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"Irrepressible Conflict or Blundering Generation? The Coming of the Civil War" Exhibit | by W&M Libraries
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"Irrepressible Conflict or Blundering Generation? The Coming of the Civil War" Exhibit

Shown here are images from the exhibit "Irrepressible Conflict or Blundering Generation? The Coming of the Civil War," on display in the Marshall Gallery (first floor rotunda) and the Special Collections Research Center Lobby in Swem Library at the College of William and Mary. The exhibit will be on display from April -September 2011.


The following is taken from the label text presented in this case:


Irrepressible Conflict:


The Irrepressible Conflict school argues that the War was inevitable (“irrepressible”) because the North and South were growing too far apart and could no longer co-exist. The historians of this school include such prominent scholars as Allan Nevins and Eric Foner, and they do not agree on what the most critical differences were, whether economic, moral, cultural, or something else. In general, however, they argue that since the American Revolution, the Northern states had fully embraced capitalism and industrialization as well as freedom, not only outlawing slavery, but also providing education, voting rights, and economic opportunity for all men. The result was a democratic, entrepreneurial, and liberty-loving society—“Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” in the words of one political slogan.


The South, by contrast, became ever-more reliant on slavery, which Northerners argued debased all workers, not just those who were enslaved. A small group of wealthy planters controlled all aspects of society and used government to repress both poor whites and slaves, out of fear of unrest and rebellions. Because of its commitment to slavery, the South experienced little progress in terms of industrialization or democratization.

As a result of population increase, westward expansion, and the growth of trade, Northern free labor and Southern slave labor systems came into increasing contact and conflict. The consequence, in the words of Northern abolitionist William Seward in an 1858 speech, was “an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation.” Seward’s speech was widely printed, and a copy is in the upper left section of this case with a photo of Seward.


Education in the North:


The growing Northern emphasis on broad-based education can be seen in the explosion in the number of textbooks published for all ages on this shelf and in the chart below indicating the number of students in colleges.


Northern Industrialization vs. Traditional Artisanship in the South:


Silas Howe of Marlboro, Massachusetts, was an entrepreneurial shoemaker. He used the “putting-out” system to begin mass-producing shoes, carefully coordinating production. His 1850-1854 journal indicates that he employed many workers, assigning different steps in the production process to different people who worked out of their own homes, using materials Howe had supplied. This allowed for a tremendous increase in production compared to traditional shoemaking. The “putting-out” system was also used for other products, such as textiles, where it was a precursor to factory production.


Next to Howe’s journal is the 1850s account book of Absalom Lee, a cobbler in Hardy County, Virginia [now West Virginia]. Lee made shoes for specific customers, and he handled all aspects of production from start to finish. This was how shoes had been made for centuries.


Reform Movements:


In the first half of the 1800s, North and South both experienced a continuing series of religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening. In both regions, religion inspired personal reform, such as abstinence from alcohol. But in the North, reform took on a millennialist tinge, as religious people aimed for a perfect society in order to bring on the second coming of Christ. Northern reformers tried to use government to impose morality and energetically attacked all manner of problems, such as improving prisons and lunatic asylums. Contemporaries considered radical abolition — the movement to end slavery everywhere immediately — one of the more extreme reforms to come out of the Second Great Awakening.


Southern Slavery vs. Northern Wage Slavery


Led by Thomas Dew (W&M 1820, President 1836-1846), Southern intellectuals in the 1830s began to defend slavery as necessary for civilization, beneficial to slaves, and justified by the Bible. They argued that Southern slave owners treated their slaves more humanely than Northern factory owners treated their workers (“wage slaves”). Slave owners, according to this argument, provided food, clothing, and housing to their slaves, even when they were sick or old, whereas Northern factory owners took no responsibility at all for caring for their workers. Shown here are records of the distribution of clothing and shoes to enslaved people by James Galt of Point of Fork in Fluvanna County and Eliza Jones of Concord in Gloucester County.


Northern Industry:


The textile industry was the first major sector in the North to industrialize, using the “putting-out” system described –earlier in the exhibit, as well as full-blown factories. The daybook here is from the Petersham Cotton Manufacturing Company of Massachusetts, which used the putting-out system. The textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, initially employed young, single women as factory workers; the Lowell Offering was a magazine produced by the young women.


Southern Economy and Religion:


The Southern economy continued to be based on agriculture, with very little manufacturing. It sold its farm products — most notably cotton — to other nations and to the North and imported manufactured goods in return. It did adopt some of the features of the Northern economy, such as banks and railroads, but not nearly to the same extent as the North.


Disagreements over slavery and the place of slave owners and enslaved people in the churches caused the major Protestant denominations to split into northern and southern factions. The Methodists split in 1844, the Baptists in 1845, and the Presbyterians in 1861. The “Gospel as Preached in the South” is the 1844 testimony of former slave Henry Cooke about the religious practices on the Louisiana plantation where he lived prior to his escape. Cooke had been the property of Robert Carter Nicholas (W&M 1816), whose family formerly lived in Williamsburg, Virginia.


From the Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William and Mary. See for further information and assistance.

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Taken on April 8, 2011