A Bostonian on the Causes of the War, Part I

By May 3, 2014June 22nd, 2021Review Posts

George Lunt

Part I from a section of Dr. Scott Trask’s work in progress, Copperheads and Conservatives.

[The extent and respectability of Northern opposition to Lincoln and his war is one of the best kept secrets of American history. The widespread notion that Northerners, except for a very few evil traitors, rallied in enthusiastic support of Lincoln and his revolutionary invasion and conquest of the South, is resoundingly false. In fact, Lincoln’s control of the North was always a close thing and could never be taken for granted. It was maintained by unprecedentedly lavish expenditure of government money and favours, brutal suppression of dissent, relentless propaganda demonizing the South, army control of elections, payment of huge bounties to soldiers, and the importation of a quarter of a million foreigners to fill up the ranks. George Lunt was not strictly speaking antiwar and he was much milder in his criticism of the Republican party’s devastation of the Constitution and the Union than were antiwar Northerners. But that a Bostonian would publish such a balanced study of the war’s causes right after the Northern victory necessarily adds much to our understanding of the complexities of that great conflict..]

Academic historians continue to regard their work as one of scientific objectivity, one of the corollaries being that the more removed the historian is from the events he or she describes the more reliable the finished work. John Lukacs has argued against such dogma. He believes that history is an art, not a science, that objectivity is a pretense and a delusion, that the historian who writes of the events of his own time “has a potentially (but, of course, only potentially) inestimable advantage over other observers.” (See his Historical Consciousness, published in 1968, his highly original and sometimes startling study of the writing of history.) George Lunt possessed an abundance of the kind of participant and observer knowledge that Lukacs considered so potentially valuable, and which no later historian, no matter how diligent or dedicated, can hope to match. Is it not reasonable to assume that a man who came of age during the Monroe administration, had a liberal education, practiced law, enjoyed abundant leisure as was the custom of the time for men such as he, read the papers daily, subscribed to journals, and regularly discussed politics with colleagues and friends, would not know something significant about what led to the civil war? Would he not have possessed not only a wealth of detailed knowledge of the events, but what is even more valuable, and impossible to recover, an intimacy with the subtle breezes and changing winds of public opinion? While later historians might have access to sources (e.g. private letters) unknown to him, they can never recover this man’s participant, contemporary knowledge.

Our man was a conservative Bostonian, a Webster Whig turned conservative Democrat, a Harvard graduate, a Massachusetts state senator (in the 1830s), the United States attorney for the eastern district of Massachusetts (1849-53), and a journalist, co-editor of the Boston Daily Courier, with George Hillard, before and during the fateful war. Like most northern conservatives, he had reluctantly supported the war for the union, but not the war against slavery or the south, nor the policies and programs of the Lincoln administration. He wrote The Origin of the Late War in less than eight months, beginning right after the close of hostilities, finishing it in early December 1865. His name was George Lunt (1803-1885). How many educated Americans, no how many historians of the period, have ever heard of him? Or know that he, a northerner, wrote the first apologia for “the lost cause”? It must be stressed what no doubt will be ignored by the would be censors of this book that for Lunt the lost cause was not the plantation south nor was it slavery, it was the federal constitutional polity of his country.

The theory of slavery’s exclusive culpability is of ancient and partisan origin, antedating even Appomattox, but it has never ruled as absolutely as it has in the aftermath of the second Reconstruction, better known as the “civil rights revolution.” Modern Americans, utilitarian and Manichaean to the core, have never had as little use for doctrines of shared culpability or complex causation as they do today. Thus, apart from a few renegade racialists and neo-confederate bushwackers riding far outside the frontier of respectable opinion, there is no longer any question or doubt that the slavery was the single, sole cause of the war. It was not always that way. During the war, it was a minority view, even in the north. Much of the northern public, including even some who had voted for Lincoln, blamed the abolitionists for it; others blamed extremists in both sections; only very partisan Republicans blamed only the south and slavery. Precisely because so many blamed them, and not only the southerners, the Republicans sought to pin the war on slavery. It would both exculpate them and sanctify the cause in a holy aura. (Now anyone can see why the Republicans would want to wash their hands of all responsibility for the carnage, but why do modern historians continue to do the same, a hundred and fifty years later, blaming one side and sanctifying the other?) The prestige of victory, as well as its spoils, meant more than evidence or argument to most people, and the national image, pure and unsullied, demanded a villain whose vile transgressions were un-American, and whose defeat in a purifying war could become the occasion of national congratulation. And so it was, and still is. Yet even during the flush times of postwar military triumph, there were dissenters: defiant southerners and dissident northerners who refused to buy stock in the new national firm. As passions cooled, as the northern public soured on reconstruction (most northern Democrats opposed it from the beginning), as people had second thoughts, the war was increasingly viewed as a national tragedy, necessary perhaps, but no cause for rejoicing, with plenty of blame to go around. During the early and middle part of the twentieth century, some historians even argued that the war had been unnecessary. That had been Lunt’s opinion from the beginning of the fighting to its tragic close.

It has often been remarked that slavery was merely the occasion, not the cause, of the late civil war. … Slavery, in the popular sense, was the cause, just as property is the cause of robbery. Rightfully or wrongfully in the country at first, it was here under the protection of the law, and not subject to be taken away by violence, or by any insidious device of abstraction. The motive for the allegation springs from a desire to throw the blame for the tremendous conflict upon one section alone, and to excuse the other. The object is to make it appear that the country would have remained at peace, had it not been for the ambitious instigators of rebellion at the South. … It thus seems that the latter [the North] would have consented to allow slavery to remain undisturbed in the South but for the agitation of the question in that part of the country where it existed. According to this theory, therefore, those whose manifest interest and supposed personal security depended upon keeping the matter quiet, voluntarily and causelessly made it a subject of dispute, which gathered additional vehemence until it terminated in open war.

Here was the approved history of the rebellion, which did not go unchallenged at the time or for long afterward, but in a hundred years would harden into a rigid and punitive orthodoxy. Lunt seems to have anticipated that the opposite would happen, that not slavery but abolitionism would be blamed as the initiating cause of the war. “The future impartial historian of the republic will not be likely to fail in the conclusion, that those gradually accumulating causes which at length, according to the ordinary motives which govern the actions of mankind, rendered the war inevitable” resulted from “hostility to a fact in the domestic life of one section of the country, which was recognized as a matter of fundamental national law by the spirit and terms of the original compact between all the States.” He attributed the origin of that hostility to the religious culture of Greater New England, which even if it were no longer orthodox remained Puritanical, that is intolerant, zealous, and above all, pharisaical. “Their antislavery sentiment was an offshoot, or the bequest of the old Puritan intolerant spirit, self-conscious of no blemish of its own, but uneasily seeking for some spot elsewhere, upon which it might fasten itself and scrub it up into cleanliness, or a sore. It could not bear the thought of letting the wheat and the tares grow together unto the appointed day.” It was the political triumph of that hostility in 1860 that Lunt believed drove the Gulf States to the desperate, if unconstitutional, expedient of secession and was the precipitating cause of the war.

Lunt believed that northern abolitionism, from its beginnings around 1830, contained within itself the germ of violent revolution. This was evident, first of all, in their militant and abusive rhetoric, begun by Garrison in the pages of the Liberator but soon becoming general to the whole movement, which to Lunt “seemed more like objurgations against foreign enemies, than appeals to fellow citizens.” And secondly, in their presumption of moral superiority and political authority about a matter for which “they had no legal or moral responsibility.” To begin a campaign against an institution recognized and protected by the Constitution and one over which the federal government had very little jurisdiction, and to do so in a spirit of censure and dictation, was to begin “a needless and unjust domestic quarrel against the welfare and peace of the whole.” For the professed goal of the movement could be reached in only one of two ways: either by “the willing assent of the South [under] the influence of argument and persuasion, or else the destruction of that system by force which implied a revolution in the whole country through abrogation of the Constitution.” Lunt believed, as we shall see, that the abolitionists very early on gave up on trying to persuade slaveholders to relinquish their slaves, which left only the methods of political compulsion and military force, which were necessarily related.

James McPherson asserts that “religious fanaticism and ethnic hatreds played almost no role” in motivating the northern soldiers and mobilizing their neighbours. That would have amused Lunt, who would know better why his New England neighbors marched off to war, or cheered the troops from their front lawns, or voted Republican, than an historian writing a hundred and fifty years later. Lunt had no doubt that religious fervor and nationalist sentiment motivated the mass of the northern soldierly, and before that had fueled the fires of abolitionism and the antagonism of sectionalism.

But none of that fully explains the war. Moral revulsion against slavery was not strong enough, by itself, either to empower the Republican party or motivate the northern army. (Americans need to be reminded constantly, or perhaps simply taught, that the northern masses did not rush into the streets in April 1861, and later march south, in order to extirpate slavery.) “Nations seldom, or never, have fought for a principle, merely; and when they have seemed to do so, it will be found that practical causes have been previously at work to bring them up to the final point.” How true was that during this war. Altruism might be able to motivate a small minority, even to the sacrifice of life, but large masses of people? Even more absurd was the notion that existing or aspiring elites, bent on the amassing of wealth and power, would go to war out of altruism or principle. However flattering to national vanity, such a notion is hopelessly naïve and contradicted by human nature and the experience of ages.

Slavery, though made an occasion, was not, in reality, the cause of the war. Antislavery was of no serious consequence, and had no positive influence, until politicians, at a late period, seized upon it as an instrument of agitation; and they could not have done so to any mischievous effect, except for an alleged diversity of interests between the sections, involving the question of political power. Wise and patriotic citizens for a long time kept those interests at the proper balance, or the passions which were thus stimulated under just control. As those great men passed away, self-seeking and ambitious demagogues, the pest of republics, disturbed the equilibrium, and were able, at length, to plunge the country into that worst of all public calamities, civil war. The question of morals had as little as possible to do with the result. Philanthropy might have sighed, and fanaticism have howled for centuries in vain, but for the hope of office and the desire of public plunder, on the part of men who were neither philanthropists nor fanatics.

That sums up Lunt’s theory of what was behind the war. “Politically, [slavery] was a matter of no real consequence to Northern interests, supposing that Northern interests were fairly entitled to regard, separately from the common good; for in reality, the North far surpassed the South in numbers and political power, to which every year was contributing a large increase.” But the southern states remained strong enough to have a veto power over economic policies favored by northern elites (first advocated by the Whigs, then by the Republicans): high protective tariffs, a national bank and a national paper currency, vigorous promotion of transportation projects. “The North could only complain of the South for resistance to its political objects, with which it had seen fit to mix up certain moral and religious views.”

While most historians today think of sectionalism as exclusively southern and mostly political, being merely an expression of the ambitions of the slaveholding class, Lunt saw competing sectionalisms that were growing into rival nationalisms. He observed of his own native Massachusetts that “no state has been at times more exclusive or sectional.” But more than that, he saw an aggressive northern sectionalism, conjured by radical religion to serve interest and ambition, as more to blame for the war than the corresponding southern kind, which he saw as a largely defensive reaction to the former. Thus his conclusion that “the civil war … was actually begun by the North, as well as the South, upon merely political, and not upon moral or philanthropical considerations.” He dismissed the idea of an aggressive southern “slave power” as propaganda.

“It has been asserted, that of four several compromises between the two sections of country, since the Revolutionary war, each has been kept by the South and violated by the North. These four are the settlement of the Constitution, that one specifically styled the Missouri Compromise, the adjustment of the nullification trouble with South Carolina and the States in concert with it, and the various legislative measures of the year 1850.” That was Lunt’s view. The first and last were broken by the northern states’ refusal, beginning in the 1840s, to fully fulfill their constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves, and then active resistance and de facto nullification, during the 1850s, of the 1850 law, an integral part of the compromise of that year, providing for a federal enforcement mechanism. The second compromise was broken, before the Kansas-Nebraska legislation, by the refusal of the northern majority in Congress to extend the Missouri Compromise line across the territories acquired from Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, and the third by the tariff of 1842, which raised import duties above the twenty percent threshold agreed to in 1833 by Congress.

By the time of the 1860 elections, it was “as if two independent nations” existed within the same federal polity, warily eying each other with suspicion, hate, and fear. Historians today are quick to deny the existence of rival nationalisms, but how else does one explain the sectional divide, regional secession, and a geographic civil war? To ask the same question in a different way, why would those who stood side by side firing into the ranks of the British (twice), and the Mexicans just twelve years before, be prepared to plunge the bayonet into their former comrades in arms? How did they come to regard sister states as virtually hostile foreign countries? What were the “events leading to that hostile state of feeling preliminary to a trial of strength between rival powers”?

The asking of these questions of academic historians, or of the punditocracy (an American version of the old Soviet nomenklatura), is met by the robotic answer that it was “all about slavery.” That may explain why southerners seceded in 1860 and 1861 (for fear of the insecurity of slavery under an antislavery administration and Congress, and fear of the consequences of the loss of sectional balance in the Senate), but it does not explain why a majority of northerners contested secession in 1861. Unlike southerners, whose country was being invaded, they were under no necessity to fight, nothing actually belonging to them was threatened at all. So why did they fight? For Lunt, the answer was interest and sentiment. And here he makes a crucial distinction (no longer made by historians or pundits such is the grip of democratist ideology) between the motivations of the leaders versus the people. For the former it was in their political and economic interest to fight, just as it was previously to denounce slavery and the slave power, but for the latter it was militant religion and primitive nationalism. The Republican party, without which there would have been no war, represented the coming together of the sacred and the profane: self-righteous indignation over the sins of others, national and sectional pride, political ambition, and economic interest.

Lunt believed that understanding what had caused the war, what had motivated the political leaders to conspire and the laboring masses of the north to fight, would presage the future, because victory would allow the victors to act without restraint or opposition, thus revealing their real motivations and objectives.

If it should appear that the antislavery agitation, leading to such terrible public and private evils, was actually factitious [artificial, contrived] in its origin and character, … and was, in reality, the fruit of a struggle for political power, instead of a moral and philanthropical demonstration, a very grave question is thus presented for the consideration of the American people. For, whatever contentment they might feel at the result, … they may not be so well satisfied with the demoralization of their civil fabric, in subserviency to merely factious motives and partisan ends.

Bear in mind that Lunt wrote this remarkable and prescient passage in 1865 just months after the war had ended. In it he correctly predicts the coming of the Gilded Age, the reign of the robber barons, the corruption of politics, and the triumph of economic selfishness. Since he was right about the course of the future, when so many others were wrong (those who believed that the war would purify and ennoble the nation, that northern victory would give birth to an era of universal justice and freedom), then perhaps he was right too about what led to the war, about why it never should have been fought, and the damage he believed it had done to the country. Certainly the Republican abandonment of Reconstruction just ten years after it had begun, for reasons of political expediency, both times, suggests that those same reasons may have prompted its institution.

A Federal Constitutional Republic

Lunt believed the war had been a catastrophe. It “has destroyed more than half a million of men who were fellow-citizens, and … placed the free institutions of the country in a state of peril still furnishing grounds for just apprehension.” Lincoln’s reputation for greatness rests upon his claim to have preserved the Union, defended the Constitution, and saved the country, all conservative achievements, yet northerners who opposed the war believed something closer to the opposite: that he had destroyed the union, shredded the Constitution, and ruined the country. They made a distinction between the appearance of a thing and the reality or substance behind it. In 1865, the federal union appeared to have been restored, the Constitution to have survived, yet had not both been altered by the war? “Hence the question may yet remain to be settled, whether, merely to have kept the Republic together in form, should it prove to have been by a practical subversion of the Constitution, is to have preserved it as it was delivered to us by our fathers, or to make it answer any of its original ends.”

It should be no surprise that Lunt was accused of being proslavery. He denied the accusation. It was not “to uphold slavery for its own sake” that “the most enlightened and liberal statesmen of the country have refused, from the beginning of the government, to engage in a moral or political crusade against the inhabitants of the South,” it was to uphold the Constitution, the great charter of American liberty and law, which recognized and protected it. “If that charter was broken in regard to one section, it could have no vital force to secure protection to another. The defence of the Constitution in every particular, therefore, was the common cause of all who desired to uphold the Government in its integrity.” And since abolitionism engendered sectional discord and if persisted in threatened eventual civil strife, it was opposed by all those who were concerned about “the common safety of the whole body politic.”

There were those then, as there are now, who conceded that the president may have exceeded his powers or transgressed certain provisions of the Constitution, but that no lasting damage had been done by acts which were temporary and required by the circumstances. Lunt disagreed. He believed that once the Constitution is violated with impunity, it surely would be again. Ambitious leaders will never lack reasons (e.g. military necessity, national emergency, exceptional circumstances) for surmounting constitutional obstacles to their program. The precedent once established is fatal. If what was done was popular, or perceived as necessary, or regarded as beneficial, future usurpers will cite it as justification, and innovation can claim the authority of tradition. Such a procedure invalidates the whole purpose of a written Constitution in a republic, which is to check ambition and usurpation by forcing leaders to go back to the people for additional grants of power.

Ask anyone with a smattering of education, “what is a republic?,” and the reply will invariably be, “a representative democracy.” It should give one pause that Rousseau, who was well read in classical philosophy and ancient history, considered the phrase to be a contradiction in terms. Neither Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, or Cicero would have classified a polity in which elected officials (even if called representatives) crafted and voted on the laws, as a democracy, or as a republic. They would have classified it as an aristocracy or oligarchy.

Lunt’s conception of a republic was rather more complex, as befitting one with a classical education, and included three components: a government of laws, a government of popular participation, and a government of the whole (i.e. a commonwealth). He understood the historical tendency of even the best governments to degenerate into an opposite, perverted form. “The forms of a republic may for a time … remain,” long after “the life of the republic [has] departed.” The change need not be violent or sudden. On the contrary, it may happen gradually and peacefully, and the public, preoccupied with their farms and businesses, may not even be aware of the change. “Hence, things may often be at their worst, when they seem the smoothest; the power of the State may easily and imperceptibly pass from the many to the few, or the one; and popular liberty, so difficult to be won and established, may be lost beyond recovery.” The framers, he believed, understood this tendency toward corruption, and took care that their “system should be republican in reality, as well as in profession, instead of a practical despotism under the guise of a republican name.” Their two safeguards were a written Constitution and a decentralized power structure, i.e. federalism. The written provisions of the Constitution—particularly the enumeration and limitation of federal powers, the amendment procedure, and the bill of rights—together guard “against every possible assumption of arbitrary authority.” But just as important was the diffusion of power among the thirteen political communities that would form the federal union, a diffusion codified and protected by the Tenth Amendment; for by restraining “the exercise of central authority within specific limits, and by opposing local diverse barriers to arbitrary encroachments, it maintained the spirit and form of popular independence.”

Under the confederation of the 1780s, the states were fully sovereign (“each State retains its sovereignty and independence”). The federal union “in no way impairs this sovereignty, except in regard to powers specifically delegated to the United States by it, and not prohibited by it to the States.” The delegated powers included only those that “could not be exercised conveniently and wisely by the States in Congress, under their earlier compact.” All other powers “not expressly granted by that instrument remained with the several States, under their separate constitutions and laws.” These were the reserved powers of the states, given explicit protection by the Tenth Amendment. The existence of two distinct sovereignties, that of the states and that of the union, created a balance and reciprocal check essential to the survival of self-government and the rule of law or constitutional republicanism.

H. A. Scott Trask

H.A. Scott Trask holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of South Carolina and is an independent historian.

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