Henry Olerich, “What the American Civil War Has Not Done” (1893)

  • Henry Olerich, “What the American Civil War Has Not Done,” The American Journal of Politics 3, no. 6 (December 1893): 628-634.



PERHAPS all well-informed persons admit that chattel slavery was the cause of the American Civil War. All other questions that were incidentally drawn into the controversy were but secondary, and would likely have been treated as ordinary questions of politics. The animosity which caused the Civil War was created by the agitation of the slave question; and it is altogether probable that if slavery had not been introduced in to the United States, the Civil War would not have occurred. The previous union of the southern with the northern states is evidence that a friendly feeling between them had once existed, and if no enmity had been created between them by the agitation of the slavery question, there would not have been a desire to secede; for no one desires to withdraw from a partnership that is harmonious and profitable.

The vast majority of the people of the northern states still seem to believe that the Civil War gave freedom to the colored people of the United States; but upon a closer and more impartial examination, I think it will be found that such is not the case. It is a well-known fact that nearly every resident of the North still justifies the war on the ground that it abolished chattel slavery in the United States. In this case, then, the public mind has sufficiently unfolded to see the injustice of chattel slavery; but it is still unable to see the futility and evil consequences of war. The fact which must be made clear, then, is that the Civil War was not the real cause but simply the agent that abolished chattel slavery; that the war was only an outward manifestation of an inward feeling which was the real force that gradually destroyed the bondage of the southern blacks. To prove this proposition is the object of this article.

Chattel slavery had its origin at an early period of the world’s history out of the accident of capture in war. Savages put their captives to death, but the semi-civilized in place of massacring them found it more profitable to keep them as slaves.

By examining the records of history, we find that all our so- called highly civilized nations had chattel slavery at one time, but that none of them have it at the present day — all having abolished it. This we find they did on both continents. England abolished chattel slavery in 1834, France in 1848, the Dutch in 1863, Vermont in 1777, Massachusetts in 1780, New York in 1827, the United States in 1863, Brazil recently, etc. Perhaps every advocate of the Civil War well knows that all of these states and nations did not find it necessary to engage in a civil war to abolish slavery within their boundaries. To begin with, this fact, then, establishes the truth that chattel slavery has been and can be abolished by other means than civil wars.

Chattel slavery is an inhuman institution, originating in a barbarous age, and civilization cannot look upon it with any degree of allowance. But all individuals, states, and nations, however, do not mature simultaneously for similar ethical conduct. The sentiment of respect for the rights of inferiors, which alone can really set slaves free, is a plant of slow growth but thrives best in localities where the conditions of intellectual culture are most favorable; where the utility of slave labor is least; where the fewest persons have property in slaves; and where conscience has been least calloused by seeing slaves constantly abused. By such environment the sentiment of the northern people was influenced on the slave question, while a contrary condition existed in the South. Thus, in low latitudes the conditions for intellectual culture are less favorable than in temperate latitudes. Slave labor can be utilized better in raising sugar cane and cotton in the South than for raising grain and livestock in the North. In the South more persons had property in slaves than in the North. And the conscience of the southern people became more calloused by being reared among slaves and by continually seeing them abused. For these and other reasons, the southern people ripened slower and matured later [630] for the abolition of chattel slavery than the northern people.

Let us bear in mind here that chattel slavery is, however, not the only kind of slavery. Industrial, religions, and domestic slavery may, in some cases, be as repugnant as chattel slavery. The forced idler, the Hindoo woman who practices suttee, and the married woman who is ruled over by a tyrannical husband, are perhaps as much slaves as human chattels.

Chattel slavery was formally abolished in the United States January 1, 1863; but, on the succeeding day, the actual slavery was very likely greater than on the preceding day, for the emancipation provoked a greater enmity between the North and the South, and between the master and the slave, which made the condition of the penniless emancipated slave so critical that he was entirely at the mercy of his former master ; and it is highly probable that a master who had a thousand dollars or more invested in a slave, and who was not yet ready for treating a slave as a political equal, would treat him as well, if not better, when a chattel slave, than he would when he had no property invested in him, and when he could employ more slaves than he wanted for a few cents per day.

The writer does not wish it understood that he is against the abolition of chattel slavery. All forms of slavery, whether chattel, industrial, religious, or domestic, should be abolished by the increasing intelligence of our race as soon as possible, but only thought can make the slave and master equals.

Jefferson, and other southerners as individuals, as well as the northern states, liberated their slaves before the Civil War began. A warm sympathy was thus created between Jefferson and his voluntarily liberated slaves. The emancipation, in such cases, came from the heart. In the South, where this heart was wanting at the time of the Civil War, conditions were just the opposite.

The point we must bring out conspicuously here is, that the institution of chattel slavery had already crumbled to pieces in nearly every civilized country before the United States began the agitation of its abolition, and this crumbling process was sweeping rapidly southward, as we can readily see by comparing the various times the northern states emancipated their slaves, and there is nothing to indicate that the southern people could long have avoided or disregarded that wave of mental and moral force which had changed the hearts and minds of the people of nearly every civilized nation of the earth in regard to chattel slavery. Every leading nation of the earth had set the example for the South to follow, and the psychical force which had prepared the hearts and minds of the masters and slaves in foreign countries and in the northern states for the emancipation of chattel slavery was slowly maturing the southern people for the same condition that had been brought about between master and slave of other countries and the northern two thirds of our own.

If the government of the United States had paid no attention to the secession of South Carolina and the other seceding states, letting them withdraw from the Union, if they so desired, and had stood ready to receive them again when they were ready to come back, the Civil War would doubtless have been avoided, and in a comparatively short time the mental and moral force which liberated slaves in other quarters of the world would have operated to the same extent on the southern people, and they would voluntarily have renewed their allegiance to the Union. To deny this is to deny the uniformity of Nature and the universality of her laws. To assume that she would have made an exception as to this little nook of the southern states, when she had done, or has since done, her work effectually in all other portions of the civilized world, is arrant nonsense.

Judging the southern states by the world at large, the only standard we can apply, as soon as they would have become mentally matured for emancipation, they would have set their slaves free and asked for readmission, if they had not found a better government of their own; and if they had found something better, they were entitled to enjoy it. Slavery was the fundamental point of disagreement between the North and the South, and this caused the feeling that led to secession; therefore, just in proportion as the South saw fit to abolish slavery, the enmity would have been removed, and, when slavery was entirely abolished, harmony would have been restored— for that which had caused the discord would have ceased to exist.

In order to make the foregoing principles more clear and forcible let us apply them to practical life.

A runaway boy who is forcibly brought back by an officer will do no good at home. He does not add anything desirable to that home where he is forcibly prevented from running away again. He would rather see it torn down than built up. There is an enmity, under the circumstances, which makes such a home unpleasant for all. The boy’s conduct would, however, be vastly different if he found by living with strangers that he had made a mistake in leaving his home. After discovering his mistake, he would come back and ask to be readmitted as a member of the family. He would now have different feelings toward his home. He would try to add to the pleasure and comfort of its members instead of doing all in his power to annoy and destroy as before, when he was kept there against his will.

As with the boy and his family, so it is with the North and the South. The South ran away and the North brought her back by force. They have been fighting and quarreling ever since. Thus we see that the war created lasting enmity: First, between the North and the South, because the southern states were deprived of the privilege to secede; a right which they claimed to have according to their interpretation of the Constitution, and a similar right to which we tacitly consent in all our practical business transactions ; for every one who enters into a business compact with others, either avowedly or tacitly agrees that any partner of the firm can withdraw at any time he desires. This principle is recognized in divorce from the marriage relation, for, though this contract is entered into as a life compact yet good policy and good sense declare that a separation is infinitely to be preferred to a life of continuous turmoil and contention. Secondly, the war created an enmity between the master and the slave, for it compelled the master to abolish chattel slavery at a time when he was not yet mentally and morally matured for it.

This state of affairs made the condition of the homeless slave in the South almost unbearable. The emancipated slaves were without homes, money, or food, and almost without clothing. They were surrounded by enemies who were willing to do all they could to make emancipation a failure as those unfriendly to emancipation had predicted it would be. Chattel slavery was changed into other forms of slavery which were for a time, at least, undoubtedly worse. While if the southern slaves had been liberated voluntarily as were those of Jefferson and the northern states, there would have been a warm, friendly feeling created, both between the North and the South, and between the master and the slave. The quarreling and fighting which resulted from the meddling conduct of the contending parties have already lasted over forty years. This useless and deplorable contest cost more than a million lives and billions of dollars. It made wives widows, children orphans, sound men cripples, and strong men diseased. It also invigorated the old barbaric idea that war, instead of thought, leads to liberty and happiness. It revived the savage feeling of revenge in a large number of otherwise noble men and women. If both parties in the conflict of the war had acted sensibly and patriotically, all these calamities would have been avoided. Instead of carnage and destruction, friendship, prosperity and freedom would have filled the land.

Among savages, war is the rule and peace the exception; while among highly civilized nations and individuals, peace is the rule and war the exception. Thus we see that the whole matter rests on the degree of intelligence; on how much we know. We are the sports of, our education, heredity, and environment, and must, therefore, always act as we are impressed by them. If we had all known that war cannot really set slaves free, that true freedom is born in thought which slowly unfolds the equitable sentiments, war with gun and bayonet would not have occurred.

Had those northern people who felt like urging the maturation of the South on the slave question faster than would result from the natural growth of sentiment, sent into the South half a million of the best and most competent men and women, not with sword and cannon, but with a friendly desire of assisting by educating and enlightening the development of those sentiments which by educating and enlightening the development of those sentiments which alone can destroy slavery, they would soon have held sway from Mason and Dixon’s line to the Gulf. The North would then have accomplished a proud achievement upon which all future generations could have looked with admiration; but the course which they did take will, in a few generations, look as futile and cruel to our posterity as now do the acts of the Spanish Inquisition to us.

The writer does not sympathize more with one side than with the other. Both, no doubt, lived up to the best light of that time. Their honesty and sincerity cannot be questioned, when we consider the hardships and privations which each bore in defense of what it believed to be the right.

No one who is not intensely sincere will bear so much in defense of his cause. The truth is that both the North and the South made a grievous mistake and the noblest thing to do when mistakes have been made is to acknowledge the unpleasant fact and profit by the experience.

If the evil consequences of that ill-advised struggle will so impress our good people with the horrors and uselessness of cruel war, the lessons so dearly taught by that struggle will not have been learned in vain.

Henry Olerich.

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