In America the Calvinist impulse that was the animating religion that founded America was eventually replaced, at the end of the 18th century by the Enlightenment faith characterized philosophically by Deism and religious by Unitarianism. God was seen as the Watchmaker who wound up the universe and then tottered away so as to be uninvolved in a universe that was operating independently according to natural principals. This impulse was to be seen even in many of the American Founding Fathers. Indeed, many argue that the US Constitution was a compromise document that could either be read through the portal of Enlightenment presuppositions or through the portal of Christian presuppositions. By the end of the 18th century Unitarianism had taken over the many of the public Institutions (Especially the Universities) and Christianity was being reinterpreted through the prism of Enlightenment Deism. With Unitarianism the epistemological (how do we know what we know) authority that was Revelation found in Scripture that was the foundation of Colonial Christianity was replaced by right reason and natural law. Right reason and natural law now served as the norm that normed all norms.
Then with the rise of the Democratic Jacksonian man a new shift is on the scene in the States – particularly in the North is away from Enlightenment Deism as well as the continued movement against Biblical Christianity. That shift also came from Europe where it was called Romanticism. As Romanticism came across to America and mixed with the cultural fauna in America it became today what we call Transcendentalism. It was Romanticism/Transcendentalism that fired the imagination of the Northern abolitionists to the point of desiring to wage war on the Christian South.
Keep in mind as we consider this “History of Ideas” that the philosophies/worldview that we are looking at are both contributory towards while also a consequence of the reality that there is a shift in theology so that a new god is being worshiped other than the previous God. That shift demonstrates itself by a different ethos among the people as well as creating a different type of person — a person with a different disposition, a different lean into life, a different prioritization of the things that matter most. Peoples with two distinct Worldviews, and so two different gods will never be able to live as neighbors to one another. Unrest and war is the consequence of trying to have two different worldviews living cheek by jowl in the same culture.
In Transcendentalism, man becomes his own measure. Yet unlike Enlightenment Deism/Unitarianism the Romantic and Transcendental writers shifted their epistemology from right reason and natural law to imagination and intuition, thus abandoning all allegiance to objective reason. This is a shift from non-Biblical rationalism to non-biblical irrationalism in epistemology. Man knows that he knows just by knowing that he knows. There is no outside source of authority. This is played out in many of the debates on slavery leading up to the War Against the Constitution. Many of the debaters on the issue from the South are clergy and they are making their appeal to Revelation as found in Scripture. Whereas their opponents appeal to an intuitive sense that slavery must be wrong just because it must be wrong.
Do not miss here that the North and the South are separated now in their allegiance to different authority sources. The antebellum South is still pinioned on a Christianity that looks to Revelation as the Norm that norms all norms, while the North (especially the abolitionists, and Jacobins) is looking to intuition of the individual as the norm that norms all norms.
So, in this worldview divide that reflects the fact that each region is serving different gods, we have an epistemological divide. We also have a ontological/anthropological divide.
Now before we press on here keep in mind that I am speaking in generalities. The South wasn’t perfectly righteous and every person in the North was not perfectly evil. I am speaking in terms of generalities and not universals. The Southern minister was more consistently someone in line with a Dabney, Thornwell, Girardeau, and Palmer while the Northern minister was more consistently someone in line with Theodore Parker, Henry Ward Beecher, Emerson and Thoreau.
Now back to the issue of the differences – North and South – in terms of ontology and anthropology. We need to keep in mind that the very word Transcendentalism refers to a spirituality that transcends the realm of rationality and the material world. This tells us that we are moving in the direction of irrationalism and a kind of spiritualism contra the materialism of Deism. Transcendentalism holds that man is fundamentally good but corrupted by society and that man should therefore strive for independence and self-reliance. It is easy to believe this given that the Transcendentalists also believed that individual participates in godness. Emerson the Transcendentalists tells us this when he wrote;
“Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and Selected Essays
This quotation highly demonstrates Emerson’s transcendentalist thought. Emerson finds himself away from all the imperfections of society where he is ultimately finding himself one with nature and becoming this so called “transparent eyeball” he speaks about. This transparent eyeball he speaks about is escaping the corruptions of society and finding a divine soul with nature. Abandoning the materialism of society, Emerson becomes one with God directly through nature, which ultimately is the entire message of Nature.
So man partakes of God and man is basically good. If all men partake of God and if all men are basically good then it is easy to see why the Transcendentalist is all worked up over slavery. Here you have men who are basically good and who participate in God and you have these wretched Southerners holding them in slavery. Something must be done. And the something that must be done is clamor for slave revolts.
Note here that this Anthropology North vs. South is stark. The South believes that man is basically sinful. The South believes not in the primacy of the individual as the Abolitionist Transcendentalist does but rather the South believes that man is to be understood as belonging to the covenantal entities of family, Church, and community as those are hierarchically ordered by the revelation of Scripture.
Note here that this Ontology (the question of existence, becoming and reality) North and South are at odds. The South is still working in a Biblical framework that supports the hierarchy that slavery is a part of. Note also that the slave is typically part of that family hierarchy in the South. If you doubt that I challenge you to read the slave exit interviews done in the 1930s by the Federal Government and read some of the descriptions of former slaves of their time as slaves. You’ll be surprised.
Very well then, North and South are serving different Gods which give them different regional religions. The South is still largely animated by Biblical Christianity. The North is animated by Romanticism/Transcendentalism and because of those different gods and different religions North and South become estranged brothers trying to live in the same house.
So, I have tried to make the case that what is mistakenly called the Civil War had as its ultimate causation the fact that the regions were serving different Gods and so had different World and life views – Romanticsm-Transcendentalism vs. Biblical Christianity. I have tried to show you via their different epistemology, ontology, and anthropology how those differences worked themselves out and how these differences were bound to make for hostility between the two regions.
So, before we start talking about the causes of the war mentioning slavery, tariffs, agricultural vs. industrial, the lack of enforcement of the fugitive slave laws, etc. we should say that the ultimate cause of the War of Northern aggression was the different theologies owned North & South.