Earlier this week, the President of the United States made an appalling blunder: Andrew Jackson, declared President Trump, “was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War.” Pundits fumed. Historians took to the Twittersphere to “fact check” the POTUS. Others denounced the President’s intellect. The venerable biographer Jon Meacham, in an interview with MSNBC, likened the President’s brain and its erratic intellectual activity to a pinball machine.
Central to the excitement surrounding President Trump’s miscue is an enduring sentiment that surfaces with some frequency in conversations of Civil War causation. Why? Why nearly 800,000 killed? The short answer, of course, is slavery. Only a historically illiterate person, or the most unrepentant Lost Cause adherent, fails to recognize this. As Gary Gallagher has noted, the decades since 1960 have produced a vibrant literature that has placed African Americans and emancipation squarely at the center of Civil War scholarship. Yet despite a near consensus on the centrality of slavery to Civil War causation, some historians have lamented, and recently, that a divided America needed to fight that war. The sentiment is more established than many realize. In his meta-narrative revision to the Neoabolitionist school, David Goldfield, an Avery Craven associate in his days at the University of Maryland, declared that the Civil War remains America’s “greatest failure.” The conflict deemed irrepressible, writes Goldfield, was not inevitable after all. Other means might have ended the heinous institution. William J. Cooper, a dean of Southern history, revitalizes a similar interpretation in We Have the War Upon Us. How can historians make sense of these divergent historiographical traditions – orthodox Neoabolitionism and throwback Revisionism – and view them as a coherent whole?
The entire article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.