Beyond Compromise

The Civil war began in 1861—one hundred and sixty years ago. After so many years, does that history still matter?

It was the most costly war, in terms of lives lost, in American history. From a population of just over thirty million, more than seven hundred thousand men died and many more were wounded and disabled. But it ended a long time ago. Should we just move on?

The horrendous losses and the tragedies of impoverished widows and children left scars that lingered, but the most intransigent issue has been the relationship between the freedmen who came from Africa and other Americans who immigrated from Europe.

We have moved on from the issues involved in the several more recent wars, but after all these years, we still see Black Lives Matter, a reminder that takes us back to 1857.

From the time of early settlement in the 1600s, the North and South developed differently. With an economy built on labor-intensive cotton, tobacco and rice, the South depended on slave labor. The family farm where a man and his sons cleared the land, planted and harvested became the pattern in Northern states.

Yet it was one country, divided by law into states where slaves were allowed and others where they were not. A series of compromises preserved this balance. In 1820, the number of slave and free states were equal assuring that neither had an advantage in the Senate. When Missouri proposed to become a slave state, it was essential that a free state enter to maintain the balance. Maine stepped up.

When Southern states complained that slaves were escaping into free states, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law which provided that escaped slaves should be apprehended and returned to their masters. Other compromises preserved a sometimes-uneasy union.

By the mid-1800s, abolition sentiment was growing in the North but with the balance in the Senate, they had very limited political power.

So how did we come to war?

A Supreme Court decision in 1857. The ruling that the descendants of those brought from Africa were not citizens might have been accepted by Northern states but the Court went further. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states that a citizen cannot be deprived of his property without due process of law. If a slave owner wished to move to a “free” state, they could not be deprived of their human property. Clearly this meant there were no “free states.” The South celebrated the decision and the North resolved it would not happen. No compromise was possible.

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