PREFACE I: Dinner at Brown’s Hotel
THE TIME: April 13, 1830
THE PLACE: Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel, Washington, D.C.
THE OCCASION: A dinner to celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday [Jefferson had been dead four years, but politicians like dinners and celebrations.]
THE MAIN CHARACTERS: Vice President John C. Calhoun and President Andrew Jackson
The nation was in trouble. Only a few people could see that, but President Andrew Jackson was one of those who was alarmed. The country — which he and everyone else called “the Union,” or the “Federal Union” — was being divided in half, right along its belt line. It was being divided into North and South, and those terms had to do with much more than geography. People in the North and South were beginning to dislike each other, and say so with angry words.
There was that old problem of what Southerns called their “peculiar institution,” and others called “slavery.” Slavery was making people in the North and South think and act differently from each other.
There were other problems. The old southern states, like South Carolina, were having economic troubles. Their land was worn out. South Carolina blamed the North, and some of Congress’s laws, for its problems.
John Calhoun — South Carolina’s handsome but unsmiling political leader — said a state had a right to nullify, or cancel, a federal law that it considered unconstitutional. That meant each state could decide which laws to obey, and which not. (You can see that the nation wouldn’t last long if each state made its own rules.)
South Carolina was used to having its way. It was the state that, 43 years earlier, had insisted that slavery be allowed in the new nation’s constitution. Now it was insisting on what were called “states’ rights.” And that was what most of the toasts were about at that dinner at Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel.
There were 24 toasts that evening before they got to Andrew Jackson. People could see that he was fuming over the ideas being toasted. The president rose to his feet — and so did everyone else. Martin Van Buren (who was soon to be president) climbed on a chair so he could see. Then the man they called “Old Hickory” raised his glass high above his silver hair, glared at John Calhoun, and said:
“Our Union — it must be preserved.”
They say that Calhoun’s hand shook and some wine trickled down his arm, but he was undaunted. He gave his toast.
“The Union — next to our liberty, most dear.”
What happened next? People in the North heard Jackson’s message, but in the South they listened to John Calhoun. Calhoun told them that slavery was a “positive good” and that a belief in states’ rights was a belief in liberty.
That conflict of ideas would create the worst war in all our history …
PREFACE II: A Divided Nation
The time was 1860, and Americans had a problem. It wasn’t a new problem: they’d been living with it since the nation began. There were those words in the Declaration of Independence — all men are created equal. It had turned out that not all people were equal in the United States. One large group of people was not even free.
Slavery had come to the land with the Spanish and English settlers. But they weren’t the first to enslave people on the American continents. Some Native American nations had used captives as slaves. It was an evil but common practice across the world. There were jobs that no one wanted to do, and in the days before machinery, slaves seemed an answer. So if you were on the losing side of a war, or were kidnapped by a rival tribe, or by a thief, you might have ended up a slave.
In colonial times, there was slavery in both North and South. But slavery didn’t make much sense in the North: farms were small and the farmer and his family could often handle the farm work themselves. After the Revolutionary War, slavery was outlawed in most northern states.
The situation was different in the South. From the earliest colonial days, the crops that grew well there — tobacco, cotton, rice, and sugar — demanded large numbers of fieldworkers. But there were few workers to be had — until a Dutch ship arrived at Jamestown in 1619 with a boatload of Africans. At first the Africans were indentured servants. Then they became slaves. It solved an economic problem for planters: slaves made a cheap, easy source of labor. After the Revolutionary War, slave laws grew harsher and harsher in the South.
Slavery raised issues besides economics. One was racism. In the United States the slaves were all people of color: either Indians or blacks. And there was the issue of right and wrong. Some Northerners — and some Southerners — thought slavery morally wrong. Yet few of them were willing to do anything about it. The Southerners who opposed slavery did not speak up loudly and, as long as slavery stayed in the South, most Northerners were happy to forget about it.
But there were western lands coming into the country — and that was where problems developed. Southerners wanted slavery to expand. They wanted the new territories in the West to be slaver territories. Northerners didn’t.
Remember, most of the white people who didn’t like slavery kept quiet. They didn’t do anything about it. Was that wrong? Why didn’t they speak out? Maybe because it wasn’t easy to attack slavery. Those who did speak out weren’t very popular. They were called “abolitionists (ab-uh-LISH-un-ists) because they wanted to abolish, or end. slavery. Today we know that abolitionists wanted to do the right thing. But if you want to understand history — to understand why things happened the way they did — you have to try to think as people did in the past. You have to put yourself in their times. Slavery had been around for a long time. But people who weren’t enslaved didn’t realize how terrible it was. Most Northerners didn’t know any slaves, and many white Southerners fooled themselves into thinking the slaves were happy.
What would happen to the South’s economy if slavery were abolished? No one knew. It was said that businesses — in the North as well as the South — would be hurt. To people who were content with things as they were, the abolitionists seemed like troublemakers. They wanted to change other people’s lives.
The Southern leaders wanted to change things, too. They wanted slavery extended to the western territories. They wanted to be able to bring slaves with them when they traveled north. They said the whole nation needed to allow slavery.
A few sensible people tried to find ways to end slavery without destroying the Southern economy. Ralph Waldo Emerson (who was a poet and writer) suggested that the government pay the slave owners for their slaves and then set them free.
That would have cost a whole lot less than going to war. But both sides rejected the idea. In the South, John Calhoun said that slavery was a wonderful, God-inspired system — good for slaves and good for the nation. Others, like Abraham Lincoln, saw clearly that slavery was evil and could only breed evil.
“We began,” said Lincoln, “by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a ‘sacred right of government.’ These principles cannot stand together.”
By 1860, there seemed to be no way around it. If the Union was to survive, and be true to its founding principles, there would have to be a war.
It was the worst war in American history. It was called the Civil War, or the War Between the States, and sometimes brother fought brother and father fought son. More than 620,000 Americans died. Cities were destroyed, farms burned, homes leveled, and on one bloody day at a place called Antietam, more men were killed than on any other day in all our history. The total deaths were almost as many as in all of our other wars combined. If the same percentage of today’s population were killed it would mean five million deaths.
It was the South against the North and, although the North won, neither side came out ahead. The South, which had once been prosperous, was in ruins. The North was left with huge war debts. And both North and South had the graves of fathers, sons and husbands to weep over.
What was it all about? Why were Americans fighting Americans?
When the war began, people on both sides claimed they weren’t fighting over slavery. But they were fooling themselves. Before the end of the war it was clear: slavery was the main issue. Most white Southerners wanted to keep slavery because they thought their way of life depended on it. Most Northerners thought slavery wrong and that, as Abraham Lincoln said, the nation could not exist half slave and half free.
There were other issues too: the Southerners, who were also called “Rebels,” believed in “states’ rights.” They thought any state should have the right to pull out of the United States (they usually called it “the Union”). They said it was tyranny to hold states in the Union against their wishes. They said they were doing the same thing that George Washington and John Adams and the other revolutionaries had done against King George: fighting for their freedom. But it was white freedom they were fighting for. They didn’t want to consider the fact that they were tyrannizing black people.
What they did was form their own nation. Eleven Southern states seceded from the Union. They created the Confederate States of America and elected a president and a congress. They said all they wished was to go peacefully from the Union.
The North wouldn’t let them do it. Revolution is only right, said President Abraham Lincoln, “for a morally justified cause.” But the South had no just cause. So, said Lincoln, secession was “simply a wicked exercise of physical power.”
This was an important issue they were deciding. The American nation was still considered an experiment. Would a people’s government survive? Lincoln said Americans needed to prove “that popular government is not an absurdity.” Then he added, “We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.”
The Northerners, who were also called “Yankees,” or “Federals,” were willing to fight for the American form of government — for the Constitution, for the Union. They said that when the states joined the Union, they agreed to uphold the Constitution and they couldn’t just pull out anytime they wanted. If that were allowed, soon there would be no Union at all.