Across Five Aprils

by Irene Hunt

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How do Wilse and Bill's perspectives on the North/South tension in Across Five Aprils differ from Matt and John's?

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In Across Five Aprils, Wilse is firmly on the side of Southern independence, claiming that the South should be able to live as it chooses, while Bill recognizes the right and wrong on both sides, North and South. Matt and John are firmly on the side of the North, for the preservation of the union and the moral depravity of slavery are key issues for them.

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Even though the Creighton family in Across Five Aprils is fictional, their opinions about the tensions between the North and South on the eve of the Civil War reflect those of real people who lived at that time. Cousin Wilse of Kentucky knows exactly where he stands:

The North has become arrogant toward the South,

he declares.

The high-tariff industrialists would sooner hev the South starve than give an inch that might cost them a penny (44).

When questioned by his aunt Ellen about slavery, Wilse at first tries to avoid the issue, reverting to the argument of “What the South wants is the right to live as it sees fit to live without interference” (44). John, however, refuses to accept such an evasion, and he asks his cousin,

What about the right and wrong of one man ownin' the body—and sometimes it looks as if the soul, too—of another man? (45)

At this, Wilse has to admit that if he were to stand before God side by side with one of his own slaves, “I'd hev no way to justify the fact that I was master and he was slave” (45). He quickly sets aside that admission, however, and reminds the family that slavery was part of the country's life since its very beginning and was recognized by the founding fathers and even the Constitution. Wilse cannot deny that slavery has led to many evils, but he concludes his position by claiming,

and fer every evil that you kin find fer me in the name of slavery, I'll match you an evil in the name of industrialism. The South asks only to be left alone (48)

Matt Creighton and his son John, however, hold a far different opinion than that of Wilse. When Wilse reminds Matt that many families in southern Illinois have close ties to Kentucky and Missouri, Matt admits that such is true, yet he cannot abide by the dissolution of the union. "But this separation, Wilse,” he says,

it won't do. We're a union; separate, we're jest two weakened, puny pieces, each needin' the other (44).

For Matt, preserving the union of the United States is more important than any regional conflicts or ideals. Divided, the country would be weak and vulnerable.

As already noted, John brings up the morality dilemma of slavery, the right and wrong of one person owning another. When Wilse argues that the abolitionists would fail to welcome freed slaves into their cities and communities, John reminds his cousin that many white people in northern cities were not welcomed either. “And yet,” he maintains,

there ain't a white man, lean-bellied and hopeless as so many of them are, that would change lots with a slave belongin' to the kindest master in the South (46).

Freedom means something. It is valuable above and beyond any economic difficulty or other kinds of oppression, and John knows it. John also knows that the South, as Wilse says, does not just want to be left alone. Rather, many southerners advocate carrying slavery into the territories of the West

to spread the shame of this land til democracy gits to be a word that only hypocrites kin stomach (48).

While Wilse, Matt, and John are all quite clear in their positions about the North/South conflict set to tear their country apart, Bill is not as sure. He recognizes the difficulties on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. “Slavery, I hate,” he declares, but slavery is not the only problem in the country (46). The North, he feels, is dominated by greed. What's more, he does not believe that the South should be told what to do and how to live by people who do not fully understand the southern way of life, people like the violent John Brown, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and politician Charles Sumner (48).

Later in the story, after the war has already started and he has had more time to think, Bill further explains his position to Jethro. He despises both the slavery of the South and the grasping industrialism of the North that holds workers in a position no better than slavery. He despises secession, yet he cannot understand how the South could survive “if their way of life is all of a sudden upset” (59). He dislikes nullification (the claim that a state could declare a federal law invalid), but he does not agree that Congress should pass laws that hurt some parts of the country only to benefit others. Bill says that he often mistrusts himself and his thoughts, but he sees good and bad, right and wrong, on both sides, North and South.

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