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THE CAUSES OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR: Recent Interpretations and New Directions Eric Foner In 1960, as Americans prepared to observe the centennial of the Civil War, one of the foremost historians of that conflict published a brief article entitled, "American Historians and the Causes of the Civil War."1 Most readers probably expected another survey of the changing course of civil war interpretation. Instead the author announced that as a subject of serious historical analysis, Civil War causation was "dead." Looking back over the decade and a half since David Donald wrote, it would appear that he somewhat exaggerated the death of this field of inquiry. In the 1950's, historians were concerned with investigating periods of consensus in America's past. But in the 1960's, as the issues of race and war came to the forefront of national life, earlier times of civil strife in American history attracted renewed attention. The 1960's, for example, witnessed a renascence of the study of slavery . It is now no longer possible to view the peculiar institution as some kind of accident or aberration, existing outside the mainstream of national development. Rather, slavery was absolutely central to the American experience, intimately bound up with the settlement of the western hemisphere, the American Revolution and industrial expansion. It was what defined the Old South and drew southern society along a path of development which set it increasingly apart from the rest of the nation.2 * This paper was read before the 1972 meeting of the Organization of American Historians, at one of a series of "Overview" sessions, reviewing the last fifteen years of historical writing on various periods of American history. The author is extremely grateful to the following scholars for their helpful criticisms of earlier drafts of this paper: Richard O. Curry, Herbert Gutman, David Rothman, James P. Shenton, and James B. Stewart. 1 David Donald, "American Historians and the Causes of the Civil War." Soutli Atlantic Quarterly, LIX (Summer, I960), 351-55. 2 To cite only a few of the host of works related to this point, David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), and Edmund S. Morgan, "Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox," Journal of American History, LIX, (June, 1972), 5-29 stress the centrality of slavery to the American experience. Douglass North, The Economic Growth of the United States, 1790 to 1860 (1961), shows how the profits of the cotton trade paid for the economic development of antebellum America. Staughton Lynd, Class Conflict, Shvery, and the United States Constitution (1967), Donald L. Robinson, Slavery and the Structure of American Politics (1971), Richard H. Brown, "The Missouri Crisis, Slavery and the Politics of Jacksonianism," South Atlantic Quarterly, LXV (Winter, 1966), 55-72, William W. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War (1966), and Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, 197 198civil war history At the same time, a striking reversal of interpretations of the abolitionists took place.3 In fact, there was a paradoxical double reversal. On the one hand the abolitionists, previously castigated as fanatics and agitators, suddenly emerged as the conscience of a sinning nationmuch as the Garrisons and Welds had portrayed themselves a century earlier. At the same time, a number of writers argued that not only were the friends of the slave not immune from racism, but, far from being truly "radical," they seemed to accept the middle-class values of northern society.4 The flood of studies of slavery, abolitionism, and the race issue does not seem, however, to have brought historians much closer to a generally accepted interpretation of the coming of the Civil War than they were fifteen years ago. As the late David Potter pointed out, the irony is that disagreements of interpretation persist in the face of a greatly increased body of historical knowledge.5 This is partially because the Civil War raised so many still unresolved issues. Perhaps, however, there is another reason. Historians' methodologies and value judgments have changed considerably over the past fifteen years, but the questions historians have asked of their data have remained relatively static. Like the debate over slavery before the appearance of Stanley Elkins' study in 1959, discussion of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 197-214
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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