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The Civil War was a choice

By David Goldfield, Special to CNN
  • David Goldfield: Civil War U.S.' greatest political failure; slavery issue too much for system
  • He says the Second Great Awakening religious movement reframed the issue of slavery
  • He says volatile mix of religion, politics left no room for compromise; carnage ensued
  • Goldfield: Compromise not possible; cascading events led to 620,000 avoidable deaths

Editor's note: David Goldfield is the Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History and the author of America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (Bloomsbury 2011). He has written and edited 16 books on Southern history. He serves as a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and runs seminars on American history and culture for the U.S. State Department abroad.

(CNN) -- One-hundred-fifty years ago Tuesday, Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Thirty-four hours later the siege ended with the surrender of the fort. Major Robert Anderson, a Kentuckian -- and the Federal commander of the fort -- reported no deaths from the bombardment.

But what followed would become the bloodiest war in American history.

The Civil War was America's greatest political failure. Americans went to war with each other because the political system could not contain the issue of slavery.

Slavery had become a religious cause for both North and South. Political scientist Clinton Rossiter wrote a half-century ago, "No America without democracy, no democracy without politics, no parties without compromise and moderation." But compromise and moderation are nearly impossible when each side believes itself righteous and the other damned. For how do you compromise with sin?

The Second Great Awakening, a religious revival movement that emerged in the early part of the 19th century, inspired millions of Americans to embrace Jesus Christ as their personal savior,. But it also propelled some to use their faith to wield public policy as a righteous club against those they perceived as a threat to the second coming of Christ -- especially slaveholders and Roman Catholics.

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The mixture of religion and politics eroded the political center and privileged the extremes. Abraham Lincoln, a railroad lawyer and former congressman, joined the exodus from the middle ground. His new political home, the Republican Party, attacked both slavery and Roman Catholics with equal righteous certitude, though Lincoln himself denounced religious bigotry.

When Lincoln campaigned for the U.S. Senate in Illinois in 1858, the Republican Party's slogan was "The Two Despotisms -- Catholicism and Slavery --Their Union and Identity." He declared that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," paraphrasing both Matthew 12:25 and Mark 3:25. It reflected his growing belief that conflict between the North and South was inevitable. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nor were Southerners immune from rendering the political process rigid with religious imagery. Benjamin M. Palmer, one of the South's leading evangelical clergymen, preached that Southerners were fulfilling God's command "to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of slavery."

The Civil War happened when a political system dependent on moderation and compromise could find no moderates to champion its cause. The result was unprecedented carnage. Yes, slavery ended, but it would take at least another century for African-Americans to achieve the promise of that freedom. And the Union that was saved -- an urbanizing and industrializing behemoth -- would have flourished without the South. In fact, Dixie was a drag on the American enterprise well into the 20th century.

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Who is to say slavery would not have collapsed in a Confederacy of seven members (the states that seceded before Sumter), with the institution barred from expansion and the new nation isolated in a world increasingly hostile to slavery. Or that slaves themselves would not have found numerous routes to freedom in the neighboring Union. We will never know, of course, but war need not have been the only route to liberation. Other slaveholding nations found other ways.

Some wars are inevitable. America's involvement in World War II is the prominent example. But the American Civil War was not a foregone conclusion. There were points along the journey to war when violence could have been averted.

Americans had compromised on slavery at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, over the Missouri controversy in 1820, and during the debate over the admission of California to the Union in 1850. Following Lincoln's election in November 1860 and the secession of seven states in the South, several compromise proposals floated about that had some bipartisan backing.

If Lincoln had withdrawn his forces from Fort Sumter, things could have been different; if Confederate President Jefferson Davis had heeded his secretary of state, Robert Toombs, and had not fired the first shot; if Lincoln had not ordered troops to quell the rebellion in South Carolina. But none of this occurred.

Backing down is rarely perceived as an exercise in strength. But the consequences of war are seldom calculated. Wars are easy to begin, much more difficult to end, and they often end with unimagined consequences. The Civil War was a war of choice, not of necessity. And the 620,000 men who died, the millions more who mourned them and the soldiers who returned home maimed in body and mind deserved the greater effort that peace would have required.

As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war that began at Sumter, let us remember the courage of the men who fought and let us honor the men who died. But it would have been a greater tribute to our nation had they lived.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Goldfield

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