Did Slavery Really Cause the Civil War?

These Are the Worst Military Leaders of the Civil War ...

Did Slavery Really Cause the Civil War?

Mark Stoler PhD

A Skeptic’s Look at American History (2012)

Film Review

This lecture is the eighth in the Kanopy American History course The Skeptic’s Guide to American History. My initial reaction is that Stoler probably isn’t nearly skeptical enough. The South, which still refers to the Civil War as the War Between the States, sees states rights as the primary cause of the war.

Unfortunately Stoler doesn’t really resolve this controversy. However he rightly points out that the immediate cause for Lincoln’s declaration of war was not to end slavery, but to “preserve the union.”

However he never addresses why the union needed to be preserved, ie how did preserving the union protect the democratic interests of the American people? I personally suspect that “preserving the union,” mainly protected the interests of the merchants, bankers and early industrialists, just as preserving the European Union protects the interests of merchants, bankers and industrialists. Similar ultra-national unions will always reduce the input ordinary people have into major decisions that  affect their lives.

Stoler begins by talking about the collapse of the Whig Party in the 1850s following the passage of the deeply unpopular Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law, which created the states of Kansas and Nebraska. deferred the decision to the states whether to allow slavery or not. From the 1850s on, the newly created Republican Party, which committed to end slavery everywhere, would be America’s second major party.

Although Lincoln, a Republican, only received 39.8% of the popular vote in 1860, his strong support in northern states mean he won a majority of the electoral college. Lincoln campaigned on a platform of allowing slavery to continue in states where it was legal but preventing its spread to western states as they joined the Union.

Stoler also reminds us that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (freeing slaves in the states that had seceded) didn’t take effect until January 1883 and didn’t free slaves in any of the Union states.*

By early February 1861 (a month before Lincoln’s inauguration), seven states (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina) had seceded.

After Union forces fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina (April 1861), four border states (North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee) also seceded. Four slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky) remained in the Union.

Stoler denies that conflict over states rights caused the war, arguing that various Northern states also lobbied for for states rights at different times (eg when they opposed the war the US launched against Mexico in 1846). I fail to see the logic of this argument. Just because the North agitates strongly for states rights over specific issues doesn’t mean the South can’t do so as well.

He also denies that a profound difference in their respective economies (with the South being primarily agrarian and the North being mainly industrial) was the root cause of the war. He argues this difference had been present since colonial times without leading to war.

He also poo-poos the distinct difference their respective cultures (with the South possessing an aristocratic planter class not present in the North) as the main cause of war. Here he points out that the North was just as racist as the South and hardly more democratic for the average worker.


*In Stoler’s view, Lincoln’s main goal with the Emancipation Proclamation was to buoy up Northern support for the war, despite massive numbers of casualties, and to open the Union army to extremely motivated ex-slaves. In his next lecture he also identifies dissuading the UK (where the population strongly opposed slavery) from entering the Civil War on the Southern side as a primary motivation.

The series can be viewed free on Kanopy.

Will Trump Cause the Downfall of the Republican Party?

Excellent talk by NPR correspondent Mara Liasson outlining how Donald Trump’s candidacy threatens to put the Republican Party out of business. A pity she never speaks this frankly on public radio.

She explores the efforts by the Wall Street based Republican leadership to woo blue collar voters (based on social issues such as abortion, immigration, etc) without addressing their economic needs – how this has backfired with Trump’s presidential candidacy.

 

The Billionaires at 740 Park Avenue

Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream

Directed by Alex Gibney (2012)

Film Review

Park Avenue is about the 31 billionaires who live in the luxury cooperative building at 740 Park Avenue. The building was originally commissioned by Jackie Kennedy’s grandfather James T Lee. He lived there with a consortium of Wall Street millionaires who engineered the 1929 stock market crash. Most of the present residents are hedge fund managers.

The documentary examines how 740 Park Avenue billionaires use their money and power to become even richer – funding election campaigns and lobbying for tax cuts and laws that reduce financial, environmental and health and safety regulation.

I’ve always found this level of geed quite puzzling. A psychologist featured in the film discusses his research into the sense of entitlement conferred by extreme wealth. An interview with the building’s doorman is even more revealing.

Among the billionaires profiled, two of the most powerful are Steve Schwarzman and David Koch. Schwarzman headed mergers and acquisitions at Lehman Brothers when they went bankrupt and is presently CEO of the Blackstone Group*. He (and his pal Senator Charles Schumer) were personally responsible for blocking the repeal of the “carried interest provision” in the federal tax code. This provision taxes the earned income of a hedge fund manager at the capital gains rate of 15%. Largely thanks to Schumer (who has raised the most Wall Street money of any Democratic candidate), Obama’s initiative to repeal this loophole failed, even with a Democratic majority in both houses.

David Koch, whose primary wealth is in oil and coal, has (with his brother Charles) donated to the campaigns of over half the members of the house and senate, as well as numerous right wing think tanks. The Koch brothers are also the big money behind the Tea Party, numerous right wing think tanks they have created and (along with Exxon) the climate denial movement.

The brothers are personally responsible for the recent anti-union legislation in Wisconsin and other Midwest states. They’re also the main sponsors of Paul Ryan’s rise to fame, as well as the Republican Party’s adoption of Ryan’s Path to Prosperity. The latter advocates for privatizing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, in addition to trillions in tax cuts that would virtually do away with all public services outside the military and police.


*An American multinational private equity, investment banking, alternative asset management and financial services corporation based in New York City.