Even after 153 years, Americans grapple with the consequences of the Civil War. Last year, the planned removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia drew two huge crowds; one which was sympathetic to Confederate heritage, and another which thought of the statue as a symbol of racism and slavery. The two crowds eventually clashed, which led to the death of one woman. The Civil War obviously invokes a great deal of emotion, but it is still poorly understood by most.
As young Americans, we are taught an overly simplistic, feel-good version of the Civil War. We are told that the North had to go to war to free the slaves in the South. However, the truth is much more complicated. To help us understand what the Civil War was truly about, we will look at the writings of Salomon James de Rothschild, who traveled through the US from 1859 to 1861.
First of all, I know even mentioning a Rothschild will trigger all sorts of conspiracy theories. There are theories that the Rothschilds added fuel to the fire of the North-South conflict to make an enormous profit. After all, they became one of the most powerful families in the 19th century in part by funding both sides of the Napoleonic wars. They certainly could have been manipulating things in the US as well, which could explain Salomon’s presence. However, for this article, I am more interested in Salomon’s perspective on why both sides decided to go to war.
“Naturally, since this institution is the source of the wealth of the South, it was defended to the utmost by those who derived profit from it. Two reasons impelled the inhabitants of the North to seek the destruction of slavery by all possible means. The first, which was given by those who wanted to deceive, to win over, chivalrous hearts and to lure European sympathies, was a simple reason, that of humanity. In a free country like America, there shouldn’t be any slaves, and complete equality should prevail among all classes. The proof that this reason was not sincere is that the abolitionists spent millions in order to incite insurrections among the slaves, or to induce them to flee from their masters, but let them die of hunger because they were free and gave them no opportunity for moral advancement. However, the real sentiments which guided them, and which they did not dare admit in that moment, was that feeling of leveling whereby everybody would have to be nominally equal. They couldn’t bear to see the inhabitants of the South with 200 hands at their service, when they had only two hands themselves. This feeling was the first germ of the social revolution which is now swiftly following the political revolution. You will recall that I have been talking to you about this for a long time.”
The North wasn’t only against slavery because they were great humanitarians. Many Northerners didn’t like the advantages slavery gave the South. Others in the North incited slave insurrections to cause chaos in the South but did not take care of the slaves once they were freed. Slavery was not the core reason the North wanted war. We can see this fact in Abraham Lincoln’s own words.