If the North’s first impulse in fighting the Civil War was to save face and preserve the union, the South’s was to protect slavery. I am certain a mad chorus of opposition would greet this statement from those who stalwartly believe that the rebels broke with the country their fathers and grandfathers died for because they were ardently defending the states’ sovereignty rights. They want to deny that slavery was the cause of the war. I would not say that the Union fought the war over slavery, but I would say the Confederates did so. This isn’t to say that the rebels didn’t believe in the states’ rights argument — they did. They just didn’t believe in it enough to go to war over it. Now, slavery was a completely different matter.
As the ink was drying on the Constitution, our country was headed to a showdown over the sovereignty of the federal government and the states’ relationship to that. To get the Constitution ratified, the federalists had to make concessions to the anti-federalists by adding the Bill of Rights as a check on the national government’s powers. Of course, number ten of these amendments made specific reference to the authority of the states. Our country was still young when our second President, John Adams, signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Although rarely used, this legislation strengthened the authority of the federal government (in addition to suppressing Adams’ political opposition), and anti-federalists balked at this new power. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in response. These argued that the states were sovereign and the only powers belonging to the federal government were those granted it in the Constitution and/or by the states. It was this states’ rights argument that James Calhoun would revise later to fight the tariff in the 1820′s. Calhoun’s South Carolina Exposition and Protest would recycle the states’ rights argument and principle of nullification. These three important statesmen and southerners promoted the notion that the states had the power to nullify laws to which they objected. When Jefferson and Madison proposed it, the argument went nowhere because no one was willing to have an out-and-out fight over the Alien and Sedition Acts — and Jefferson became president shortly thereafter, leading to a republicanism that was friendlier to the states. Calhoun, however, stirred up his constituents in South Carolina and they fully intended to fight the federal government in the streets over the hated tariff (which was economically harmful to them but beneficial to northern industry). President Andrew Jackson called their bluff and began prepping for battle. A former war hero, he was certain to pursue a military resolution in the matter. Calhoun, et al blinked first, and the rebellion died before it began. Calhoun managed some artful diplomacy that at least allowed them to save face, but the gig was up. Again, the issue wasn’t enough to go to war over. The citizens of South Carolina knew they couldn’t beat the union single-handedly, and no one else was willing to fight over it — even the other southern states to whom the tariff was also a blight.
Slavery, on the other hand, was a whole other matter. This was the basis of the southern economy and social structure. Even those who did not have slaves benefited financially from slavery — through commerce with those who were slavers — or socially from it because it gave poor whites a higher social standing than enslaved blacks at least. As the aftermath of the Civil War showed, to eliminate slavery was to destroy and undermine southern antebellum life. Quite literally, the south was not the same after the war. Maybe they didn’t know how exactly it would change, but southerners knew before the war that slavery was central to their lives and eliminating it would cause upheaval. This absolutely was something to go to war for. So, when Republicans talked about containing slavery and abolitionism became more and more vocal, the slavers broke out the old states’ rights argument again to justify their position. It was an intellectual cover for their social and economic wants in the same way that notions of the social contract justified American revolutionists’ refusal to pay taxes and answer to the King of England. When it came to slavery, however, South Carolina was no longer alone. This time, when it actually seceded, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas quickly followed suit. It was not coincidental that 43% of the households in these states held slaves. As such, the stakes were high for them. Their economies were the most dependent on slave labor. Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee seceded shortly thereafter, and the rate of slave ownership in these states was about 36%. Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware — although slave states — never seceded, but there only approximately 22% of the citizenry held slaves. It wasn’t as necessary to their economic stability then. The correlation between the rates of slave ownership and secessionism demonstrates that slavery was the real motive for the rebellion. The states’ rights argument was the intellectual justification, but it had been around for a long time and had not led to war before. The difference in 1860 was that the issue was not about the power of the government to tax or to suppress opposition. It was purely about slavery, and that was the cause that was finally enough to make the south rebel.
I see on the interwebs that there is a great public debate underway as we mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War about the cause of that conflagration — or I should say Cause of it, with a capital C and great emphasis. States’ rights some argue; No! Slavery and slavery alone, comes a reply. I think it’s fine that we have this earnest conversation, because this is civic engagement. This is patriotism — to mull and to exchange ideas about our past. It’s part of understanding who we are. Americans are so often content to be uncritical or unreflective about ourselves. I love dearly when we attempt to be thoughtful — when being American is more of an activity than waving a flag or singing an anthem. This is the meat of citizenship, or rather, intellectual citizenship. So, we have the two camps faced off against one another in an interpretive engagement…perhaps mirroring the partisan differences of the war itself.
I don’t want to take sides (mostly because I think they are both wrong). To those who claim that slavery was the sole cause of the war, however, I would like to point out the obvious:
Major General John Fremont — a southerner, hero of the Mexican-American war, and radical Republican — commanded the Department of the West in the early days of the war. Specifically, he was charged with eliminating secessionist threats in Missouri (which was a slave state) and assuring it stayed in the Union. In August of 1861, he ordered the emancipation of the slaves belonging to secessionist rebels in that state. President Lincoln first asked and then ordered Fremont to rescind his proclamation. When he did not, Lincoln relieved him of his command on November 2, 1861 — clearly, Lincoln was having no abolitionism from his subordinates. (The radical Republicans would later nominate Fremont for president to challenge Lincoln, with whom they were dissatisfied.) In May of 1862, General David “Black Dave” Hunter — a Yankee, graduate of West Point, and originally a subordinate officer under Fremont — freed the slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida when he took command of the Department of the South. Again, Lincoln intervened and rescinded that emancipation proclamation — for fear of angering the border states and losing popular support for the war. He was not wrong in his assessment, for the Democrats were still a strong political force and did not support abolition. They gained seats in Congress during the 1862 elections and in 1864 put up General George McClellan against Lincoln. (Lincoln had previously relieved McClellan from his position as General-in-Chief over the army because of his poor success and a concern over the general’s dedication.) McClellan and his fellow Democrats were opposed to wholesale emancipation.
The Congress — which was largely dominated by Republicans — was not so reticent. On April 10th of 1862, it passed legislation calling for voluntary manumission and providing for reimbursement for slave owners who did the same. On the 16th, Congress ended slavery in the District of Columbia and compensated the former owners there. (Many northern states like Massachusetts had abolished slavery well before the war.) Congress stopped short, however, of legislating emancipation for the whole nation. It wasn’t until January 1, 1863 that Lincoln finally got on board and issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation — freeing slaves in the rebel states (but not those in Union territory — again for fear of angering Union slave owners and sympathizers). By this time, Lincoln realized that ending slavery was necessary to winning the war (and appeasing European allies). In a letter to famed newspaperman Horace Greeley, Lincoln plainly stated that his purpose in emancipation was strictly to save the Union — not to benefit the slaves. So much for the federal commitment to emancipation, which didn’t kick in until the war was almost half over. The slave states followed slowly, as the war dwindled and perhaps the handwriting was on the wall. Over the course of 1864, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Maryland abolished slavery in their states. The following year, Missouri and Tennessee followed suit. In December 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — ending slavery throughout the country — was ratified. Later, former rebel states would have to adopt this amendment as a condition of readmission.
It is very clear from these events that the Union was not fighting a war to free slaves at the outset. In the beginning, the purpose was to respond to the rebels’ offensive act at Ft. Sumter and then to keep the nation one and indivisible. It wasn’t until later that pride and nationalism was joined by abolitionism. Even when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, many Union citizens objected and the states where slavery remained legal were slow to embrace it. It would be false to say then that this was a war of slavers versus abolitionists. Certainly, the northern forces were not a liberation army. Abolition was an outcome in the end, but it was not the reason the Union undertook its mission and, as James Garfield complained in his civil war letters, it wasn’t the thing the average soldier saw as his purpose. Those who would claim that the issue of slavery was first and foremost what the war was fought for would be incorrect then. This was no war for emancipation. It would be wrong to credit the Union too much.