Thursday, April 15, 2010

The chief cause of the Civil War was slavery, and other fairy tales

In the comments section of my post on the latest dust-up over whether slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War, one commenter posts snippets from the secession declarations of the four Southern states which made them, taken from a recent article in the Atlantic. Since all of the declarations of these four states mention slavery as a factor, we are to believe, slavery was therefore the primary (perhaps, exclusive?) cause of the War.

For one thing, the commenter completely (and the author of the Atlantic article) confounds the distinction between secession and the War itself. Secession could easily have been effected without a war. Slavery was, for many states the chief aggravating factor, although that issue is oversimplified by the commenter, which you can see if you read, for example, the whole of the Texas statement, in which slavery isn't even mentioned until about two-thirds of the way into the document.

One wonders what else the authors of the statement could even talk about for all that time if their reasons for secession were exclusively over slavery.

Maybe the commenter would like to point out where slavery is mentioned in Jefferson Davis' inaugural address. Good luck.

Now I have said before that this is an oversimplification of the issue--that to say that slavery was THE cause of the Civil War is just as much of an oversimplification as to say that it wasn't a cause at all. In fact Gen. Sherman himself probably had it about right: "Slavery is not the cause but the pretext." In fact, Sherman knew that Southern states were using slavery to gain rhetorical leverage on the issue of secession. At bottom, Sherman believed, the real reason for the desire by some in the South for independence was economic:
They want free trade here – to import free, and send their goods up the Rivers free of all charges but freight & insurance – New York, Boston, Phila. & Baltimore could not afford to pay duties if New Orleans is a Free port.
This view was articulated several years later by another supporter of the Union: John Pendleton Kennedy. Kennedy, who had been a potential Republican vice presidential candidate in 1860, contended that pro-secession leaders in the South knew very well that the institution of slavery was not in danger from the North. In fact, the issue up to that point was not whether slavery could continue in the South, but whether it could be expanded beyond the states that already had slaves. They were using the perceived threat of abolition as an excuse to pry the Southern states loose from the Union for economic reasons:
It is the merest sham and make believe for any Southern man to pretend that the institution of slavery was ever brought into peril before this rebellion exposed it to the dangers that now surround it. I can hardly suppose that any man of sense in the South could believe otherwise than that a war, once provoked between the states, would be the only effective agency which could destroy or impair it against the will and without the cooperation of the Slave States themselves.
In other words, slavery was not endangered before the War. It was only endangered by the War. And note that this argument--that slavery was not the cause of the War--is a reason that reflects badly, not well on the South.
Why did states like Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas say they were seceding (at least in part) because of slavery? There's your answer.
Slavery may be said to be the cause of the rebellion only in the same sense in which we affirm that cotton and sugar are the cause of it, or that Southern character, habits, climate, and social life are the sources out of which it has sprung.
The people who quote official documents like the secession declarations have apparently never been around politicians much and who uncritically take what politicians say at face value, rather than with a grain of salt.

In one sense the secessionists in the South were the analogs to the abolitionists in the North: both were radical in their methods--although the abolitionists were at least right in their aims.

And once secession was accomplished, there was the matter of war. At that point, Constitutional issues came to the fore--and issues of simple state loyalty.

Lincoln said time and again that slavery was not the reason for the Union's invasion of the South. From his First Inaugural Address, before the War:
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no right to do so...
Add that to his very clear and unambiguous comments to Horace Greeley that it was Union, not slavery, that was his chief concern.

And, of course, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, it only applied to states and territories loyal to the Confederacy, not to any territories not loyal to it. It's chief objective was not the freedom of the slaves, but to excite insurrection in the South, which may be why, even after it was issues, if a state simply renounced its loyalty to the Confederacy, it could rejoin the Union--with its slaves.

In fact, if the War was about slavery, then why was slavery still common the Washington, D.C.--until the end of the War? And why was Lincoln's White House staffed by slaves? Why, at the beginning of the War, was the policy (supported by Lincoln because doing anything else would alienate the neutral slave-holding border states) to return slaves to their masters?

Oh, and the vice president of the Union, Andrew Johnson, had not only owned slaves, but advocated a state's right to allow slavery.

And then, of course, you have the matter of what the people fighting the War were actually fighting for. Were Southern officers and soldiers primarily fighting for slavery? And were Northern officers and soldiers primarily fighting against it?

If Ulysses S. Grant was fighting to free the slaves, then why did he have slaves--four his wife brought with her and one, William Jones, he himself owned and didn't free until 1859, less than two years before the start of the War? Grant himself came from an abolitionist family, but his own views on it seemed to be much more ambivalent. In fact, Grant ran a small plantation, White Haven, on which he worked with the five slaves owned by his family. The remaining slaves at White Haven, who apparently just walked off at some time during the War, weren't formally freed until 1865 by Missouri's Constitutional Convention, three years after the Confederate military leader Robert E. Lee freed the last of his slaves.

Grant even favored Stephen Douglas, who was for the expansion of slavery, against Lincoln who was against its expansion, in the election of 1860.

William Tecumseh Sherman was not an abolitionist before the war and did not believe in equal rights for Blacks. His views on Southern slavery mostly ran to thinking that it was a bad reason for a war, and he had a mild view of southern slavery:
I believe the practice of slavery in the South is the mildest and best regulated system of slavery in the world now or heretofore. (April 4, 1861)
Now although in his memoirs after the War, when he was hailed as a hero for freeing slaves as he marched to the sea and had this acquired reputation to keep up, he called slavery "the chief cause" of war, he was saying something very different before and during it.

From his correspondence at the time, here were Sherman's personal views on what Louisiana should do with its practice of slavery:
I would forbid the separation of families, letting the father, mother, and children, be sold together to one person, instead of each to the highest bidder. And, again, I would advise the repeal of the statute which enacted a severe penalty for even the owner to teach his slave to read and write...
Hardly a ringing endorsement of abolition.

Sherman even believed that the Constitution entitled masters to the ownership if their slaves, and one of his arguments with an old schoolboy friend who had joined the rebellion consisted of saying that his own act of separating himself from the United States and its Constitution undermined his right to own his slaves since it was the very Constitution that gave him the legal right to have them.

Again, not exactly an abolitionist position.

Then you had Southern leaders. What are we to make of the fact that Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were both opposed to secession before the War, but, once it had been effected, joined the South--not because of any opinions they had about slavery--but because of their loyalty to their states.

The South did not secede primarily to maintain slavery: it could have maintained slavery easily without the War--and it knew it, as did its Northern critics like Sherman and Kennedy. And the North did not invade the South because of slavery: even after the Emancipation Proclamation, Southern states could rejoin and keep their slaves.

The basic problem with the view that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War is that those who spout it read the changed atmosphere after the War onto the time leading up to the War. They were two very different cultural environments, which is why, when quotations are given from those participating in the Northern invasion of the South that seem to support the thesis that slavery was the primary cause of the War, they are almost always originate after the War, when it had become fashionable to say such things.

The the causes of the War should be derived from those things that were said before it--with proper attention to the motives that lay behind them.


SPWeston said...


This actual Southerner stands against you. There's no explaining the South economically, politically, culturally, or religiously without slavery at the center. There was no explaining in 1860, there was no explaining in 1960, and there's no expaining in 2010. I urge you to read the following out loud and to a child whose respect you want:

Do it, and you'll still be able to see the political theory that defends the right to secede--but you won't be able to share it with joy any more.

Martin Cothran said...


I always hesitate to interfere with anyone's moralistic sermon, and I know that Yankees have this need to feel superior in the race relations department, but I'm wondering where you are getting the idea that I view the Southern act of secession with "joy."

I think I explained here that it was the political act of Southern hotheads (I should know--my family hails from South Carolina, where there are hotheads still in abundance) with ulterior motives. I even quoted to Northerners to make that point.

And I agree with the prewar Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, both of whom thought secession was a bad idea.

I'm also wondering who these "actual Southerners" were who were fighting to keep slaves. Was it the vast majority of Southerners who owned no slaves? These people were laying their lives down so the rich plantation owners could keep their slaves? Can we contrast these people with Northerners, most of whom were not abolitionists?

I also think slavery was an evil institution, which, as I have said before, probably would have been gone in another 50 years anyway--and without the violent deaths of 680,000 people (not counting those who died from deprivation after the war). And the avoidance of war would have had the extra added benefit of not providing an excuse for Gen. Sherman to pioneer modern terror tactics that intentionally targeted civilians that were then taken by European military minds and implemented on a vast scale.

I realize that the modern liberal moralistic mindset nourishes itself on a black and white view of history (North, good; South, bad). We Southerners (as Faulkner once pointed out) know are sins and still live with their consequences.

It must be nice to be a Northerner who, by the sheer revision of history, doesn't have to live with his.

SPWeston said...

Martin, honey child,

Wherever did you get the idea that I'm a northerner? I'm one-quarter Swedish immigrant stock, and all the rest of me is deep, deep South with flecks of the Georgia mountains.

My mother grew up in a house that displayed the Stars and Bars (the genuine article, not the Battle Flag).

My father's family had to discuss, as late as 1978, whether it was acceptable to bury one of my cousins in a "Yankee cemetery." The answer from my uncle was "I served in the Yankee Army."

My mother sang "Dixie" to me as a lullaby in the very early 1960s and then somehow in late 1963, she stopped.

I sang the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Amazing Grace" to mine, and taught them that "indivisible" is as non-negotiable as any word in the Pledge of Allegiance.

I know you were just enjoying making the argument, not really arguing that you wish the Union had been sundered. The belief that white Southerners can describe our cultural heritage in a way that stands clean of the monstrosity of slavery is a childhood wish we are both old enough to put aside.

Martin Cothran said...


"Honey child"? I'll have to say, that is a first on this blog--and certainly an improvement on some other names I have been called. In fact, it sounds like something Uncle Remus might say. You do know of Uncle Remus, I assume? Have you read Uncle Remus?

You say:

The belief that white Southerners can describe our cultural heritage in a way that stands clean of the monstrosity of slavery is a childhood wish we are both old enough to put aside.

Again, I realize this discussion isn't really about the cause of the Civil War, but about feeling that we occupy the moral high ground--an end which is more effectively accomplished by those who view Southern culture with disdain if they can convince themselves that the North's motives toward Blacks were pure as the driven snow when, in fact, they were not.

This is why, I think, instead of addressing my arguments, you just keep making high-minded proclamations about the evils of slavery, evils I have always acknowledged.

You appear to think that the fact that slavery is evil is a sufficient argument to show that the War was primarily about slavery. I realize logic takes a back seat when someone is engaged in moral sloganeering, but it would be nice if, at some point in this discussion you could explain why, before and in the early part of the war, there was little evidence that slavery was the chief issue between the sections.

So far, you haven't even attempted it.

SPWeston said...

I've read Uncle Remus, and you've read the second sentence of my original comment. You understood it, too.

Martin Cothran said...


Your comment was:

There's no explaining the South economically, politically, culturally, or religiously without slavery at the center.

That is an assertion, not an argument, and still does not address my arguments.

In addition, could the same thing be said of the colonial America?

SPWeston said...


I repeat that you already understand my contention.

For other readers, I will state it in the long form:

• The South's economic development had been deeply shaped by its commitment to chattel slavery in its plantation form, such that its economic concerns in 1860 were inextricable from slavery.

• The South's politics had been organized around defending that form of slavery and that form of agriculture.

• The South's high culture, from clothing and food to architecture and education, had taken a form enabled by slave-owning.

• The South's religious tradition had been shaped by systematically driving out those revival preachers who thought Christian brotherhood and Christ's own love incompatible with slavery in general and/or the specific family-destroying, body-breaking practices found in the South at the time.

All of which adds up to every version of the South's justification for secession was inescapably entangled with slaveholding.

Being a Southerner, I don't give as much energy to understanding other regions' sins as I give to understanding those of my own kinfolk--and I do mean literal kinfolk, including people who rocked me as a baby and including second cousins still running large agricultural enterprises on land we stole from Presbyterian Creeks in the 1830s.

Seeker said...

Yes you are right, slavery was not the cause of the civil war.

We have clear proof of that, because the Southern leaders issued Ultimatums just before the war, telling exactly what the issue was.

Southern newspapers announced the Ultimatums in their newspapers loudly and proudly. For example, the Richmond Enquirer, March 23 1861 called the Ultimatums "THE TRUE ISSUE".

The South had every right -- and duty -- to issue their Ultimatums. And the Southern newspapers were rightly proud to announce them.

What were the Five Ultimatums?

All five were about the SPREAD of slavery -- by violence. By force. Against the will of the people, and against the rights of states to stop it.

Seeker said...

There have been very good cases made that slavery had nothing to do with the civil war, other very good cases that slavery was only marginally involved.

But not using the facts. The "cases" were entirely or partially fiction.

Because Southern leaders THEMSELVES, speaking very clearly, and repeatedly, said the war was about the SPREAD of slavery. Not just slavery, but the SPREAD of it.

RIghtly or wrongly, SOuthern leaders felt they had every right to spread slavery -- by force if need be. Slavery, after all, was the will of God Almighty.

Plus, Southern leaders saw the expansion of slavery as life and death issue - literally. Toombs said "EXPAND OR PERISH". The governor of Florida said just stopping the spread of slavery "was like burning us to death".

The hyper abundance of slaves was a very real danger -- everyone remembered what happened in Haiti, just as we remember what happened in Vietnam. When slaves had become more numerous than whites -- and it was headed that way in many areas in the South -- slaves could rebel, and it would be a blood bath.

So it was not just to expand slavery for the money -- it was much deeper than that. It was a life and death issue.

And the South said so. Over and over.

Check out your own Ultimatums. Your own documents. Your own speeches. Your own books. Your own newspapers.

Red Shoes said...

I'm very late to this hunt, but one has to remember that there were slaves in the North during the War... one needs to read the Emancipation Proclamation to see that it offered any state that had seceded the opportunity to keep their slaves and return to the Union... furthermore the Emancipation Proclamation does not mention Northern slaves.

The Morrill Tariff Act... which levied an even greater amount of taxes upon the South...the Corwin Amendment... plus the general consensus that it was believed that slavery at that time had a remaining life of about ten years.

I have great difficulty believing that the war was fought entirely over the ideology of slavery.

Anyway... what's that old expression?? Something along the lines of not letting facts get in the way of a good story...