Up Next, Monday, April 1, 2024: “The Government They Fought For: How the Federal Government Changed Before the Civil War”


What actually caused the Civil War? This question has been asked innumerable times, with a variety of answers. Dr. Brian Schoen, the chairman of the Ohio University Department of History, says that to really understand the answer one has to look at the evolving conception of the role of the federal government in the years preceding the outbreak of the war. Schoen will discuss these ideas in a public talk at the General Charles H. Grosvenor Civil War Round Table, 7:00 p.m., April 1, in the large conference room at the Athens County Public Library, at the corner of Home and Lincoln Streets, in Athens. All are welcome.

No scholar worth his or her salt would dispute slavery’s absolute centrality for bringing about the political disintegration of the Union. But other crucial factors were at play as well. To put these factors in focus, Schoen’s talk will start with a different question: Why by 1860 had most Americans — Republicans, Democrats, Whigs, Whites and Blacks; Northerners, Southerners, and those placed between — concluded that whoever controlled the federal government would ultimately decide slavery’s fate? That hadn’t been how the Founders intended it, nor had the legislators of the Compromise of 1850 or the Kansas-Nebraska Act. They tried to keep slavery a question primarily decided at the state level.

And yet such efforts did not work. This talk, derived from the beginning of Schoen’s book in progress, seeks to answer why. It will provide snapshots of how federal officials, including future CSA President Jefferson Davis, struggled to consolidate a vast post Mexican-War Empire into the nation. It will move briskly across space, discussing why so many famous generals spent time in California and Texas and the Great Plains. It will examine the new ways that the national government, though still miniscule by today’s standards, grew in scope, size, and perceived importance. Federal officials engaged historic rivals like Spain and Britain while also trying to negotiate with new fragile republics in Central America, and at the same time the federal government was using its resources to capture African American freedom seekers. It will argue that the 1850s was a pivotal moment in the history of the federal government and that is key to explaining how the Civil War happened.

Meetings starts at 7:00 in the large conference room in the Athens County Library at the Corner of Home and Lincoln streets in the City of Athens.