There are still people – in the north and the south – who will tell you the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. They are wrong. It was fought over slavery. Any other issue comes in a distant second.
Evidence of the centralism of slavery as a cause of the war is seen in the declarations of secession from States such as Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. A search for the word “slave” in those States’ declarations (on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, website) reveals 82 instances of “slave”, “slaves”, “slavery”, and “slave-holding” among the four declarations.
Preserving the right to enslave people was foremost in the hearts and minds of Confederate leadership.
What led up to that point, though? I’ve dusted off my notes from a talk on slavery and the Civil War and re-worked them here for you.
Slavery and Constitutional Compromise
The original colonies occasionally joined forces for mutual defense as early as the 1643, but it wasn’t until the First Continental Congress in 1774 and the advent of the Revolutionary War that they started to consider forming a governing union.
The 1781 Articles of Confederation provided a loose framework of government but the new States soon saw the need for a stronger central government and convened the Constitutional Convention in 1787. By 1789 all 13 states had ratified the Constitution.
The new Constitution contained many compromises, two of which are central to understanding how the States viewed slavery:
- Legislative representation – each State would have 2 senators (thus protecting the interests of less populous states, located mostly in the South); a state’s delegation to the House of Representatives, on the other hand, was based on its population (free persons, indentured persons, and 3/5 of the slaves in a State).
- Slavery – the constitution prohibited Congress from interfering with the slave trade until 1808.
Here a some questions for you to ponder about these compromises: Was it more important to abolish slavery, or fix the weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation? Why pick the year 1808 – did the politicians expect slavery to die out, or just want to let a later generation deal with it?
One reason for these compromises might have been that the country was relatively homogenous economically in 1787 and no one foresaw how diverse it would soon become. Just ten years later, though, an invention came along that would alter southern agriculture greatly: Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.
After 1808 the compromises resumed, this time through legislation rather than in the Constitution:
1820 – Missouri Compromise. Missouri would be allowed to enter the union as a slave state, but any new state north of 36° 30’ (the Mason-Dixon Line of 1763-67, demarcating Pennsylvania and Maryland) would be a non-slave state. Maine came in at the same time as a free state to keep the Senate balanced.
1820 – Congress declares the international slave trade to be piracy.
1833 – South Carolina first mentions secession as an answer to what it sees as undue interference by the federal government and the northern States.
1836 – Congress enacts gag rules forbidding debate on slavery in the Senate and House.
1839 – Representative John Quincy Adams (former President of the U.S., 1825-29) proposes gradual emancipation. The South rejects it out of hand.
1840s – The rise of radical abolitionism.
1848 – The U.S. adds the southwest and California to its western territories, which already included the Oregon Territory. The west became a new geographical section of American politics with its own economics distinct from both the northern and southern States.
1850 – Compromise of 1850:
- Allowed California to be admitted as a free state.
- Nullified the 36° 30’ rule of the 1820 Compromise.
1850 – Fugitive Slave Law is passed as part of the Compromise of 1850:
- Made non-slave states responsible for returning fugitive slaves.
- Authorized slave owners chase down fugitives who had fled to free states.
- Inadvertently allowed slavers to seize free African Americans in northern States and enslave them in the South.
1854 – Kansas-Nebraska Act allows each new state to choose whether to be slave or free regardless of where the state is located.
1854-58 – New residents flock to the Kansas Territory to influence its status as either slave or free, leading to such a high degree of violence between the factions that the territory earns the name Bleeding Kansas. Eventually admitted as a free state in January 1861.
1857 – The Supreme Court decides the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, concerning whether a slave becomes free upon entry into a state or territory where slavery is prohibited. Scott’s owner took him from Missouri (a slave state) into Illinois (where the state constitution prohibited slavery) and the Minnesota Territory (where federal law prohibited slavery), then back to Missouri. The Court decided in favor of slave owners, holding:
- Neither the federal government nor any State could cause a person to lose ownership of property simply by transporting the property from one state to another.
- African Americans (slave or free) were not citizens as defined in the Constitution so they did not have the same rights as citizens.
1859 – John Brown and a band of radical abolitionists raid the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Maryland.
- Robert E. Lee leads the federal force that captures Brown.
- Brown is tried and hanged. Many in the North see him as a martyr. Many in the South view him as a villain.
1860 – The only nations in the western hemisphere that still allow slavery are Brazil, Cuba, and the United States.
1860 – Lincoln wins the November presidential election without carrying a single southern State.
1860 – South Carolina secedes in December, the first of seven States to secede by Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861.
1861 – The Civil War begins:
- Lincoln condemns secession but refuses to be the first to use force. He thought there was still room to compromise.
- South Carolina wants federal troops out of Fort Sumter.
- Lincoln sends food to the troops at Fort Sumter.
- South Carolina views this as an act of war and attacks Fort Sumter.
- Lincoln starts raising a 75,000 member army of volunteers.
- Four more southern States secede from the union.
The Perils of Compromise
Would it have been better to abolish slavery from the start, even if it meant some states might not ratify the Constitution? Or were the delegates to the Constitutional Convention correct to give the new nation a chance to address slavery over time through the legislative process?
One way to consider these questions is to try to have in mind what the delegates knew at the time; in 1787 neither the north nor south were all that conducive to slave labor and it would likely become unsustainable economically.
Also, imagine what the country might have looked like if fewer than all 13 states ratified the Constitution; perhaps we would have not just two countries but three or more, any of which may have allowed slavery to continue far later than 1865, the year the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States.
In any case, don’t let anyone tell you the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. That’s all it was about, really.