Book Review: The Causes Of The Civil War

The Causes Of The Civil War, with revisions, edited by Kenneth M. Stampp

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the agnostic approach of the author to the question of the causes of the Civil War and a distinct unwillingness to intrude his own opinion into the book that is combined with a willingness to quote at considerable length the viewpoints of others about the causes of the Civil War that demonstrates the complex way in which slavery was at the basis of the Civil War but not always in a straightforward fashion.  Moreover, the book does a good job in showing out how it was that the lack of honesty on the part of postwar Southerners as well as the desire of later revisionist historians to slander the generation of the Civil War that tended to muddy the waters, given that the only “state’s rights” that the South were fighting over were in protection of their system of plantation slavery and that the bungling of politicians was done in an atmosphere where there was little if any room to thread the needle between pro-slavery and anti-slavery views within the various sections of the country.

This book is less than 200 pages and contains 92 different accounts of the causes of the Civil War that are divided into seven categories that are at least somewhat in connection with others.  In the introduction the author points out the large number of books that continue to be written about the Civil War and how it started–which was true in 1965 when this book was written and certainly even more true now.  The first part of the book then contains twelve accounts (including ones by Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun) that blame the start of the civil war on the slave power or on antislavery Republicans and other abolitionists (I).  After that there is a discussion of the role of states rights and nationalism in thirteen excerpts, including accounts by Lincoln as well as Alexander Stephens on the matter (II).  After that there are another thirteen excerpts that discuss economic sectionalism, including the speculations of various Marxist historians on classes and plenty of newspaper accounts about tariffs and internal colonization (III).  Seven selections blame blundering politicians as well as irresponsible agitators, going back to James Buchanan and John Crittenden (IV) before twenty-six selections discuss the right and wrong of slavery itself (V), including thoughts by Lincoln, Davis, Stephens, Seward, Douglass, and a great many others.  Ten selections (including one by Lincoln and another one by John C. Calhoun) discuss the matter of majority rule and minority rights (VI) before the last eleven sections discuss the supposed clash of cultures that existed between North and South at the time.

This book has a lot of relevance when it comes to not only understanding the Civil War itself but the problems of our times as well.  Those who mock the Southerners for being thin-skinned about dealing with criticisms of slavery should pay attention to the thin-skinned nature of contemporary Americans concerning the defense of biblical morality or the defense of the right to life for the unborn and check their hypocrisy at the door and ponder the crises of our own time.  The author deserves considerable credit for his willingness to let the writers and speakers in this book speak for themselves, even if he does abbreviate what they say to keep the book within a very short level.  It is indeed quite possible that this book could have been less heavily edited for length given that it is very short and could easily have been as good a bit longer.  But all the same, this is a very worthwhile book when it comes to presenting what a large number of diverse people both at the time and later on have said about the causes of the Civil War, leaving the reader to decide which arguments are more plausible and how the various causes tend to coalesce together into a few related reasons.  It is a subject that historians will probably not stop arguing over, considering that they are still writing about why Rome fell, after all.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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