Causes of the Civil War: Thoughts by General John B. Gordon, C.S.A., 1903.

Causes of the Civil War: Thoughts by General John B. Gordon, C.S.A., 1903.
John B. Gordon

Implored for years to write his memoirs, General John B. Gordon complied just in the nick of time: he died January 9, 1904 at the age of 71.

Writing about the Civil War, however, was problematic. Many worked to heal the nation, but crimination and recrimination between North and South on various points, sometimes bitter, were extant.

In his introduction, Gordon observed that . . .

The time may not have arrived for a full and fair history of that most interesting period in the Republic’s life. The man capable of writing it with entire justice to both sides is perhaps yet unborn. He may appear, however, at a future day, fully equipped for the great work. If endowed with the requisite breadth and clearness of view, with inflexible mental integrity and absolute freedom from all bias, he will produce the most instructive and thrilling record in the world’s deathless annals, and cannot fail to make a contribution of measureless value to the American people and to the cause of free government throughout the world.

Consequently, he promised not a "comprehensive description of that great struggle, nor an elaborate analysis of the momentous interests and issues involved," but something that may "contribute something toward such future history" that may be written by the aforementioned historian. As such, he made his intentions clear about his work:

I have endeavored to make my review of that most heroic era so condensed as to claim the attention of busy people, and so impartial as to command the confidence of the fair-minded in all sections. It has been my fixed purpose to make a brief but dispassionate and judicially fair analysis of the divergent opinions and ceaseless controversies which for half a century produced an ever-widening alienation between the sections, and which finally plunged into the fiercest and bloodiest of fratricidal wars.

This excerpt, after following some of Gordon's groundwork for the subject, will focus on the general's thoughts concerning the causes of the Civil War.

August Glen-James, editor

I submit that this brief and incomplete summary is sufficient to satisfy those who live after us that these great leaders of conflicting thought, and their followers who continued the debate in battle and blood, while in some sense partisans, were in a far juster sense patriots.

Prior to actual secession there was even at the South more or less division of sentiment not as to principle, but as to policy.

There was less division of sentiment in the South at this period than at the North. It is a great mistake to suppose, as was believed by Northern people, that Southern politicians were “dragooning the masses,” or beguiling them into secession. The literal truth is that the people were leading the leaders. . . . Before the Confederate Government left Montgomery for Richmond, about 360,000 men and boys, representing the best of Southern manhood, had offered their services, and were ready to pledge their fortunes and their lives to the cause of Southern independence. What was the meaning of this unparalleled spontaneity that pervaded all classes of the Southern people? The only answer is that it was the impulse of self-defence.

I know of nothing in all history that more brilliantly illustrates the lofty spirit, the high and holy impulse that sways a people aroused by the sentiment of self-defence, than this spontaneous uprising of Southern youth and manhood; than this readiness to stand for inherited convictions and constitutional rights, as they understood them; than the marvelous unanimity with which they rushed to the front with old flint and steel muskets, long-barreled squirrel rifles, and double-barreled shot-guns, in defence of their soil, their States, their homes, and as they verily believed, in defence of imperiled liberty.

There is no book in existence, I believe, in which the ordinary reader can find an analysis of the issues between the two sections, which fairly represents both the North and the South. Although it would require volumes to contain the great arguments, I shall attempt here to give a brief summary of the causes of our sectional controversy, and it will be my purpose to state the cases of the two sections so impartially that just-minded people on both sides will admit the statement to be judicially fair.

[Gordon's Main Idea--editor]

The causes of the war will be found at the foundation of our political fabric, in our complex organism, in the fundamental law, in the Constitution itself, in the conflicting constructions which it invited, and in the institution of slavery which it recognized and was intended to protect. If asked what was the real issue involved in our unparalleled conflict, the average American citizen will reply, “The negro”; and it is fair to say that had there been no slavery there would have been no war. But there would have been no slavery if the South’s protests could have availed when it was first introduced; and now that it is gone, although its sudden and violent abolition entailed upon the South directly and incidentally a series of woes which no pen can describe, yet it is true that in no section would its reestablishment be more strongly and universally resisted. The South steadfastly maintains that responsibility for the presence of this political Pandora’s box in this Western world cannot be laid at her door. When the Constitution was adopted and the Union formed, slavery existed in practically all the States; and it is claimed by the Southern people that its disappearance from the Northern and its development in the Southern States is due to climatic conditions and industrial exigencies rather than to the existence or absence of great moral ideas.

Slavery was undoubtedly the immediate fomenting cause of the woeful American conflict. It was the great political factor around which the passions of the sections had long been gathered—the tallest pine in the political forest around whose top the fiercest lightnings were to blaze and whose trunk was destined to be shivered in the earthquake shocks of war. But slavery was far from being the sole cause of the prolonged conflict. Neither its destruction on the one hand, nor its defence on the other, was the energizing force that held the contending armies to four years of bloody work. I apprehend that if all living Union soldiers were summoned to the witness-stand, every one of them would testify that it was the preservation of the American Union and not the destruction of Southern slavery that induced him to volunteer at the call of his country.

As for the South, it is enough to say that perhaps eighty per cent of her armies were neither slave-holders, nor had the remotest interest in the institution. No other proof, however, is needed than the undeniable fact that at any period of the war from its beginning to near its close the South could have saved slavery by simply laying down its arms and returning to the Union.

We must, therefore, look beyond the institution of slavery for the fundamental issues which dominated and inspired all classes of the contending sections. It is not difficult to find them. The “Old Man Eloquent,” William E. Gladstone, who was perhaps England’s foremost statesman of the century, believed that the Government formed by our fathers was the noblest political fabric ever devised by the brain of man. This undoubtedly is true; and yet before these inspired builders were dead, controversy arose as to the nature and powers of their free constitutional government. Indeed, in the very convention that framed the Constitution the clashing theories and bristling arguments of 1787 presaged the glistening bayonets of 1861. In the cabinet of the first President, the contests between Hamilton and Jefferson, representatives of conflicting constitutional constructions, were so persistent and fierce as to disturb the harmony of executive councils and tax the patience of Washington. The disciples of each of these political prophets numbered in their respective ranks the greatest statesmen and purest patriots. The followers of each continuously battled for these conflicting theories with a power and earnestness worthy of the founders of the Republic. Generation after generation, in Congress, on the hustings, and through the press, these irreconcilable doctrines were urged by constitutional expounders, until their arguments became ingrained into the very fiber of the brain and conscience of the sections. The long war of words between the leaders waxed at last into a war of guns between their followers.

During the entire life of the Republic the respective rights and powers of the States and general government had furnished a question for  endless controversy. In process of time this controversy assumed a somewhat sectional phase. The dominating thought of the North and of the South may be summarized in a few sentences. The South maintained with the depth of religious conviction that the Union formed under the Constitution was a Union of consent and not of force; that the original States were not the creatures but the creators of the Union; that these States had gained their independence, their freedom, and their sovereignty from the mother country, and had not surrendered these on entering the Union; that by the express terms of the Constitution all rights and powers not delegated were reserved to the States; and the South challenged the North to find one trace of authority in that Constitution for invading and coercing a sovereign State.

The North, on the other hand, maintained with the utmost confidence in the correctness of her position that the Union formed under the Constitution was intended to be perpetual; that sovereignty was a unit and could not be divided; that whether or not there was any express power granted in the Constitution for invading a State, the right of self-preservation was inherent in all governments; that the life of the Union was essential to the life of liberty; or, in the words of Webster, “liberty and union are one and inseparable.”

To the charge of the North that secession was rebellion and treason, the South replied that the epithets of rebel and traitor did not deter her from the assertion of her independence, since these same epithets had been familiar to the ears of Washington and Hancock and Adams and Light Horse Harry Lee. In vindication of her right to secede, she appealed to the essential doctrine, “the right to govern rests on the consent of the governed,” and to the right of independent action as among those reserved by the States. The South appealed to the acts and opinions of the Fathers and to the report of the Harford Convention of New England States asserting the power of each State to decide as to the remedy for infraction of its rights; to the petitions presented and positions assumed by ex-President John Quincy Adams; to the contemporaneous declaration of the 8th of January assemblage in Ohio indicating that 200,000 Democrats in that State alone were ready to stand guard on the banks of the border river and resist invasion of Southern territory; and to the repeated declarations of Horace Greeley and the admission of President Lincoln himself that there was difficulty on the question of force, since ours ought to be a fraternal Government.

In answer to all these points, the North also cited the acts and opinions of the same Fathers, and urged that the purpose of those Fathers was to make a more perfect Union and a stronger government. The North offset the opinions of Greeley and others by the emphatic declaration of Stephen A. Douglas, the foremost of Western Democrats, and by the official opinion as to the power of the Government to collect revenues and enforce laws, given to President Buchanan by Jere Black, the able Democratic Attorney-General.

Thus the opposing arguments drawn from current opinions and from the actions and opinions of the Fathers were piled mountain high on both sides. Thus the mighty athletes of debate wrestled in the political arena, each profoundly convinced of the righteousness of his position; hurling at each other the ponderous arguments, which reverberated like angry thunderbolts through legislative halls, until the whole political atmosphere resounded with the tumult. Long before a single gun was fired public sentiment North and South had been lashed into a foaming sea of passion; and every timber in the framework of the Government was ending and ready to break from “the heaving ground-swell of the tremendous agitation.” Gradually and naturally in this furnace of sectional debate, sectional ballots were crystallized into sectional bullets; and both sides came at last to the position formerly held by the great Troup of Georgia: “The argument is exhausted; we stand to our guns.”

I submit that this brief and incomplete summary is sufficient to satisfy those who live after us that these great leaders of conflicting thought, and their followers who continued the debate in battle and blood, while in some sense partisans, were in a far juster sense patriots.