Monday, January 7, 2013

Clearing the Fog of War

The first time I read Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the American Civil War, I was surprised and a little disappointed that he took three hundred pages, a third of the book, to get to any Civil War combat. This time through, though, I was ready and eager to brush up on the political movements and events of the twenty or thirty years before Fort Sumter. Far from disappointed this time, I’m amazed at McPherson’s accomplishment. I can’t do better than quote the words from The New York Times Book Review reprinted on the back cover of my copy: “It is the best one-volume treatment of its subject . . . . It is comprehensive yet succinct, scholarly without being pedantic, eloquent but unrhetorical. . . . Again and again, hopelessly knotty subjects . . . are painlessly made clear.”

One of these knotty subjects is capitalism. I know it helps to have read Marx, Adam Smith, and a college economics textbook between the first time through Battle Cry and now, but McPherson’s straightforward explanations helped clarify for me several things about American capital and industry in the 1830s. I don’t remember, for instance, having any clue as to why the Democrats of the early nineteenth century opposed a national bank, only that Jefferson stood against Hamilton’s original idea and that Jackson closed the Second Bank of the United States. But McPherson explains that Democrats from the tradition of those two Presidents saw the expansion of wealth and business created by a bank’s credit as inimical to liberty: businesses hire wage laborers, and wage laborers aren’t free. Jefferson wanted a nation of free people (well, men), by which he meant independent and self-sufficient landowners. With that explanation, the issue is much clearer to me now, but I still can’t completely see the sense in the Democrats’ argument. The Bank offered new ways for more American citizens to gain financial independence, and afforded opportunities to many wage laborers for advancement. And when I read about Southern Democrats in the 1840s and 1850s arguing that slaves are better off than wage laborers because their masters care for them, I lose all sympathy.

McPherson also presented an interesting picture of benefits women gained from the new capitalistic North. For many women, the man’s leaving the home to work elsewhere left her in charge in her own sphere and gave her new freedoms and options outside the home, as well. The number of women in the workforce rose dramatically in these decades (not necessarily a good thing for those who see wage-labor as drudgery worse than slavery) as did the numbers of girls in public education: by the time the Civil War began, as many girls attended school in the North as boys. These newly educated women also gained time, as evidenced by their rapidly growing interest and involvement in political and social movements.

Yesterday I read about the question of the status of the Southern states: did they constitute a sovereign nation or merely a rebelling section of the United States? I only remember pondering what the answer to that question meant internally, but McPherson explains clearly and briefly what difference it made externally. Under international law, “belligerent powers” (I must admit I still don’t understand the distinction between that and a nation) had more rights than rebels, including the right to obtain loans and purchase weapons. In one of the coincidences that constantly attend my reading, in a section about the impact of the Union’s sea blockade of Southern ports on the status of the South (by keeping foreign ships out, it implied the independence of the Confederacy), McPherson mentioned the precedents set by Great Britain fifty years earlier in its wars with Napoleon, including details I read about just last month in The War for All the Oceans.

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