How the Civil War Created a Nation
by David Goldfield
Bloomsbury Press, 2011, 632 pp., $35
As the American nation enters into its sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, it is good to see new books like David Goldfield’s broadly interpretive history of that epochal event. If such studies indicate a growing willingness to confront the war realistically, with a seriousness of perspective matching the seriousness of the conflict itself, they constitute a hopeful sign of a maturing national sensibility.
There is other evidence bolstering that hope. Media reports on how South Carolinians observed the 150th anniversary of the war’s inaugural act, the shelling of Fort Sumter, this past April suggested a corresponding sobriety. So did the extensive calendar of July events commemorating the First Battle of Bull Run. We are seeing in general less simple nostalgia and glorified romance, along with a greater willingness to record both the war’s devastating consequences for the South and its transformative effect on the victorious North. Above all, perhaps the war’s mingled legacies for black Americans are no longer virtually out of bounds.
Of course, it is not as though nostalgic and romantic considerations have passed entirely away, or that the general indictment of American culture as one luxuriating in historical amnesia, anesthetized by entertainment and addicted to partisan political posturing does not still bite hard and true. Much of this year’s popular fascination with the Civil War rises no higher than the sad record of earlier commemorative landmarks: Republicans “waving the bloody shirt” as a standard campaign tactic for a full generation after 1865; black Union veterans excluded from battlefield observances so as not to offend ex-Confederate participants; the wildly distorted history popularized by D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936); the countless films that substitute soaring, lilting or beautifully reflective music for the shrieks of the wounded and sobbing grief at the homefront; the stubborn persistence of the Confederate flag in all its toxic symbolism.
Yet against ongoing tides of bathos, nostalgia and romanticized violence, responsible studies continue to make significant progress. Intensively researched scholarship on battles, armies, critical political decisions and the day-to-day fabric of soldiers’ lives has reached a level of exquisitely detailed reliability. We now have general accounts of the war that put this specialized learning to use and are as careful in their scholarship as they are realistic in perspective and rich in humanity.1 Additionally, scholars in recent years have investigated broader themes, like the war’s effect on homefronts North and South, the psychic demands of coping with the deaths of so many young men, the repercussions abroad in Mexico, Canada, Britain and beyond, and, above all, the facts of life that did and did not change for the nation’s black population when slavery was abolished.
Even so, still comparatively rare are large-scale attempts to explain what the war meant within the full sweep of American history. We do have Harry Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (2006), which contends that both sides, but especially the North, failed to meet the traditional criteria of a just war; Orville Vernon Burton’s The Age of Lincoln (2007), which draws on the 16th President’s life in order to show how Lincoln’s Southern background enabled him to move the nation toward a fuller sense of liberty as a right for all; and David Brion Davis’s Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2008), which situates the abolitionist results of the Civil War into a general history of black-only slavery in the modern West. And now we have David Goldfield’s America Aflame, which makes a distinguished and original effort to address the war’s wider meanings in terms of the intimate interplay between American religious and political life.
America Aflame has many virtues. First, its chronological frame of reference, roughly from 1830 to 1876, is broad enough to encompass complex questions of origin (what caused the war and gave it such ferocity?) and to pose questions almost as complicated about results (how did the war transform the nation?). The book is also unusually striking as narrative, its 533 pages filled with incisive detail. A particularly effective device that lends coherence to an otherwise sprawling canvas is frequent reference to how the entire period was experienced by a select cast of notables: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman and Alexander Stephens. (Stephens was a Georgia Congressman and friend of Lincoln before the war, the Confederate Vice President during the war, and a Governor of Georgia after the war.)
For all its other virtues, the book’s best feature is its argument. Goldfield’s overall interpretation of the war’s causes, immediate impact and long-term consequences will not satisfy all historians. But with its forceful articulation and wealth of supporting evidence, it offers readers a gratifyingly clear statement about the war’s encompassing significance.
So, according to Goldfield, how did we get into the war? His answer draws together standard accounts of sectional rivalry and clashing political ideology with results from burgeoning scholarship on the nation’s religious history. The war, in this view, was not an “irrepressible conflict”, as William Seward’s prescient phrase put it in 1858. That two sharply contrasting systems of labor, politics and social organization comprised one polity did not foreordain a national crack-up; neither was the incompetence of political leaders the crucial factor. Instead, military conflict resulted when the flame of Evangelical religion touched the tinder of sectional antagonism.
Goldfield’s insistence on the culpability of Evangelical Protestantism for the coming of war advances a fresh perspective never before stated so forthrightly. In this analytical frame, the war’s critical precondition was the stunning success of revivalist Methodists, Baptists, Disciples, Congregationalists and Presbyterians in the generations after Independence as they gathered converts, organized churches and shaped attitudes toward life in general—what has come to be known as the Second Great Awakening. Evangelical social action took a different form in the North (promoting temperance, the sabbatarian observance of Sunday and eventually abolition of slavery) than in the South (ardently defending “the southern way of life”), and it inspired blacks to different ends than it did whites. But no other national social force came close to the power of religion in shaping attitudes and behavior. Both church membership and sectarianism proliferated, and the revivalism of the time carried distinctly millenarian overtones. Then, when American Evangelicals came to feel threatened by tides of non-English-speaking and often non-Protestant European immigrants, the Evangelical religion that had been gaining strength from the 1790s was transformed into a mixed, if not altogether destructive political force.
For Goldfield, the violent rhetoric and occasionally violent acts that Evangelicals aimed at their enemies forecast the nation’s future. He begins the book with an account of the August 1834 mob-burning of an Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Locally, the fears of Boston Protestants that a school run by nuns was seducing impressionable young women propelled the mob violence. Comprehensively, according to Goldfield, “the passions that fueled the convent fire would nearly immolate the nation in a ruinous civil war.”
Goldfield sees another harbinger of war in the Free Soil Party convention of 1848, where figures militantly opposed to the expansion of slavery into the American West gathered to nominate candidates and publicize their platform. For Goldfield, the most telling aspect of the convention was not its specific political aims, but how it raised the moral stakes by appealing to “right and justice and the truth of God.” In keeping with this rhetoric, the Free Soilers saw David Wilmot, the congressman renowned for a “proviso” excluding slavery from the territories, as David to the slaveholders’ Goliath. Then, after nominating former President Martin Van Buren as their candidate, the Free Soilers closed their convention with a typically American philosemitic hymn:
DAUGHTER OF ZION! from the dust,
Exalt thy fallen head;
Again in the Redeemer trust…
The day of Freedom dawns at length—
The Lord’s appointed day!
Even if in Goldfield’s rendering the hymn’s “freedom” was only “the white man’s freedom to pursue his personal manifest destiny”, the evocation of God nonetheless transformed political goals into justification for a crusade. The Free Soil Party’s role in disrupting the era’s balanced standoff between Whigs and Democrats exemplifies the ability of religious movements and religiously charged convictions to dominate an entire political landscape.
Goldfield suggests further that the Evangelical transformation of politics reached far beyond the pews. He argues that it exerted a formative influence on Abraham Lincoln, a skeptic as a young adult who remained at best on the fringes of organized church life during his years in Springfield, Illinois. Yet because of the national culture’s pervasive Evangelical tone, Lincoln “not only identified the cause of the Republican Party with the forces of liberty and freedom all over the world but also framed the debate as a contest between good and evil”, between “the Kingdom of Heaven” and “the Kingdom of Satan.”
The religious pressure building up behind sectional and political differences exploded in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the onset of guerilla violence between pro- and anti-slavery forces. This crisis blew apart the political system that had pitted a coalition of Northern and Southern Whigs against a similar national body of Democrats. In Goldfield’s reading, again, the Manichean spirit of rampant Evangelical religion was the cause: “Politics became a religion, as religion had become politics: dogmatic, orthodox, and unflinching.” The result was the transformation of a manageable conflict into an unmanageable holy war as the political syntax of compromise hardened into a language of categorical moral insinuation: “America went to bed one night a moderate, accommodating nation and woke up the following morning ready for Armageddon.”
Then the so-called Business Men’s Revival of 1857–58 further strengthened the disposition to religious excess. Because of the widespread belief that the United States enjoyed a special destiny under God, and a special status as the pioneer of freedom for the entire world, “the economic crash of 1857 sent city men to their knees.” The revival, which was publicized most intensively in New York City, featured noon prayer meetings for men only, a piety that excluded any mention of divisive political issues, and a belief that what was happening to them bestrode the entire globe with implications. To Goldfield, the revival pushed American minds toward transcendent commitments and away from common expectations for ordinary political negotiations. Thus, after the economy began to recover in 1858 and the prayer meetings gradually died out, their spiritual impact remained: “Now with each turn in the political arena many more people, not only the fervent Evangelicals, came to understand that mere events could hold transcendent meaning.”
For Goldfield, the errors of the nation’s Evangelical Protestants had little to do with theology or church practice as such. The problem was an inordinate self-confidence that equated political positions with non-negotiable spiritual truths:
What was troubling about this religious immersion was the blindness of its self-righteousness, its certitude, and its lack of humility to understand that those who disagree are not mortal sinners and those who subscribe to your views are not saints.
Whether practicing Evangelicals or sympathizers, some Northerners came to view the campaign against slavery as a gospel mandate; other Northerners embraced with similar spiritual ardor the image of the expanding United States as a divinely chosen nation. Southerners, meanwhile, came to believe with equal conviction that the Bible sanctioned slavery; that would-be Northern aggression was the fruit of spiritual infidelity; and that the Confederacy, like Jacob, had inherited the divine blessing originally bestowed upon Esau—the United States of Washington, Jefferson and Madison instead of the United States of Adams and his Puritan associates.
The intensity of these convictions, Goldfield argues, left no room for ordinary political maneuvering when 1860 ushered in a Republican President-elect who had quoted Scripture to explain why “a house divided” against itself could not stand. There could be no return to the politics of negotiation, compromise and pragmatism until the Confederates’ conviction of standing righteously before God was overwhelmed by Northern armies inspired by something like a mirror image of the same conviction. When Northerners began to sing songs of political theology characterized by lyrics such as “mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”, there was nothing left to discuss with either slaveholders or men of compromise like Henry Clay.
Goldfield’s account of religion as the prime cause of the war is his most interesting, and problematic, argument, even as the rest of the volume continues on with bracing interpretive verve. Before coming to Goldfield’s after-action account of the war’s consequences, what can one say about America Aflame’s leading and provocative argument? Did Evangelical religion really play the key role in bringing on and sustaining the Civil War?
Goldfield is most persuasive when he suggests that America’s widespread Evangelical faiths hardened political differences and transformed regional particularities into self-righteous absolutes. His use of secondary sources is deft throughout, but especially in employing books like Richard Carwardine’s magisterial Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (1993), which documented religion’s influence in every presidential election, and many local contests, from 1840 onward. Carwardine and other scholars who have pursued similar inquiries won the preliminary bouts concerning the political influence of Evangelical religion that allowed Goldfield to fight his main event with an expansion of their insight.
Much evidence exists to support Goldfield’s viewpoint, like the mingling of religious and constitutional language in Lincoln’s address to the New Jersey Senate on February 21, 1861, as he was making his way toward Washington to be inaugurated as President. After Lincoln described how much the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Trenton had always inspired him, he claimed that the patriots were fighting for “something even more than National Independence . . . something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come.” Then came the kind of rhetoric that supports Goldfield’s thesis:
I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.
It was the same with the preamble to the Confederate Constitution, which for the most part repeated the language of the 1789 U.S. Constitution, but with one significant addition: “invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God.”
Goldfield’s account is helpful particularly as it highlights the religious encouragement of sectional antagonism, since the distribution of Protestant denominations North and South was not symmetrical. But he covers only part of the story. To support his contention that violence replaced negotiation as a way of resolving disputes, Goldfield makes much of the Ursuline convent destruction in 1834. But he could also have cited the anti-Catholic riots of 1844 when, in both Philadelphia and New York City, aggrieved Protestants attacked Catholic churches. He could also have made more of the inspiration that John Brown’s fanatic Calvinism provided for his murderous assaults on pro-slavery Kansans in 1856 and his armed effort to inspire a slave rebellion at Harper’s Ferry in 1859.
Yet the evidence for religiously inspired abolitionist violence pales besides a much larger record of violent acts in the defense of slavery, preserving the subordination of African Americans and upholding the honor of the United States. Goldfield’s assertion that “violence became an acceptable alternative [to political solutions] because it worked” wanders rapidly from relatively isolated acts of clear religious motivation—“It put the Catholics in their proper place and away from Protestant girls”—to much more comprehensive fields of violence where religion played at best a supporting role—“It worked against the Native Americans and against the Mexicans. And it worked against the slaveholders.”
In other parts of the Western world, where different social environments prevailed, Evangelical Protestants were as likely to protest against warfare as to support it. As examples, most Canadian Protestants rejected the abortive revolutions of 1837 and 1838, and in England the nation’s dissenting Protestants lagged far behind establishmentarian Anglicans in supporting the Napoleonic and later imperial wars. The difference in America, therefore, must have been not religion as such but how religion combined with other forces. In this regard, the book is historically rich but sociologically poor. Thus Goldfield’s identification of Evangelicalism as a force abetting the American acceptance of violence is historically persuasive, but his effort to make it the foundational cause is not.
The bearing of Evangelical religion on slavery was also more complicated than Goldfield’s account recognizes. America’s most ardent Abolitionists, which included both Evangelicals and those who had left conventional Evangelicalism far behind, were also the nation’s strongest pacifists and among those most willing to let the Confederate states depart without a fight. Northern Evangelical emancipationists also complicate the picture: They conceded that the Bible might not condemn slavery, but nonetheless argued that principles of Christian prudence and equity demanded that slavery be restricted and eventually eliminated. On political matters, these emancipationists mostly stood with the strongest supporters of political negotiations. Similarly, in the South the most self-consciously Evangelical leaders were among the most reluctant to secede and the most willing to chastise slave owners for violating “Abrahamic” moral standards for their slaves, including the denial of protection for marriage and the provision of basic education.
The general point is that if there were Evangelicals among the Southern hotheads who clamored for war and embraced it eagerly, in the North there were even more who sought peaceful solutions and supported political measures aimed at preventing war. By contrast, the fire-eaters of the South and extreme nationalists of both sections were only randomly known for religious convictions of any kind. Industrialists who eyed war profits were only intermittently driven by religious motives. And while Southern white Evangelicals often did advance militant defenses of slavery, they also led in resisting the even stronger pseudo-scientific racism associated with the era’s new Darwinist proclivities.
Goldfield has performed a signal service by spotlighting the religious forces that figured prominently in the actual unfolding of the Civil War. It remains now for still more comprehensive attempts to explain how the forces of nationalism, economic self-interest and racial prejudice interacted with religious motives, rhetoric and perspectives to bring on the war.
How did Northern victory transform the victors and hence the United States? Here Goldfield treads upon more familiar terrain, but walks it well.
For religion, the war wrought a negative transformation. After 1865, Evangelical Protestantism remained powerful as a religious and social force, but because that power was now bitterly divided, it lost national political influence. For African Americans, Evangelical faith provided personal inspiration and a source of community cohesion in the face of, first, new opportunities and, then, frustrated hopes. For Northern whites, Evangelicalism in the hands of latter-day revivalists like D.L. Moody became a “comfort religion” offering a personal spiritual security that occluded concern for society. Many Protestants in the postbellum North also fell under the sway of popularizers like Russell Conwell, whose famous “acres of diamonds” sermon, repeated at least 6,000 times, advocated what Goldfield calls “the Gospel of Money.” This “gospel” previewed for the Gilded Age what in modern America has developed as the Prosperity Gospel of health and wealth.
In the South, the Evangelical faith, which had been intensified in a remarkable series of revivals in Confederate camps, burrowed deeper into white consciousness. Yet as soon as the “Redemption” movement mounted its resistance to Republicans, Federal troops, black voters and the rule of law, Evangelical religion became, in Goldfield’s telling phrase, “the handmaiden of white supremacy.”
Finally, more than a few intellectuals, like Oliver Wendell Holmes, and one or two chastened men like Abraham Lincoln, seemed in due course to recognize the dangers of infusing religious energies into politics. In his magnificent Second Inaugural, Lincoln offered fresh admission that it was impossible to know the mind of God in the ways that so many Evangelicals claimed. Holmes turned from Evangelicalism to pragmatic skepticism. The net result of earlier overreach and later fragmentation was that the war “discredited Evangelical Protestantism as the ultimate arbiter of public policy.”
Evangelical Protestants could inspire, motivate and energize, but not unite, legislate or moderate. Yet government after the Civil War was newly poised to step in. For Goldfield, the Civil War marked the real beginning of a truly national political system, the immediate impact of which was to create Big Government: “By the end of the Civil War, the government supported an army of a million men, carried a national debt of $2.5 billion, distributed public lands, printed a national currency, and collected an array of internal taxes.” It was government on a scale unimaginable to the cautious framers of the Constitution, who had striven to prevent the concentration of powers that undermined traditional “British liberties” in the late-colonial era. Now, with Confederate armies defeated and seceded states taken back into the Union as colonial dependencies, the entire nation felt the consequences of a ramped up Federal presence. Economic, political and social values associated with the North’s “new birth of freedom” chartered the nation’s course as a whole.
Economically, the Union’s wartime mobilization, along with an income tax, a far more elaborate system of excise taxes and, for the first time, a genuine national banking capacity, paved the way for a new kind of capitalism. The old Whig ideal, which had so much inspired Abraham Lincoln, held out the prospect that the conscientious laborer could rise by dint of his own efforts to become a self-directed entrepreneur. Goldfield calls the deadly anti-draft riots of July 1863 the death of the Whig ideal. While limited opportunity remained in postbellum America for economic independence based on self-discipline and self-exertion, the war drastically reduced that opportunity. It hardened class divisions between labor and capital, accelerated the growth of large-scale industry with the concomitant necessity of a permanent laboring class, and facilitated the rise of a managerial middle class composed of bankers, accountants, managers and salesmen. New York’s laboring, mostly Irish immigrant poor rioted to protest not just the draft, argues Goldfield, but the partnership of Big Government and Big Industry that was coming to define a new economic order.
A final transformation wrought by the Civil War was to cast race relations into a limbo that lasted for nearly a century. Goldfield acknowledges the signal importance of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, but he joins recent historians in acknowledging that altering the Constitution was much easier than uprooting the racist order that survived the war largely intact.
The final big question Goldfield addresses is what kind of nation came out of the war. Because he understands Northern dominance as having been created by Federal armies, Goldfield pictures Northern values, practices and instincts as overwhelmingly dominant through the decades that followed. In his reading, this dominance meant a rapid transition from industrialized warfare under government supervision to industrial hegemony with government assistance. In particular, he says, “the war demanded volume and speed, which privileged size and technology.” As a consequence, machinery became “more important than artisanal skill, and uniformity more prized than individual handicraft.” While the Industrial Revolution had begun well before 1860, the Civil War “accelerated it and gave it the shape of what was to come: large, mechanized factories manned by low-skilled workers turning out products for both domestic and foreign markets.”
Goldfield maintains that postbellum confidence in science became as nationally influential as had once been antebellum trust in God. The war demonstrated the value of rational thinking; industry throve on the back of technological advances; the new biology of Charles Darwin dazzled the nation’s brightest minds with its supposed far-reaching explanatory power. In what Goldfield calls a new “Age of Reason”, national leaders now called on the theoretical and practical sciences to explain why innovation, initiative, organization, efficiency and economies of scale had opened up such unprecedented prosperity for so many (mostly Northern, white) Americans.
African Americans did not benefit when the nation tempered its religious zeal and turned to science. Goldfield’s competent account of Reconstruction shows how ideals burned bright with hope for a few short years before being extinguished by Northern indifference, Southern terrorism and new political distractions. Although black organizations—schools, churches, businesses and fraternal orders—began a positive process, these improvements fell short of the war’s promise. Blacks (along with Native Americans, who feature more prominently in the book’s last section), were disadvantaged in a postwar nation where “white Southerners banded together to work for redemption” and “white Northerners raced off to make money.” “America’s greatest failure”, as Goldfield calls it by way of an account of Philadelphia’s elaborate International Centennial Exhibition, was to allow a war that had unleashed “an economic revolution, unparalleled innovation, and a degree of affluence across a broader segment of society than any Western nation had known to that time” to nevertheless exact an enormous moral cost in the fact that “racial, gender, class, religious, [and] ethnic exclusion” prevailed more widely after the war than before it. Yes, Union victory preserved the form of the country’s founding ideals about liberty and justice for all, but depictions of the Civil War as heroic, idealistic, uplifting or virtuous in its actual social consequences are delusional. The most, and probably the best, one could say is that the Civil War, for better or worse, destroyed the original United States of America; what followed, though bearing the same name, was a different polity by dint of the very process of its birth.
The great merit of America Aflame is its comprehensive narrative that draws into one story politics, religion, economics, race and ideas. Although Goldfield’s account is open to criticism at many points, it is provocative in the best sense. Take, for example, the way he situates slavery within the broader context of industrialization.
Goldfield explains clearly why slavery was always the fundamental issue of the conflict. Slavery became the American nemesis not just because of its primal human reality, but because white Americans explained this institution to themselves in charged vocabularies of freedom drawn powerfully—if also promiscuously—from both republican and Evangelical sources. Controversies over defining the freedom for which the founding generation offered their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” (Declaration of Independence) merged with “the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Galatians 5:1), and so were bound to be explosive. But the war did not settle the definition and scope of freedom; it only displaced it. As Goldfield records the great moral disparity between fighting to abolish slavery and subsequently neglecting civil rights for African Americans, he joins other insightful historians like George Fredrickson, Colin Kidd and Eugene Genovese in showing how white racism could actually intensify even as slavery came to an end.2 The shape of the Union’s triumph led naturally to the North’s postbellum industrial expansion, but that expansion changed the stakes of labor itself, pitting a new white industrial working class against black competitors gradually moving from an agrarian environment to an urban one.
If such comprehensive histories can better explain the course of events 150 years ago, they might provide one additional benefit. In a United States that since the civil rights movement of the 1960s has witnessed a return of open religious advocacy to the public square, clearer historical perspectives would be a great boon. To grasp the important role of religion in the Civil War is a major first step. But to untangle the complexities of that role could be even more significant for understanding the even greater complexities of our own day. It might show all Americans how important religion is for purposeful living while also helping religious believers to express their convictions without threatening to set the nation aflame.
1Note partcularly Edward Ayers, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863 (Norton, 2003); Gary Gallagher, The Confederate War (Harvard University Press, 1997); Allen Guelzo, The Crisis of the American Republic: A History of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era (St. Martin’s Press, 1995); James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 1988); and George Rable, The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics (University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
2Fredrickson, Race: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2002); Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600–2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2006); Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (University of Georgia Press, 1998).