Thursday, April 13, 2023

The Wrong Causes

Individuals fought for all sorts of reasons during the American Civil War, states’ rights, preserving the union, and, yes, definitely slavery. If one asked the ordinary Confederate soldier why he was fighting, he might well have answered ‘Northern tyranny’ (not too unlike the answers you still might get from, say, a Trump supporter today, except ‘Northern’ would become ‘liberal’ or something of that sort). All these ‘reasons’ for fighting were bound up together and difficult to sort out.

However, the cause of the war is not necessarily the same thing as the reasons people fought. I would say the primary underlying cause was the economic domination of the South by northern bankers and industrialists; in many respects, the South had become their colonial possession. Of course, the southerners chose altogether the wrong way to push back, by doubling down on an already broken system—one that relied heavily on slavery.

It is perhaps naive to think that the economic power-brokers of the North, those who financed the war, were concerned about slavery. Individually, of course, many were very much against it, but the establishment wanted to keep the Union intact so they would not lose their power and markets in the South. Preventing secession was good business.

Whom did Jesse James target in his personal continuation of the war? Banks and railroads. As many others, he recognized they were oppressing the common man of the time (but he took it rather personally). The same impulse that led him to rob led others to organize politically, to form unions and the Grange. Seen in this light, the Civil War is part of a great economic upheaval taking place in America. That the South felt it necessary to oppose the ‘robber barons’ by defending an evil system of their own, that is, slavery, was a tragedy.

Perhaps we should see today’s unrest in the same light. People are hurting economically and lashing out but don’t really know at what, and, in the process, are backing the wrong causes.



Stephen Brooke ©2023

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