Book Review: Historic Papers On The Causes Of The Civil War

Historic Papers On The Causes Of The Civil War, by Eugenia Dunlap Potts

The biggest surprise of this obscure but intriguing short collection of essays by female Southern historian Eugenia Potts is the fact that despite its provenance as a collection of papers written for the Daughters of the Confederacy, it is not totally unsound as history. The four essays that comprise this collection: The Old South, Slavery, Secession, and the Southern Confederacy, are themselves written in roughly chronological order to the issues they discuss. Despite the tendency of the author to wander into somewhat maudlin autobiographical details demonstrating her personal familiarity with plantation life in the antebellum South befitting her family’s planter status, and presumably her age at the time of writing in the early 1900’s, where she must have been at least in her fifties or sixties, the papers present a coherent and only partially wrong view of the South before, during, and after the American Civil War. One thing that rings loud and clear in this short collection of essays, well worth reading for any Civil War student or historian, is the way in which her writing clearly reflects her class bias, without any attempt to hide it. Even where the author reluctantly concedes the wealth of the New South was much better distributed to the common folk, that the Old South was immensely snobby towards those who were noble in merit but not in wealth, and that the educational opportunities for ordinary people were much greater in the early 1900’s than in the antebellum period, the author still considers the Civil War a tragic and shameful destruction of what she views as the most noble civilization on the earth, staggering and mistaken claims, but nevertheless sincere.

Although it has become fashionable in certain circles [1] to deny the role of slavery in the causes of the Civil War, the author agrees with her contemporaries [2] that slavery was at the root of disagreement between North and South, even when it was related to other issues like the “fair divide” of territories and matter of tariffs. Of course, the author concedes the primacy of the slavery problem in the crisis of 1860 while claiming in frankly and openly racist language that blacks enjoyed slavery and dependence on whites and that the blame for the increased disagreement over slavery lies solely on Northern abolitionist extremists, and that the South never owned any slave ships and was the victim of exploitative Northern merchants who sold slaves to the South, denied them access to Christianity, and then condemned the South for owning slaves afterwards. To argue that the general tone and rationalizations of the author are self-serving and mostly inaccurate is redundant and mostly beside the point. One does not read the historical writings of an unreconstructed Southern lady, or anyone else of the Confederate or neo-Confederate ilk, because one wants to understand the truths of history. One reads such material to understand the stories that people tell themselves about themselves and others, as fallacious as they are, because people act on their beliefs, however mistaken, and not the truth of which they are often totally unaware, if they are not downright hostile towards it. While this book has negligible value in historical truth, in that it posits an overly stark difference between Northern and Southern racial cultures (the “Cavalier” versus the “Puritan”), neglects the vitally important Appalachian population (from which this reviewer springs), in that its racial views are horrifyingly paternalistic, and that it seeks to serve as propaganda for the Lost Cause myth, it is of considerable value in demonstrating the historical fiction that Southerners told themselves and still tell themselves about their origins and the legitimacy of their cause. At times, this historical fiction has the ring of truth, such as the author’s relatively complete and fairly accurate synopsis of the many sectional crises of the early American Republic, in which secession was seen as a negotiating tactic to spur compromise on the dominant section of the nation within Congressional negotiations, and at times it resembles the obviously inaccurate portrayals of Southern life in Gone With The Wind or Song Of The South.

One particular area of worth that this book has is an issue that it serves to reveal in context. In reading this book, I was struck by the way that the author mistakenly viewed the first ten Amendments as protecting the interests of the states. Like the insistence among many neo-Confederates that the South rebelled over states’ rights to the exclusion of slavery, this error springs from the same source. Most of the rights discussed in the Bill of Rights were ultimately rights of individuals—freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to petition, the right to bear arms in self-defense, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom from arbitrary and cruel and unusual punishment, and so on. Yet the unjust and abusive system of slavery that allowed a few elites to become immensely wealthy and powerful plantation lords and ladies demanded not only the systematic exploitation of slaves, who were made to participate in cruel pageants in which they pretended to feign devotion to the plantation elites, but also the marginalization of ordinary folk among the poor whites, whose rise in status and wealth threatened the political dominance of slave owners, to say nothing of their rapacious treatment to the local native population, even among those ‘civilized’ tribes that had adopted many of the vices of their neighbors, like slavery. Ultimately, it may be judged that the resulting unionism of Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Eastern Tennessee, and Western Virginia (which, of course, became West Virginia in 1863) was in large part due to the corrupt rule of slave owners who could not concede that the rights to freedom were individual, lest they lose their own domination over their own states just as their states had, as a result of demographic decline, lost their dominance over the entire United States. Thus the rights of states as propounded by Calhoun served two purposes, as a club against the freedom of individual citizens (especially poor ones) within states, and against the power of the larger national government against their own corrupt state and local institutions. It is no surprise that the author, who herself springs from this corrupt class, is blind to its immense wickedness even where she sees the outlines of its behavior, but contemporary readers have no such excuse.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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8 Responses to Book Review: Historic Papers On The Causes Of The Civil War

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