Inevitable? A Short Essay & Introduction

Clio, the Muse of History

Clio, the Muse of History

Was the Civil War Inevitable?

A few weeks ago after watching the 1993 film “Gettysburg” with a friend, she asked me if I thought that the Civil War was inevitable. It is a question which has sparked debate among scholars even since the war itself was raging. In fact, before the shooting starting in the spring of 1861, some said aloud or wrote passionately that the conflict was inevitable. I believe that the academic discipline of history is an art form, not an exact or statistical science so that, in my mind, history should provoke discussion, reflection, soul-searching, and meditation, just as the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Milton or Blake, the art of DaVinci or Picasso, or the music of Bach or Beethoven.

As I have pondered this particular question for myself, I have come to believe that the series of events between 1850 and 1860 constituted a crooked, contorted path which with each step made the Civil War increasingly inevitable. As early as the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the elderly Thomas Jefferson bemoaned that the contentious debate scared him as “a fire-bell in the night.” At the same time he wrote that maintaining slavery “as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Yet things calmed on the American scene and the whole country gained from Southern cotton, tobacco and sugar.

However, in my mind, the Compromise of 1850, which included the powerful Fugitive Slave Law, the publication of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), the case of Anthony Burns in Boston (1854), the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the bloodbath in Kansas (from 1854 through 1860–for all practical purposes a dress rehearsal for the Civil War), the assault on Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber by a Southern Congressman (1856), the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858 (students and faculty snatched a fugitive slave from arresting officers and spirited him away), John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859 and the election of Lincoln in 1860 indeed made the outbreak of war inevitable in 1861. These events aroused passionate responses on many sides and heightened the determination of many to resolve the questions by force if necessary.

By 1864 many people could back to 1859, only five years past, and see it as the last year of peace. The election of 1860 polarized the American people and by the end of that year secession had begun. So I’m beginning an overview of 1859, particularly looking for signposts of the coming war. Consider for yourselves, gentle readers, whether or not the war was “inevitable” by 1859.

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