Should the Founders Be Blamed for the Civil War?

Should the Founders be blamed for the Civil War?

  • Yes

  • No

  • Partially


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Eleanor Rose

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Montpelier1.jpg

Montpelier, home of James and Dolley Madison.
The American Civil War is at the heart of the mid-19th century and this forum has numerous threads dedicated to how our Victorian friends dealt with it. I recently enjoyed a visit to Montpelier and since have enjoyed contemplating some of James Madison’s writings and their implications (if any) on the Civil War. Should Madison and the other Founders be blamed for the Civil War?

I think the Constitutional Convention likely had enough to do without trying to solve the complicated issue of slavery. Slavery was already 168 years old as a North American institution. The Founders no doubt had their hands full just trying to unite half a continent under a singular government. Nonetheless this question hangs over the head of men such as James Madison. In the Virginia Resolutions written by James Madison he says that the states "have the right of political protest." Did our Confederate ancestors think he was trying to assert more?

I certainly don't place all the blame for the Civil War on James Madison or his contemporaries, the Founding Fathers. However, I think they may have sowed a few seeds. What do you think folks in the late 19th century would have said about that? Share your opinions, but please remember to view it from the perspective of a 19th century citizen and not as yourself today.

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(Had to include this pic for @USS ALASKA and our other CWT railroad fans.)
Maybe I should have asked President Madison instead of reading over his shoulder. :giggle:
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W. Richardson

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@Eleanor Rose that is a super question, and one that takes some really in depth soul searching thinking on my part.

They needed to form a nation, but did they need the colonies/states/nations that pushed for slavery? They made a compromise to include slavery to forge a new nation. "All men are created equal", but IIRC 41 signers of the Declaration of Independence held slaves. Thomas Jefferson, was against slavery, so he said, yet owned slaves. Several other men throughout the early part of our nation's growth also said they were against slavery, yet held slaves. It really is a delicate and confusing part of our history.

The morally correct thing to have done was to abolish slavery or not make a compromise with those states with slavery that would not join the other colonies/states/nations in forming the start of our great nation..........

If they truly believed in "All Men are created equal" then they should not have made the compromise................So I have to blame them for leaving the door open that led to the War for Southern Independence.

Respectfully,
William

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Andy Cardinal

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That's a tough one. But I think "no." Considering everything the founding generation accomplished, I believe they could be justifiably optomistic about what the next generation might do. In making the compromises they did, they ensured that there would be a Constitution ratified in 1788.

On the other hand, I do attach some blame to people like Jefferson & Madison (to name a few) who might have done more with their influence in the early 1800s. But, to quote Lincoln, I'm unwilling to blame people for not doing what I would not have known how to do myself.
 

jackt62

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I said "no." The Founders did not institute slavery, but had to deal with it as an existing yet intractable problem. In the end, the Founders had to contend with a bitter reality: the Constitution would never have been accepted and ratified by a sufficient number of states had it contained provisions for abolishing slavery. But the founding documents of this nation including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution provided a framework and a means for eventually ending slavery (and for that matter expanding rights and freedoms to all kinds of Americans.) Abraham Lincoln stated this concept very clearly in an 1838 speech: "They [the founding fathers] did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all men were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it, immediately, upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement might follow as fast as circumstances should permit."
 

Eleanor Rose

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Several other men throughout the early part of our nation's growth also said they were against slavery, yet held slaves.
Very true. James Madison was a slave owner his entire life. He didn't even set his slaves free in his will.

But, to quote Lincoln, I'm unwilling to blame people for not doing what I would not have known how to do myself.
Wise words!

Abraham Lincoln stated this concept very clearly in an 1838 speech: "They [the founding fathers] did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all men were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it, immediately, upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement might follow as fast as circumstances should permit."
Well said and definitely worth repeating.


James and Dolley Madison had an interesting relationship with Paul Jennings, Madison’s manservant until the former’s death in 1836. Paul was eventually able to purchase his freedom with the help of Daniel Webster and occasionally visited the impoverished Dolley Madison. He even provided “small sums of money from [his] own pocket” if he found her wanting.

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W. Richardson

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But, to quote Lincoln, I'm unwilling to blame people for not doing what I would not have known how to do myself.
I have read that quote, to whom was he speaking about? IIRC, and I maybe wrong on this, as I maybe thinking of another similar quote, but was he not speaking of Southerners and slavery?


Respectfully,
William

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Eleanor Rose

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I have read that quote, to whom was he speaking about? IIRC, and I maybe wrong on this, as I maybe thinking of another similar quote, but was he not speaking of Southerners and slavery?


Respectfully,
William

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View attachment 320449
I'm curious about the origin of this myself. I can't seem to find it. Hopefully @Andy Cardinal will be back along to help.
 

Andy Cardinal

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I have read that quote, to whom was he speaking about? IIRC, and I maybe wrong on this, as I maybe thinking of another similar quote, but was he not speaking of Southerners and slavery?


Respectfully,
William

One Nation,
Two countries
View attachment 320449
Here's the relevant text. It is from his Peoria speech in 1854:

I can not but hate it [I.e., the spread of slavery], I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world -- enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites -- causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty -- criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.

When southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery, than we; I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, -- to their own native land. But a moment's reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough for me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.
 

W. Richardson

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Here's the relevant text. It is from his Peoria speech in 1854:

I can not but hate it [I.e., the spread of slavery], I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world -- enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites -- causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty -- criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.

When southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery, than we; I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, -- to their own native land. But a moment's reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough for me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.

Thank you Andy, and it makes me feel good that my memory is not failing me too bad.........YET...............lol


Respectfully,
William

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diane

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I sat on the fence about this. I've long held that slavery was the weed in the foundation of the country that broke it apart in a civil war, and that's why Lincoln came to believe the institution had to be eradicated if the country was to be a nation rather than a collection of autonomous regions. There was a culture and society built around slavery in the South that was rapidly becoming the very society that their ancestors had left - a small but wealthy aristocracy, a modest but increasingly less powerful yeomanry and a large number of totally impoverished people. That's excluding the slaves. The slaves made the entire structure work and that was why so many fought for it despite knowing it was wrong. Wade Hampton probably didn't think so, but slavery was worth fighting about because all his enormous wealth would be pennies without it. Same with Forrest - the wealthiest man in Tennessee became just another dirt farmer on the edge of poverty without slavery. The country was rapidly splitting into two separate countries with even a different language, where many Northerners were astounded at the differences in the South - and vice versa. This had been going on before the Revolution and the Founding Fathers were at a loss as to what to do with that 'wolf by the ears'. Unifying the country and keeping states like South Carolina and New York in the Union required a compromise on the issue threatening separation. So...it was keep your mouth shut about it for 20 years. I can't blame them for kicking the can down the road because at that time the greater danger was being invaded by Britain, France or any other power that might want to claim them. That's why the Barbary Coast war was important - it established that the United States would and could defend its sovereignty. But, you can't hold a wolf by the ears forever.
 

Norm53

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Partially, along with all the other politicians making decisions about slavery between 1789 and 1860 that led to the ACW.

Since SC and GA positively refused to join the union unless slavery was allowed, the CC delegates had to decide to move ahead (1) with 11 states and w/o slavery and w/o SC and GA, or (2) with those two states along with slavery. They chose the latter. That made sense because w/o those states, there would have been at least two countries with the possibility of SC and GA supported by France or Spain to enlarge their lands. They didn't want that.
 

ForeverFree

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In his book The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution, historian Gary B. Nash makes the argument that several factors created the opportunity to end slavery in the United States during the Early Republic. As noted in a brief book review,

The conventional wisdom says that abolition was impossible in the fragile new republic. Nash, however, argues that an unusual convergence of factors immediately after the war created a unique opportunity to dismantle slavery. The founding fathers’ failure to commit to freedom led to the waning of abolitionism just as it had reached its peak. In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, as Nash demonstrates, their decision enabled the ideology of white supremacy to take root, and with it the beginnings of an irreparable national fissure. The moral failure of the Revolution was paid for in the 1860s with the lives of the 600,000 Americans killed in the Civil War.​

Nash's short book devotes an entire chapter to describing the "convergence of factors" that made it possible to end slavery. For example, he says this about Georgia and South Carolina:

Granting the intense commitment to slavery among Georgians and (South) Carolinians, what might have happened if the other states had not accommodated them on the issues? ...on the eve of the Constitutional Convention, many politicians talked of separate confederacies (northern, mid-Atlantic, and southern), but most of this was rhetorical posturing, a game of blind man's bluff... Among the bluffers, South Carolina and Georgia, still reeling from internecine revolutionary war and Indian enemies were in the worst position to strike out on their own... The (Revolutionary) war had shown the Lower South's military weakness and its dependence on the states to its north for protection. Edward Rutledge admitted in 1788 that South Carolina, "in the day of danger," must rely "on the naval force of our northern friends."​
And if South Carolina and Georgia had recklessly seceded from the union, would the rest of the states have been deeply damaged? Hardly. They would have lost a paltry five or six percent of the nation's population. The two states had caused general disgust during the Revolution by contributing nothing at all to the fiscal quotas set by Congress. when the British moved the war south in 1779, governors in those two states were dismally unsuccessful in turning out militia men...​

Nash rebuts the idea that GA and SC might have "forced" the country into accepting slavery. In his mind, the other states could have forced GA and SC to accept emancipation. And if those states didn't like it... bye bye.

That is just one of the arguments made by Nash. His overall thesis is that prominent politicians, several of whom happened to be Virginians and American presidents (Washington, Jefferson, and James Madison) did not push the issue (of abolition). Nash says that due to a failure of leadership on the part of these men, stemming variously from lack of political courage, racism, personal finances, or other reasons, they did not seize the opportunity to end the institution, although each of them did state a distaste for it at various times in their lives.

- Alan
 
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diane

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In his book The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution, historian Gary B. Nash makes the argument that several factors created the opportunity to end slavery in the United States during the Early Republic. As noted in a brief book review,

The conventional wisdom says that abolition was impossible in the fragile new republic. Nash, however, argues that an unusual convergence of factors immediately after the war created a unique opportunity to dismantle slavery. The founding fathers’ failure to commit to freedom led to the waning of abolitionism just as it had reached its peak. In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, as Nash demonstrates, their decision enabled the ideology of white supremacy to take root, and with it the beginnings of an irreparable national fissure. The moral failure of the Revolution was paid for in the 1860s with the lives of the 600,000 Americans killed in the Civil War.​

Nash's short book devotes an entire chapter to describing the "convergence of factors" that made it possible to end slavery. For example, he says this about Georgia and South Carolina:

Granting the intense commitment to slavery among Georgians and (South) Carolinians, what might have happened if the other states had not accommodated them on the issues? ...on the eve of the Constitutional Convention, many politicians talked of separate confederacies (northern, mid-Atlantic, and southern), but most of this was rhetorical posturing, a game of blind man's bluff... Among the bluffers, South Carolina and Georgia, still reeling from internecine revolutionary war and Indian enemies were in the worst position to strike out on their own... The (Revolutionary) war had shown the Lower South's military weakness and its dependence on the states to its north for protection. Edward Rutledge admitted in 1788 that South Carolina, "in the day of danger," must rely "on the naval force of our northern friends."​
And if South Carolina and Georgia had recklessly seceded from the union, would the rest of the states have been deeply damaged? Hardly. They would have lost a paltry five or six percent of the nation's population. The two states had caused general disgust during the Revolution by contributing nothing at all to the fiscal quotas set by Congress. when the British moved the war south in 1779, governors in those two states were dismally unsuccessful in turning out militia men...​

Nash rebuts the idea that GA and SC might have "forced" the country into accepting slavery. In his mind, the other states could have forced GA and SC to accept emancipation. And if those states didn't like it... bye bye.

That is just one if the arguments made by Nash. His overall thesis is that prominent politicians, several of whom happened to be Virginians and American presidents (Washington, Jefferson, and James Madison) did not push the issue (of abolition). Nash says that due to a failure of leadership on the part of these men, stemming variously from lack of political courage, racism, personal finances, or other reasons, they did not seize the opportunity to end the institution, although each of them did state a distaste for it at various times in their lives.

- Alan
Those are some intriguing points, particularly about Indians. Georgia and South Carolina were highly vulnerable to the still powerful Cherokees, Creeks and Catawbas - on their own, they might have been dissolved and taken into those confederacies. The British and French might not have thought it worth their effort to control them again - they were heavily invested in the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Might have had another French-Indian type of war as well. Interesting!
 

ForeverFree

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Several historians have argued (Gordon S. Wood makes the argument in his book Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815) that the Founders, during the Early Republic era, had this idea that slavery was on going to end on its own in the not too far future. Several events are cited in these arguments:
• northern states had begun gradual abolition in their states, and in fact slavery in the North did end (thus they were "free states" when the Civil War began)
• the NW ordinance prohibited slavery in new northern territories, thus limiting the spread of the institution
• The US was banned the importation of slaves in 1808

Meanwhile, there were actual southern abolitionists in the Early Republic, who agitated for the end of the institution.

However, the idea that slavery was due to end turned out to be wrong. Historians cite at least two key events that caused the growth of slavery:
• the invention of the Cotton Gin
• the acquisition of land in the Southwest (ie, land to the west of the east coast, such as AL, MS, etc)

These events created a demand for slaves that was not foreseen by the Founders. That demand for slavery created a constituency for slavery, and the institution became an essential part of southern society - setting the stage for Civil War.

- Alan
 


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