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The Civil War and the American Mind


THE CIVIL WAR and its militaristic effect on American society had important consequences for the nationalist collectivization of America that occurred in the following decades. It encouraged collectivist intellectuals to vigorously promote their reform visions and it won thinkers to the collectivist cause. It even convinced some individualists that the world had changed, making their worldview outdated.

Individualism devalued

The war effort devalued the individualism that had characterized earlier Jeffersonian America. Service to the Union became the new reigning ideal. Order, government planning, and regimentation rose in value. Independent thought seemed more a liability than an asset.

The war, wrote historian Allan Nevins,

transformed an inchoate nation, individualistic in temper and wedded to improvisation, into a shaped and disciplined nation, increasingly aware of the importance of plan and control.

A symbol of that change in mindset is Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist author of Self-Reliance, who before the war represented a distinctively American cantankerous individualism opposed to institutions and their impositions on the person. When the war came along, Emerson expressed approval that it imposed obligations on everyone. He hoped no one would be exempt from “the public duty.” In a 180-degree turn, he assigned government and civilization priority over “the private man.” In “American Civilization,” written in 1862, he was willing to grant government, in his words, “the absolute powers of a dictator” in a crisis. “Emerson’s characteristic emphasis on individualism and anarchism disappeared,” writes historian George Frederickson.

In Emerson’s words, “War organizes [and] forces individuals and states to combine and act with larger views.” Self-reliance was now replaced by service and obedience, particularly in the military. His new views influenced his outlook on culture, as evidenced by his support for a state-created National Academy of Literature and Art.

After the war, intellectuals were more interested than previously in a strong central government and nationalism. Postwar poetry rhapsodized on the glory of the nation. Herman Melville wrote about empire, not freedom. The crushing of the Southern secession demonstrated the need for strong government and citizen compliance with the state.

As a result, there was increasing tolerance of tyranny in Russia and France. Frederickson comments, “The Civil War, by making the very concept of “revolution” or “rebellion” anathema to many Northerners, had widened the gulf that separated 19th-century Americans from their revolutionary heritage.” The conservative Orestes Brownson stated that the mission of America “is not so much the realization of liberty as the realization of the true idea of the state.”

Postwar social sciences

It is in the postwar period that the social sciences began their rise to prominence. The objective of these new disciplines was not knowledge for its own sake. “They [the new social scientists] sought the ‘laws’ underlying social, economic, or legal phenomena in the hope of finding ways to discipline society and control its events.” Those intellectuals also saw themselves as most suited to wield influence if not power itself in the new rationally planned society. Eldon Eisenach calculates that of the 19 most prominent authors of “Progressive public doctrine,” 9 were founding members of the American Economic Association; 9 others helped start the American Sociological Association.

The collectivist intellectuals believed that the Civil War held important lessons for the new America. It wasn’t war itself that they valued, but the things that war brought. John W. Draper, for example, wrote that war taught subordination and stimulated an appreciation of order. Men, said Draper, “love to obey” those they believe are their intellectual superiors. “In military life they learn to practice that obedience openly,” he said, adding that individualism was to blame for the war.

What intellectuals such as Francis A. Walker, Charles Francis Adams Jr., and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wished for was, in Frederickson’s words, a “continuance … of the crisis mentality of war.” That mentality would maintain the sense of duty to society that was palpable during the war. While those men wanted conservative objectives served, others, such as John Wesley Powell, had “humanitarian” ends in mind.

The problem for these thinkers was that peacetime did not inspire service and sacrifice to the nation. People became centered on their own lives, their families, and immediate communities. But war was a call to duty and the “strenuous life.” If only a substitute for war could be found, a call to duty that did not involve bloodshed. “There is one thing I do not doubt,” said Holmes, “and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.”

The philosopher William James also wished for a “moral equivalent of war,” a way to marshal the spirit of selfless service under government direction without the unpleasantness of combat. He advocated conscription of young people for civilian service in mines, road building, and fishing boats “to get the childishness knocked out of them.” Praising the “martial virtues,” James called for the “surrender of private interest” in favor of “obedience to command.”

Individualism and selfishness

The theme that individual liberty, private property, and laissez faire were “selfish” recurs throughout the postwar collectivist and Progressive literature. Thus, if selfishness was bad, then its institutions were thereby condemned. This fitted nicely with the religious views of many of the reformers. Baptist theologian and reformer Samuel Zane Batten wrote in The Christian State, “Just so far as democracy means the enthronement of self-interest and the apotheosis of individual desire . so far it becomes an iniquitous and dangerous thing.” He also said, “True liberty means the voluntary sacrifice of self for the common life.” Another clergyman-activist, George Herron was blunter: “Sin is pure individualism.”

Civil War intellectuals

No one better exemplifies the profound influence of the Civil War on the intellectuals than Edward Bellamy, author of the highly influential novel Looking Backward (1888). As a child during the war, Bellamy became preoccupied with military discipline. It deeply affected him and shaped his thinking as an adult. In 1889 he wrote a short story, “An Echo of Antietam,” in which he described a group of men marching to join the Union army. “The imposing mass,” Bellamy wrote, “gives the impression of a single organism. One forgets to look for the individuals in it, forgets that there are individuals.” He lamented that the martial spirit could not be preserved without the hostility of war: “What a pity that the tonic air of battlefields … cannot be gathered up and preserved as a precious elixir to reinvigorate the atmosphere in times of peace, when men grow faint of heart and cowardly, and quake at the thought of death.”

Bellamy took this so seriously that he drew up a blueprint — presented in the form of a novel — for a new society built along military lines but without warfare as the objective. Even though Bellamy and his intellectual allies eschewed the horrors of war, they could not help but concede its value. Bellamy’s protagonist, Dr. Leete, states that “occasional wars … were absolutely necessary to prevent your society, otherwise so utterly sordid and selfish in its ideas, from dissolving into absolute putrescence.”

We know well from the work of Robert Higgs that war is a convenient excuse for the state to assume unprecedented powers that are never fully abandoned after the war. The Civil War teaches us that war can also create the intellectual and psychological changes necessary to make the newly powerful state acceptable even to previously cantankerous Jeffersonians.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.