Reading, Writing, And History


The dogma of state sovereignty had been kept alive, in spite of the nationalistic forces released by the second war with Britain, by the urgent need of a substantial agricultural interest to protect itself against a more profitable and more aggressive industrialism. The slave-based nature of the agricultural interest gave a moral character to the industrial challenge, but the contest did not differ in essence from the upheavals then beginning in Europe out of which would come the end of serfdom, and ultimately the concept of a balanced economy in which subsidies—to agriculture as well as to industry—would be freely used as instruments of policy. … The kind of particularism represented by states rights became obsolete when the advance of the industrial revolution concentrated physical power at the only governmental level with resources adequate to support the new technology, and enough disinterestedness to seek reconciliation of conflicting interests.

By the middle of the 1840’s this point had been reached. There would be just one country between Canada and the Rio Grande. A few years later, 600,000 young men would have to die to prove this fact, but the fact itself had already taken shape.

Conflict for Power

What had been going on through all of this, however, was more than just a conflict between opposing ways of looking at the kind of nationality that was to develop in America. The demand for states’ rights might, and did, lead at last to an attempt to break the nation into its component parts; but now it is clear that it really represented a determination on the part of the southern economy to maintain control over the federal government. The opposing force, which tried to strengthen the central government at the expense of state authority, was trying to end that control and put the reins in different hands. Basically, here was a struggle for power.

Roy Nichols sees it that way, and he enlarges on this thesis in The Stakes of Power , a cogent book which makes an excellent companion piece to Mr. Wiltse’s book. (As a matter of fact, the two books are meant to go together. Edited and given brief forewords by David Donald, they are the first two in a series of six which will have the general heading, The Making of America.)

Implicit in Mr. Nichols’ argument is the interesting implication that the permanence of the single nation was subconsciously taken for granted even when the danger of a division was greatest. The northern and southern sections had developed economic and social systems with profoundly different requirements. To satisfy those requirements, the leaders of each section had to have power in Washington. Throughout the stormy 1850’s, the South held that power almost completely. There were northern Presidents, but they had been nominated by conventions under southern control. Cabinets were led by southerners, and so was most of the legislative and judicial machinery. What made the crisis of 1860 so dangerous was the increasing frustration of the North over its inability to assert control and the rising apprehension of the South because of the likelihood that the northern bid for power could not be staved off much longer.

Out of this came not only the Civil War itself but the internal struggle which racked the federal government—and ultimately affected the destiny of the entire nation—while the war itself was in progress. As Mr. Nichols emphasizes, Lincoln was so anxious to preserve the Union (which he saw as the symbol of an all-important experiment in democracy) that he was willing to permit slavery to continue to exist if necessary; but the zealots in his party wanted above all to destroy the political power of the South, which was based on slavery, and the act of secession simply intensified the conflict in Washington. Here Lincoln out-maneuvered his antagonists. He put through his own definition of war aims, kept his political forces intact, and showed that he was quite likely to direct the re-construction which would follow victory.

The Stakes of Power: 1845-1877, by Roy F. Nichols; edited, with a foreword, by David Donald. Hill and Wang. 246 pp. $4.50.

Lincoln saw the underlying reality very clearly. When the struggle for power erupted into actual war, the whole situation became fluid; he could not direct the war intelligently without keeping the postwar program always in mind. The war would be followed by a reconstruction, but not by a restoration.

Meanwhile, the economic necessities of the North were finding their outlet. An economic rebuilding of the nation took place in the midst of the war. The subsidy legislation demanded by northern interests, unattainable as long as southerners held power in Washington, was put through while the armies were still fighting—a new banking system, distribution of public lands, aid to western settlement and to European immigration, transcontinental railroads, tariff protection. Mr. Nichols describes it in these words:

… this economic legislation constituted a giant reconstruction project. On the eve of these enactments the United States had been a laissez-faire, individual-enterprise state. It was now transformed into a nation with grand ideas of Federal subsidy, encouragement and protection to corporate enterprise. These grants and subsidies, added to the giant war expenditures, were to stimulate the national economy to take great strides in the mobilization and accumulation of wealth.