The Civil War was fought over slavery

Why was the Civil War fought?

This is "Confederate Heritage and History Month" so it is a good time to talk about the Civil War. The Civil War was fought over slavery. I don't have anything else to say about that right now, but my friend John McKay has written a lengthy blog post explaining this. Have a look: It's Treason Appreciation Month

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I read "The Founding Brothers" where the author shows that a major accomplishment of the founders was to make political deals which put off the Civil War until the country was strong enough to survive it. I think slavery was not the whole story, but a very large percentage of it. So I would rate your comment as mostly true.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 07 Apr 2013 #permalink

An excellent reminder. I had seen some of the secession resolutions a couple years ago, and wondered how anyone who read them can still think the war wasn't about slavery.

Another point: it's often claimed by confederate apologists that the real cause of the war was "states' rights." (apart from the trivial point that the states' right they cared about was the right to own slaves). This claim is refuted by observing that one of the largest complaints was that Northern states were often ignoring the fugitive slave act, so they were perfectly happy supporting federal action over states when it suited them.

By Nick Theodorakis (not verified) on 07 Apr 2013 #permalink

I remember learning, in grade school (60s), junior high, and in high school (a very good sequence of history classes on American/World history using sources domestic and foreign, four semesters junior through senior year) that the desire to maintain slavery, for personal, economic, and a variety of other reasons, was the top driving force in the secession of the Southern states. This was reflected in writings by Americans and the European sources we read. I won't be so naive to think that we read all possible sources, but the agreement in idea was very convincing. The "states rights" stuff was discussed and, to me at least, thoroughly dismissed.
So when, since the mid 70s, did the chatter about this get so loud that the folks who buy it is measurably large?

John McKay would be the person to ask about that, Dean, he's something of an intellectual historian. Plus, he was there.

(Not there for the Civil War, but for the 70s)

There were quite a few factors, but slavery was clearly the major, driving force (I find McBerry's "Nothing could be further from the truth," to be laughably disingenuous). It would be naive to pretend that there were no other factors...but it would be equally naive to think that any - or all - of those other factors directly led to the war. Slavery, on the other hand, very much did.

I think it's interesting to follow the revisionist history on both sides, though. Like whitewashing over the atomic bomb: it either saved millions of lives and ended the war, or it was 100% intended to scare Russia. No middle ground, of course (because that's almost always the actual answer in history, but it doesn't play as well on Fox News).


My focus in college was American history. That hardly makes me an expert, but as the Civil War has more documentation and speculation about it than all other American wars combined, I've had a certain amount of exposure to it. Yes, "states' rights" is generally accepted, now, as a factor. "A" factor, alongside tariffs and taxes, and well, well below slavery (you could make the case that "States' rights to keep slavery" is pretty valid, but that still comes down to slavery).

As for the '70s, our understanding of history changes all the time. After the Great War, the international community was pretty sure how to handle Austria-Hungary and Germany. After World War II, they were pretty sure they'd get it right this time around. After the USSR started gobbling up countries (what came to be called Soviet Bloc countries) ... and then the fall of Czechoslovakia .... and then Yugoslavia ... there began to be a shift in the way historians addressed post-WWI and post-WWII democracy in Europe. The shift started in the '70s (coincidentally), but really started to solidify in the '80s.

The point is that history is constantly revising. Unlike the sciences, history is largely written upon the material record, the written record, and interpretations of both (read: opinions). Thus, it's constantly being revised (revisionist history should NOT be automatically considered a dirty word). This is why that focus on "states' rights" came about, and it stuck.

To be fair, it's GOOD that academics were beginning to look beyond slavery as the sole factor contributing to the Civil War. It's a travesty, however, that bigots and racists can cling to any strands they can find, and unite under the "states' rights" banner, and pretend that slavery was some mutually beneficial cooperative effort, or that it played little-to-no role in the Civil War.


Since it follows with one of your other passions, have you read the theory that the 2nd Amendment was specifically included to protect Southern states' rights to maintain slave militias? I can't speak for the historical veracity or completeness of the research (much less consensus on the matter), but I find the theory fascinating, and it makes the ambiguous wording on the 2A much more understandable (as the FF refused to mention slavery by name in the Constitution). Just curious.

I've heard that but I always assumed it was crazy talk.

My favorite case of "you think it was for this but it was really for that" which appears to be true is the inclusion of sex in the Civil Liberties Act of 1964. Apparently including a prohibition on discrimination against women was meant to guarantee that it would not be passed, but it accidentally got passed.

I Just started a piece on the Confederate Constitution but I probably won't finish it till tomorrow. Their Constitution did shift some power away from the central government to the states. Ironically, this made it much harder for the Confederacy to pursue the war than it was for the Union.

By John McKay (not verified) on 07 Apr 2013 #permalink

Thanks for the info Roger, it's appreciated. I do realize history is always being re-analyzed and our view of events changing, so do understand your point. It makes me think I was not clear enough with my question: perhaps "When and why did the notion expressed here

"Many people still try to say that the war was about slavery," McBerry continued. "Nothing could be further from the truth... It was about a federal government that was out of control and imposing its will on the states--a federal government that was acting beyond the scope of the Constitution. Ironically, some of the very issues we are debating today."

become so entrenched among so many people?"
Greg, I did post at John's. Thanks for the suggestion.


I don't think McBerry's notion is particularly main-stream. It's certainly embraced by southern bigots, but, as the article linked in Greg's post noted, these new southerners are a definite minority. I guess ignorant folk will grab onto whatever makes their position feel justified, or at least less reprehensible.

Still, "Southern Pride" is a very big thing in the south, even if the majority do not embrace the "Slavery was good, mmkay?" concept. It's embarrassing and obnoxious. There's a cause and a method for celebrating your heritage, but celebrating slavery and our nation's bloodiest war - which the south started - is in terribly poor taste, to say the least.


The great irony of the Confederacy was that virtually everything they claimed to stood for was abandoned - or significantly compromised - almost at the outset. States' rights and the reach of the federal government? Didn't last, not when they went to war as one federal power against another. Tariffs and taxes? They had to do the exact same thing to fund their war, so they found themselves suffering under a higher tax rate than before (currency concerns certainly didn't help). Slavery? Many slaves were armed, no small number fought on the side of the Confederacy, and more still were freed by former slaveholders who could not afford the new war-time conditions.

The failure on the part of the south was colossal, and in no small way ironic. The fact that it is now celebrated (I think Family Guy did a pretty good job caricaturing it) is just...well, I already covered that.

Dean -

I think your experience may not have been the majority, or at best, a small one. I'm basing this on recently reading the excellent book (also a documentary) 'Slavery by Another Name', in which the author documents the whitewashing of the causes of the Civil War nearly from the moment it ended.

In part, it was Southerners wanting to uphold the honor of their fallen citizens, and fighting to shake off an oppresor has a nice noble ring to it. Northerners, who were by and large racist, even if they didn't condone slavery per se, had no problem going along with this and even promulgated it themselves in order to help bond the nation together.

Remember, only a minority were true abolitionists fighting for racial equality; most northerners were much more ambivalent. As John McKay rightly points out, the north in large part was fighting to preserve the union (a house divided cannot stand). To these northerners, the reason for the divisiveness wasn't as important as ending the divisiveness.

Finally, it's obvious that slavery powered the Southern economy. What people often overlook is that it also powered the North and even the world. Cheap slave labor made it possible to produce vast quantities of commodities that could be sold cheaply worldwide, and people knew (even if they wouldn't admit it) that they were complicit in the system since they reaped its rewards. So minimizing slavery's contribution to the war also helped soothe the northern conscious of its complicity in promulgating the system.

More directly to your point about the timeframe of your schooling and how the state's rights argument seems to have really taken hold since the 1970s - I'm sure this became much easier to do as the years passed because no one was left alive to say "wait a minute, that's not why we fought". People who lived through the war, and even most of their children, had died. This made it easier through each subsequent decade of the 1900s for people with a vested interest to push the idea that their forefathers were fighting oppression rather than to continue the slave system.

That anyone can maintain the states rights argument is astounding. It basically requires one to ignore all the historical evidence about why the people fighting the war were saying they were fighting the war. The arguments on the floor of congress were ferocious, and it was about slavery. Specifically, it was about the extension of slavery into the territories, with the Southern states saying they fought to extend the US territory, it would be unfair for them to then not be able to extend their right to own slaves into these new territories. This issue had led to major dissension between the North and South before, ultimately resulting in the Missouri compromise of 1820, this compromise was undermined by the continued addition of territory, Kansas Nebraska act, and then the Supreme Court in the Dredd Scott case in 1857 overturning the restrictions, and brought the issue once again to the forefront of debate in the US Congress.

This was the issue of the day. Would not only continue to permit slavery, but even allow the expansion of slavery further West and North. This is why we had Bleeding Kansas. The civil war really started in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska act. The South was convinced if they were surrounded by free states their way of life would be threatened and eventually ended. And by way of life, I mean slavery. The speakers in the South as their rallying cry were demanding that blacks should always exist in servitude and that the North was undermining God's plan by trying to raise blacks up on equal stature with whites.

It was slavery (and racism) plain and simple.

Great comments, Mark. And that "Bleeding Kansas" thing continued, in a way, after the war.

Good posts, Mark and LH.

It reminds me of another theoretical distinction: secession was about slavery, while the Civil War was about secession. At least, that's a great thought, and certainly there's SOME truth to it (northern ambiguity regarding abolition is one thing, and the very specific wording of the Emancipation Proclamation is rather important in context). But, it falls apart when we remember that the first shots fired - the fist act of aggression - came from the south, not against the south.

The (belabored) point being: the north might not have been very swift or united in ending slavery, but the south was more than prompt and aggressive in "defending" it.

Mark, Bleeding Kansas is a great point. I think the Dredd Scott case was even more pivotal, though: from that point on, it became clear that the two sides were irreconcilable.

In my own studies, that marked such a clear no-turning-back, Rubicon-like moment, compared to everything that came before. Perhaps it's the benefit of hindsight (historical perspective), but I could not see the outbreak of war as anything but inevitable after that.

Slavery in the south was an expansionary philosophy. It had a manifest destiny of it's own. When the desire to extend slavery clashed with the desire to limit and restrict slavery by the North (slavery in the the original slave states was never in question in the arguments in congress), that's when things got heated and there was no return. In a way, the civil war was not to end slavery, but to stop its expansion.

It's hard to fully communicate my contempt for the people that deny slavery was at issue. It's not like we don't have the entire historical record of what was being said in congress before hostilities began. They were arguing about slavery. They were arguing about the Southern right to expand slavery for the blood and treasure their citizens devoted to wars expanding our territory. More contemptible than protecting slavery in their own states, they were fighting to make sure slavery made it to the West coast, and past the 36degree limit north. They knew that if they didn't continue to expand, the number of free states would soon outnumber the number of slave states, and their political power and need to protect slavery would be in peril. Each state being added prior to the civil war created a conflict, as the southern states demanded a slave state to balance each one, lest they become outnumbered.

Read the debate for yourself. Hooray for the internets. Back in college I'd be in the library for half an hour before I found these texts.

The war was over slavery, no slavery, and there'd probably be no war.
At the same time, if the southern states had been militarily defeated very quickly, perhaps the Feds wouldn't've abolished slavery in the south.
Also, there was a secession movement prior to the civil war, amoung the northeastern states, and it had nothing to do with slavery, so /presumably/ some of what ticked off them also ticked off the southerners.

And I have to note that I love the title of McKay's post, if it werent' for magnanimous northern reconciliation attempts, we'd've just strung up Davis and Lee as traitors and there wouldn't be a single state today that had the stars and bars in their flags. Or groups like the "Sons of the Confederate Veterans" would be classified as terrorists.

I actually didn't realize that the rebs so tightly tied up their personal identity with slavery, they're actually saying that the sin qua non issue of western democracy is literally that blacks need to be held as slaves, because we need cotton, and cotton only grows in places that are too hot for white people to work.
Why do we allow memorials to these yahoos again? Lets replace their memorials with ones to Sherman.

Something else I didn't think to mention in my first post because I was narrowed in on the book I just read, which didn't talk about this:

Most Southerners who fought in the war didn't own slaves. In fact, their standard of living was markedly worse because of the availability of unpaid labor for the "ruling" class; slavery was counter to their own economic self interest. So for them, and their descendants, to say the war wasn't about slavery in a way makes sense.

In their eyes, they probably weren't fighting for slavery per se, since it didn't benefit them. They weren't fighting for state's rights either. Rather, it was some combination of pride, defending the homeland, or fighting off their oppresors.

And before you laugh at that last point, think about this: how many people in America, to this day, think Iraq had WMDs or that Saddam was a key player in 9/11? Millions of them. Despite the easy availability of information to prove them wrong. Now think about a rural farmer in the 1860s with no real source of information about the outside world. How easy must it have been for the ruling class to shape public opinion as to the reasons for the war and how the North was oppressing the South and coming to take all their possessions and impose their will?

In hindsight, it's easy to see that slavery was the root of the war, and anyone who today argues otherwise is an idiot and/or racist. But it may not have been so easy to see at that time for millions of people, who then passed down stories through the generations. So it's no surprise that the state's rights justification gained prominence. And as psychology has taught us, people have an amazing ability to justify their beliefs while ignoring contrary evidence.

That's fine to think that those folk are deluding themselves, but it's also not the way the world works.

Southern non-slave owners still overwhelmingly supported slavery. It's not a philosophical difference; it's simply the difference between the "Haves" and the "Have nots." Every oppressive regime has its fans among the oppressed (see: North Korea); every political party has constituents whose personal goals seem wildly at odds with the part itself (see: "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Frank, 2004).

Again, that argument is only a tool of self-delusion. Southerners were fighting for their way of life, and that way of life included slavery, whether or not the individual Southerners owned slaves.

Break break

Separately, I was on a forum discussing the terrible new Paisley-LL Cool J collaboration, "Accidental Racist." This stated a maddeningly ignorant debate in the comments section regarding, of course, slavery and its role in the Civil War (far, far worse than here).

In light of getting some feedback from more of the general, less-educated public, I would like to retract some of my dissent from earlier posts: apparently, there are PLENTY of people who think that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, the Confederate flag does not symbolize racism, and the South were just some poor oppressed NASCAR fans that Lincoln was out to destroy economically.

And these are the people we let vote. I'm tempted to side with Adams over Jefferson on this one.

I think its funny people are still stuck on this. While the Civil War evolved into an issue of slavery, it certainly was not the only reason, nor the root. Abraham Lincoln said himself, "My paramount objective is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it." Robert E. Lee expressed disgust for slavery, as well. Not only this, but a great many northerners who fought in the way DID have interests in the slave trade. A great majority of those who fought in the Confederacy (over 90%) did not own slaves. I find it hard that people are unwilling to accept the fact that this is even a possibility. Lincoln was indifferent to slavery for many years in office, and eventually sought out passing the emancipation proclamation. Don't you realize that this did NOT end slavery outright? Read up on Civil War experts--not one will tell you that slavery was the only cause of the war. I am no Southern apologist--I was born and raised a liberal from the northwest, but I assure you, the South did not start the war with the intention of fighting the North against slavery.

Yea, Jake, it is standard denialism to cherry-pick quotes. Lincoln's objective in 1862 was to preserve the Union, but he had already drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1865 at his Second Inaugaural, he clearly pointed to slavery as the cause of the war.

It is true that most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, but if you read the secession convention debates and contemporary newspapers accounts, they show clearly how the slaveowners manipulated their poorer neighbours into believing that Lincoln and the Republicans planned a social revolution in legislating black equality. It was not a Revolution, it was a reactionary counter-Revolution.

It is clear your Civil War reading is limited - you should read Allan Guelzo on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation for starters, McPherson on secession, and Harry Jaffa and Lincoln's views on secession and the Constitution.