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Too many Americans think slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War

Civil War

A couple of years ago, at the start of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the Pew Center conducted a poll (see HERE) which showed that only 38 percent of Americans think the conflict was mainly about slavery.

But then, 24 percent of poll respondents were white Southerners, many of whom might feel embarrassed to admit that the enslavement of black folks was a principal cause of what some of them prefer to call the War Between the States or even the War of Northern Aggression (see HERE).

We would all do well, it seems to me, to peruse THIS DOCUMENTARY STUDY by historian John Pierce of the reasons for secession by the Confederate States:

One method by which to analyze this historical conflict is to focus on primary sources.  Every state in the Confederacy issued an “Article of Secession” declaring their break from the Union. Four states went further. Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina all issued additional documents, usually referred to as the “Declarations of Causes,” which explain their decision to leave the Union.

Two major themes emerge in these documents: slavery and states’ rights.  All four states strongly defend slavery while making varying claims related to states’ rights.  Other grievances, such as economic exploitation and the role of the military, receive limited attention in some of the documents.  This article will present, in detail, everything that was said in the Declarations of Causes pertaining to these topics.

With charts and such, Pierce shows that slavery was clearly the principal subject in most of those Declarations of Causes.

A few years ago, columnist E. J. Dionne wrote THIS:

There remains enormous denial over the fact that the central cause of the war was our national disagreement about race and slavery, not states’ rights or anything else.

When the war started, leaders of the Southern rebellion were entirely straightforward about this. On March 21, 1861, Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s vice president, gave what came to be known as the “Cornerstone speech” in which he declared that the “proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization” was “the immediate cause of the late rupture.”

Thomas Jefferson, Stephens said, had been wrong in believing “that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature.”

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea,” Stephens insisted. “Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”

Our greatest contemporary historian of the Civil War, James McPherson, has noted that Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a major slaveholder, “justified secession in 1861 as an act of self-defense against the incoming Lincoln administration.” Abraham Lincoln’s policy of excluding slavery from the territories, Davis said, would make “property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless . . . thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars.”

South Carolina’s 1860 declaration on the cause of secession mentioned slavery, slaves or slaveholding 18 times. And as the historian Douglas Egerton points out in  “Year of Meteors,” his superb recent book on how the 1860 election precipitated the Civil War, the South split the Democratic Party and later the country not in the name of states’ rights but because it sought federal government guarantees that slavery would prevail in new states. “Slaveholders,” Egerton notes, “routinely shifted their ideological ground in the name of protecting unfree labor.”

After the war, in one of the great efforts of spin control in our history, both Davis and Stephens, despite their own words, insisted that the war was not about slavery after all but about state sovereignty. By then, of course, slavery was “a dead and discredited institution,” McPherson wrote, and to “concede that the Confederacy had broken up the United States and launched a war that killed 620,000 Americans in a vain attempt to keep 4 million people in slavery would not confer honor on their lost cause.” 

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2 Comments

  1. “What led to the outbreak of the bloodiest conflict in the history of North America?

    A common explanation is that the Civil War was fought over the moral issue of slavery.

    In fact, it was the economics of slavery and political control of that system that was central to the conflict.

    A key issue was states’ rights.”…

    http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/causes-of-the-civil-war/

    I don’t claim to know the “real” reason the civil war was fought but I do have to say freedom is certainly better than slave status, but after the slaves were freed, I don’t think they were treated much better even in the north.

    It seems the role of Lincoln was to unite the states under a set of rules that didn’t include the economic benefit that slavery provided and that was a key issue in why the south rebelled and began the states rights movement that we still hear to this day.

    We hear a lot about the African slaves but what about the Asian Cooli Laborers and the role they played in building America’s infrastructure and in particular, the railroad system. Never hear much about them. Why is that?

  2. The immediate cause of the war was the southern slave states’ perception that they were losing control of the federal government. A man unsympathetic to slavery as a basis of an economy and a culture had just been elected president, and the prospect was that new free states joining the union would tip the balance in Congress away from the slave states. The southern slave states did not care about states’ rights when it came to enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act in the northern free states – hence the underground railroad to Canada. The rallying point of states’ rights was nothing but hypocrisy – it was propaganda or spin, as we would call it today.

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