Trigger Warning: Contains ideas some will find offensive.
There have been lots of What Ifs in history. What if the Californian had not turned off its radio receiver on the night of 14 April 1912? What if Earl Morrall had seen Jimmy Orr in the end zone in the 1969 Super Bowl? What if the citizens of Rhode Island had not nullified the British taxation on molasses in the 1760s and then fired on and sunk British ships in 1772? What if the Czech military had resisted Nazi troops in 1938 and Neville Chamberlain hadn’t been so lame in his desire for peace? What if I had accepted a scholarship to Princeton instead of The University of the South? What if the originally proposed 13th Amendment to the Constitution had been accepted by the South?
The last one may be one of the most important What Ifs in American and World History. I’ll let you look up the details which most of you will have never read about unless you’re a scholar of American history. It was a last ditch effort to avoid armed conflict between the North and South and the fact that it didn’t work speaks volumes about the actual causes of the not so Civil War. In 1860 there were 34 states in the U.S. of A. 15 of those states were slave states, 19 had laws against slavery. Thomas Corwin of Ohio in the House of Representatives and William Seward of New York in the Senate proposed a 13th amendment to the Constitution that had in it the following: “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”
In short the amendment added a Constitutional restriction on Congress that did two things: it forbade Congress from abolishing slavery in the states where it existed and it short-stopped any new Constitutional Amendment that would give Congress such authority in the future. Both houses of Congress approved the amendment and it was sent to the states. Ohio and Maryland approved the amendment but before other states acted South Carolina seceded and the amendment passed into history as the slave states began considering secession vice the constitutional amendment which would have preserved slavery in each of those states.
Remembering that this amendment came from the minds of an Ohio congressman and a New York senator it seems unlikely that slavery as it was then constituted was the proximate cause of the Civil War. South Carolina had, in 1828, using the examples of the 1768 HMS Liberty and 1772 HMS Gaspee nullification incidents in Narragansett Bay and the Boston Tea Party had threatened to nullify Federal law that would prove damaging to the interests of the State of South Carolina and its citizens. In 1828 the Federal Government passed a series of tariffs that did just that: while the tariffs protected manufacturers in the Northern States they significantly “hurt” the cotton states and South Carolina, invoking the right of self-determination, declared the tariff unlawful within its borders. This became such a dividing issue that President Andrew Jackson asked Congress for permission to use Federal troops to force South Carolina to comply with the law. Luckily, it did not come to armed conflict, that was still thirty years away, but it was exactly the same issue that led South Carolina in 1860 to vote to secede from the Union and to evict Federal forces from within its boundaries.
South Carolina seceded from the Union in December, 1860 while the proposed 13th amendment was being sent out to state legislatures. What if South Carolina had not voted to secede but had instead voted to ratify the 13th amendment? In fact, why did South Carolina secede if the proposed amendment guaranteed slavery could continue to exist as it was currently constituted? Why would other slave holding states follow suit? Would they all secede for the same reasons?
We could discuss the Morrill Tariff bill that introduced the highest ever tariffs in the history of the still young nation and angered not just the South, where significant trade was carried on with England and the Continent but the English and French as well. The tariff was not just a protection act but an attempt to raise money for the Federal Government. What it did to the South was force it to purchase goods from Northern manufacturers at highly inflated rates and to sell its cotton to Northern mills at reduced rates. The Morrill Tariff bill was the twelfth of seventeen planks in the Republican platform for the election of 1860. The new law would essentially make the entire South one big plantation controlled by business interests in the North. But it could not have been the proximate cause of the Civil War, we are told, because it was not signed into law until March of 1861 although it passed out of the House to the Senate in May 1860 and became a prominent issue in the November election of 1860. As a result of that election and the Republicans controlling the senate it was a foregone conclusion the bill would become law as both outgoing President Buchanan and incoming President Lincoln had promised to sign it. Buchanan, from Pennsylvanian, a state that profited significantly from the new tariffs, did sign the bill on 04 March 1861 as one of his last acts as President. Oddly enough, Fort Sumter was not fired upon until April, 1861 commencing the hostilities. Historians completely dismiss the Morrill Tariff Act as a proximate cause for the war but that is because they treat it as a singular event and never, in the same argument, address the proposed 13th amendment circulating for ratification at the same time.
Now ask yourself, if slavery was going to be preserved via constitutional amendment why would states go to war to protect the institution? Even Lincoln in 1861 did not believe slavery could be abolished by Presidential action because it was protected by the original Constitution and such action would be illegal and when he did issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 not one slave in Kentucky or Maryland was freed. Remember the amendment had passed both the House and the Senate and was supported by prominent Northerners in the Republican Party.
So, then why is this important? For those of you who have read my other blogs you know I am passionate about deconstructing myths because myths cause mythunderstandings and when you start from an assumption that is incorrect you’ll only compound that mistake and you’ll be making decisions based on fallacious information. Today, we continue to be told that slavery was the proximate cause of the Civil War when the same conditions that prevailed in 1828 were recreated in 1860. No one in 1828, when South Carolina threatened to secede, blamed it on slavery. Perhaps it really was self-determination and the native resistance to being exploited by a central government making decisions that benefited the larger manufacturing states at the expense of the smaller agricultural states. It wasn’t the first time groups of citizens had taken the same issue as reasons for rebellion: Virginia (Bacon’s Rebellion); Rhode Island (The Gaspee and Liberty affairs); Massachusetts (The Boston Tea Party) and even after becoming a nation a group of former Continental Army veterans rebelled against unjust taxation by Massachusetts (Shay’s Rebellion) as well as the South Carolina nullification threat of 1828-33. Notice a common thread emerging here? Good, you’re paying attention; Taxation, self-determination, few versus many, agriculture versus manufacturing. Now those who do not agree with my assessment will argue that newspapers, orators and legislators of the South passionately maintained that the North and the Republicans would abolish slavery and, because of that the states needed to secede. They would be correct to a point; but slavery was simply the single most identifiable commonality among the Southern states and as such provided a rallying cry. Remembering that a majority of Southerners were not slave holders is important and it is also important to remember that in oratory it is much easier to move a crowd emotionally by showing them a threat to an existing normal than by prophesying how an action still in the future will affect a normal. So, you would have heard a great deal about the threat to slavery when the real threat was becoming a colony of the Northern states.
Now, none of this is in anyway meant to justify or ameliorate the divide that has existed between former slaves as people of color and whites but it may help explain it. Consider that the government representatives of the Northern states were willing to condone slavery in the South if it benefited the States of the North as it would have under the Morrill Tariff Law if slave states had not seceded. Take a look at the era of Reconstruction and you might understand better. Actions taken in that era have repercussions that reverberate even today, (voting rights act). I will never defend anyone who hates people of color nor will I defend a person of color who believes all whites are threats to their very existence. I will also not defend someone who believes that people of color must be treated like children and taken care of. For those of you familiar with my books I direct you to Little Arch’s speech to William Faulkner in my novel “Breakfast with Faulkner.” He doesn’t know which to fear more, those who hate people because of color or those who want to treat people of color as children needing to be overseen. A lot of this type of behavior results from the mythunderstandings that permeate the historical atmosphere and those who would use those stories to their advantage.
Could we have avoided the Civil War? Perhaps we might have delayed it but the seeds of the Civil War were sown in the original Constitution and the nullification crisis of 1828-33 proved that sectionalism and small state versus large state would eventually create a conflict. Cities versus rural, manufacturing versus agriculture, large scale agriculture versus family farming; all of these continue to bring tension to the United States. We face the same problems today regarding the rights of states to participate fully in the governmental process, especially in elections. Were the Electoral College to be abolished (which most people don’t realize would require an amendment to the Constitution) the fate of the nation might well be decided by the citizens of New York and California because there are enough registered voters in those two states to override the voters in the other 48. Thus, abolishing the Electoral College would hurt the majority of the States in favor of a minority of the larger states. This is exactly the reason the Electoral College was created and is an essential part of being a collection of states vice one large entity called America, which is the myth of our being a democracy vice a democratic republic.
Why then do these myths persists? Why perpetuate the myth of Davy Crockett or David and Goliath or the Hare and the Tortoise or any other myth? Because myths are used to reinforce behavior and controlling behavior is the essence of exercising power. It’s just that simple. When you know the real truth about something you no longer fall under the control of those who seek to use it to influence your behavior and you’re capable of deciding for yourself what is right and what is wrong; what is good and what is bad. That is, if you’re honest with yourself and sometimes that’s the hardest thing to do. Believe the easy lie or deal with the difficult truth.
What if you questioned what you’re being told? What if…