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History Chat

History Chat: Divisions That Would Lead to Civil War

The original disagreements that lead to the American Civil War, just in case anyone forgot, had been apparent since before we declared independence from Britain. Let us not forget that slavery had been the center of the southern colonies economy long before we had even considered abolishing it. And not just that, but it was already a center of British political debate when the war started. What was one of the enticements the southern colonies had to join the resistance at that point? That if they stayed loyal to the British crown, they would likely see the end of slavery a full 30 years earlier. (The British government abolished slavery in 1833, but it was already being discussed in Parliament during the war years. This concerned southern slaveholders.)

As soon as we became a new country, the divides of government were fairly clear. The south had more of an agriculture-based economy. The north had more of a trade-based economy. They were intertwined on so many levels, but at the same time, they were two vastly different ways of life. And as far as one central government was concerned, this was difficult to reconcile time after time.

As Jefferson states in Hamilton: An American Musical: “When Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky. Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whisky?” This was actually a real argument the first time the federal government went to apply taxes. The representatives from northern states wanted more taxes on things that were bought in the south, and vice versa.

The situation only gets exacerbated when the government decides to designate whether a state is a “slave” state or a “free” state. Not only that, but there needs to be an equal number of both. (Let us not forget that this is how Maine became a state separate from Massachusetts. Another territory wanted to join the union as a “slave” state.) But this is not the only thing that continues to make things difficult.

The divide between these two sides only widens over time. The us and them mentality that so often makes it difficult today to reconcile between our two major political parties was also central to the debate over slavery. Eventually it gets to the point where it becomes irreconcilable, and the southern states decided to secede from the Union. Many northern politicians actually ended up allowing laws to pass that we would see as inhumane today because they didn’t want to start a fight with the south. (One such law required slaves who had escaped to “free” states to be captured and returned to their owners, forcing many slaves to run all the way to Canada.) Those same politicians took a pretty hard line after the secessions began.

Even today we tend to see divisions along these same lines. The scars that the American Civil War left in its wake are very apparent in everyday life. To ignore them, to say that this could have been avoided borders on the edge of erasing the reality of it. It is a very real issue today. The only way it could have been avoided would have been to start this country as two – and even then, that most likely would have lost us the Revolutionary War. It is all fine and good to ask, “What if…”. But our history is the one we are left with. We have to recognize that in order to make a better tomorrow and to learn from our mistakes.

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