Last month at our Austin summer teacher institute, "America at War: From the Colonial Era to 1877," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood delivered the insightful remarks below in a keynote address on the revolutionary origins of the Civil War.
Gordon S. Wood is Alva O. Way University Professor Emeritus at Brown University. He received his BA degree from Tufts University and his PhD from Harvard University. He taught at Harvard University and the University of Michigan before joining the faculty at Brown in 1969. He is the author of many works, including The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969), which won the Bancroft Prize and the John H. Dunning Prize in 1970, and The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), which won the Pulitzer Prize for History and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize in 1993. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (2004) was awarded the Julia Ward Howe Prize by the Boston Authors Club in 2005. His volume in the Oxford History of the United States entitled Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (2009) was given the Association of American Publishers Award for History and Biography in 2009, the American History Book Prize by the New York Historical Society for 2010, and the Society of the Cincinnati History Prize in 2010. In 2011, Wood was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Obama and the Churchill Bell by Colonial Williamsburg. He is the recipient of numerous other awards including the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award from the Society of American Historians, the John F. Kennedy Medal from the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Centennial Medal from the Harvard University Graduate School. His most recent book is Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (2017). (Updated April 2020)
When Lincoln was elected president in 1860 on a platform of preventing the extension of slavery into the West, the Southern states felt their way of life was threatened, and they seceded from the Union. Since many states, including those of New England, had talked of seceding from the Union at various times earlier in the decades following the Revolution, explaining the secession of the Southern states is not a major historical problem. We can fairly easily account for why the Southern states seceded. What is more difficult to explain is why the Northern states cared. Why was the North willing to go to war to preserve the Union? It was not because the North was bent on the abolition of slavery, at least not at first. Many Northerners, of course, were opposed to slavery, but what they were especially opposed to was the extension of slavery into the West. Northerners were opposed to this extension of slavery because they knew that slavery would create a society incompatible with the one they wanted for their children and their grandchildren, who they presumed would settle in the West.
But this was not the only reason why the North cared enough for the Union to engage in a long and bloody Civil War that cost Northerners several hundred thousand lives. To fully understand why the North cared enough to resist the secession of the Southern states, we have to go back to the Revolution and the ideals and ideas that came out of it. Lincoln's words, which have been aptly called "his sword," were crucial in sustaining the struggle to maintain the Union. With his words, he reached back to the Revolution to draw inspiration and understanding of what the Civil War meant for the nation and the world. He knew what the Revolution was about and what it implied, not just for Americans, but for all humanity.
The United States was a new republican nation in a land of monarchies, a grand experiment in self-government, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. The American people of 1860, said Lincoln, deeply felt the moral principle of equality expressed in the Declaration, and this moral principle made them one with the founders, in Lincoln's words, "as though they were blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration." This emphasis on liberty and equality, he said, was "the electric cord…that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world."
Now with words like these, drawing on the meaning of the American Revolution, Lincoln expressed what many Americans felt about themselves and the future of all mankind. Liberty and equality, he said, were promised not just to the people of this country but "to the world, for all future time." The Revolution, he said, "gave promise that in due time the weight should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance" in the race of life. But if the American experiment in self-government failed, then his hope for the future would be lost.
Spreading freedom and democracy around the world had been an explicit goal of the Revolution from the very beginning. It was what turned the Americans' little colonial rebellion into a world-historical event, important for everyone throughout the world. Americans believed that the French Revolution of 1789, a decade or so later, was a direct consequence of their revolution. And Lafayette thought so too, which is why he sent the key to the Bastille, the symbol of the Ancien Régime, to George Washington, where it hangs today in Mount Vernon. But all the nineteenth-century efforts in creating democracy in Europe had ended in failure. Americans had seen the French Revolution spiral into tyranny. All attempts by Europeans to create democracies in the revolutions of 1848 had been crushed. By the 1860s, as Lincoln pointed out, the United States was a lone beacon of democratic freedom in a world of monarchies.
On American shoulders alone rested the survival of the possibility of self-government. It was indeed the last best hope for the future of democracy. That responsibility, I think, was what sustained Lincoln throughout a war, a war as he said in his Gettysburg Address, that was testing whether this nation, dedicated to liberty, equality, and self-government, could long endure. In commemorating the Civil War, we commemorate the Revolution. Indeed, in an important sense, Northern success in the Civil War was the culmination of the Revolution.
How did this nation that had once been united enough to defeat the greatest power in the world fall apart and engage in a long and bloody civil war? The seeds of the Civil War were probably sown when the first slaves were brought to Virginia in the seventeenth century, but no one sensed that at the time. Even in 1776, when Americans declared their independence from Great Britain, no one foresaw a civil war in the newly created United States.
To be sure, the thirteen separate North American colonies were not very united. That they were able to come together at all in 1776 was something of a miracle. Before the Revolution, the British colonies had little sense of connectedness with one another. Most of them had closer ties with London and Britain than they had with one another. Until the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1774, more of its members had been to London than had been to Philadelphia. It was Great Britain and its policies that created the colonists' sense of being Americans. In fact, the British officials were the ones who first used the term "Americans." Until the last moment, the colonists saw themselves as Englishmen, and they thought of their defense as against tyranny in defense of English rights. It was the Coercive Acts of 1774 that made colonists like Patrick Henry declare that they were not Virginians or New Yorkers but Americans.
The long and bloody war with Great Britain, in which all parts of the country suffered at one time or another, was a searing experience. In fact, more Americans died in that war in proportion to population than in any other war in American history, of course with the exception of the Civil War, in which both sides were Americans. Twenty-five thousand people died out of a population of 2.5 million. That is one percent of the population. No wonder that the Revolution thus bred an overwhelming sense of unity. This glorious cause, as they called it, united all Americans. The Revolution and the beliefs and ideals that came out of it—liberty, equality, self-government—created national bonds that were not easily broken. Indeed, I think they're still the bonds that hold us together and make us think of ourselves as a single people, as a single nation.
Americans at the time of the Revolution were aware of sectional differences, differences that were essentially based on slavery. Although slavery in 1776 legally existed in all of the new republican states, ninety percent of the nearly 500,000 African American slaves, constituting about a fifth of the total population of the country, lived in the South, working in the tobacco fields of the Chesapeake or the rice swamps of South Carolina and Georgia. These Southern states were obviously different from those in the North.
In 1776, John Adams worried that the South was too aristocratic for the kind of popular republican government he advocated in his pamphlet, Thoughts on Government, which became a model for constitution-making in the States. But he turned out to be surprised to learn that the Southern states more or less did adopt the kind of popular mixed government that he had suggested and expressed relief in seeing "the pride of the haughty" brought down a little by the Revolution. What Adams was referring to was a slaveholding society dominated by planter aristocrats that contrasted with the more egalitarian small farm societies of the North, especially in the states of New England.
But slavery was not inconsequential in the North. Black slaves made up nearly seven percent of the population of New Jersey and fourteen percent of the population of New York City. Nearly twelve percent of my own state, Rhode Island, was composed of slaves. It was not just the Southern revolutionary leaders, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and so on, who owned slaves. So did many of the Northern leaders—Boston's John Hancock, New York's Robert Livingston, and Philadelphia's John Dickinson, were slaveholders. On the eve of the Revolution, the mayor of Philadelphia possessed thirty-one slaves.
Nonetheless, the sectional differences were obvious. In the mid-1780s, the Boston merchant Stephen Higginson was convinced that "in their habits, manners, and commercial interests, the southern and northern states are not only very dissimilar, but in many instances, directly opposed." Jefferson tended to agree, and, in 1785, he outlined to a French friend his sense of the differences between the people of the two sections, which he attributed, of course, to differences of climate. The Northerners, he wrote, were "cool, sober, laborious, persevering, independent, jealous of their own liberties and just to those of others, interested, chicaning, superstitious, and hypocritical in their religion." By contrast, said Jefferson, the Southerners were "fiery, voluptuary, indolent, unsteady, independent, zealous for their own liberties but trampling on those of others, generous, candid, and without attachment or pretentions to any religion but that of the heart."
Despite his sensitivity to the differences, however, Jefferson and most other Southern planters did not as yet see these sectional differences as endangering national unity. Now, since we know how the story turned out, it is easy to read back signs of what we know will happen, but I think it is a mistake to see too many anticipations of the Civil War in the revolutionary decades. In the 1780s, leaders from both the South and the North came to realize that the Confederation—this league of states, like the present-day European Union, had been created in 1777 and ratified in 1781—was not working out and would have to be reformed or scrapped altogether. The slaveholding state of Virginia took the lead in this reform and was supported by national-minded leaders from the Northern states.
The differences that arose in the Constitutional Convention and later in the 1790s were differences of ideology, not sectional differences between North and South. The delegates differed over the strength of the national government vis-à-vis the states. The split in the Constitutional Convention was essentially between the large states that wanted proportional representation in both houses of Congress and the small states that feared being overwhelmed by the more populous states. James Madison of Virginia and James Wilson of Pennsylvania eventually had to surrender to the wishes of the small states and accept the so-called Connecticut Compromise that gave equal representation of two senators from each state.
In other words, the issue did not divide along sectional lines. Although at one point Madison tried to suggest that the real division in the convention was between the slaveholding and non-slaveholding states, everyone at the time knew that this was a tactical feint on Madison's part, designed by him to get the convention off of this large-small state division that was undermining his desperate desire for proportional representation in both houses. So fearful was he of the power of the state legislatures to vitiate national authority by each state electing two senators that he regarded the Connecticut Compromise not as a compromise but as a major defeat.
The party divisions that arose in the 1790s were not between North and South. The differences between the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans were over the nature of the national government and support for the French Revolution. Although the leadership and base of the Republican Party were located in the South, the party was not and could not have been exclusively a sectional party. The Northern Republicans were a very important and increasingly dynamic part of Jefferson's party. Jefferson rightly never saw himself as the leader of a sectional party. He was, as he said, the leader of "the world's best hope," a popular democratic republican government that was something "new under the sun" and that promised eventually to "ameliorate the condition of man over a great portion of the globe." It's no wonder that Lincoln paid all honor to Jefferson. His vision was essentially Jefferson's vision.
Still, there was the serpent of slavery lurking in this arcadian garden of yeoman farmers that threatened to destroy the democratic-republican dream. At the outset, the revolutionary leaders were well aware of this serpent. They knew from the beginning that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of the Revolution. Indeed, it was the Revolution that made slavery a problem, not just for Americans but for the world. Before the mid-eighteenth century, most Americans, like the rest of the world for thousands of years, largely took slavery for granted as the lowest and most degraded status in a hierarchical world of degrees of unfreedom and dependency, and few colonists had bothered to criticize it. But the Revolution changed everything.
All the revolutionary leaders realized that there was something painfully inconsistent between their talk of freedom for themselves and the owning of black slaves. If all men were created equal, as all enlightened persons were now saying, then what justification could there be for holding Africans in slavery? Since the American colonists "are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black . . . does it follow," asked James Otis of Massachusetts in 1764, "that 'tis right to enslave a man because he is black?"
The revolutionary rhetoric made the contradiction excruciating for most Americans, especially in the North but even in the South. Prominent Southern slaveholders like Jefferson declared that "the abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in these colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state." Given the mounting sense of inconsistency between the revolutionary ideals and the holding of people in bondage, it is not surprising that the first anti-slave convention in the history of the world was held in Philadelphia in 1775.
If the revolutionary leaders, these founders who are otherwise so enlightened and farsighted, knew that slavery contradicted everything that the Revolution was about, why didn't they do more to end the institution that they claimed to abhor? This is the question many historians are asking today.
I think the reason they didn't act more forcefully was that many of them, perhaps most, thought that time was on the side of abolition. As incredible as it may seem to us, who know what they could not know—that is, their future—the leaders tended to believe that slavery was on its last legs and was headed for eventual destruction. Dr. Benjamin Rush was convinced that the desire to abolish the institution "prevails in our councils and among all ranks in every province." With hostility towards slavery mounting everywhere among the enlightened in the Atlantic world, Rush in 1774 predicted that "there will not be a Negro slave in North America in forty years."
Enlightened Virginians also assumed that slavery could not long endure. Jefferson told a French correspondent in 1786 that there were in the Virginia Assembly "men of virtue enough to propose and talents to move toward the gradual emancipation of slaves." To be sure, "they saw that the moment of emancipation has not yet arrived," but, he said, with "the spread of light and liberality" among the slaveholders, that moment was coming. Slavery simply could not stand against the relentless march of liberty and progress.
That the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 was scrupulous in not mentioning slaves, slavery, or Negroes in the final draft of the Constitution seemed to point to a future without the shameful institution. If the revolutionary dream that slavery would eventually die away had been realized, of course, there would never have been a Civil War. This illusion that slavery would die a natural death led the revolutionary leaders to table efforts to abolish the institution. They thought that in time it would simply wither away. But as we know only too well, slavery in the United States was not on its last legs at all. Predictions of its demise could not have been more wrong. Far from being doomed, American slavery, in fact, was on the verge of its greatest expansion.
How could the revolutionary leaders have been so mistaken? How could they have deceived themselves so completely? For a full generation, the nation's leaders lived with the illusion that the institution of slavery was declining and on its way to being eliminated. Of all the illusions they had about the future, and they had many, this was the greatest.
But the founders' self-deception and mistaken optimism were understandable, for they wanted to believe the best, and initially there was evidence that slavery was, in fact, being eliminated and dying out. The Northern states, where slavery was not deeply rooted in the economy, began immediately to attack the institution, and, by 1804, every Northern state had provided for the eventual end of slavery. The South, where slavery was much more deeply entrenched in the economy and the society, was slower to act, but even in the South there were encouraging signs of movement against the institution, especially in Virginia, which was no ordinary state. It was by far the most populous state. Indeed, it made up a fifth of the population of the nation. It was as well the largest state in territory and the richest. It's not surprising that four out of the first five presidents were Virginians and the working model for the Constitution was the Virginia Plan. During the first few decades of the new republic, Virginia dominated the nation as no state ever has in our history. As Virginia went so went the nation.
There were signs in the 1770s and '80s that Virginia was trying to do something about slavery. If Virginia could abolish slavery, it was assumed, then the rest of the South would surely follow. In Virginia, the harsh black codes of the early eighteenth century had fallen into neglect, and, by the time of the Revolution, fraternization between whites and black slaves had become more common, both in sporting events and religion. We have examples of black slaves, evangelical slaves, preaching to mixed congregations. The growing of wheat instead of tobacco was changing the nature of slavery in the upper South, and many of the planters, now calling themselves farmers, began hiring out their slaves, suggesting to some that slavery might eventually be replaced by wage labor.
Other evidence from the upper South seemed to reinforce the idea that slavery was on its way to extinction. What could be a more conspicuous endorsement of the anti-slave cause than having the College of William and Mary in 1791 confer an honorary degree on Granville Sharp, the leading British abolitionist at the time? That there were more anti-slave societies created in the South than in the North was bound to make people feel that the South was moving in the same direction towards a gradual emancipation as the North. In Virginia and Maryland, some of these anti-slave societies brought freedom suits in the state courts that led to some piecemeal emancipation. These suits may not seem very meaningful to us by our standards, but, by the standards of the eighteenth century, they were significant. If the slaves could demonstrate that they had maternal Indian or white ancestors, they could be freed, and hearsay evidence was enough to convince the courts. "Whole families," recalled one sympathetic observer, "were often liberated by a single verdict, the fate of one relative deciding the fate of many."
By 1796, nearly thirty freedom suits were pending in Virginia courts. By the 1790s, the free black population in the upper South had increased to over 30,000. By 1810, the free blacks in the area numbered over 94,000, when even Southerners like Jefferson or Patrick Henry, Henry Laurens, and St. George Tucker publicly deplored the injustice of slavery. From "that moment," declared the New York physician and abolitionist E. H. Smith in 1798, "the slow, but certain death-wound was inflicted upon it."
Everywhere, even in South Carolina, slaveholders began to feel defensive about slavery in a way they never had before and began to sense a public pressure against the institution that they had never felt. In the aftermath of the Revolution, whites in Charleston expressed squeamishness now about the evils of slavery, especially the public trading and punishment of slaves. In the 1780s, some of the Carolinian masters expressed a growing reluctance to break up families and even began manumitting their slaves, freeing more slaves in that single decade than had been freed in the previous three decades.
What helped to convince many people in the North that slavery's days were numbered was the promised ending of the despicable slave trade promised in the Constitution in 1808. Almost everywhere in the New World, slavery seemed dependent on the continual importation of slaves from Africa. Although this need for slaves from Africa was no longer true of the upper South, indeed, far from it, South Carolina and Georgia were still importing slaves. The fact that the Deep South and the rest of the New World—the Caribbean and Latin America—needed slave importations to maintain the institution deluded many Americans into believing that slavery in their own country was also dependent on the international slave trade and that ending this slave trade would eventually end slavery itself.
Those who held up that hope were utterly wrong, as we know. They simply did not appreciate how demographically different North American slavery was from slavery in South America and the Caribbean. They were blind to the fact that, in most areas of North America, the slaves were approximating the growth of the whites, nearly doubling in number every twenty to twenty-five years in the United States, the fastest growing population in the Western world. Blacks and whites were growing at about the same rate. Northerners had little or no appreciation that slavery in the South was a healthy, vigorous, and expansive institution. As far as they were concerned, the Virginia and Maryland planters, who had more slaves than they knew what to do with, were enthusiastically supporting an end to the international slave trade as the first major step in eliminating the institution of slavery itself.
This assault on the overseas slave trade appeared to align the Chesapeake planters with the anti-slave forces in the North and confused many Northerners about the real intentions of their upper South, which in fact was in the business of exporting its surplus of slaves to the new areas of Mississippi and Alabama. All these developments misled many Americans and allowed them to postpone dealing with the issue. Like John Adams and Oliver Ellsworth, who was the third chief justice of the Supreme Court, they thought that once the importation of slaves was cut off, white laborers would become so numerous that the need for slaves would disappear. "Slavery," said Ellsworth, "in time will not be a speck in this country."
In the meantime, the initial differences between the two sections were rapidly and dramatically increasing, becoming more severe. During the three or four decades following the Revolution, the North and South grew much further apart. Both sections were American and republican, both professed a similar rhetoric of liberty and popular government, but, beneath the surface, they were fast becoming very different places with different cultures, different values—one coming to honor common labor as the supreme human activity, the other continuing to think of manual labor in traditional terms as mean and despicable and fit only for slaves.
When, on the eve of the Civil War, the South complained that it had remained true to the eighteenth-century republic and that it was the North that had changed, it was correct. In the years immediately following the Revolution, the North was radically transformed politically, economically, socially, and culturally. It was not that the population growth in the two sections was different, although by 1810 New York had outstripped Virginia as the most populous state. It was the varied nature of the growth in the North. The Northern states were building turnpikes and canals, creating banks and corporations, and greasing the growing internal trade with paper money to an extent not duplicated in the Southern states. The North in fact became the most highly commercialized society in the world. It was a society that celebrated work and the making of money to a degree unprecedented in the Western world.
Nothing separated the North and South more than their contrasting views of labor. The South, dominated as it was by leisured slaveholding planters, could scarcely conceive of labor as anything but despicable and shameful. Slavery, as it had for centuries going all the way back to the ancient Greeks, required a culture that held labor in contempt. Scorn for work and the holding of slaves were two sides of the same coin.
Slavery in the South thus created a different economy, a different politics, a different culture from the North. While the North was coming to value labor as necessary and fit for all social ranks, much of the white population of the South was becoming more and more contemptuous of work and more and more desirous of acquiring the leisure that slavery seemed to afford. Indeed, so great was the white cult of indolence that some Southerners began to worry about the discrepancy between an industrious North and a lethargic South. "Where there is Negro slavery," one concerned Virginian told Madison, "there will be laziness, carelessness, and wastefulness," not as much among the slaves as among the white masters. This Virginian even claimed that "our intelligent Negroes are far superior in mind, morals, and manners than those who are placed in authority over them."
The South grew in population and prospered, but its culture and society remained traditional in many ways. During the antebellum decades, when the North was commercially exploding, the South remained essentially what it had been in the eighteenth century: a staple-producing, slaveholding society. Cotton replaced tobacco and rice as the principle staple, but the society, the economy, and much of the politics remained what they had been. Slavery determined the organization of the society.
In the antebellum South, not only did the wealthy slaveholding planters' management of their overseas marketing of their staple crop help to reinforce an unequal relationship of patrons and clients but, ultimately and more important, their patriarchal system of slavery sustained a hierarchical society, a society that was very different from that of the Northern states. The commercial institutions that were springing up in the North had few counterparts in the Southern states. Fearing any interference with their peculiar institution, the planter-dominated legislature kept government to a minimum. They taxed their citizens less heavily and spent much less on education and social services than did the legislatures of the North.
Although most Southern farmers were not slaveholders and many of the plain folk of the South may have worked just as hard as any ambitious Northern artisan, these ordinary Southern folk could never give the same kind of enterprising middling tone to Southern society that existed in the North. There were fewer middling institutions in the South—fewer towns, fewer schools, fewer newspapers, fewer businesses, fewer manufacturing firms, fewer shops, and fewer patents. There were fewer middling people in the South—fewer teachers, fewer clerks, fewer publishers, fewer editors, fewer engineers, and fewer inventors. The antebellum South never became a middling, commercial-minded society like that of the North. Its patrician order of large slaveholders continued to dominate both the culture and the politics of the section. As James Madison privately admitted as early as the 1790s, "In proportion as slavery prevails in a state, the Government, however democratic in name, must be Aristocratic in fact."
As the North and South gradually grew apart, each section began expressing increasing frustration with the other, aggravating differences that had been present from the beginning of the Revolution. Northerners, especially New England Federalists, began to complain about what they saw as the unjustified Southern dominance of the federal government. They focused on the Three-Fifths Clause of the Constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for assessing representation in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College. The Federalists charged that the Three-Fifths Clause gave an unfair advantage to the Republicans and was responsible for Jefferson's election in 1800. Thus was born the idea of the "slave power" that was unfairly usurping control of the national government from the free states.
Even more unsettling to some Northerners was the gradual realization that slavery was not dying out in the South after all. The earlier enthusiasm of the upper South to liberalize its slave system began to dissipate, especially following the news of the slave rebellion in the French colony of St. Domingue in 1791. Gabriel's Conspiracy in Virginia in 1800 further destroyed the hopes of many that Virginia was gradually eliminating slavery. The earlier leniency in judging freedom suits in Virginia ended, and manumission in the state rapidly declined. Southerners now began reversing their earlier examples of racial mingling. Evangelical Protestant churches ended their practice of mixed congregations. After 1800, the Southern states began enacting new sets of Black Codes that resembled later Jim Crow laws, tightening up the institution of slavery, restricting the behavior of free blacks. Indeed, because free blacks seemed to threaten the slave system, they were now compelled by law to leave the Southern states.
The final blow to all the illusions the founders had lived with came with the Missouri Crisis in 1819. The attempt by New York congressman James Tallmadge and the House of Representatives to attach a prohibition of slavery to the bill admitting Missouri to the Union precipitated a sectional crisis more severe than ever felt before. Jefferson told John Adams, "From the Battle of Bunker's Hill to the Treaty of Paris, we never had so ominous a question. . . . I thank god that I shall not live to witness its issue."
The Missouri Crisis caused the scales to fall from the eyes of both Northerners and Southerners. The North came to realize unmistakably that the South was not going to abolish slavery after all, that it was aiming to carry the institution into the West. The South, for its part, came to realize more clearly than ever before that the North really cared about abolishing slavery and would never stop trying to end it and certainly did not want the institution to spread to the West. From that moment, Americans saw the signs of a storm on the horizon, at first no bigger than a man's hand, but signs of a storm that would grow larger and more ominous every year. From that moment, from the Missouri Crisis, the Civil War became inevitable.