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.