The Civil War interpretations from 1900 to 1950 embraced many new passions in history including progressivism, Southern vindication, and revisionism. The progressive era in the United States gave rise to the idea of “The Second American Revolution,” embraced by Charles Beard and Algie Simons. These historians wanted to write a new history with a progressive mindset focused on social reform and national progress for a better future. The economic factors of the Civil War were reanalyzed, and the search for reformist solutions to the Civil War problems was top priority.
Charles Beard is the most famous historian of the early twentieth century. Beard, an avid progressive, pioneered the interpretation of the Civil War from a purely economic standpoint. He did not include social and political pressures as previous historians had done. Beard considered the Civil War to be a revolution because it was the conflict of two economic ideologies which could not function together. The South was forced to break off in order to maintain economic independence. Beard said the central consequence of the Civil War was not the abolition of slavery, but rather the enhancement of the Second American Revolution which enabled industrial and business interests to dominate the United States.
Algie Simons also embraced an economic view, seeing the Civil War as a Marxist revolution. According to Simons, economic forces led to class struggles which split the United States along North-South lines. He claimed the rise of the Republican Party and Northern capitalism conflicted with the agricultural society of the South. When the new socio-economic class took the election of 1860, it forced the South to secede. Simons concluded his Marxist theories of class struggle with the theory that “the genesis of the war lay in the conflicting economic interests of the capitalist class in the North and the planter class in the South” (Pressly, 253).
The Progressive historians who embraced the idea of a “Second American Revolution” could not answer the racial conflict, so it was completely ignored. They merely treated the Civil War as a social conflict that was caused by economic issues. In reality, the Civil War actually went against progress because thousands of people died and whole sections of the United States were wasted and destroyed by war. There was nothing “progressive” about the Civil War.
Another historical opinion emerged at this time called “The New Vindication of the South” which involved Ulrich Phillips, Charles Ramsdell, and Frank Owsley. Ulrich Phillips rejected an economic explanation and focused on the racial factors leading to the Civil War. The socio-cultural differences caused by race could explain the problems of the ante-bellum South. Phillips insisted that the main purpose of the plantation system was “that of schooling and civilizing a dependent race” (Pressly, 268). Ultimately, he justified slavery in the South. His supportive arguments continued in a highly racist manner which was unfortunately common prior to the Civil Rights era.
Charles Ramsdell supported the South by attacking Abraham Lincoln, who was supposedly responsible for the Civil War. Ramsdell said that Lincoln’s approach to the Fort Sumter problems forced the Confederates into secession. He also concluded that the Northerners could have ended the war much sooner if they had ignored the slavery issue. Ramsdell believed that slavery was a non-issue because it would have died out shortly after the war was over. Therefore, the South remained a pure institution which had been wrongfully forced into war by a belligerent North.
Frank Owsley’s desire to “‘point out the untruth of the self-righteous Northern legend which makes the South the war criminal” remained the heart-cry of his writings (Pressly, 281). He blamed the sectionalism of the North and the Northern abolitionists for causing the Civil War. According to Owsley, the North was unforgiving in its destruction of the South and sought only to crush the Southern rebels because they hindered progress.
The final viewpoint to emerge during the first half of the twentieth century was “The Repressible Conflict” supported by Mary Scrugham, Avery Craven, James Randall, Roy Nichols, and Kenneth Stampp. This new breed of historians included the “revisionist” Progressive view which argued that the Civil War was caused by delusions, mischievous propaganda, bogus leadership, emotionalism, and fanaticism. They were disillusioned with war in general because they saw no point to World War I; thus, their opinions of war influenced their belief in the Civil War.
Mary Scrugham emphasized the peaceful citizens who had lived during the Civil War. She argued that eighty percent of Americans desired some sort of compromise instead of civil war, and she dismissed the sectional conflicts all together. Scrugham blamed the fanatical leaders who had shut their eyes to the real issues and had focused on their own personal soap boxes. In her analysis of these fanatical leaders, she looked for psychological explanations which followed the new Freudian psychoanalysis of the 1930s. This idea of emotionalism and psychoanalysis would also be embraced by future historians.
Roy Nichols adopted the idea of emotionalism, but he expanded it by blaming the Civil War on what he called “hyperemotionalism.” He said the presidential elections, sectional conflicts, and political arguments had caused a state of hyper emotions in the United States prior to the war. Accordingly, Nichols believed that politicians used the “hyperemotionalism” to cause the war.
Avery Craven and James Randall developed a slightly different “revisionist” point of view by claiming that the Civil War was needless. They held the belief that the Civil War was needless because an armed conflict should never have occurred. Craven and Randall also claimed the war was needless because it had more harmful consequences than beneficial ones. They believed that the United States would have been better off if the war had never happened. No doubt this belief mirrored the popular sentiments caused in the United States by World War I.
Kenneth Stampp argued that propaganda and extremism caused the Civil War in the 1860s. He honestly believed that if the South had complied to the North earlier, the war could have been avoided. Stampp advocated the issue of Southern submission and Northern acceptance because he was disillusioned by the war results, results which he claimed left “‘the rich richer and the slaves only half free,’” a concept which made sense in the pre-Civil Rights Era.
– Hannah S. Bowers
[In Part Three of this analysis I examine the interpretations of the Civil War from the 1950s to present day.]
Pressly, Thomas. Americans Interpret Their Civil War. New York: The Free Press, 1962.