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In a Rede lecture, titled "The Parallel Between the English Civil War and the American Civil War," Firth expounded upon the intriguing comparison between these two historical events (1910). Recently, I have delved into the history of both civil wars, sparking a keen interest in this captivating subject. Thus, my primary focus lies in comparing the underlying disputes that triggered the English Civil War and the American Civil War, as well as exploring the profound implications behind their similarities and differences.
English Civil War and the American Civil War: A Comparison
First and foremost, religion emerged as a contentious issue in both the English and American Civil Wars. In England, the king's religious beliefs and practices deviated from the mainstream, with many aspects of the court rituals borrowed from Catholic traditions (Morrill, 2001). Moreover, Charles I appointed William Laud as the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 and mandated the enforcement of the Book of Common Prayer in Scotland. However, this move irked the Scottish people, and William Laud's harsh persecution of the Puritans sparked widespread dissatisfaction across the nation. As Firth aptly pointed out, "the conflict concerning the religious question grew in importance, and the freedom of conscience became the only viable solution to the problem."
In America, the key dispute centered around divergent opinions about slavery (Wesley, 2019). The North believed in the necessity of emancipation to establish new territories free from slavery's grasp. Conversely, the South justified slavery based on their interpretation of biblical teachings. These fundamentally differing perspectives on slavery's place in society eventually led to an irreconcilable conflict, culminating in war (Miller, 2000).
The struggle for power
The second pivotal dispute that ignited both civil wars was the struggle for power. In England, as Ireton noted, the crux of the matter was whether "supreme trust was in the king or Parliament" (Morrill, 2001). Charles I held strong and arrogant views about his divine right to rule, believing he was chosen by God to govern and protect the country. However, this attitude aggravated the Parliament, pushing them to assert their own power. Charles I's refusal to reach agreements with the English Parliament and his suspension of it in 1629 further exacerbated the power struggle. Consequently, the conflict between the king and the Parliament escalated significantly.
In America, the focal point of contention was centered on the distribution of power between the federal government and individual states. Firth, in his Rede lecture, offered a vivid illustration of this issue. The Southern delegate, Calhoun, argued that sovereignty resided in the individual states rather than a central government. Conversely, the Northern doctrine posited that power emanated from a government formed by the consent of the people. Their speeches clearly underscored the opposing positions on the power issue (1910).
The role of money
Another significant commonality in both civil wars was the role of money. In a BBC documentary titled "A History of British," Simon Schama highlighted that money played a pivotal role in igniting the countdown to the civil war in England. Charles I's involvement in wars with countries like Spain and France resulted in losses that necessitated substantial funds. However, the Parliament refused to meet his financial demands. Consequently, the king resorted to arbitrary means to raise money, further fueling the flames of the civil war (Morrill, 2001).
In America, the North and South operated under different economic systems at the time. The North was primarily reliant on industry, while the South heavily relied on plantation agriculture. Miller contended that the long-established practice of slavery had brought prosperity to the South, and its abolition raised fears of an economic collapse (2000). Simultaneously, the North also worried about the impact of slavery on its economic development.
The division of the opposing sides
The last notable difference lay in the division mode of the opposing sides in each civil war. In the English Civil War, the divisions were primarily based on ideology. The royalists supported Catholicism, while the other side leaned towards Puritanism. On the other hand, in the American Civil War, the divisions were mainly geographical, with the Missouri Compromise of 1820 drawing a line across the United States to limit the northern extension of slavery, known as the Mason and Dixon's line (Firth, 1910).
Beyond these differences, we can also discern resemblances beneath the surface. According to Firth's Rede lecture, the formal cause of both civil wars was the question of sovereignty (1910). In England, the debate centered around the allocation of sovereignty between the king and the Parliament, while in America, it concerned the distribution of sovereignty between individual states and the federal government.
Furthermore, both wars exhibited the collective fear of an uncertain future. In England, people were apprehensive about two main issues: Charles I's potential imposition of higher taxes for war funding and personal use and the promotion of Catholicism. The latter concern was fueled by rumors that the king's children were secretly being raised as Roman Catholics due to his Catholic wife, Henriette Marie. Similarly, in America, the South feared the North's perceived corruption of biblical principles, its growing diversity, and its intrusions into other states' affairs (Miller, 2001). These fears were exacerbated by the perception of Abraham Lincoln's army as "heartless brigades of aggression and occupation" by the League of the South (Kaufman, 2009).
Summary and Conclusion
From these differences and similarities, we can derive meaningful implications. Firstly, the role of money emerges as a crucial factor in both wars. The enduring issue of financial resources and profit motives played a significant role in triggering and perpetuating these conflicts. Imagining a scenario where Charles I consistently won wars and brought prosperity to England or where slavery brought substantial benefits to both the North and South raises the question of whether these civil wars would have occurred at all.
Secondly, the causes of historical events are multifaceted and complex. In both the English and American Civil Wars, various factors, including economy, culture, politics, and ideology, contributed to the onset of conflict (Miller, 2001). The collapse of slavery also varied significantly across time and regions (Sternhel, 2019).
In conclusion, this comparison between the English Civil War and the American Civil War not only stimulates critical thinking but also provides valuable insights for our future development. The examination of historical conflicts can offer valuable lessons that shape our understanding of the present and inform our decision-making moving forward.
- Firth, C. H. (1910). "The Parallel Between the English Civil War and the American Civil War." Rede Lecture. University of Cambridge.
- Morrill, J. S. (2001). "The Religious Context of the English Civil War." Journal of British Studies, 40(04), 430-459.
- Miller, W. L. (2000). "Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress." Vintage.
- Schama, S. (2001). "A History of Britain - The British Wars." BBC Documentary Series.
- Kaufman, B. (2009). "The Confederate Constitutions." Texas Law Review, 87(7), 1621-1661.
- Sternhell, Y. (2019). "The End of Slavery in Africa and the Americas: A Comparative Approach." Cambridge University Press.
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