Question of the Week: February 2, 2015


Saturday, January 31 marked the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth would grant former slaves citizenship and give them the right to vote.

I have called the Thirteenth Amendment “arguably the most important outcome of the war.” Preservation of the Union would certainly be another.

What do YOU think the most important outcome of the war was?

8 Responses to Question of the Week: February 2, 2015

  1. I believe that the most important outcome of the war was the reaffirmation and furtherance of the principles of the Declaration of Independence as exemplified by the Gettysburg Address. The Union embodies these principles and has no meaning without them. The abolition of slavery was a natural conclusion from those principles and necessary to their continuing advancement. Even if the Confederacy had gained its independence (which it came very close to doing), slavery would have ended, probably before the end of the century. As a form of pre-industrial labor for single-crop plantation farming, it would soon lose its economic advantage. And the inherent moral contradictions would have overwhelmed even Southerners’ cognitive dissonance.

    1. Let me play devil’s advocate on that for a second, Dwight: Everyone thought that slavery was on its way out around the turn of the previous century, too, until the cotton gin fueled the need for labor. Might not an independent South, beefing up its industrialization, need more labor for that? I pose those questions only because it’s hard to say with any certainty that “slavery would have ended.” There’s just no telling without getting into the “What-If?” game.

      1. You’re right, Chris. As you have pointed out before (e.g., Jackson at Gettysburg), the “what ifs” can be carried too far, producing ahistorical conclusions that have more to do with entertainment than with reason. But still, reasonable projections can lead to better understanding. We have to make judgments about the past and the future. Could a single-crop agricultural economy with almost no liquid capital based on illiterate slave labor successfully industrialize and compete with tons of capital and free educated labor in the North and in England? Try to picture such an economy in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. And perhaps more importantly, Southerners seemed to believe (however wrongly) that they were true Americans following the founding principles and Christian teaching. With increasing pressure from both Northern neighbors and their greatest trading partner, Great Britain, those glaring contradictions had already become difficult to bear. It is a reasonable conclusion, I believe, that slavery could not have survived for long under economic and moral pressures.

  2. The constitutional amendments are certainly keystones of the Civil War legacy. The period also produced an extraordinary group of Americans that defined, altered and modified the nature of our very essence as Americans. Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglas, Clara Barton, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman and so many others exemplified character that has resonated to this very day. In my school presentations, I encourage students to get to know the people of the period. They were no more or less human than any of us, yet they chose to rise to the challenge of the day to pursue a higher ideal. For me, the people of the period, be they famous, notorious or obscure, are endlessly fascinating.

    1. I agree, John, that the best way to understand the period is to get to know the people. I remind folks that those soldiers were guys just like me (although most them a bit younger!). They were someone’s dad, son, brother, husband, neighbor. To remember that is to make their sacrifices more relatable, I think.

  3. John Viscount Morley was a British politician and pacifist who resigned from the Cabinet in late 1914 because England had gone to war with Germany.

    In 1917, he published his _Recollections_ (New York: The Macmillan Company):

    “Humanity fought one of its most glorious battles across the Atlantic. An end had been brought to the only war in modern times as to which we can be sure, first, that no skill or patience of diplomacy could have averted it, and second, that preservation of the American Union and abolition of negro slavery were two triumphs of good by which even the inferno of war was justified.” (p.20)

    1. Great quote, Bob. Thanks so much for sharing it.

      I often wonder how “justified” some of the widows and orphans and mothers felt it was, though. “Preserve the Union” feels a lot more hollow when your husband or father or son comes home in a pine box–along with a train car full of others, too.

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