The Proximate Cause

Over at InstaPundit, Ed Driscoll is pointing out how foolish Nikki Haley is to have fallen for the perennial trap of a Republican being asked about the causes of the Civil War. A Republican in particular cannot afford to answer this question otherwise than briefly and dogmatically; it is for others to explore the nuances. Even then, it is often said that a high school student will tell you that the war was over slavery; a grad student will tell you about nuances of economics and power; but a professor will explain again that all of those nuances were rooted in slavery.

There is a question worth exploring -- and this election cycle of all times -- about the proximate cause of the Civil War. What caused the war to become a thing that had to be fought, replacing a tense situation with the necessity of so very many Americans killing each other? 

One answer could be the election of Abraham Lincoln -- or, to put it in terms relevant to today, the very narrow election of a candidate who did not come from the major established political factions, to whose power a large part of the country was intensely opposed. Had one of the other three(!) candidates won, the war might have not occurred (or at least not at that time). As it was, Lincoln took power with less than forty percent of the vote, though a convincing majority in the electoral college.

Lincoln's election was, I think, definitely the cause of secession -- at least, the first wave of secession, which was only seven states in the Deep South. I don't think it was the proximate cause of the war. As he was inaugurated he was escorted by both cavalry and infantry, with sharpshooters covering his approach. A similar scene followed the election in 2020, when the government similarly deployed a large military force to protect itself against assumed violence (which in fact never appeared, neither in 1861 nor 2021). 

This did not necessarily mean that war was inevitable. Lincoln's inauguaral address promised not "to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." If slavery was the cause of the war simpliciter, you might then say that this should have prevented violence from springing out. It might have given a window for negotiating a new vision with the Southern states that did not leave the Union, which if it had succeeded might have eventually persuaded the seven that did to return. 

Yet war followed very quickly. There are two other answers to the question of the proximate cause that occur to me. The first one is the general collapse of trust in the government under Lincoln to obey the Constitution. Southern states had moved to seize armories with their state militias, as they no longer believed the Federal government would respect their Second Amendment right to maintain armed militias. If they had trusted the courts to protect their rights, or had trusted Lincoln not to violate their rights, this might not have occurred. If they had sent lawyers instead, the country could have remained in a period of tension but not war. 

Alternatively, you can blame Lincoln's response to the seizure of the armories and fortifications. While he pledged not to interfere with slavery, he did assert in his inauguration that he planned to defend the Federal government's property rights. He did so with the deploment of troops. You might think that the South, which was in a large part going to war to defend a property claim as inviolable, might have been persuaded that the Federal government had a right to the buildings and land (if not the arms within them, that might be seized for militia purposes). These buildings included not just armories but harbor forts -- most famously Fort Sumpter. Allowing the President to reassert physical control over armories or armed batteries that could close the harbors meant, effectively, submission to Federal authority. There was just no trust left for that: the South decided that it had to resist while it still had arms and could seize back control of the fortifications that could either protect its harbors or close them. 

That last sentence ends up collapsing the two possible proximate causes into one: the collapse of trust in each other, without which it is impossible to accept being governed by the other side. War became necessary when force was used because trust was absent. 

In our own present case, the Trump side has proven its willingness to accept being governed by a side that seems hostile to it. They stood down even after a highly disputed election and allowed the other side to take power over them. That side has certainly been hostile to them in rhetorical terms, but also seems to be bent to using Federal power to dominate and control that side. Trump himself has not promised to forswear a similar use of such power if he should get the opportunity to use it. Even if he did promise, though, it is likely that his opponents would trust it as little as was trusted Lincoln's promise not to interfere with slavery. It is not clear to me that their side would similarly accept his election, trusting to their lawyers instead of to force. 

If there is another civil war blessedly it won't be caused by slavery, which our ancestors wisely put an end to long ago. The final cause of a second war may well be a conflict between power and liberty, in which the established and entrenched bureacracy will not allow itself to be dissolved or even restricted by an elected government it does not trust. 

The proximate cause is apt to be the same, however. That is a matter that ought to concern us. 


james said...

A good analysis. Trust is hard to rebuild.

On a tangent, we distinguish the proximate cause of war from the reasons for war, and both from the reasons for fighting.

The Confederate leaders weren't shy about the importance of slavery in their thinking, but it's hard to imagine that the rank and file would fight so somebody else could own slaves. Chesterton had thoughts.

Would a man fight to maintain a social structure in which there was at least somebody he could look down on? Maybe, but I'd think fighting for liberty or for your homeland would be a stronger motive.

I wonder if that's why there's such a push to tear down statues--not because of what we'd think of as evil deeds, but because they fought for something other than the fashionable ideology.

Tom said...

I think propaganda played a role in undermining that trust, and John Brown and the rest who made Kansas (and Missouri, etc.) bloody before the war officially began played their part as well. There were a number of Americans who shed blood over the slavery issue at that point.

In any case, with Lincoln's election, Republicans controlled the House, Senate, and Presidency and so they could set the terms for future states to enter the US. Lincoln said he would not do anything about slavery in the states where it already existed, and he was probably being honest. The Republican plan to end slavery depended on only allowing free states into the Union. Eventually, there would have been enough free states to pass a constitutional amendment to ban slavery throughout the US.

Anonymous said...

Read this somewhere recently. We now live in a nation where:

Doctors destroy health.
Lawyers destroy justice.
Universities destroy knowledge.
Governments destroy freedom.
The press destroys information,
Religion destroys morals.
And Banks destroy our economy.

It seems a concise summation of the multiple currents of contemporary discontent rippling with various degrees of intensity in the population. If, as argued in the article, the proximate cause of our Civil War the collapse of trust between our structured governments along geographic lines, then our current situation my have an additional layer of concern, namely a breakdown in trust of all the social norms that allow society to peacefully function. If everything is a lie … Mark78

Anonymous said...

Tom, I have to disagree with you. Immediately after the election of 1860, the Senate was still evenly split between Democrats and Republicans (and assuming the one Know Nothing party senator voted with the Democrats, held the majority by one). Remember, senators were appointed by the state legislatures back then. This would have still been sufficient to block the admission of new states. The Republicans only gained control of the Senate when Democratic senators renounced their US citizenship and joined the Confederacy. The D's lost 53 representatives similarly; had they stayed, they would have had 94 representatives (plus one "Southern Rights Party" representative)-- more than one third, which would prevent an amendment to the Constitution in its own right. If they had made common cause with the Unionist Party with 30 seats, they would have had a governing coalition in both chambers. (This is quite possible: the Unionist party was comprised of border staters who were generally pro-slavery.)

I would put the blame for "Bleeding Kansas" primarily on the slavery-supporting people in Missouri, who were registering to vote in both states to maintain control of the KS state constitutional convention. The free soil settlers actually gave up their previous homes, so were legitimately residents of the territory. And the first bloodshed was a Missouri slave-holder shooting a free-stater, followed by the town police trying to frame another free-stater for the murder, followed by a large group of slave-holders seizing militia weapons (including a cannon) and arranging a violent raid on free-staters in Lawrence (led by the sherriff). Yes, John Brown went around the bend; but it was already a violent area, and government was openly supporting the violent lawbreaking of one side.

-- Janet

Tom said...

Hi, Janet. Thank you for the correction on the numbers in the Senate.

And thanks for filling me in on Bleeding Kansas. I never really knew who started that business, and John Brown is the one name that comes to mind. (And Josey Wales, of course.)

He also came to mind when I was thinking about propaganda. I have read that newspapers in the North treated him as a hero and martyr and those in the South as a terrorist. Southerners were horrified by the Northern newspapers treatment of him and said that it showed the North's true intentions.

Grim said...

Southerners were very impressed with the courage of John Brown at his execution, however. Historian Kenneth S. Greenberg devotes part of his book on honor to that. While they were horrified by the implication of his attempt to arm a massive slave revolt, they respected his religious convictions and especially his stoic courage in the face of death.

Thos. said...

It is interesting that there could be that kind of respect, given how bitter the mistrust and animosity that led to the war had been.
In today's world, it is not fashionable to admit that someone not on your side of an issue can have any worthwhile attribute.

Grim said...

Stonewall Jackson was there present for Brown's execution, and described him as "cheerful" and "unflinching." Ironically the US Marines who captured Brown were led into the action by Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, while Stonewall Jackson was detailed to be an observer at the gallows.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It is always good to ask the secondary question "Why now?" When we would admit a chronic patient with multiple problems, it would be easy to suddenly get involved with trying to fix any number of them. He has active delusions, he lives in a bad neighborhood...

But, we would have to remind ourselves, last week he didn't need to come into the hospital. What changed? Not only the American Civil War, but all wars should be subjected to "Why now?" analysis.

Joel Leggett said...


That was a good analysis of the cause of the conflict. I concur. However, I think it bears pointing out that in inaugurating civil war to save the Union, Lincoln sacrificed the principle of consent of the governed as the basis of legitimate government. The Declaration of Independence made it clear that principle was a primary justification for our split from Great Britain. 1861 changed that forever. Bayonets, not ballots, would be the basis from which the powers of government were now derived.

Grim said...

It is true, as you say, that the war changed the basis. More: the winning strategy learned by Sherman in the war, that of waging war on the food supply, housing, women and children, was wielded again by him and his deputy Sheridan, and their cavalry commander Custer, against the Native Americans. The very same men who ended American slavery perpetrated America’s genocide.