Sunday, August 22, 2010

What caused the Civil War?

Of late, I've been engaging in a discussion of the cause of the US Civil War on the blog Ashes of Our Fathers, in various threads. I've undertaken to respond to the latest points. My response is too long to be presented there; moreover, I'm increasingly uncomfortable with persistently disagreeing with the owner in his own public space; beyond a certain point, it strikes me as discourteous. As a result, I would like to present my points here.

On revisionism

Revisionism as to the causes of the Civil War seems to have begun the moment the guns were stacked at Appomattox Court House. Prior to that, Southerners had no problem proclaiming slavery, slavery, and slavery were their abiding concerns in starting the war and the sustaining cause for waging it for four years. When slavery was discredited and the blades of several amendments protruded from its corpse, only then did the Lost Cause retcon begin. To illustrate:

Jefferson Davis, 1860

“The South now is confronted by a common foe. The South should, by the instinct of self-preservation, be united. The recent declarations of the candidate and leaders of the Black Republican Party must suffice to convince many who have formerly doubted the purpose to attack the institution of slavery in the states. The undying opposition to slavery in the United States means war upon it, where it is, not where it is not. And the time is at hand when the great battle is to be fought between the defenders of the constitutional government and the votaries of mob rule, fanaticism, and anarchy.”

Jefferson Davis, 1882 (from The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government)

“Slavery was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident. Generally, Africans were born the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, and sold by heathen masters. They were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity... [Blacks had been] put to servitude, trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and civilization. They increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers. Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toiled blessed the land of their bode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachments secured faithful service. Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other. The tempter came, like the Serpent of Eden, and decoyed them with the magic word, freedom. He put arms in their hands and trained the humble but emotional natures to deeds of violence and bloodshed, and sent them out to devastate their benefactors.”

So which Jefferson Davis is to be believed? The one in 1860 with the hopeful sword in his hand, preparing to use it and telling us why, or the disenfranchised, paroled leader of a lost cause, looking for a warmer place in history for his legacy? The same question must be asked of any such about-face on the matter. (Note: and the oddest thing of all here is that, having just said slavery wasn't the issue, Davis then goes on to explain why, at least from his point of view, it actually was the issue...)

Revisionism on the matter of slavery as the primary and sustaining cause of the Civil War is not limited to the South. It is a common American theme. This is easy to understand. Who in the modern age wants his nationality allied to slavery, perhaps the most fundamental injustice of which we can conceive? How can it be that a land that struck for its freedom insisting “all men are created equal” could have legally denied that for the first 90 years of its existence, and essentially for another century beyond that?

In truth, it’s not even a uniquely American thing. Virtually every Western (by which at the time, we all understand we mean “white”) nation with a coast was complicit. How could the storied British Empire, whose inheritors proudly boast to one another and the world brought the rule and law and parliamentary democracy to its furthest corners, have sustained the fire triangle of intercolonial slavery for a century? How could the French have declared the Rights of Man in their revolution, only to be fighting to keep Haiti in chains within a decade? The collective guilt of many white people causes them to have a stake in elevating the intentions of the Southerners in the Civil War. And so, revisionism... the quest for any thread, however unlikely, to make Western civilization look more reasonable, and hide its blemishes. Hence “states’s rights”—which, when the sweet water is boiled away, yields again the sticky molasses of slavery, because what “right” are these states so (literally) up in arms about? Hence sectionalist, religious,  and economic theories that do not bear close scrutiny, because if they were correct, they would imply virtual unceasing civil war in any federation. But some simply must be deaf to the shouts of the Jefferson Davises on the warpath; they insist they, and we, can only hear and must only listen to their humble whispers as all around Reconstruction did its work of erecting a lofty edifice with, sadly, a foundation that quickly subsided, not be righted for a hundred years.

The truth rests in simply listening. Southerners on the lead-up to the war, as they seceded, had no qualms about declaring slavery as their impetus, in their declarations of secession, in several of their ordinances, in their urges to one another to action. They did so plainly, and even proudly. In so many words, they told the world they were seceding, and ultimately, going to war, so that the ownership and control of black people, by white people, for white people, shall not perish from the Earth.

A statement of principle: the Confederate Constitution

Objectivity is called into question here. And while it's true that any argument must be based on a presentation of facts that, itself, might be deemed subjective, it's also true that such facts can be cherry-picked, such as the opinions of this president or that general, or broadly-based, such as the sentiments of thousands of soldiers, or the public statements of legislatures speaking in concert, or the constitutions of entire nations. With a few indulgent exceptions (used with foreknowledge but either to counter points made previously or for good effect), I'll be depending upon the broad strokes.

I've mentioned previously that all four Declarations of Secession that exist make plain their basis in the defence of slavery. I've also pointed out that several of the Ordinances of Secession, where they give cause at all, make reference to slavery and its defence from Northern antipathy. But above all of these is the constitution of the Confederacy itself. This is where we can fairly look for a statement of common cause, the principles of a fledgling nationality: those things proclaimed and held in common by, eventually, eleven states, pledged to their maintenance by war.

Posterity is fortunate in that the Confederate Constitution is, by and large, a word-for-word lifting of the US Constitution, because this enables us to very easily spot the few changes the Confederates saw fit to make in it, and draw conclusions based on them as to what was fundamentally important to them in difference from the Union. Clearly, they were almost entirely satisfied with the document of 1787, and saw fit to alter it only in a few particulars. Clearly, then, these would have been the matters of great importance to them. We're also lucky in that someone (oddly enough, a Canadian; a young British Columbian) has set those differences into high relief for our consideration. And thus, where they are unique, the principles of the Confederacy, as opposed to the Union, shine through, and speak eloquently.

Advocates of the "states' rights" theory are disappointed. Of the storied federal excesses against which the South supposedly took up arms (as opposed to doing so in the defence of slavery, that is), none of these were removed or even altered in the Confederate Constitution. Most telling of all, the supremacy clause, which South Carolina took issue with the Nullification Crisis a generation before the war and which is the lynchpin of any argument purporting to place the rights of sovereign states as the sine qua non of the war, survives in the CSA Constitution intact and essentially verbatim, as do the other supposedly provocative clauses. In the height of irony, the Confederacy even maintained the right of the national government to raise troops against insurrections!

Incredibly, the Confederate Constitution stripped three rights from its states that they had previously enjoyed under the US Constitution. It did add four minor ones; one of these enabled states to levy taxes against the commerce of one another whenever it travelled through their waterways (a strange right indeed to add to the constitution of a land some would have us believe rose up in anger over sectionalist tariffs).

A handful of cosmetic changes are added that change the term and forbid the re-election of the president, and give him a line-item veto; there are other nips and tucks here and there. But where the Confederate Constitution really speaks most clearly are the four additions to it that entrench slavery immovably. Among other things, they forbid any law to be passed against slavery or to limit the ability of any Confederate slave-owner to move freely with his slaves within the nation, or for any state to be added to the Confederacy that did not have slavery as one of its institutions—there would never be a free state in the Confederacy, ever. Given how little else was changed in adapting the US Constitution to the Confederate version, one is hard-pressed to imaged these as work of a people for whom slavery was "a minor issue", and an institution they hoped and expected would fade away. No, these are the clearly the work of a people for whom it was a central pillar of society, and who intended it to be perpetual. A third of Southern families – 400,000 – were slave-holding by 1860. And virtually all the rest aspired to be. By 1860, slaves as property alone, ignoring their productivity, were worth $3 billion... $75 billion in today’s terms. As an asset, they were worth more than all of the manufacturing, railroads, and productive capacity of the antebellum United States combined. Little wonder those who held slaves meant to keep them, and those who did not yet would fight for the opportunity to do so... or that they would overhaul the United States Constitution to make this “asset” permanent.

The Confederate Constitution was ratified on March 11, 1861, exactly one week after the inauguration of President Lincoln, and just four months after his election. Among its original adopters was South Carolina, who, thus constitutionally pledged to the perpetuity of slavery, fired on Fort Sumter one month later and initiated the Civil War.

General Lee

Which brings us to General Lee. That Lee personally disapproved of slavery and himself owned no slaves are standard hymns in the chorus of those who hold the war was not about slavery. Lee was, of course, just one man; he was not a politician and neither was his career beholden to anyone for whom his personal opinions might have been offensive. But what we can note about the man are his actions in light of his convictions.

As noted, on March 11, 1861, the Confederacy ratified a constitution in which it and its members pledged themselves to the perpetuation of slavery. On April 17, Virginia seceded from the United States and joined the Confederacy on April 24, taking up that pledge itself.  Lee resigned from the United States Army on April 18, and accepted the command of Virginia's military on April 23. Subsequent to Virginia's joining the CSA, Lee accepted a five-star commission in the army of a Confederacy whose constitution made perpetual the slavery he supposedly disdained. Six hundred thousand were to die as he defended that principle at the head of the Army of Northern Virginia for four years. Whatever he may have thought of slavery, his principles on that score were not so important as the rights of his fellow white Southerners to maintain it, as far as he knew, forever. And that is bottom line on Robert E. Lee where slavery is concerned; actions speak far louder than words, especially in war.

It was not impossible for a Southerner to have higher principles and to act in accord with them. George Henry Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, was a Virginian who opposed slavery and stayed in the Union army after his state seceded (in the height of irony, J.E.B. Stuart hoped to see the man hanged as a traitor...!). This cost him his extended family, but the principle was there, and he stood by it.

Abraham Lincoln

If Thomas was a man ahead of his time, Abe Lincoln was a man of his time, at least in regard to his views on blacks as people. Lincoln was probably sincere in his stated views that black people were not his social equals; in this, he was like most other white people of the day. But what mattered to the South was his views on the institution of slavery. The equality of blacks was a moot point in the 1850s; how could there even be an intelligent discussion on the matter when the vast majority of them living in the United States were slaves? In practical terms, that would be a matter for presidents named Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. In 1860, the discussion was about the preservation of slavery, and whatever he thought of blacks as people, Lincoln was on record, in the wake of the Dred Scott decision, as opposed to slavery in his “house divided” speech. What Southerners in 1860 remembered was his insistence that slavery would either one day soon be everywhere “lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South”, or else—and clearly, this was the alternative he favoured—“ the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction”. The man who said this, therefore, did not even appear on the ballots of ten Southern states in the election of 1860. He won anyway. A month later, South Carolina seceded.

But what’s important about Lincoln for us was how his views changed over time. Granted that his views on blacks probably never quite matched the general view today, but still, he went from a man who was grudgingly content to see millions of his fellow Americans living in bondage due to their race in order not to disrupt the Union, to a man who, ultimately, acted to make slavery untenable in the United States after the war. He was a man who learned to value blacks as warriors (and thus—how could it be denied?—as citizens) and refused any suggestion they should be returned to a condition of slavery after the war, observing that he “should be damned in time and eternity” if he did so. In this, Lincoln reflected the general change in attitude in Northern troops who met slavery and slaves head on, and had their ideas changed (how, when, and to what extent have been researched and laid out by Chandra Manning in What This Cruel War Was Over). Those ideas took root, and even if it took a century, they did finally bear fruit in the United States. Abraham Lincoln himself personifies the evolution of thought on the matter in the US, and elsewhere; and his flaws, far from being fatal, give hope to progressives everywhere because of his ability to overcome them.

The Dred Scott decision: implications

It’s arguable that the Dred Scott decision of the US Supreme Court in 1857 made the Civil War an inevitability. In truth, it gave the North, not the South, the moral high ground where it came to defending states rights. For, as Lincoln pointed out, not only did it deny blacks (free or slave) citizenship in the United States and the rights thereof; not only did it overturn the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act doctrine of “popular sovereignty” by denying neither Congress nor any territorial government the right to legislate on slavery; but in granting jurisdiction over the slave, as property, to the originating state (obviously, a slave state), it effectively meant that a master could take his slaves anywhere in the United States and no free state had legal remedy. If Dred Scott was not free in Illinois, where slavery was forbidden by state law, what, then, did it even mean to be a “free” state? In light of this, Lincoln was not simply being hyperbolic when he observed the Union must become either all one thing, or all the other, and both Southerners and Northerners knew it.

Which it was to be was the question that prompted Southerners to secede when that very same Abraham Lincoln was elected president on the basis of Northern votes in the very next presidential election in the wake of the Dred Scott decision.


In researching my points for this debate over the past several weeks, I’ve become even more firmly convinced that slavery was the issue that caused and sustained the Civil War.

  • Southerners met and seceded (some by popular vote across the state) in the immediate aftermath of the election of Abraham Lincoln, a “Black Republican” with avowed anti-slavery sentiments, and had formed a new nation by the time of his inauguration. It was that sudden.
  • Southerners gave slavery and its defence as their motivation for secession in public declarations to the world, and firmly fixed the institution, in perpetuity, in the constitution their army defended for four years.
  • In myriad letters home, editorials, diaries, resolutions, and camp newspapers, Southern soldiers by the thousands confirmed again and again that they were fighting to preserve slavery: to have the opportunity to one day be wealthy slave-owners themselves; to maintain their superior and separate status as members of the white race; to prevent the race war and miscegenation they were convinced would come if they lost the institution of slavery (and the backing threat of legal violence it entailed); and to maintain a property base worth more than any other collective asset in the United States at the time other than the land itself.
  • And, sadly, the evidence of the Klan, segregation, and Jim Crow laws that followed in the wake of the war as proof that while slavery might have been destroyed, the underlying sentiment that established it in the first place was not, particularly (but not exclusively) in the former slave states; a division that persists in muted tones right up to the presidential election of 2008.

While I understand the urge to want to see the Civil War as something more akin to Gone With the Wind than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I feel this is a disservice to the men of the day and the issues they really said they fought for an against (to cheapen the principles of some and to attempt to rehabilitate others who would probably be offended by the idea they need rehabilitation); I also think it serves to blunt our sense of justice today in forgetting how far we (and not just the United States) have come; what we might accomplish in the future, and what we stand to lose if we forget. I’ve said before that I’m an atheist... I don’t deny that there’s a God; I simply am not convinced of the existence of one. So the finest thing I can say about the United States Civil War is that it’s one of a very small handful of things that even give me pause to wonder. For if ever there were a moment in history I could think to glimpse the hand of God at work, it would be in the awful penance the US suffered in those four years, and the glorious redemption of liberating armies washing a land clean, at last, of slavery. That is the real worth, value, and measure of the United States Civil War.


I’d like to recommend the online Yale University Civil War course by Professor David W. Blight, which I have been studying with rapt fascination. In particular, I would highlight the following lectures:

8) Dred Scott, Bleeding Kansas, and the Impending Crisis of the Union, 1855-58
9) John Brown's Holy War: Terrorist or Heroic Revolutionary?
10) The Election of 1860 and the Secession Crisis
11) Slavery and State Rights, Economies and Ways of Life: What Caused the Civil War? (N.B.: quote from Jefferson Davis at beginning of post can be found at the start of this lecture.)

1 comment:

Scott Palmer, Ph.D. said...


I admire all the thought and research you've put into this issue. Though I remain unpersuaded my some of your arguments, you have stated them well and adduced plenty of evidence in their support.

I would still urge three points for your consideration:

1. The secession of Confederate states and the American Civil War itself were separate events that might have had (as I believe they did have) separate causes.

2. All major historical events have multiple causes. To reduce them all to a single cause, whether states' rights or slavery, oversimplifies the reality. Such a single-cause view of history is more helpful for sermonizing than for scholarship.

3. Slavery was eliminated without bloodshed in many other countries, which suggests that the same would have happened in the United States. If so, then the Civil War was a needless exercise in bloodshed and destruction.