Did Slavery Cause the Civil War?

Who would even ask such a ridiculous question in the 21st century? Apparently lots of people. From a recent story in the Washington Post entitled “Five myths about why the South seceded”:

One hundred fifty years after the Civil War began, we’re still fighting it — or at least fighting over its history. I’ve polled thousands of high school history teachers and spoken about the war to audiences across the country, and there is little agreement even about why the South seceded. Was it over slavery? States’ rights? Tariffs and taxes?

Now why on earth would people believe that “states’ rights” was a more significant causal factor than slavery? Um, maybe because they went to school in Texas. According to the new social studies standards adopted by the State Board of Education last year, Texas 8th graders will be expected to:

explain the issues surrounding causes of the Civil War, including sectionalism, states’ rights, and slavery…

And lest you think that the order of this list is not intended to connote importance, this was was actually an amendment made by politicians on the board to the original draft standards prepared by teachers and scholars. Conservatives on the SBOE proactively voted to insert this phrase during the May 20, 2010 meeting, and the discussion before the vote made perfectly clear that they believed sectionalism and states’ rights superseded slavery in terms of importance. In other words, the order of this list is no accident.

The same state board members also insisted that the new standards require students to study Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ inaugural speech. And guess what? Davis’ speech didn’t even mention the word “slavery.” The speech featured instead a long attack on the federal government and a defense of states’ rights — as if he were the original Tea Partier and slavery had nothing to do with southern secession. (Never mind that Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens made the truth about slavery’s centrality clear in his “Cornerstone Address” just a month later.)

So what does the Washington Post article say about the importance of states’ rights in the lead-up to the Civil War?

Confederate states did claim the right to secede, but no state claimed to be seceding for that right. In fact, Confederates opposed states’ rights — that is, the right of Northern states not to support slavery.

On Dec. 24, 1860, delegates at South Carolina’s secession convention adopted a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” It noted “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” and protested that Northern states had failed to “fulfill their constitutional obligations” by interfering with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage. Slavery, not states’ rights, birthed the Civil War. [emphasis added]

Surprise, surprise. The Texas SBOE got it wrong. And a damaging historical myth is passed on to another generation of students.

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  • Being “about slavery” is not the same thing as slavery causing the war. Abolition was “about slavery”. Abolition could never have occurred by Constitutional Amendment so long as the South stayed in the Union, They didn’t and by way of the fortunes of war, risked their peculiar institution.

    Slavery was not the main theme song of the Unon, as slavery remained legal in the Union in those slave states that stayed in the union and in those parts of Southern states that were under the effective rule of the Union. The Emancipation Proclamationd did not apply to those parts of the Union that were not in rebellion.

    The Emancipation Proclamation did, in effect, doom slavery in any event as, once out, it could not be stuffed back in the slave quarters again. Too many former slaves had moved to the North, and 210,000 of the Union Army were blacks, either Freedmen or former slaves. The fate of the Black troops who went back to the South to support Reconstruction were left out to fend for themselves after terrorist groups like the Knights of the White Camelia, the Red Shirts ambushed and killed Black Republicans, and Republicans in general who were mainstay of the occupation governments of the Reconstruction, in a back room deal to get Rutherford B Hayes elected as President, succeeding US Grant.

    Rutherford removed Federal troops from the South, and political and ethnic cleansing by the KKK with winks and nods from the “Redemptionist” former prewar and Confederate establishment. Black Codes replaced outright slavery and the current state prison model of today was based on Southern prisons for blacks who lacked the proper respect for whites. In effect, slavery was reinstituted but without recovery of the capital value that slaves represented before the war. Under slavery, slaves were capital goods worth maintaining, afterwards they were an expense item of no inherent value commercially. Just like factory workers up north.

    Reconstruction has been glossed over by both sides of the Mason Dixon Line for regional reasons, there was considerable chicanery going on both sides. What is left in the South is pouring out from deeply held resentments from wounds so deep that Yankees can’t see them. The default Yankee reaction is deprecating to the South, and is unwise to remain so.

    Yes, the Civil War was “about” slavery, but in no way was slavery at risk legally until Lincoln was shot.

  • David says:

    i wouldn’t call McPherson’s book academic dogmatism. It goes into all the details of all the various social and political developments leading up to the war, from top to bottom, left to right, back to front, inside out, outside in, upside down, rightside up etc.
    Not that I think that’s really necessary to understand the basic fact: The US divided into two parts. One part couldn’t abide with slavery and couldn’t abide with slavery being spread into the new states and territories.
    The other side couldn’t find a way to exist without slavery, insisted on spreading it west (and south, by the way, the major proponents of slavery were also territorial expansionists re Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, Central America, etc. and also sought to expand the slave based economy to those regions.)
    War broke out between these two factions.
    Before the war, slavery was legal in part of the country.
    After the war, slavery was ended.
    Generally speaking, the war was understood to be about slavery for the above reasons, by most of the world. The only place this has ever been routinely disputed is among the South of Jim Crow, the KKK, the John Birch Society, and the inheritors of those traditions, the evangelical right wing.

    Was the context “complicated” ? Sure. The north has no monopoly on morality, and general depravity and hypocrisy is shared by the north and south alike. There were forces and institutions in the north that contributed to the status quo in the south.

  • David, I accept that most of academic dogmatism about slavery being the “cause” of the Civil War. which is true to the extent that without slavery, there would have been no abolition for there would have been nothing to abolish.

    Absent abolitionism, slavery would have gone on so long as people made money off of it, which was true both North and South. Absent the idiotic move made by the hot heated Tea Party types in the South about pending doom from Abolitionists, the South would have seen no reason to exit.

    Had the South had decided to stay in, and weather the rhetoric no matter how strident, there was noting Abolitionist could have done to abolish slavary by amending the Constitution or any other legal move. So long as proponents of not changing the Constitution, something they only had to do by just saying “no” to any change to the Constitution. It takes THREE QUARTERS of the STATE LEGISLATURES to say “yes” to the proposed Amendment, Today that works out to 38 states with 12 opposed. With 13 opposed, the Amendment doesn’t get added to the Constitution. There were 35 states in the Union then.

    It isn’t about some abstruse theory of who said what, it’s the math.

    The South copied the existing Constitution with a few changes more suited to Confederacy, and with the power to raise armies directly and to collect income tax, something the Union didn’t have in place up front. The absurdity of the argument that the South obeyed the Constitution is beyond ken, they quit, they knew it, and the rewrote it for their own use.

    Much of the hysteria from the Retro-Confederates today is in keeping with the same hysteria by which they cut their own throats at Ft Sumter. The part I can’t quite figure is what element of the Israeli polity is pulling whose strings linking Islamophobia to establishment of Christianity as a state religion, as a necessary effect to keep Islamo-Obama-Liberal-Socialism from sapping and indemnifying our precious bodily fluids.

  • David says:

    Anony I recommend the Pulitzer prize winning history of the civil war, including a broad and thorough overview of the development of the issues that caused the Civil War, “Battle Cry of Freedom” by James M. McPherson. The issues are covered from the birth of colonial America through the war, and without any equivocation, without any doubt, the cause of the Civil War was slavery.
    I don’t know what “edict” you’re talking about that AZ has issued.
    Go do some reading and studying and come back to talk to the grownups when you have something of substance to offer.

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