In this late 1940 address to the Southern Historical Association, historian Frank L. Owsley (1890-1956) spoke of the sectional cause of the Civil War and the North’s reluctance to allow the South to seek political independence. Prof. Owsley was born in Alabama, taught at Vanderbilt University and was a member of the Southern Agrarians.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
The Civil War’s Basic Cause: Sectionalism
“Before attempting to say what were the causes of the American Civil War, first let me say what were not the causes of the war.
Perhaps the most beautiful, the most poetic, the most eloquent statement of what the Civil War was not fought for is the Gettysburg Address. That address will live as long as Americans retain their love for free government and personal liberty; and yet in reassessing the causes of the Civil War, the address whose essence is was that the war was being fought so “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth” is irrelevant.
Indeed, this masterpiece of eloquence has little if any value as a statement of the basic principles underlying the war.
The Civil War was not a struggle on the part of the South to destroy free government and personal liberty, nor on the part of the North to preserve them. Looked at from the present perspective of the worldwide attempt of the totalitarians to erase free governments and nations living under such governments from the face of the earth, the timeworn stereotype that the South was attempting the destruction of free government and the North was fighting to preserve it seems unrealistic and downright silly.
If the destruction of democratic government by the South and its preservation by the North were not the causes of the Civil War, what then were the causes? The surface answer to this question is that in 1861, the Southern people desired and attempted to establish their independence and thereby to disrupt the old Union; and that the North took up arms to prevent the South from establishing this independence and to preserve the Union.
This [Southern] state of mind may be summed up thus: by the Spring of 1861, the Southern people felt it both abhorrent and dangerous to continue to live under the same government with the people of the North. So profound was this feeling among the bulk of the Southern population that they were prepared to fight a long and devastating war to accomplish a separation.
On the other hand, the North was willing to fight a war to retain their reluctant fellow citizens under the same government with themselves.
The cause of that state of mind which we may well call war psychosis lay in the sectional character of the United States. In other words, the Civil War had one basic cause: sectionalism.
Our national state was built, not upon the foundations of a homogenous land and people, but upon geographic sections inhabited severally by provincial, self-conscious, self-righteous, aggressive and ambitious populations of varying origins and diverse social and economic systems; and the passage of time and the cumulative effects of history have accentuated these sectional patterns.”
(The Fundamental Cause of the Civil War, Frank L. Owsley, excerpt, Address to Southern Historical Association, November 8, 1940)