There are many ways to look at and study the Civil War and the events
leading up to it, but Daniel Walker Howe offered a new way of looking
at the crisis of secession at his 10:45 a.m. lecture Thursday.
In his lecture, “The Secession Crisis,” Howe put the Civil War into
the context of the dramatic revolution occurring a generation prior to
the war in the way of communication and transportation.
In the years between the War of 1812 and secession, the world was reshaped, Howe said.
Howe, an author, historian and professor emeritus, has taught at Yale
University, UCLA, the University of Oxford and Wofford College. He won a
Pulitzer Prize for his book What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848.
The title comes from the first telegraphed message tapped out by Samuel
Morse, a message the accelerated the reshaping of the country.
Morse sat in the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1844 and tapped out the
message on a “funny-looking device of coiled wires.” In Baltimore, 40
miles away, “What Hath God Wrought?” was received and returned to Morse
“This demonstration would change the world,” Howe said. “For
thousands of years, messages had been limited by the speed messengers
could travel, or the distance that eyes could see signals.”
Men from Alexander the Great to Benjamin Franklin had never known
anything faster than a galloping horse, and now instant communication
became practical for the first time.
The United States in 1812 resembled a third-world country, Howe said.
The people on isolated farmsteads had lives that revolved around the
weather and hours of daylight, kept in primitive stages because of the
difficulty of communication and transportation.
“Information from the outside world was the most precious of luxuries,” Howe said.
By the end of the war with Mexico in 1848, Howe said, the country was
a transcontinental major power because of the revolutions in
communication and transportation, chief among them the telegraph, the
steam printing press and innovations in paper-making, the steamboat, the
Erie Canal and the railroad.
The spread of public education also created a mass literate audience
for the printed media, Howe said, and the innovations liberated people
from the “tyranny of distance … liberated them from isolation.”
Increased travel and communication encouraged democratic
participation, Howe said, with huge political implications. The
telegraph facilitated the growth of newspapers, which in turn
facilitated the growth of mass political parties, among them the
Republican Party still recognized today.
Schools and post offices were thrown into the center of political
life, with increased literacy and communication in turn increasing civic
involvement, Howe said. More people voted in the record-setting
presidential elections of 1860 and 1876 than in comparison today. Then,
Howe said, 80 percent of the qualified electorate turned out for the
“Now, the best we can hope for is 60 percent,” he said.
Political parties were by no means the only groups benefiting from
the potential of mass communication, Howe said. Many movements, like the
women’s rights movement, received publicity. Most explosive of these
was the crusade to abolish slavery.
The ideals of this movement often were communicated through religion,
as tent revival meetings were as much social as religious gatherings
and an opportunity to preach social reform. Former slave and
abolitionist Sojourner Truth made use of transportation innovations like
the steamboat and railroad to speak at lyceums and tent meetings, Howe
said, and preached two messages: the second coming of Christ and the end
“She expected both very soon,” he said.
In the meantime, Howe said, the country had gone to war with Mexico,
and while the public “devoured the news of war transmitted by the
media,” the conflict was in no way universally popular.
“The North saw it as a war of aggression waged in order to expand slavery,” Howe said.
A young congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was “vociferous”
in denouncing President James Polk and the war, saying the conflict was
like “the blood of Abel crying to heaven.”
The United States won the war, and with it, acquired “Texas and California and everything in between,” Howe said.
A transcontinental railroad seemed necessary to link California with
the rest of the country, Howe said, and the dispute between the North
and South was renewed.
The South wanted the railroad to run from New Orleans from Los
Angeles; the North, from Chicago to San Francisco. As the Gadsden
Purchase of 1854 seemed to further the argument for a southern railroad,
Senator Stephen A. Douglas tried to salvage the northern route by
bargaining with southern senators.
“If the railroad went from Chicago to San Francisco, then the
territories through which the tracks would travel — Kansas and Nebraska —
would be open to the possibility of slavery, if the settlers who went
there so decided,” Howe said.
That was a dramatic change, as the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had
closed the Plains to slavery. The south voted to approve the Chicago-San
“It proved a disaster,” Howe said. “The settlers raced out from North
and South and started fighting each other over whether or not to
introduce slavery. A virtual civil war broke out in the Great Plains.”
The North mobilized, rapidly using the new communication technology,
Howe said, and the Republican Party — determined to stop the growth of
slavery — put Lincoln in the White House in 1860.
“The southern states refused to accept the outcome, refused to live
under his presidency,” Howe said. “One by one, they secede from the
The question, Howe said, was why the South seceded; after all, he
said, Lincoln did not propose to end slavery, nor did he have the power
to, since his party had no majority in Congress.
But Lincoln could deliver on the promise to keep slavery from
expanding, Howe said, by vetoing slave codes, appointing anti-slavery
officials in the territories and by significantly weakening slavery
where it already existed. Lincoln, for example, ended the policy
established by Andrew Jackson allowing southern post offices to label
abolitionist mail as “incendiary” and refusing to deliver it.
The most serious blow was the long-term threat of a Republican Party
that could use its power to restrict interstate slave trade.
The long-range issue was not just a legal, political one, Howe said, but one of world opinion.
“The southern slaveholders knew their distinctive institution was
broadly condemned by the opinion of the outside world, by the western
world in general,” Howe said.
While the Constitution in some ways protected slavery, Howe said,
that didn’t matter. Opinion mattered, and as the anti-slavery North’s
population grew, southerners’ opinions were becoming more and more of a
“Secession was a desperate effort to establish a quarantine, to seal
the South off from the opinion of the rest of the world,” Howe said.
Many Americans had hoped the revolutions in transportation and
communication would knit the 19th-century country together but the
innovations provided new occasions for dispute.
The country currently is experiencing its own revolution in
communication, Howe said, comparing the telegraph to the Internet
earlier in his lecture and pointing out the Czar of Russia had worried
about the democratic importance of the telegraph in the same way nations
like China worry about the democratic importance of the Internet now.
“Like the Americans of 150 years ago, we also seem to be having
difficulty compromising our political differences,” Howe said in
conclusion. “I hope we will not come to blows over our clashes in values
as our predecessors did in 1861. I hope that we might prove more
successful than they were at using our technology constructively to
foster nationwide community.”
Q: So how much is this communications revolution just
sort of speeding up the inevitable from happening? So it happens in 1860
rather than 1875, say, if Morse hadn’t invented the telegraph?
A: Well, the Civil War itself, of course, speeded up the end of
slavery, and that’s one of the great ironies, is that the Southern
leaders, by seceding, far from protecting slavery, set in motion the
events that destroyed it, and destroyed it very quickly within a couple
of years of their secession. If they had not seceded, I suppose it might
have taken, who knows, till the year 1900 or something, but I do think
that world opinion would eventually have forced it upon them, and I
would offer as an example of the way world opinion forced an end to
apartheid in South Africa in our own lifetimes.
Q: Did the slave trade between Virginia and the Deep South benefit from improved communication and transportation?
A: Oh yes. You could transport slaves either by water or by land. The
cheapest mode of transportation was just to make the slaves walk most
of the way, and then they could go down the Mississippi the last bit.
You would do this in the winter, because that’s when the labor of the
slaves could most easily be spared from agricultural activities. The
interstate slave trade was a very big business, and although some slave
trade firms were small, there were also some that were very large and
had offices in both Alexandria, Virginia and New Orleans — in other
words, in both the sending and the receiving end. The fact that you
could make the slaves walk rendered the trade less dependent on modern
innovations and communication than transporting other goods. I mean, you
didn’t need to pay a railroad fare for transporting the slaves. You
just make them walk, but you might well pay a boat trip down the
Mississippi. As long as you were traveling with the current, you didn’t
need to have a steamboat. A barge would do; just let it float with the
Q: We’ll use this question to promote one of your other
books. This is from the retirement community in Ithaca: your book on the
age of (Henry) Clay has been highly acclaimed. What were the forces
behind Representative Clay’s perspectives on the Union and slavery?
A: Ok, Henry Clay. Henry Clay was a very hopeful and optimistic man.
He always thought that in any dispute, there always ought to be a
compromise solution. I guess Barack Obama was trying to be a Henry Clay
earlier. But Henry Clay did mastermind several monumental compromises.
Clay was a great advocate of America’s economic development. That is, he
wanted industrialization. He wanted to diversify the economy so that it
depended less on agriculture. He himself grew hemp for rope-making on
his plantation in Kentucky, and then the hemp was made into rope in a
factory in Louisville not far away, and he offered that as an example of
the way America ought to develop a balanced economy, and he had a
vision that in such a balanced economy, the United States could afford
to do away with slavery. Henry Clay attended two constitutional
conventions in Kentucky. One was in 1790, when he was a young man; one
was in 1850 when he was an old man. At both of these state
constitutional conventions, Clay advocated Kentucky abolishing slavery,
and he proposed the masters should be compensated — in other words, the
taxpayers would have to foot the bill for compensated emancipation. Of
course, he didn’t get anywhere in 1790 or in 1850, but it shows what his
point of view was. He wanted an America that was economically
developed. He wanted the federal government and state governments, too,
to assist in this, and that made him the opponent of the Jacksonian
Democrats, who were believers in strict laissez-faire.
Q: Yesterday, Ed Ayers noted what a powerful economic
force the slave-dependent cotton industry was, so other economic
thinkers such as Jane Jacobs have described the rural economy of the
South as stagnating, thus locked into repetitively replicating its
successes and wedding it to slavery. Can you comment?
A: Well, it certainly is a mistake to think of the southern economy
as stagnant. The southern economy was expanding dramatically, except
during the occasional recession or depression — which they had then, too
— and then the price of cotton, that happened when there was a
temporary glut in the cotton market, and the price would fall, but for
the most part, cotton expanded. Southern slave owners could have used
their slaves in any number of activities, and in fact, they did, but
cotton was the favorite way to employ slave labor, because that was the
most profitable to employ slave labor, and remember that cotton was at
the very heart of the industrial revolution that was going on in the
world. Remember that England was the center at that time of the
industrial revolution, and where did the English get their cotton for
their great mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire? Well, they imported them
from the port of Liverpool, and they imported them from the United
States. That’s where the cotton came from, and the British turned it
into textiles. New England — New England, that is, on this side of the
Atlantic — also had textile mills, also made cotton. However, the
American cotton mills did not produce as good a quality textiles as the
British ones did. So what could be done with the inferior textiles that
were made in New England? They made perfectly acceptable clothing for
slaves. So ironically, the textile mills of the north were turning out
the clothing for the slaves who grew the cotton that then fed the mills.
Q: From the Ginger Cove Community in Annapolis, Md.: was
Douglas’ proposal regarding Kansas and Nebraska the cause of the split
between Douglas and Lincoln?
A: I’m not sure I can remember what Douglas’ proposal about Kansas and Nebraska was.
Q: Concerning the railroad, as you spoke to, with opening up the territories.
A: In any case, even if I could remember what Douglas said about
that, I don’t think it was the cause of problems between Lincoln and
Douglas. I think the problem was that Lincoln started out by endorsing
what was called colonization. That is, the idea that one of the ways of
getting rid of slavery might be to encourage African-Americans to
migrate, and maybe their migration should be subsidized either by
private philanthropy or state government or the federal government. And
this migration might take them to any number of places, but the favorite
destination was West Africa, on the grounds that they would be going
back to Africa. Of course, it’s kind of a mistake to think of them as
going back to Africa, because they would have lived in the United States
for several generations. It would have been their remote ancestors who
had gone to Africa. Anyway, Lincoln started out by proposing this. He
backed away from it when he found that it didn’t seem to enlist
meaningful support. Douglas did not support the colonization project,
although by the way, a few African-American leaders did support it, but
Douglas didn’t, and I think it was the colonization issue that created
the initial breach between Lincoln and Douglas.
Q: Did the proponents of secession use communications to build majorities?
A: Oh, certainly. In fact, it’s kind of surprising, and I’m not sure
historians have altogether figured out why the secession movement was as
successful as it was, because there were certainly people in all but a
few southern states who opposed secession. There were people opposed to
secession in Georgia; there were people opposed to secession in all of
the upper south states, which took the longest to secede; and indeed,
several of the upper south states did not secede until after Fort Sumter
had been fired upon, and Lincoln had called for troops, and it had
become clear that there was going to be a Civil War. At that point, the
question people in Virginia and North Carolina, for example, had to face
was really not “Is there going to be a war?” but “When the war comes,
which side do you want to be on?” And that’s when North Carolina and
Virginia decided, well, they’ll be on the South.
Daniel Walker Howe
Daniel Walker Howe is a historian of the early national period of American history and specializes in the intellectual and religious history of the United States. He is Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus at Oxford University in England and Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. He received the Pulitzer Prize for History for What Hath God Wrought, his most famous book. He was president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic in 2001 and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
Howe graduated from East High School (Denver, Colorado), and received his Bachelor of Arts at Harvard University, magna cum laude in American History and Literature in 1959, and his Ph.D. at University of California, Berkeley in 1966. Currently he resides in Sherman Oaks, California and is married with three grown children.
Howe's connection with Oxford University began when he matriculated at Magdalen College to read Modern History in 1960; he took his M.A. in 1965. In 1989–1990, he was Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at Oxford and a Fellow of Queen's College. In 1992, he became a permanent member of the Oxford History Faculty and a Fellow of St Catherine's College, Oxford until his retirement in 2002. Brasenose College elected him an Honorary Member of their Senior Common Room.