A review of America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, by David Goldfield (Bloomsbury Press, 2011).
Whether or not the American Civil War might have been avoided has long been a subject of debate among historians. Some, like Allan Nevins and Charles and Mary Beard, saw the war as “an irrepressible conflict,” in the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, between two separate civilizations; others, like Avery Craven and James G. Randall, viewed the conflict as eminently avoidable but for, in Randall’s famous phrase, a “blundering generation” of politicians who simply failed to solve what was essentially a political problem.
David Goldfield, who describes himself as “anti-war, particularly the Civil War” (3), believes that the contest of arms between North and South could have been avoided but that the injection of evangelical Christianity—a “toxic factor”—into the political debate made compromise especially difficult. Goldfield is certainly not the first historian to see religion as a factor in the coming of the Civil War. He is one of the few, however, to argue that it exercised a greater influence on North than on the South.
The Second Great Awakening of the 1800s helped fuel the idea of Manifest Destiny, the notion that God intended America to expand ever-westward. At the same time that Protestant America was pushing aside supposedly inferior peoples like Native Americans and Mexicans in an effort to fulfill God’s will, it was also combating what it saw as the evils in its midst that would preclude the Second Coming of Christ. The millennial spirit of the Awakening in the North targeted alcohol (a topic that Goldfield neglects), slavery, and Roman Catholicism, and thus were born the temperance, abolition, and Know-Nothing movements. These three movements comprised key elements of the sectional Republican Party, born in the 1850s, that put Lincoln in the White House and the country on the road to civil war.
In his first chapter, “Crusades,” Goldfield describes the destructiveness of the millennial spirit. Laudably, Goldfield addresses a subject often neglected by political historians and almost entirely forgotten by twenty-first century Americans: the prevailing anti-Catholicism of nineteenth-century America. Indeed, fear of “popery” played a prominent role in American political cultural since the earliest settlements. Most colonies enacted laws aimed at their Catholic inhabitants, ranging from the denial of voting rights and the holding of public office to the prohibition of gun-owning. During the American Revolutionary era, anti-Catholicism fueled the drive for independence from Great Britain. The Quebec Act of 1774 terrorized Americans into thinking that the Crown’s tolerance of Catholicism in Canada was a prelude to the Pope’s leading an army of his followers southward to conquer the freedom-loving Protestants of North America. Rabble-rouser Samuel Adams of Boston warned Americans that there was more to fear from “popery” than from any measure enacted by Parliament against the colonies.
Indeed, Adams’ Massachusetts was historically the most virulent persecutor of Catholics. One of Massachusetts Bay’s earliest laws called for priests who refused to leave the colony to be executed. It was in this culture that the Ursuline nuns came (from Quebec!) to Boston in 1819. They soon established a school for girls, a rarity in America at the time. Its success in educating not only Catholic girls but the daughters of wealthy Protestant families aroused resentment among the Protestant working classes of the town. It did not help that the convent was situated on a Charlestown hill above Boston and thus provided a constant visual reminder of its presence. On an August night in 1834, a mob of working-class Protestants besieged the convent and burned it to the ground. Goldfield draws a direct line between the violent anti-Catholicism of this event and the war of brother against brother that followed more than a quarter-century later: “The passions that fueled the convent fire would nearly immolate the nation in a ruinous civil war” (4).
Goldfield contends that the anti-Catholic and anti-slavery impulses “shared a number of common characteristics and some of the same personnel” (25). In the wake of the burning of the Ursuline convent, girls who had “escaped” the clutches of Catholic nuns published colorful accounts of their experiences inside nunneries. Rebecca Reed’s Six Months in a Convent, which detailed the Protestant girl’s alleged imprisonment by the Ursuline nuns, sold 10,000 copies in Boston during its first week in print. Even more popular was Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hôtel Dieu Nunnery, which was the second-best-selling book in America before the Civil War, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Reed’s and Monk’s books, Goldfield argues, established a genre that abolitionists would mimic. Accounts of slave life also aimed to “shock the reader” and suggest that the institution was “destructive of normal family life, faith, and republican sensibilities” (25). Abolition, like anti-Catholicism, derived from the same crusading impulse, and the solution to the evils of slavery and Romanism was for government to take action to quash the sinners within: “If slaveholders mocked the founding principles of American government, restrict their movement, and ultimately their livelihood. . . . If Roman Catholics flooded American cities with their foreign allegiances, secretive ways, and despotic hierarchy, then convert them, or limit their rights” (24-25).
Goldfield clearly fears the influence of religion on politics: “In a nation of laws, when political leaders advocate working outside those boundaries, especially invoking the deity as an authority, trouble can only follow” (6). And again: “As for interpreting God, according to evangelical doctrine that is the individual’s right and responsibility. The danger is that such a religious standard applied to politics makes each person a law unto himself” (7). In this context, Goldfield points to what he sees as the inherent danger of Seward’s famous idea of a law higher than the Constitution, and he also cringes at Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, in which the Illinois Senate candidate quoted the Gospel and spoke of the divide between North and South as fundamentally moral, not political, in nature.
Goldfield, like Jeffrey Rogers Hummel in Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, laments the fact that the United States, almost alone among Western nations, failed to find a peaceable economic solution to the issue of slavery. But like Hummel, Goldfield is unconvincing in his suggestion that an economic solution was ever within reach. “If, upon Lincoln’s inauguration, the government had purchased the freedom of four million slaves and granted a forty-acre farm to each slave family, the total cost would have been $3.1 billion . . . . And not a single life would have been lost” (305-306). Yet even Goldfield acknowledges that such compensated emancipation gained no traction in the border states during the war, and it is unrealistic to think that the Southern states would have had any interest in such a plan.
Like Hummel again, Goldfield suggests that while the war emancipated slaves, its most momentous outcome was the enslaving of free men through its forging of a powerful, centralized government. “By the end of the Civil War,” Goldfield writes, “the government supported an army of a million men, carried a national debt of $2.5 billion, distributed public lands, printed a national currency, and collected an array of internal taxes. This transformation in national power . . . overshadowed the liberation of four million slaves in terms of its long-range impact on all Americans” (302).
Goldfield’s controversial conclusion here is spot on, but for some reason he also asserts that “the Republicans did not set out to establish a strong national state or to facilitate the industrial revolution” (302) and describes the unprecedented growth of federal power during the Civil War as “among the most sterling examples of unintended consequences in American history” (303). This is odd, as Goldfield himself details Lincoln’s centralizing measures that sapped power from the states. He somehow overlooks the fact that Lincoln was an ardent admirer of Henry Clay and his “American system” of internal improvements, which was designed to transform the country into a manufacturing power that could compete with any European nation. Lincoln, whose administration was filled with leftist European emigrés favoring state power, followed in a long line of American nationalists, from Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to John Marshall and Clay.
America Aflame shows what a combustible combination is created when crusading fanaticism is allied with centralized power. This is a work that compels the reader to look northward for the causes of the American Civil War and to Washington, D.C. for its ramifications. In so doing, he or she may find that the conflict was the result not of folly or fate, but was instead the design of a relatively few religious and political radicals.