Some historians have seen the Civil War as limited in its impact because fundamental forces were already at work to forge the economic system and not even the catastrophe of internecine strife could greatly affect the outcome. With industrialisation, new political forces would become stronger, markets would change and emancipation would come as a result of the need for a diversified market.
Eleven southern states seceded following Lincoln’s victory in 1861, a result of the split Democratic vote and a campaign which had been fought on the ‘Vote yourself a farm – vote yourself a tarriff’ slogan. Business would support farmers who wanted land in return for support for a higher protective tariff, something that the South, relatively more dependent on exports and imports, did not want. Southerners also wanted land to expand their plantations and were worried that more land was becoming ‘abolitionist’. The North and West entered into a deal, with the West providing food for the growing urban population in return for investment in the infrastructure, or ‘internal improvements’ such as transport links and the telegraph. If this was a Revolution, it differed from European revolutions, partly because there was a surplus of land into which the vastly increased population, boosted by millions of immigrants (27.5 million immigrants arrived between 1865 and 1918) could move.
In addition, new territory had been acquired since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. By the end of this period, only Alaska and Hawaii were missing from the states that today form the United States. As new territory applied for statehood, the issue of slavery became a continual point of contention. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 when Maine was admitted to the Union as a free state to counterbalance the admission of Missouri as a slave state, as well as the designation of an arbitrary line westwards from the border of Missouri, designating those states north of the line as free states and those states south of the line as slave states. The Compromise allowed Congress to maintain representation from an equal number of free and slave states. The 1850 Compromise over whether new territories should or should not allow slavery followed the 1846-1848 Mexican War. California finally entered as a free state but the idea of popular sovereignty was introduced allowing states to decide themselves and this, with the accompanying Fugitive Slave Act, strengthened the North’s resolve to support abolition. The Kansas Nebraska Bill in 1854 effectively overturned the Missouri Compromise and in the 1857 Dred Scott vs Sandford case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in territories.
Laws that had been difficult to pass in the antebellum period due to southern opposition, were passed quickly during and immediately after the War. Lincoln was opposed to the expansion of slavery, but held that the federal government was prevented by the Constitution from banning slavery in states where it already existed. In 1862, Lincoln wrote to the editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greely: My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it However, Lincoln announced the formal freedom of all slaves in any of the rebellion (ie Confederate) states in the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
IN 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery and was followed by the 14th (1868, citizenship) and 15th (1870, right to vote) amendments which were required to be ratified before Confederate states would be allowed back into the Union during the Reconstruction period (1865 – 1877). However, the resolve of the North did not stretch to black equality and when the Jim Crow laws brought in segregation in the South, the North did not force the issue. The Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy vs Ferguson case ruled that it was constitutional to have ‘separate but equal’ facilities. Gradually the former Confederate states, using a combination of literacy tests, poll tax, and residency requirements, effectively disenfranchised the majority of black people and many thousands of poor white people. In effect, institutionalised racism was permitted and it wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, that the rights of Black people started to be addressed. The Civil War may have ‘freed’ black slaves but it did not result in equality.
The Homestead Act, rejected in 1860 because of southern opposition, was passed in 1862. Free farms were provided and the American frontier could be said to strengthen the forces of individual capitalism. As Niall Ferguson argued in a recent Channel 4 documentary, the success of the United States of America (as opposed to South America) lay in its recognition that property and enfranchisement were the key to democracy and prosperity. It can also be argued that religion played its part, with the Puritan work ethic being reinforced in the ‘Second Awakening’, which re-configured secular republican values to suit the more individualistic demands of an expanding capitalist society. The Homestead Act was a result of Manifest destiny which was the driving force behind Western expansion, sighting that America had the right to colonize the whole continent exporting its values of liberty and self-governance. This is crucial in the making of America as it not only saw the rapid expansion in its physical size but also set the precedent for future policy of American imperialism through economic controls.
In 1862, Union Pacific was given permission to build a railroad linking the Pacific coast with the East. This would provide work, better transport links boosting the economy and reduce the risk of California (‘gold rich’) from seceding. It connected the whole of the USA and these connections were further reinforced through the relatively quick distribution of mail and newspapers across this vast continent.
In 1863, a National Bank Act was passed. In the past there had been hundreds of separate state banks issuing their own notes. This Act and the Legal Tender Act of 1862 introduced a unified paper currency or ‘Greenbacks’ as a means of financing the War. The South had not wanted interference in local banks and had certainly not wanted the North East to dictate monetary policy. Once the War was over, more state banks were established and there is still a dual banking system in the USA and arguments about how far federal governments should be involved in economic affairs. In 1913, the Federal Reserve System was established, providing central control over the USA’s currency and credit.
Was the Civil War the turning point in the ‘making of a nation’? The North had a decisive victory over the Confederate States and became a united and powerful nation, with a stronger federal government and weaker state governments. In that sense it was a turning point. It brought an end to slavery and in that sense it was part of the progression towards equality and a turning point in the acceptance that wage labour was the way forward. By the end of the nineteenth century the USA was recognised as a global industrial power, while its natural resources (coal, timber, oil, farmland) and its infrastructure. Vast waves of immigrants provided the labour base for this increase in industry and agriculture. The distribution of power and wealth had changed but historians have argued that this would have happened through the growth of industrialisation and modernisation without the war. However, it is difficult to know how sectional interests would have been reconciled. Ironically, A. Smith in his book The American Civil War describes how the 1898 war against Spain was the symbolic moment of togetherness in which white northerners and white southerners fought together under the same flag..The cult of reunion was essentially an agreement by two parties in the Civil War.. to exclude the third party, black people, from the post-war settlement. He continues to describe the ‘peace Jubilee’ held in 1913 on the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg, where the surviving veterans, Confederate and Union, sang ‘God Bless America’ together. America continued to favour the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male as it had always done; these were the men that were marked out for the ‘manifest destiny’ and were lauded for their valour and heroism. The social order did not really change as a result of the Civil War and there were many contextual factors which led to the continent of America emerging out of its colonial past. (2153 words)
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Appendix, Figure 3
Appendix, Figures 1 & 2
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US States by Date of Statehood
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