U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“A Strife of Tongues:” Civil War Historiography and American Intellectual History

In February 1850, as congress desperately debated the last national compromise over slavery before the Civil War, Massachusetts congressman Robert Winthrop called the drama he witnessed in Washington “a strife of tongues.” Winthrop’s metaphor draws attention to the ideological origins of the Civil War, a conflict expressed in words before experienced in wounds. As Drew Faust argues in This Republic of Suffering (2008), the words that gave meaning to the conflict over slavery were ultimately subsumed in blood, and death became the all-encompassing meaning of the war. Yet the contest for meaning resumed, according to David Blight, who demonstrates in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001) and American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (2011) that memory constructs meaning.

In addition to the cultural remembering that Blight discusses, a “strife of tongues” has continued in the form of historical scholarship. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, historians have used slavery, the Civil War, and antebellum politics as a canvass on which to introduce, contest, and work through questions of interest to American intellectual historians: freedom, citizenship, the Constitution, federalism, race, the significance of ideology in American politics, the nature of American capitalism, morality, and the possibility of making a “moral choice.” These questions abound in the most seemingly esoteric debates of Civil War historiography, in, for example, the debate between Kenneth M. Stampp and Eugene Genovese over the economic character of American slavery, in Thomas Haskell’s and David Brion Davis’s debate over abolitionist motives, in the difference between a focus on political systems (Michael Holt, William Gienapp, Joel Silbey), and a focus on ideology and culture (Eric Foner, Daniel Walker Howe, Lawrence Levine), in the contrasting pictures of the antebellum south in the work of W.J. Cash and Michael O’Brien, and in the evolution of slavery in the historical imagination from U.B. Phillips to Stanley Elkins, to Kenneth Stampp, to John Blasingame. This historiographic “strife of tongues” has an internal history, with implications for the U.S. history profession, as well as an external history, connected to twentieth-century national and international politics and social movements.

Intellectual historians can and should examine the historiography of American slavery for insight into the political culture and social movements of twentieth century, as well as the changing preoccupations and values of the history profession. However, in addition to this standard historiographic work, intellectual historians can and should listen to some of the classic debates within Civil War scholarship for insight into some of the most significant problems, questions, and claims in American thought. Through their work on slavery and the Civil War, historians have tackled questions of particular interest for intellectual historians. Most significant are questions about how to understand and represent the moral universe of individuals from the past, and questions about the processes of meaning-making and memory.

Historiographic debates over how to approach these questions provide interesting material not only for the student of historiography or of the Civil War, but also for the intellectual historian who frequently engages in these and similar questions. As intellectual historians can learn from debates within Civil War historiography, so, too, can Civil War historians benefit from further integration of the methods of intellectual history to better connect specific issues to abstract ideas, to integrate culture and politics, to examine a greater diversity of sources, to pay particularly close attention to language, and, finally, to go beyond language.

Two of the most extensive debates in Civil War historiography seem at fist to be primarily about the relationship between capitalism and the history of slavery. Yet both debates also explore how historians can understand the moral world of people in the past, a question of particular importance to intellectual historians, who deal with ideational worlds. By asking about the relationship of capitalism to anti-slavery thought, David Brion Davis and Thomas Haskell came to debate the best way of understanding the moral world of abolitionists; by making different arguments about the relationship of the Peculiar Institution to capitalism, James Oakes and Eugene Genovese created different pictures of the moral world of slavery’s proponents. In Davis, Haskell, Oakes, and Genovese, intellectual historians have four different examples of how the historian attempts to reconstruct the moral world of his or her subjects.

In The Anti-Slavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation (1992), David Brion Davis and Thomas Haskell examine the relationship between the rise of capitalism and the rise of an organized anti-slavery movement. Both historians agree that capitalism played an important role in the development of anti-slavery sentiment, but disagree about the way in which capitalism contributed. For Haskell, the moral world of the abolitionists– their sense of justice– was not determined by class interest or economic considerations, but the international connections that the growing market economy created expanded the abolitionists’s sense of what they had the power to influence with their actions, creating different notions of what constituted an unjust or unacceptable moral action.

Calling Haskell’s explanation of the role of the market in the rise of anti-slavery sentiment too indirect, Davis argues that the market, in creating distinct classes, created distinct moral worlds. The abolitionist sense of justice was determined by class interest; they believed in the virtue of free labor and condemned slavery because it was in their economic interest to do so, even though, according to Davis, nineteenth-century systems of wage-labor and chattel slavery were equally unjust. Davis’s claim that class interest shaped moral choice stems directly from his judgement that nineteenth century British abolitionists made the wrong moral choice in focusing their efforts exclusive on the injustice of slavery and not also on the injustice of wage-labor. His animating question– how could abolitionists condemn slavery but support unjust systems of free labor?– reflects his inability to step outside his moral world and into the world of his subjects. He thus reduces their moral universe to class and lets ready-made theories about class interest serve to explain his subjects’s actions.

Although he argues that abolitionists were motivated by class interest and that their class position shaped their moral universe, Davis is curiously reluctant to accept the implications of his claim. Uncomfortable portraying abolitionists as “agents of a capitalist conspiracy,” Davis introduces the idea of “unconscious intent” to assert that while abolitionists believed themselves to be a part of a moral world that transcended class interest, the “unconscious intent” of their activism was to further their economic interests.1 Haskell questions how historians can analyze unconscious intent and make claims about self-delusion. Although Haskell often relies on theory and metaphor rather than specific historical examples, he suggests that Davis’s claims to know his subjects’s unconscious intent strays into methodological territory unfaithful to concrete historical analysis.

Like Haskell and Davis, James Oakes and Eugene Genovese disagree about the relationship between slavery and capitalism. In Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974) and The World the Slave Owners Made: Two Essays in Interpretation (1988), Genovese insists that American slavery represented a pre-capitalist society with paternalistic, feudalistic values– a moral universe directly opposed to capitalism. Genovese reproduces the testimony of slave owners expressing paternalistic feelings, southerners who used the language of feudalism, and proponents of slavery who stressed the differences between their Peculiar Institution and market capitalism. James Oakes questions whether the historian should take his or her subjects’ testimony at face-value as Genovese does. If Davis seemed to quick to assume self-delusion and unconscious intent in his subjects, Genovese appears too willing to take them at their word.

In contrast, Oaks argues that southern claims about paternalism and feudalism reflect self-delusion stemming from deep anxiety and guilt. In Ruling Race (1998), Oakes argues that the uncomfortable struggle to reconcile slavery and Christianity, though possible, lead to lingering doubts and southern guilt. Virulent racism developed as a response to the equalizing tendencies in Christianity. Throughout the book, Oakes reads guilt and anxiety into southern politics and culture, closely examining the intricacies of racism, religious rhetoric, southern zeal for spreading the institution of slavery west, and aggressive attempts by slave interests to dominate American politics and force northern states to recognize and support slavery through fugitive slave laws.

Charles G. Sellers and Kenneth M. Stampp, Oakes’ advisor, have similarly argued that the moral universe of the south represented self-delusion stemming from guilt and anxiety. Stampp even declared provocatively in his article “The Southern Road to Appomattox” (1969) that it was the unconscious intent of the south to lose the Civil War.2 Like Oakes, Stampp and Sellers insist that American slavery was a capitalist system, and understand southern culture as an elaborate attempt to hide this truth from themselves, while Genovese, in contrast, takes the moral universe of slave-owners as they presented it, and describes it as a world of pre-capitalist values.3

Haskell, Davis, Oakes, and Genovese each present different methods through which the historian can try to reconstruct his or her subjects’s moral world. Haskell focuses on the social conditions that can introduce or define moral choices, Genovese accepts the professions of his subjects, Davis and Oakes believe they can stand outside their subjects’s claims and uncover self-delusion unconscious motives. Where Davis is guided by abstract theories of class interest and by his own sense of justice, which he projects onto his subjects, Oakes employs close analysis and creative interpretation of southern words and actions, creating a rich and detailed picture of the complex moral universe of proponents of slavery. Had Haskell used specific examples and analysis of language in his argument, he could have similarly reproduced with rich detail the complex moral world of the abolitionists, shaped and influences by social conditions, but never reducible to them.

The postmodern turn of the last decades of the twentieth century brought a new focus on language and a skepticism about meta-narratives to the history profession. A wealth of powerful interpretations in the historiography of slavery and the Civil War have come out of this postmodern turn. In the field of memory studies, David Blight’s Race and Reunion (2001) and American Oracle (2011) examine the process through which Americans created, recreated, and manipulated the meaning(s) of the Civil War. Gary Wills’s Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (1998) focuses closely on the text and context of Lincoln’s speech and how his words not only created meaning from death, but ultimately remade the meaning of America. In scope of argument and method, Vincent Brown’s The Reaper’s Garden (2008) represents the most ambitious study of meaning-making and slavery. Using songs, rituals, burial practices, and death itself as a “text,” Brown argues that the presence of death and the cultural practices surrounding it served as ways of creating identity and negotiating power in the slave culture of Jamaica and the British empire. During “turbulent periods,” such as slavery, Brown asserts, death and particularly the memory of the dead serve “as a rudder . . . to animate a politics of regeneration for a fluid world.”4

Published the same year as The Reaper’s Garden, Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering could not be more different from Brown’s book. If death is a “rudder” and a source of meaning-making for Brown, for Faust, death in the Civil War swallowed and overtook any sense of meaning that might have come from the conflict for Union and emancipation. Meaning, Faust argues, was a causality of the Civil War; extreme suffering discouraged discourse and eviscerated the meaning Americans had constructed in the “strife of tongues” before the Civil War. Like Brown, Faust examines poetry, songs, and cultural practices surrounding death. Yet unlike Brown, Faust reads for silence and for absence. Her works represents a leap in historiography beyond meaning. Similarly, literary scholar Michael Gilmore pays attention to silence and absence in his book, The War on Words: Slavery, Race, and Free Speech in American Literature, published in 2010. Gilmore identifies motifs of silence and suffocation in antebellum American literature and connects these themes with congressional gag rules on slavery. He reads both fictional and political texts for absence, and compares Abraham Lincoln’s long, wordy speeches before the Civil War to his short, simple speeches at the end of the war. Ultimately, Gilmore concludes, like Faust, that death and suffering killed the production of meaning in the Civil War.

Historians will always be concerned with meaning. Indeed, Faust and Gilmore, too, make claims about the meaning of the Civil War. Yet while Blight, Wills, and Brown spin meaning out of words, Faust and Gilmore listen for moments where words fail. They pay attention to absence and, most important, to their subjects’s experience of absence, rather than turning historical subjects into constant meaning-making machines. Close attention to language, memory-construction, and meaning produced valuable work in studies of slavery and the Civil War; Faust and Gilmore suggest what new scholarship may look like beyond the postmodern focus on language and meaning.

Just as intellectual historians can gain insight into historical methods and developments in the profession from paying attention to the differences between Haskell and Davis, between Oakes and Genovese, and between Brown and Faust, historians of slavery, the Civil War, and antebellum politics should learn to adopt some of the methods of intellectual historians. Studies of antebellum political developments often suffer from a division between culture and ideology on the one hand, and political systems and events on the other. As David Blight explains in Race and Reunion, Americans after the Civil War longed to believe that the conflict could have been easily avoided, that there were no fundamental ideological differences dividing their house. According to Blight, Americans reunited by erasing the memory of slavery and emancipation as the meaning of the Civil War. Historians in the 1960s, such as Stampp and Sellers, worked to restore slavery as the central cause of bitter sectional division and bloody Civil War, earning them the epithet “Neo-abolitionists” from a new generation of scholars who believed they had gone too far in emphasizing ideology over structural issues like electoral systems and political necessity.

Because of this historiographic legacy, Civil War historians continue to focus either on culture and ideology, or on politics, and– with a few notable exceptions– do not consider politics as an important part of culture and ideology. Several scholars continue to emphasize electoral systems and the internal imperatives of the Second Party System instead of looking at the development and interaction of different ideologies of democracy, freedom, labor, and American life. For example, in The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, Michael Holt treats politicians as cogs in a machine, rather than intellectuals and citizens struggling with ideological commitments. Ignoring culture, ideology, and sectional division, Holt argues that the imperative to maintain party guided all political decisions before the Civil War. Holt misses the opportunity to use the Whigs to explicate antebellum culture and ideology, or to creatively read political sources for expressions of belief on issues of gender, race, or American democracy. Similarly, in The Shrine of Party (1981) Joel Silbey focuses on electoral alignment and and commitment to party, while deemphasizing ideology and sectional divisions. He discusses Congressman Winthrop’s “strife of tongues”– the Compromise of 1850– strictly for congressional voting patterns, without analyzing the months of debate surrounding the compromise for clues about the ideological and cultural divisions that turned the strife of tongues into a strife of guns just ten years later.

Intellectual historians’ attention to ideology promises to integrate politics and culture in Civil War scholarship. Civil War historians have a wealth of sources in the form of political speeches, extensive congressional debates, letters from law-makers to their families and friends, novels, pamphlets, and newspaper columns, yet the same scholar does not usually treat both novels and congressional debates in the same monograph, and historians, like Silbey, have generally examined the congressional record for voting patterns rather than language, culture, and ideology. Intellectual historians would likely read congressional debates not just for statistical information on party alignment, but primarily for language, ideology, political culture, and to uncover an entire ideational world involving ideas about gender, race, citizenship, freedom, and the meaning of America. Because intellectual historians are primarily concerned with finding expressions of ideology and belief in a variety of different sources, incorporating the methods of intellectual history would lead Civil War historians to locate ideology, culture, and politics together in such diverse sources as political speeches, legal documents, novels, and art. Historians who have taken this approach, such as Michael O’Brien in Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810–1860 (2010) and Eric Foner in Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (1995) have produced valuable contributions to a number of different fields and sub-fields, and, most important, have successfully brought to life the complexities of a past world.

In addition to integrating culture, ideology, and politics, the methods of intellectual history should help Civil War historians connect abstract ideas, such as race, citizenship, freedom, and democracy, to specific material. Fusing the particular issues surrounding the Civil War with larger abstract concepts would help connect the work of historians of slavery, the Civil War, and antebellum America to the work of other American historians concerned with similar questions. It could also help bring American intellectual historians, who continue to produce more scholarship on the twentieth century, into the nineteenth or eighteenth centuries, or at least help historians make more connections across the neatly divided decades of American history. The experience of slavery and the Civil War represents the heart of American history, an experience that, as David Blight argues, ever generates new ideas about justice and liberty. Intellectual historians are particularly well-positioned to explore and connect the “strife of tongues” from Congressman Winthrop to Stampp to Genovese to Davis to Faust, analyzing politics and culture, memory and meaning, language and silence.

1 Bender, Thomas ed. The Anti-Slavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation (New York,1992), 176.

2 Stampp makes this argument primarily to provoke thought, but he demonstrates that southerners felt little commitment to a concrete cause during the Civil War, and, through careful and convincing analysis of the politics of slavery and sectionalism, he demonstrates that southerners constantly struggled with anxiety and insecurity about slavery. Finally, after discussing and eliminating several possible reasons for southern defeat in the Civil War, including poor military strategy, poor military leadership, and lack of supplies, Stampp concludes that southerners, torn between anxiety over slavery and inability to live without their Peculiar Institution, unconsciously intended to destroy it in the war. 

3 Sellers provides the most convincing argument about southern guilt over slavery in The Southern As American (1960). While Oakes examines the problem of reconciling slavery with Christianity, Stampp and Sellers both focus their arguments about southern guilt and anxiety on the contradictions between slavery and the political liberty expressed in the Declaration of Independence. All three scholars argue, against Genovese, that American slavery was a form of free-market capitalism.

4 Brown, Vincent. Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Boston: 2008), 261.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Rivka:

    This is a great review of an historiography about which I do not know very much. I’d like to add one book to your list of works that meet at the intersection of the Civil War and intellectual history: George Frederickson’s The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union.

  2. Rivka:

    This is a great review of an historiography about which I do not know very much. One book that I *have* read, though, that I I’d add to your list of works that meet at the intersection of the Civil War and intellectual history: George Frederickson’s The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I remember being deeply disturbed at what I took as a cautionary tale of intellectuals failing in their responsibilities to their larger culture.


  3. For those inclined, I recommend Jonathan A. Glickstein’s American Exceptionalism, American Anxiety: Wages, Competition, and Degraded Labor in the Antebellum United States. It deals with several of the themes mentioned in this essay and with its focus on the “darker side” of free labor ideology, it provides an important corrective of those more “whiggish” accounts of free labor ideology. I must warn that the book is not an easy read although it is rewarding.

    David Roediger’s, The Wages of Whiteness emphasizes the construction of consciousness and identity during the commercial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

    There exists some really good scholarship to be profitably mined for those willing to examine early America.

  4. Davis introduces the idea of “unconscious intent” to assert that while abolitionists believed themselves to be a part of a moral world that transcended class interest, the “unconscious intent” of their activism was to further their economic interests.

    Unconscious? How does he know? Armchair psychologizing is not scholarship.

    Or, to the substance of the issue, what’s the matter with Kansas, anyway? Why is it impossible to conceive that many or most people are moral, and want the best for their fellow man, what Hume and Adam Smith identify as “fellow-feeling”?

    This is not to say Davis is wrong, but it is to say that ascribing motives is a perilous business, a guess at best.

  5. Again, I just wanted to add how much of a treat this post was. Excellent work, and really got me thinking about what fields I don’t work in, but find fascinating to read about regardless. The Civil War era is one for me.

  6. from the post:
    Like Oakes, Stampp and Sellers insist that American slavery was a capitalist system, and understand southern culture as an elaborate attempt to hide this truth from themselves, while Genovese, in contrast, takes the moral universe of slave-owners as they presented it, and describes it as a world of pre-capitalist values.

    There are at least two somewhat different questions being raised here, ISTM. One is the question whether Southerners’ worldview should be taken “as they presented it” or whether one should look behind their self-presentation to the uglier features of Southern life that it was masking.

    A second issue is how one defines ‘capitalism’. If wage-labor is considered an integral or essential component of a capitalist system, then slavery was not a capitalist system. If wage-labor is not considered essential to capitalism, if capitalism’s essential feature is, e.g., capital accumulation or ‘the market’ generally (not specifically ‘the labor market’), then slavery was capitalist. So, although I’m not v familiar w most of the historiography covered here, I wd suggest that maybe one of several things separating Genovese from the others is how they define ‘capitalism’. (Just a thought, based on a quick reading of the post.)

    I wd also suggest that ‘pre-capitalist’ values can exist w/in a capitalist system — hardly an original or novel insight, admittedly. That is, wealthy slaveholders might sincerely have thought of themselves in paternalistic terms, as quasi-feudal lords w/r/t their slaves, and still have been capitalists in their roles as businessmen. A slaveholder might have been ‘feudal’ in the morning, when walking in his fields or instructing his overseers, and ‘capitalist’ in the evening, when poring over his account books or writing a letter to some middleman about a cotton shipment. ‘Feudalism’ and capitalism in this context don’t have to be mutually exclusive categories, though whether either term is all that appropriate or helpful w/r/t discussing the Peculiar Institution in the Am. South is something I will leave to others.

    Btw, I had a post a couple of yrs ago reflecting briefly on the 19th cent free-labor v slavery arguments. This is not ‘my field’, so take it fwiw:

    • p.s. Obviously, by “slavery” in the above comment I mean specifically slavery in the antebellum U.S. South. I doubt one would want to call slavery in, say, classical Greece or Rome ‘capitalist’ under any definition. Btw, Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death is something I have thought about reading, but I once looked at it in a library and it seemed very long and daunting. [But prob. worth reading, even though Patterson is a sociologist. As a non-historian, I can’t resist a little snark on occasion;)]

  7. Rivka–Great post. I enjoyed reading it. I would add Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor to the list. It is still a must read.

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