Thus, slavery became as much an economic issue as a moral one. It is interesting that slavery had not become a burning  moral issue, until the spread of feudalism  to the West  became an issue. At least, it had not become an issue  so far as to split the country.

 Thus, the South, convinced that it could not perpetuate its culture and feudalistic society within the Union, chose to secede and precipitated  thereby a struggle that pitted the urban capitalists against the landed aristocrats,  the Roundheads against the Royalists, the Puritans against the Episcopalians, the proletarians against the slaves. The outcome of the  American conflict  was as inevitable as was that of the English conflict;  for historically the conflict was the same. It was capitalism of the North confronting Feudalism of the South. Feudalism had had its day and was passing into Time’s annals, while capitalism was only beginning to write its pages therein. 

I doubt that Jefferson Davis saw himself as Charles I or that Robert E. Lee saw himself as Prince Rupert  or that any soldier on either side viewed the conflict  as one between capitalism and feudalism or between cities and  plantations or  religions or cultures.  A case can be made that the South was fighting for a way of life just as the the Royalist in England were. But since the way of life the South sought to perpetuate could only be done with slave labor, then to that extent  the cause of the conflict was slavery.  But if the South had had at its  economic base serfs, the conflict would have come nevertheless and the outcome would have been the same.

  If my theory is correct, then the lesson is  never to burn bridges or  to allow an issue to escalate to violence until one has looked closely at history to determine which side it is on; for no force is more formidable than  history. It may be that wisdom is a knowledge of history and that one at his peril  mans the ramparts in opposition to her.  

 * * *

Perry Mann is a former teacher, a lawyer, a former prosecuting attorney of Summers County and a columnist for Huntington News Network. He lives in Hinton, WV.  
Comments powered by Disqus