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Reading, Writing And History
June 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 4
It would be a great deal better, to be sure, if we could refrain from the wrongs in the first place, and a conscience which leads to repentance rather than to unvarying rectitude is probably somewhat defective. But the important thing is that in a cynical and materialistic world we do retain the abiding faith that we live in a world of profound moral values.
Probably it is conscience (among other things) that impels us to keep re-examining the Civil War. That war left us with a fearfully complex heritage, a singular blend of victory and defeat—victory and defeat not merely for the armies engaged but for the ideals and the hopes that were taken into the war. As a part of this heritage we have an uneasy conscience, and the striking thing is that this uneasy conscience belongs to the victors rather than to the vanquished.
Viewed long-range the war did accomplish a good deal, but a frightful human cost was paid. We have been haunted ever since by the feeling that somehow there ought to have been a better way to settle things. In recent years a highly industrious school of historians has begun asking whether the war should have been fought at all and whether it was perhaps not more the fault of the North than of the South. Seeking to revise earlier judgments they have become known as the revisionists, and one of the most gifted and studious of them all is Avery Craven, whose The Coming of the Civil War , issued fourteen years ago, is one of the landmarks of revisionist literature.
Mr. Craven now appears with a new and revised edition of this famous book, in which he appears to modify some of his earlier pronouncements a little— or, if not to modify them, at least to set people straight on his actual findings. He has not (he says) tried to untangle all of the complex factors that led to war, he has not characterized it as “a needless war,” and he has emphatically not tried to defend the institution of slavery. What he has done is try to figure out why the democratic process failed so dismally, in the generation just before 1860, that war finally became inevitable. It was an “irrepressible” conflict, at last, despite the revisionists; the tragedy lies in the way in which that word “irrepressible” finally got into the phrase.
We still have, you see, a national conscience, and this is one of the things about which it wakes us up in the small hours. We muffed one; we brought an infinity of tragedy, loss, and bitterness on a green and smiling land; there was some way by which we could have averted it—and what did we do, specifically, that was wrong?
As Mr. Craven says, the conflict was not built-in from the beginning. Physical and social differences between North and South did not make the war inevitable. There was sectional rivalry for a long time, but it was something reasonable men could handle—up to a certain point. Then slavery somehow became the symbol of a conflict between two societies. Men got past the point where they could reason. Rights and wrongs became involved, the difficulty being that men of the two sections saw them differently. At last, “good men had no choice but to kill and to be killed.” Why?
If our national conscience does nothing more for us than this, it justifies itself. That is, it is forever compelling us to ask that question why ? The attempt to find an answer is at least a good start on the upward path, and to this genesis Mr. Craven makes a substantial contribution.
As a nation, we were expanding prodigiously, and the expansion magnified sectional differences. Old balances of power shifted, and because Americans are what they are, deep questions of right and wrong became involved in matters which originally had no moral connotation. The national parties which had formerly claimed men’s allegiance broke up under the strain; when the moral issues (seen so differently by men from different parts of the nation) became dominant, compromise became impossible. The maintenance of principle became a matter of honor—and then, somewhere between the Missouri Compromise and the bloody troubles in Kansas, the war in fact did become inevitable. The possession of a national conscience—especially one which is vague enough to permit it to be split two ways—can be a costly heritage.
The Coming of the Civil War, by Avery Craven. Second edition, revised. The University of Chicago Press. 480 pp. $5.
There were many significant turning points along this road. The most portentous, as Mr. Craven sees it, was probably the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. This stirred the North, but it stirred the South even more; for out of this pitiable fiasco—it accomplished nothing, physically, and it never could have accomplished anything—came the parting of the ways. Now the two sections had to see themselves as estranged, men seeking different goals and living by different ideals; the race question was shoved into the middle of a political dispute, and men turned to emotion instead of to thought. Politicians and reformers were through. Now the fighting man had to be called on, simply because everyone else who had been called on had failed.