The American Civil War: A national redefinitionby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Describe the moral, political, and social ideology of the USA before and after their Civil War.
The Civil War was Americas defining moment and a key turning point in its history. The results of the war were far greater than just the Union victory. The Civil War affected the moral, political, and social ideologies of the United States and these changes affected every man and woman for years to come.
The moral condition of the United States before and after the war must be examined in two parts. First, the attitudes of the churches of the United States must be examined and secondly, the attitudes of individual people must undergo the same examination. The best way to examine where the country was morally and socially is to look at their view on slavery. It is interesting to note that the churches in both the North and the South held views on slavery that corresponded with the position of their region of the United States. These differences in opinions even led to splits in the churches during the Civil War. The Presbyterian Church split into Northern and Southern factions along with the Methodists and many other denominations. The southern churches not only supported slavery because it was the way of life in their regions but they also genuinely believed that slavery and the inferiority of the black man were supported by the Bible. The north believed that no man should be held in bondage by another man but whether they genuinely believed that every man was equal is unlikely. Both the North and South claimed God's favor throughout the war and churches in both regions preached the rectitude of their cause. (Johnson)
This is evidenced in the moral condition of the individual before, during, and after the Civil War. The north wanted the abolition of slaves but most of the Northerners did not consider the black man to be their equal. Yet some did truly believe in the principle that all men are created equal. Abraham Lincoln pondered this question many times and once wrote, "If A can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B, why may not B snatch the same argument, even prove equally, that he may enslave A? You say A is white and B is black - is it color then, the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care - by this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with fairer skin than you own. You do not mean color exactly? You mean the whites are intellectually superior of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again - by this rule you are to be the slave of the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to you own." (Johnson, 439) Some Northerners were so passionate about the abolition of slavery that they became violent; this is evidenced by people such as John Brown. John Brown is best known for his raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, but he was also active in many other ways against slavery. The attitude of most Northerners did not change after the war and this led to the segregation that continued until the 1960's and the prejudice that continues to this day. (Johnson)
In the south this attitude was much stronger. Of course they did not want to freedom of slaves and they considered the slave to be less than a man. Yet many Southerners defended their, "peculiar institution," on the grounds that it was humane and that they had a better life as a slave than they had in Africa. This may have been true of some slaves such as the ones owned by Jefferson Davis and his family yet there were some plantation owners who treated they slaves with extreme cruelty. (Johnson) The problem after the war was that though the slaves were freed, they were still viewed as inferior by almost the entire population. The slaves had been freed but they still did not fit into the social order, especially one that had been based upon slavery for hundreds of years. Therefore the former slaves were discriminated against and consigned to menial occupations that were not much better than slavery. These feelings of dislike and superiority turned to hatred during the Reconstruction and this hatred led to the formation of extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. (Kolchin)
Yet, while some of these feelings were brought about by the moral and social attitudes of the time, they were also spurred on by what was happening politically. The political changes that took place from 1860 to 1865 were immense and these had their due effect upon the ideologies of the persons involved. (Johnson)
From the 1820's until 1860 the political scene of the country was dominated by the Democrats and the Democratic Party was in turn dominated by the Southern Democrats who obviously favored slavery. Not only did they wish to protect slavery in the states where it already existed but they wanted to extend it to the newly acquired territories to the West. For a long period of time the Southern Democrats were so powerful that they were able to push through any measures that worked in their favor. They managed to always get their presidential candidate into office because of massive support in the south and minimal support in the north. This combination was enough to gain a majority in the Electoral College and insure that a democratic president was always in office. In turn the Supreme Court was largely Democratic and in essence the South controlled the government. (Johnson)
Things remained this way until 1860. When the Northern and Southern Democrats came together to nominate a candidate for this race, a massive argument broke out over slavery and as a result the two factions could not agree on a candidate. Therefore the two groups nominated two different candidates. The Southern Democrats nominated John Breckinbride, who was pro-slavery, and the Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas who believed that every territory should be free to decide whether they wanted slavery or not. Also in the running was the Whig candidate, John Bell, and the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. The Republican Party had been formed some years earlier in order to challenge the Democratic stranglehold on the country and to oppose slavery. The south feared that if Lincoln was elected he would get rid of slavery, therefore many Southern states threatened to secede from the Union if Lincoln won the election. In the end he gained victory, greatly helped by the fact that the Democratic vote was split between two candidates. Only three days later South Carolina called a convention on secession and proceeded to secede from the Union on December 20, 1961. They were followed by ten other Southern States and the stage was set for the Civil War. (Johnson)
The ironic thing about the secession of the southern states in response to
Lincoln's election was that the states were never really in danger. The most
that Lincoln could hope to do would have been to limit the expansion of slavery.
He by himself could not have abolished slavery if he wanted to. The only situation
in which Lincoln could abolish slavery was the one which the south entered into.
Secession and war provided the perfect background for Lincoln to liberate the
slaves and this he did with his Emancipation Proclamation. So, in reality, the
South was scared and in response to this fear the leaders of the states over
reacted and plunged the nation into civil conflict. It is also important to
note that the decision to secede was not made by the majority of the south.
It was made by a very few wealthy leaders, a referendum was not held in any
state that seceded from the union. (Johnson)
After the Civil War, the political scene was much different. Lincoln had been assassinated on April 15, 1865 and the presidency passed into the hands of his vice-president, Andrew Johnson. Johnson at first tried to bring the South back into the Unions fold in the way that Lincoln had wished it to be done, by clemency and kindness. He acted on the assumption that the people of the south had not really been changed by the war and if given the chance, would come back to the Union willingly. But Johnson did not posses the power that Lincoln had over Congress and lacked sufficient willpower to bring his plan through. Many congressmen believed that the South had been compromised and that the North's position as victor should be used to reform the South. The Republican dominated Congress essentially took over the government, passing a series of acts that limited the power of the president and the Supreme Court. After this they could pretty much act as they pleased. (Johnson)
This led to the two Reconstructions and the military occupation of the South. Congress bestowed full rights of citizens and the right to vote on the freed slaves in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, though one of the primary reasons they did the latter was so that they could get the black people's votes in the Congressional elections. They set up corrupt governments in the states that were run by former slaves and Northerners. Part of the problem was that the North had not felt the effects of the war as nearly as the South did. The war did not reach many areas of the North and people were able to live their normal lives. In the South, the situation was much different. The people of the South had thrown themselves, heart and soul, into the war. It had ravaged many of their lands and most of them had experienced it firsthand. The people of the South were fighting for their homes and it made them feel the effects of the war more dearly. Because of this, Southerners felt that the North did not understand their situation and in many cases this was true. This feeling, combined with the Northern occupation and government did not go far to heal relations with the south and stirred up feelings of hate towards the North and blacks that continue to this day. Eventually though, the Southern Democrats were able to regain control of the South and by 1877 the Reconstruction was over, though the effects of it were felt for years to come. (Kolchin)
The Civil War was the defining moment in American history. It was the culmination
of all the events of history leading up to it has continued to effect the country
ever since. Not only was the political situation radically changed by the war,
but so were the moral and social ideologies of the people. These changes have
had a profound effect upon the nation, both for good and ill.
Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York: HarperCollins
Kolchin, Peter. "Reconstruction." Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2003. 2002.
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