While not an avid follower of the GOP presidential race, my attention was drawn to Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who in 2007, declared that the American Civil War was a “senseless bloodbath”. He went on to say that “there were better ways of getting rid of slavery” and it should have been phased out gradually. He points to the British Empire as an example of this. Many historians have disputed the reasons why Britain abolished slavery when it did – some have used economic arguments, declaring the slave trade was part of an archaic system that did not “fit” with the new capitalist age. Others argue anti-slavery was part of a reformist attitude that encompassed a revival in, among others, religion and temperance. But slavery in America cannot be compared so easily to the British Empire – it was part of Southern society, and for many it was a way of life.
What Paul is forgetting here is that hindsight is a dangerous thing – can we speculate whether the Civil War was inevitable? Slavery was an explosive issue, and many politicians seem to forget the “peculiar institution” had ruptured American politics more than once– how many compromises could the country take? How much violence could occur without a Civil War? (Perhaps Paul should research Bleeding Kansas, a bloody war over slavery several years before 1861.) Some form of conflict was inevitable, but it was the men and the circumstances of the 1850’s that made it happen when it did. Paul can decry Lincoln’s decisions as much as he likes, but Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union at all costs. Maybe this made war unavoidable. When discussing this topic, I can never fail to forget the chilling last words of failed insurrectionist John Brown as he was hanged in 1859:
"I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood."
P.S. Not all soldiers fought for the abolition of slavery - you only have to read James McPherson’s excellent book, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War to understand this. But to call their sacrifice “senseless” smacks of disrespect. Paul is entitled to his opinions on how the war started or whether it was unavoidable, but the 600,000 men who died may take issue with his callous dismissal of their choice to fight.