On October 17th in Kline Theater, Dr. Allen C. Guelzo delivered “The Coming of the War”, the first lecture in his four part series entitled “A Walk Through the Civil War”. Dr. Guelzo guided the audience through the sequence of events leading up to the Civil War. He told the story of the Industrial Revolution, slavery, territorial expansionism, political turmoil, and secession. He absolutely captivated the audience with his spellbinding speaking.
Guelzo began his lecture at the turn of the nineteenth century by describing how the invention of steam-powered machines made the world a smaller place. In 1775, farmers ate what they grew, made their own clothes, and were unaware of the world outside of their farms and communities. However, by the 1780s, the Industrial Revolution began to replace human and animal power with steam powered machines. The steam engine promoted a globalized market, encouraging entrepreneurs to pursue business ventures. Thomas Jefferson initially resisted this new economic world. However, as Guelzo went on to say, Jefferson quickly changed his view on Industrialization with the invention of a machine that would change American industry: the cotton gin.
The invention of the cotton gin went hand-in-hand with the resurgence of slavery in America. In nineteenth century America there was plenty of work and not enough hands to do it. Slavery was a quick fix to the problem. But, as Guelzo pointed out, slavery was an expensive proposition and paradoxical for many Northerners. Those who did not have the land or funds to support a host of slaves could not rely on slave labor and the institution of slavery smacked hard against the ideals of the Revolutionary War – independence from the tyranny of others. Many thought slavery would disappear as the land was becoming over tilled: large slave states like Virginia even saw a reduction in slaves. But, as Dr. Guelzo reminded us, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. With Southern soil supporting the growth of cotton, soon 57% of all American exports would be slave-cultivated cotton. By mid-century, as Guelzo said, “slavery was expanding, not dying.”
With this resurgence in slavery, there was also an increase in opposition to it. The Missouri Compromise seemed to assuage Northerners fear of the expansion of slavery as it limited which states could hold slaves. However, the Compromise of 1850 changed this. Now settlers of the newly acquired Mexican territories would decide what type of state they wanted to be – slave or free. With this compromise, Guelzo pointed out two issues. For one, a decision on slavery would be delayed until settlers filled the territories. More importantly, the idea of popular sovereignty was a precarious one. In the wake of the Compromise of 1850 the Republican Party was formed.
The 1860 election proved crucial and Lincoln’s election the catalyst for war. The secession of southern states led to a political crisis for the new president. Guelzo indicated that neither Jefferson Davis nor Lincoln wanted war in the spring of 1861; however they each wanted different things. Davis wished for a peaceful secession, one in which the southern states were left alone. Lincoln wished for peace, but he also wanted to abide by the federal constitution and preserve the union.
Neither President got what they wished for. On April 12 of 1861, Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina was bombarded by the Confederates. The Fort symbolized a domination of the Union over the Confederacy and mocked their secession. Guelzo explained that Lincoln was forced to punish the Confederacy for their actions. His punishment came in the form of a hodgepodge army that invaded Virginia in the first battle of Bull Run. The equally disorganized Confederates managed to drive back the Union and they returned to Washington unsuccessful. Guelzo ended the lecture explaining that Bull Run did not convince Lincoln that war was futile, but that a new and organized army with an experienced general was necessary.
We will hear a continuation of Professor Guelzo’s “A Walk Through the Civil War” on Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at Gettysburg College.