Historical Context of O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! My Captain! was written in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War (1861-1865), the four-year conflict between the Northern and the Southern states. At this point, you need to learn about the causes of conflicts which paved the way for one of the most violent and divisive conflicts, the Civil War, in the American history.

In general, there were two primary schools of thought who had their own interpretations for the causes of conflicts, the factors responsible for the Civil War- the economic interpretation and the issue of slavery. Some historians emphasized on the first interpretation, stating that economic factors were responsible for this long-standing struggle. They believed that the foundation of the Republic had developed divergent economic interests which resulted in political conflicts between the South and the North. The Southern States were almost agrarian and were against the Federal spending on the banking system, other internal improvements and towards the growth of big industries and corporations. On the other hand, Northeast flourished and became a financial hub and capital. Its businessmen were interested in Federal aid in the development of transportation, a protective tariff, and also wanted control over big industries and corporations. The South favoured tariff for revenue and had dominance over the Federal government. As a result of lack of Federal support, business growth curtailed. Meanwhile, the issue of slavery occupied a central position in the political dimension and Northeastern businessmen and Western farmers came together against the South. In the subsequent years, slaves were freed, and the planters’ aristocracy came to an end. The system of wage labour was also introduced according to the new forces, against the existing South system of slave labour. This shift of power from the hands of Southern planters to Northeastern bankers and industrialists brought about sectional conflicts. Some historians, especially Charles A Beard, has even spoken of the Civil War as the “Second American Revolution.” Nearly a decade before the Civil War, slavery was the central subject for discussion. People had different opinions about slavery. While a majority of Southerners believed that slavery was a positive good and wanted full protection of the Federal government, the Northerners considered it an evil and a national disgrace.

The second interpretation of the abolition of slavery is equally significant in causing conflicts between the two state groups. With the rise of the abolitionist movement, divergent attitudes towards slavery became intense. After the year 1815, the number of societies in favour of the abolition of slavery began increasing. They began by advocating gradual emancipation, anticipating that slave-owners would themselves get motivated and free the slaves. By the 1830s, it was noticed that planters were not willing or agreeing to voluntary abolition. This instigated individuals in different parts of the North. They began attacking militarily, considering the practice of slavery to be against Christianity. They also related it against the American ideal. They wanted it to be abolished immediately.

New England, especially Boston, was a centre of abolitionist activity. In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison began publishing his weekly abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator in Boston. The movement then sought active support from influential people like Wendell Phillips, the Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, and many writers. Subsequently, the abolitionist group began increasing in number. By 1840, there were about 2000 abolitionist societies, and nearly 200,000 memberships were claimed. Initially, even in North, the abolitionists were considered to be dangerous radicals and troublemakers who were trying to disturb law and order, and interfere with business. But after a few years, their stance began to be clear to the people and their propaganda began to have some effect.

Southerners opined that abolitionist movement was an unnecessary interference with the South’s peculiar institutes. This tension had been simmering between the two groups for years. In later years, the tension had taken the shape of causes and conflicts, eventually becoming political.

After 1848, the main question in front of the Southerners and Northerners was: should slavery be allowed to expand to new territories? Most of the Northerners considered it to be an evil institution and wanted to prevent its expansion. The Southerners, on the other hand, were antagonistic to any proposal implying that slavery was either not a positive good or that the Federal government had any power at all to interfere with it. They argued that they were entitled to keep the slaves just as much as the Northerners were entitled to keep their cattle and horses. They also claimed that since the territories were the common property of all the people of the United States, they should be opened to the Southerners on the same term as to the Northerners.

After decades of tensions over the issues of slavery and states’ rights, eleven Southern states declared independence from the Union in the early 1860s. Abraham Lincoln played a key role in the Civil War. He worked for the abolition of slavery; and on 22 September 1862 he passed the Emancipation Proclamation which freed all slaves in the United States from the first January of the following year. The Civil War resulted in such a high death toll that it has now become one of the bloodiest moments in American history, in terms of cost to American lives. In 1865, at the end of this long and gruesome war, the Union emerged victoriously under Lincoln’s leadership. But on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, assassinated President Lincoln, who was attending a performance at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. The poem O Captain! My Captain! offers an extended metaphor for the political scenario in 1865, where the “captain” is President Abraham Lincoln, the “ship” is the United States and the “port” is the Union’s victory in the Civil War.

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