The year 1861 marked the beginning of the US Civil War. History text books tell us that the war was fought primarily over the issue of slavery; but this viewpoint is an overt oversimplification of the issue. Though slavery was an issue of contention on both sides, and one used vociferously by the north to rally support, the drums of war were sounding for many years prior and in reality, center overwhelmingly on the role of the federal government in relation to state’s rights. The civil war was largely a manifestation of the great question plaguing the founding fathers since the inception of the nation: should the national government be strong or weak?
Limitations on the continuation of slavery had been put in place long before the Civil War; including an 1819 law passed by the US government that equated trading slaves with piracy and therefore, made the offense punishable by death.
The exponential increase in the power of the federal government in the years before the Civil War was the foremost area of concern for the southern states. The southern states as a whole were angry about federal tariffs and the increase of those tariffs which decreased the income from the exportation of cotton in the year before the war by at least 10%. They were also angry about federal subsidies to northern business interests and felt that the north was purposely trying to gain economic control over the south. These issues added fuel to the already years old debate of how powerful the national government should become. The north always had advocated for a strong federal power- as illustrated since the time just after the revolution when Alexander Hamilton created what could be regarded as the oldest predecessor of the Federal Reserve: The First Bank of the United States. The bank was originally created with the intent of giving value to the new national currency and paying down war debt but ended unsuccessfully. This gave rise in 1816 to the establishment of the Second Bank of the United States. This second national bank acted in many ways like the first, but grew much larger than its predecessor and also began making private commercial loans. It was brought an end in 1836 when President Andrew Jackson finally won in his crusade against the bank and pulled all federal monies from the bank’s depositories. Jackson, a southerner himself, regarded the bank as unconstitutional and like Thomas Jefferson, felt that a private banking institution controlling the issuance of our currency would be too hard to control and would ultimately prove to be an enemy of freedom. Jackson was proven correct in his suspicions upon announcing his intent to end the charter of the banking institution. The bank’s director, Nicholas Biddle, began using the resources of the institution itself against Jackson in a bid to keep the bank alive.
With tensions already high, the rise of the Republican Party, the nation’s first truly regional party, brought the distrust between the northern and southern states to a head. The Republicans advocated a strong central government and in order to appeal to the northern voters, from whom they drew all of their support, they began making extraordinarily inflammatory speeches towards the interests of the southern states and against the southern states themselves. Upon Lincoln’s rise to prominence within the party, he originally took a conciliatory stance with the south. Lincoln initially supported a constitutional amendment that would continue slavery forever, agreed that the constitution did support slavery, and supported the Fugitive Slave Law. Lincoln was primarily interested in preserving the integrity of the union over fanning the flames of divisiveness, even though members of his own party used the divisive issue of slavery to garner votes throughout the north. This may explain why Lincoln did not officially declare an end to the practice of slavery until two years after the Civil War began when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863.
When the first seven states to secede and join the Confederacy penned their declarations for the causes of secession, they were largely concerned with economic issues, as discussed above. When Lincoln and the Republican Party took power, the first wave of secession began out of fear that the national government would make unconstitutional power grabs in order to control the south. The last four states to secede and join the Confederacy were Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. These states initially intended to remain in the union but seceded upon Lincoln’s announcement that he would launch an invasion of the south in order to keep the union intact. This announcement was a direct manifestation of the deepest fear of many people within the south- an unchecked power grab against personal liberty by the north.
Even the hero of the Battle of Mexico City (September 1847) and most senior and respected U.S. general of his time, Robert E. Lee, would not accept the invitation as offered to him first to lead the federal army- not because he believed in protecting the institution of slavery, but because he believed in the constitution’s guaranteed protection of individual liberty and repudiated the north’s forceful invasion of his homeland. And further regarding the issue of slavery, we must understand that each of the confederate states reserved within their own state constitutions the right to end the institution of slavery and provided that free states were allowed to join the confederacy if they so desired.
The primary cause of the Civil War can be regarded as a question of what role the national government should play within our society. It is the same question we are going to be forced to address again in 2012.
In our present day, we have seen a massive increase in the power of the national government predicated on the necessity to guarantee security. We have seen a coordinated attack on the 1st, 2nd, and 4th amendments of our constitution. Federal power is everywhere from within our classrooms to regulating every aspect of the value of the money we hold in our wallets. At present, the power of our national government reaches beyond anything the people of the United States and the Confederacy in the 1860’s would have ever conceived. We have drones in the sky to watch us from overhead, we have the TSA in place to restrict our travel, we have the Federal Reserve in place to control our wealth and our money, and the list goes on and on and on.
History repeats itself and this is why it is important to understand that these issues discussed above matter a great deal. They matter so much that countless numbers of men and women have been willing to die for them.
At the core of the outbreak of the Civil War and of all socio-economic and political strife today lays one question. What kind of role should the national government play in our lives?
History of Banking
Essay about secession: