- Explaining the Causes of the American Civil War, 1787–1861
Thirteen years have passed since the appearance of the first volume of John Ashworth’s Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic. About twenty have passed since the author began to explore antebellum political ideologies. He has produced the most thorough analysis of the ideological spectrum in the antebellum United States to date, and his account of the coming of the Civil War, though seriously flawed in one specific way, has great explanatory power. Volume One began with writings of Thomas Jefferson and John Taylor of Caroline and ended with the torturous Compromise of 1850. Volume Two starts with the aftermath of 1850, places great emphasis on the passage of Kansas-Nebraska in 1854, and ends with secession in 1861. Unlike most Civil War scholars, the author insists that historical narrative as a genre does not have the capacity to explain the coming of the Civil War (I, p. 9). So reading these volumes is hard intellectual work, and Professor Ashworth should not be disappointed if they fail to reach a broad audience. Yet there are three reasons why scholars should read these books: their brilliant illumination of ideology, their breadth across time and space, and their thought-provoking model of historical causation.
Ashworth’s examination of political ideology is superb. Grounded in public speeches, pamphlets, newspaper editorials, party platforms, and the Congressional record, Ashworth illuminates the worldviews of antebellum political actors with meticulous detail. He carefully draws the distinctions between separate groups within the major political parties, as well as how section divided co-partisans. Ideology emerged from economic and political realities, the two most important being resistance to enslavement by African Americans in the South and the spread of wage-labor in the North. Secondly, of the most [End Page 56] recent big books on the coming of the Civil War, Ashworth’s volumes are the most comprehensive. Recent authors have focused upon a particular event, party, theme, or section, and based on the analysis thereof projected a broader explanation of the coming of the Civil War.1 Ashworth casts a far wider net. His account encompasses developments in the entire nation, from North to South, and he explains the motivations of every major political grouping, from the arch secessionists to the moderate Unionists to the radical Republicans. Finally, Ashworth’s work puts forth a thought-provoking example of historical causation that plumbs to the core of what historians do. I am not simply referring to his Marxian innovations, though these are interesting. Ashworth consistently develops the position that impersonal forces are far more important than individual action in explaining historical change. Even in a period for which the archival record is rich with the details of individuals’ thoughts, lives, and even personalities, Ashworth believes that such archival evidence is not relevant to an explanation of political change. Political decisions, he argues, are “structurally generated” (II, pp. 7, 637).
The first volume of Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic closed with reflections upon the Compromise of 1850. Though authored by Henry Clay, the Compromise was famously maneuvered through Congress by the young Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas. Ashworth’s emphasis lies on the aftermath of compromise, when political leaders said what they really thought. Based on their views of the Compromise, Ashworth identifies six distinct political groupings, three in each section. In the North, Democrats and conservative Whigs tended to be pleased with the Compromise, while liberal Whigs and Democrats touched by antislavery were dissatisfied. In the South only the Whigs were satisfied, while southern Democrats nursed their wounds and continued to harbor thoughts of secession. In this second volume, Ashworth shows that during the 1850s these six groups coalesced into four—Republicans...