On Panthers and Deep Contingency

Published:May 6, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

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The opening of Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial was held a week ago today at the University of Richmond. It featured a daylong conference on life in 1859—that year being deemed, for the purposes of commemoration, the beginning of the Civil War. After all, it was John Brown—hanged in Charles Town, Virginia, on December 2, 1859—who “Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.” That’s according to the subtitle of David S. Reynolds’s John Brown Abolitionist (2005). (Reynolds has been mentioned in these pages previously and last week served as a panelist in Richmond. If you have RealPlayer installed on your computer, then you can watch the video here.)

I’m reading Reynolds’s book now, and I find his provocatively sympathetic take on Brown to be bracing. A reviewer on Amazon.com, who sees him/herself as something of a panther, thinks otherwise. Regarding the cause of the Civil War:

. . . Reynolds puts all the blame (or praise in this case) on John Brown. This of course ignores the traditional interpretation that sees the conflict as irrepressible.

You might gently point out (to me) that arguing with Amazonian panthers is no different from arguing with strawmen, but bear with me. Reynolds writes in his Preface that “Brown did not cause the Civil War.” This strikes me as a profound and concise rebuttal of said panther’s objection, but what interests me more is the reviewer’s statement that “the traditional interpretation” of the war “sees the conflict as irrepressible.”

This, to some extent, is true. That’s why the Sesquicentennial forum’s moderator, Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, History Guy, and Encyclopedia Virginia Editorial Adivsory Board member in good standing, mischievously required panel members last week to contain their discussions within the bounds of the facts as they were understood in 1859.

No jumping ahead based on what you already know. No more assumptions of inevitability.

So where does that leave us? Senator William H. Seward’s famous remarks notwithstanding, most people in 1859 did not see war as irrepressible. And the war that did happen two years hence happened for a number of complicated and interrelated reasons that were, in Ayers’s phraseology, “deeply contingent” on the vicissitudes of the moment. In What Caused the Civil War? (2005), Ayers writes:

The frame of perception and decision making before John Brown differed from that which followed; that frame changed again when the parties put four candidates in the field, again when Lincoln won the Republican nomination, again when Lincoln won the election, again when the Gulf South seceded, again when Fort Sumter was fired upon and the troops were called out.

Why is this important? Because how we impose meaning on the Civil War depends in part upon how we describe its causes. If it started over states’ rights and secession, then it was about states’ rights and secession, at least in the minds of many. If it was caused by slavery, then . . . well, then you have James M. McPherson entitling his famous history Battle Cry of Freedom.

All of which is to say, Go watch that Sesquicentennial video. To live in 1859, even for a few hours, can be a spine-tingling experience. Just imagine, in June of that year virtually no one had ever heard of Abe Lincoln or John Brown!

IMAGE: John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry depicted in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
(November 5, 1859)