On the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Americans are engaged in new debates over what it was about. Southern revisionists have long tried to claim it wasn’t about slavery, but rather “Northern aggression” â€“ which is a tough sell since they seceded from the Union despite Lincoln’s attempts at compromise on slavery, and then attacked the federal Fort Sumter in South Carolina. That would be Southern aggression, by any standard.
But there’s still room for smart revisionism. Instead of the traditional view that finds the Civil War a great moral and political triumph, David Goldfield calls it “America’s greatest failure” in his fascinating new book, “America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation.” It killed a half-million Americans and devastated the South for generations, maybe through today. And while many Northern Republicans came to embrace abolishing slavery as one of the war’s goals, Goldfield shows that Southerners are partly right when they say the war’s main thrust was to establish Northern domination, in business and in culture. Most controversially, Goldfield argues passionately — with strong data and argument, but not entirely convincingly — that the Civil War was a mistake. Instead of liberating African Americans, he says, it left them subject to poverty, sharecropping and Jim Crow violence and probably retarded their progress to become free citizens.
Whether or not you accept that premise â€“ more on that later â€“ Goldfield shows definitively that Northern evangelical Protestants were the moral force behind the war, and once they turned it into a religious question, a matter of good v. evil, political compromise was impossible. The Second Great Awakening set its sights on purging the country of the sins of slavery, drunkenness, impiety — as well as Catholics, particularly Irish Catholic immigrants. Better than any history I’ve seen, Goldfield tracks the disturbing links between abolitionism and nativism. In fact, he starts his book with the torching of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Mass., in 1834, a violent attack on Catholics which Goldfield shows was “incited” by Lyman Beecher, the father of the Beecher clan, most of whom turned out to be as anti-Irish Catholic as they were anti-slavery. To evangelical Protestant nativists, Catholicism was incompatible with democracy, because its adherents allegedly gave their loyalty to the Pope, not the president, and the religion’s emphasis on obeying a hierarchy made them unfit for self-government. Also, rebellious Irish Catholics didn’t show the proper discipline or deference to conform to emerging industrial America. The needs of Northern business were never far from some (though not all) abolitionists’ minds.
– Joan Walsh