The Revolutionary Origins of the Civil War

By Wood, Gordon S. | Northwestern University Law Review, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

The Revolutionary Origins of the Civil War


Wood, Gordon S., Northwestern University Law Review


When Abraham 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 seceded from the Union. Since many states, including those of New England, had talked of seceding from the Union at various times in the antebellum period 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 Northern whites, 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 the extension of slavery into the West because they knew that slavery would create a society incompatible with the one they wanted for their children and 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 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 ideas and ideals that came out of it.

Lincoln's words, which Douglas Wilson has aptly called his sword, were crucial in sustaining the struggle to maintain the Union.1 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 world of monarchies, a grand experiment in self-government, "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."2 The American people of 1858, said Lincoln, deeply felt the moral principle of equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence, 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."3 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."4

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."5 The Revolution, he said, "gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance" in the race of life.6 But if the American experiment in selfgovernment failed, then this hope for the future would be lost.7

Spreading freedom and democracy around the world had been an explicit goal of the Revolution; 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 was a direct consequence of their Revolution, and Lafayette thought so too. Which is why he sent the key to the Bastille to George Washington. 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. …

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