Was the American Civil War About Slavery or States’ Rights?

4 05 2011

Digital Humanities, States’ Rights, and the Civil War

In the past, I have blogged about quantitative discourse analysis, which is one of the fastest growing fields in digital humanities.

I would like to bring your attention to a great post on the Disunion blog. The post is by Edward L. Ayers, a historian at the University of Richmond. Ayers is the co-host of “BackStory with the American History Guys,” a public radio program.

Ayers reports that:

A new poll from the Pew Research Center reports that nearly half of Americans identify states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War. This is a remarkable finding, because virtually all American textbooks and prominent historians emphasize slavery, as they have for decades.  

In Virginia, there was a constitutional convention to decide whether to leave the Union.  The records of the debates of these conventions have survived and provided some insight into the motives of those who vote in favour of secession. Of course, politicians often lie about their motives when speaking in the public, which is why it is so damn important for historians to access their private correspondence. Anyway,  a group of historians have been subjecting the debates in Virginia to quantitative discourse analysis. Their conclusions are as follows:

Some of the patterns in the speeches quickly undermine familiar arguments for Virginia’s secession. Tariffs, which generations of would-be realists have seen as the hidden engine of secession, barely register, and a heated debate over taxation proves, on closer examination, to be a debate over whether the distribution of income from taxes on enslaved people should be shared more broadly across the state. Hotheads eager to fight the Yankees did not play a leading role in the months of debates; despite the occasional outburst, when delegates mentioned war they most often expressed dread and foreboding for Virginia. Honor turns out to be a flexible concept, invoked with equal passion by both the Unionist and secessionist sides. Virtually everyone in the convention agreed that states had the right to secede, yet Unionists in Virginia won one crucial vote after another. The language of slavery is everywhere in the debates…. But the omnipresence of the language of slavery does not settle the 150-year debate over the relative importance of slavery and states’ rights [in the motives of the secessionists], for the language of rights flourished as well. The debate over the protection of slavery came couched in the language of governance, in words like “state,” “people,” “union,” “right,” “constitution,” “power,” “federal” and “amendment.” Variants of the word “right,” along with variants of “slave,” appear once for every two pages in the convention minutes. When the Virginians talked of Union they talked of a political entity built on the security and sanction of slavery in all its dimensions, across the continent and in perpetuity.

Read more here.

On a related note, you may be interested in Eric Foner’s review of Gary Gallagher’s The Union War, which was published in late April.  Gallagher’s thesis is that Northerners essentially fought the war to preserve the territorial integrity of the United States, not to liberate the slaves. The end of slavery was an incidental after effect of this conflict.  Foner is not convinced. Foner said this in his review:

Gallagher also criticizes recent studies of soldiers’ letters and diaries, which find that an antislavery purpose emerged early in the war. These works, he argues, remain highly “impressionistic,” allowing the historian “to marshal support for virtually any argument.” Whereupon Gallagher embarks on his own equally impressionistic survey of these letters, finding that they emphasize devotion to the Union.

Foner makes a good point. It seems to me that the solution is to engage in some quantitative discourse analysis of soldiers’ letters similar to that performed on the transcript of the debate of the Virginia secession convention.  That way, we will be able to determine whether to the letters cited by Gallagher to prove that the Northerners fought to preserve the union were more or less statistically representative than the letters cited by historians who think that the soldiers’ primary motive was to free the slaves. Of course, there is still the issue of sample bias, since not all Union soldiers were literate enough to send letters home. Still, there are ways to correct for this, so it is worth a try.

Update:  there is an excellent post on the blog Dead Confederates that speaks to this issue. Hat tip to WG.