A House Divided (Politics), 1851-1900

by O. Vernon Burton, Troy Smith, and Simon Appleford, University of Illinois


 In 1858, Abraham Lincoln –then a candidate for U. S. Senate –said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free…It will become all one thing or all the other.”

Many Americans had come to the same conclusion. A long simmering debate about the expansion of slavery into western territories and states was reaching a climax in the late 1850s. Northerners and Southerners alike tended to believe that slavery would wither and die a slow death if not allowed to expand. This would be good news to many Northerners; the increasingly popular free labor philosophy caused them to regard their own region as one of unlimited economic promise and the South as one encumbered by a backward, primitive system which would ultimately prevent them from being financially or morally viable and would endanger the country as a whole. Eric Foner examined this phenomenon closely in Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. Southerners, on the other hand, felt that their economic and political independence, and the way of life that independence fostered, would be doomed if the “peculiar institution” were not allowed to grow. Differing regional political cultures exacerbated the debate. Whereas the Upper South states had a tradition which, like Northern states, encouraged the debate of philosophical and political topics without necessarily attaching a personal level to the discussion, the Deep South was different. Deep South States –and, as Christopher Olson points out in Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi, Mississippi in particular –tended to layer political discussion with elements of Southern honor and masculinity. In other words, when Northerners told them their system was deeply flawed and immoral, they took it as a personal attack on –not just their philosophy –but their honor. Honor, according to Wyatt Bertram-Brown, was “the inner conviction of self-worth” and “the claim of that self-assessment before the public.”1 A challenge to those convictions was a challenge to one’s manhood. This was aptly demonstrated in 1856 when South Carolinian Preston Brooks severely beat Massachusetts politician Charles Sumner with a cane on the very floor of the Senate in response to an especially damning anti-slavery speech. It is worth noting, however, that historians are not in agreement over whether North and South were truly culturally different in the antebellum period. In the 1960s, Charles Sellers contested the idea of cultural difference in The Southerner as American, while Eugene Genovese (in The World the Slaveholders Made) saw the differences caused by slavery to be so intrinsic that conflict was almost inevitable. There has been no true academic consensus on the subject in the years since –like so many other Civil War related topics.

Once the war was underway, the Confederates had many initial successes in the Eastern Theater. This was not the case in the West. In the first few months of 1862, Confederate forces were driven out of the officially neutral Missouri as a result of the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Mark Twain described his own participation in the war in the West, in a very tongue-in-cheek manner, in “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.” “It seemed to me that I was not rightly equipped for this awful business,” he said. “I resolved to retire from this avocation of sham soldiership while I could still save some remnant of my self-respect.” Union forces occupied first Nashville, then Memphis and New Orleans, giving them control of most of the Mississippi River by summer. The only major point along the river remaining in Confederate hands was the heavily-fortified Vicksburg, and that fell the following year. Union generals U. S. Grant and William T. Sherman followed up their Western successes by taking active –and very successful –roles in the final stages of the war in the East.

As soon as the war was over, people from all walks of life began to ask the apparently simple question: Why did the North defeat the South? It is a question that historians are still asking, and several theories have been advanced –none of them settling the issue. “A definitive answer is not possible,” James McPherson wrote. “That will not stop us from trying to come up with one, though –nor should it. If definitive truth were possible in history, historians would soon have nothing left to write about.”2 Some Southerners, in the immediate aftermath of the war, blamed the outcome on the ineffective administration of Jefferson Davis. Others blamed the superior numbers and resources of the North –still the most common explanation for the average citizen. Historians, however, are aware that numerically superior invading armies have sometimes been effectively resisted by a determined populace, from the American Revolution to Vietnam and beyond. Some would argue that Grant and Sherman’s revolutionary approach to warfare –a total war waged on civilian infrastructure as well as on opposing armies –dispirited Southerners. Mark Neely has argued that the Union approach was not true “total war” (as opposed to World War II, for example), because there was no concerted effort to kill enemy civilians. This point has been conceded by recent historians, such as Charles Royster and Mark Grimsley, who have referred to the conflict –in their respective book titles –as The Destructive War and The Hard Hand of War. McPherson has argued that the South lost will –and the North gained it –due to a series of military turning points which had by no means been inevitable. The South lost, in other words, because the North beat them –fundamentally a military rather than a psychological or cultural basis for victory. Confederate losses at Vicksburg –bifurcating the Confederacy –and Gettysburg, within days of each other in July, 1863, would be the major turning point according to this thesis.3 Others have argued that the North did not win, per sé, but that the South lost –due to a lack or loss of will for reasons other than battlefield defeat. Perhaps this was due to a weaker sense of nationalism in the Confederacy than in the Union, or because the more religious Southerners believed –when the war started going badly –that God had abandoned them. Kenneth Stampp suggested that Southerners may have actually felt guilty about slavery, and therefore their hearts just were not in the fight.4 Regardless of the reasons, the outcome was the same: as Twain himself wrote in The Gilded Age, the war had “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country.”

The changes which resulted in the Mississippi Valley were sweeping in many ways –but there were many who resisted such change. The state of Mississippi provided two African-American U. S. Senators during Reconstruction –Hiram Revels (who, ironically, held Jefferson Davis’s former seat) and Blanche Bruce. (As of 2007, there has still not been a third black Southerner in the Senate.) While some former planters –Mississippi’s James Lusk Alcorn being a notable example –accepted and even encouraged biracial political and economic cooperation, many whites were opposed to the idea. White landowners would sometimes offer property at half-price to white buyers, to prevent blacks from purchasing it –an unintended side effect of this practice was that the economic situation got even worse. Over 150 planters near Natchez had to forfeit their land in the years just after the war. White resistance was much more direct than simple finance, though –it was soon expressed through violence. Two of the more infamous examples are the mass attacks on blacks in Meridian, Mississippi in 1870 and Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873. It would be another century before the promises of Reconstruction would come to fruition for blacks in the Mississippi Valley, and throughout the South.

  • Richard E. Beringer; Herman Hattaway; Archer Jones; William N. Still, Jr. Why the South Lost the Civil War (Athens, 1986).
  • Eugene Genovese. The World the Slaveholders Made (New York, 1969).
  • Mark Grimsley. The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (Cambridge, 1996).
  • James McPherson. Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the Civil War (New York, 1996).
  • Mark Neely. “Was the Civil War a Total War?” Civil War History 37 (1991), 5-28.
  • Christopher J. Olson. Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860 (New York, 2000).
  • Jason Phillips. “Reconstruction in Mississippi, 1865-1876,” on Mississippi History Now, February 23, 2007 ,http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/features/feature74/Reconstruction.htm
  • Charles Royster. The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans (New York, 1991).
  • Charles Grier Sellers. The Southerner as American (Chapel Hill, 1960).
  • Kenneth Stampp. The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War (New York, 1980).
  • Bertram Wyatt-Brown. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).