Pharos-Tribune

December 2, 2012

PUBLIC FORUM: Columnist’s critic takes cheap shot


— In the Nov. 25 Pharos-Tribune, Matt Meagher attacked Joe Bowyer for not understanding the causes of the Civil War. Meagher thinks, wrongly, that the “South fought to defend slavery” as the sole cause of the war. Meagher also made snide remarks about Bowyer always being wrong, a cheap shot that perhaps says more about Mr. Meagher than Joe Bowyer.

The true cause of the Civil War was not slavery but economic. Prior to 1861, federal revenue came primarily from customs duties. In the late 1820s, northern business interests forced an increase in these fees, seriously hurting the agricultural South. South Carolina officials were so angry that they began advocating secession in 1830.

In response, President Andrew Jackson made a threat of his own: if necessary he would personally lead an army into South Carolina. That ended secessionist talk and delayed the Civil War for 30 years. (Jackson predicted that South Carolina would use slavery as a pretext when the next crisis came. He was right.)

During the 1850s, the price of cotton, critical to the southern economy, stagnated at about 10 cents per pound — compared to 17 cents in the 1830s — while production costs increased. Planters and businesses were in a bind because large debts were owed to Northern bankers. Moreover, real money (gold and silver) was in short supply in the South but plentiful in the North.

The Panic of 1857 made Southern economic problems worse, much worse, and by 1859, there was again open talk of secession. The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, a man partly backed by northern business interests, brought matters to the boiling point. Southern radicals used the election to promote secession and their comments about slavery were mostly window dressing. Slavery was an issue but far behind those of the economy and states rights.

The irony of the Civil War is that it need not have happened. There were mass demonstrations across the North in early 1861 demanding that the South be allowed to peacefully secede. The Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, however, changed northern opinion overnight and gave Lincoln the backing needed to preserve the union by force of arms. The slavery question was not even seriously considered by Lincoln until 1862.

I would suggest that the next time Mr. Meagher has the urge to write a letter on American history or politics that he check his facts carefully.

R.W. Julian, Logansport