A War That Never Goes Away

Civil War soldiers were the most literate up to that time. Their diaries and letters have had a lasting appeal.

But most Northerners ridiculed these Southern professions to be fighting for the ideals of 1776. That was “a libel upon the whole character and conduct of the men of ’76,” said the antislavery poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant. The Founding Fathers had fought “to establish the rights of man … and principles of universal liberty.” The South, insisted Bryant, had seceded “not in the interest of general humanity, but of a domestic despotism. … Their motto is not liberty, but slavery.” Northerners did not deny the right of revolution in principle; after all, the United States was founded on that right. But “the right of revolution,” wrote Lincoln in 1861, “is never a legal right. … At most, it is but a moral right, when exercised for a morally justifiable cause. When exercised without such a cause revolution is no right, but simply a wicked exercise of physical power.” In Lincoln’s judgment secession was just such a wicked exercise. The event that precipitated it was Lincoln’s election by a constitutional majority. As Northerners saw it, the Southern states, having controlled the national government for most of the previous two generations through their domination of the Democratic party, now decided to leave the Union just because they had lost an election.

For Lincoln and the Northern people, it was the Union that represented the ideals of 1776. The republic established by the Founding Fathers as a bulwark of liberty was a fragile experiment in a nineteenth-century world bestridden by kings, emperors, czars, and dictators. Most republics through history had eventually been overthrown. Some Americans still alive in 1861 had seen French republics succumb twice to emperors and once to the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Republics in Latin America came and went with bewildering rapidity. The United States in 1861 represented, in Lincoln’s words, “the last, best hope” for the survival of republican liberties in the world. Would that hope also collapse? “Our popular government has often been called an experiment,” Lincoln told Congress on July 4, 1861. But if the Confederacy succeeded in splitting the country in two, it would set a fatal precedent that would destroy the experiment. By invoking this precedent, a minority in the future might secede from the Union whenever it did not like what the majority stood for, until the United States fragmented into a multitude of petty, squabbling autocracies. “The central idea pervading this struggle,” said Lincoln, “is the necessity … of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether, in a free government, the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.”


Many soldiers who enlisted in the Union army felt the same way. A Missourian joined up as “a duty I owe my country and to my children to do what I can to preserve this government as I shudder to think what is ahead of them if this government should be overthrown.” A New England soldier wrote to his wife on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run: “I know … how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.”

Freedom for the slaves was not part of the liberty for which the North fought in 1861. That was not because the Lincoln administration supported slavery; quite the contrary. Slavery was “an unqualified evil to the negro, to the white man … and to the State,” said Lincoln on many occasions in words that expressed the sentiments of a Northern majority. “The monstrous injustice of slavery … deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites. …” Yet in his first inaugural address, Lincoln declared that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with … slavery in the States where it exists.” He reiterated this pledge in his first message to Congress, on July 4, 1861, when the Civil War was nearly three months old.

What explains this apparent inconsistency? The answer lies in the Constitution and in the Northern polity of 1861. Lincoln was bound by a constitution that protected slavery in any state where citizens wanted it. The republic of liberty for whose preservation the North was fighting had been a republic in which slavery was legal everywhere in 1776. That was the great American paradox—a land of freedom based on slavery. Even in 1861 four states that remained loyal to the Union were slave states, and the Democratic minority in free states opposed any move to make the war for the Union a war against slavery.

But as the war went on, the slaves themselves took the first step toward making it a war against slavery. Coming into Union lines by the thousands, they voted with their feet for freedom. As enemy property they could be confiscated by Union forces as “contraband of war.” This was the thin edge of the wedge that finally broke apart the American paradox. By 1863 a series of congressional acts plus Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had radically enlarged Union war aims. The North henceforth fought not just to restore the old Union, not just to ensure that the nation born in 1776 “shall not perish from the earth,” but to give that nation “a new birth of freedom.”