The Academy: session abstract and readings

History, Lecture 3: A House Divided – The American Civil War

Dr Adam Smith

The American Civil War, wrote President Abraham Lincoln, was above all a “people’s contest”.

As Lincoln understood, the outcome of the war would be determined ultimately by public opinion. The Union was confronting a massive rebellion in which 11 states had seceded to form an independent Confederacy. In this struggle, the Union had big advantages – a bigger population, much greater industrial capacity, a better railroad network and, at least at the start, legitimacy in the rest of the world. The South, on the other hand, had the potentially vast economic leverage of its cotton production and a determined white population willing, it appeared, to suffer horrendous losses in order to fight for their independence. The South, however, also had the liability of its four million or so enslaved people, who played a determining role in undermining the Confederate war effort. The North, I will argue, had the decisive advantage in this war so long as its population could be convinced that the war was worth the sacrifice. Public opinion, in a fragile republic, was key.

So in the light of this, I will focus on how ‘public opinion’ was constituted, measured and shaped in the North during the war. I will examine two contrasting conceptions of the ‘public’ that were at play at the time – as a singular entity that could be morally exhorted and as a ‘mixed’ pluralist conglomeration of ‘tendencies’ and interests. And I will also address the various channels open to those who sought to influence ‘public opinion’ – through music, the printed word, images, organisational structures, force and intimidation. And I will finally discuss the interplay between ‘reason’ and ‘emotion’ in Northerners’ understanding of how ‘public opinion’ worked.

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Battle of Ideas 2018

13 & 14 October 2018, The Barbican, London