The Civil War Was About Enslaving Black People

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.

Constitutional Compromises

The new Constitution contained many compromises, two of which are central to understanding how the States viewed slavery:

  1. 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).
  2. 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?

Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin Wikimedia

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.

Legislative Compromises

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:

    1. Allowed California to be admitted as a free state.
    2. Nullified the 36° 30’ rule of the 1820 Compromise.

1850 – Fugitive Slave Law is passed as part of the Compromise of 1850:

    1. Made non-slave states responsible for returning fugitive slaves.
    2. Authorized slave owners chase down fugitives who had fled to free states.
    3. 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.

Dred Scott Wikimedia

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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.

    1. Robert E. Lee leads the federal force that captures Brown.
    2. 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:

    1. Lincoln condemns secession but refuses to be the first to use force. He thought there was still room to compromise.
    2. South Carolina wants federal troops out of Fort Sumter.
    3. Lincoln sends food to the troops at Fort Sumter.
    4. South Carolina views this as an act of war and attacks Fort Sumter.
    5. Lincoln starts raising a 75,000 member army of volunteers.
    6. 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.


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37 Responses to The Civil War Was About Enslaving Black People

  1. Deanna says:

    Thanks Tim! I’ve always been bugged by the argument that the Civil War was about states’ rights. Besides the fact that it very clearly was primarily about slavery (as you demonstrated), viewing the war as a purely political power struggle minimizes its moral importance. It’s also the case that most people who put that argument forth usually have a more cynical view of Lincoln, who, in my opinion, is the best president in our history (or at least in the top three!)

    • Tim says:

      I think it’s that moral aspect that drove the conflict, Deanna. Bad morality (supporting slavery) can be as big a motivator as good morality (abolition).

  2. nmcdonal says:

    This is really helpful – I just saw a presentation on Lincoln Sunday night, and this very question was in my mind. I’d heard that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, and I was wondering if the presenter was skewing the facts to make it seem like it was. Just goes to show how quickly bad history travels – what’s the saying? A lie makes it half way round the world before the truth can get its pants on? Something like that.

    • Tim says:

      I would have liked to hear the reasoning behind the assertion it was primarily about states’ rights, Nick. Usually those arguments miss the point that without slavery the states would have found a way to work out their differences like they did with other cultural and economic issues. As Deanna said above, the fight against slavery had moral underpinnings. That’s what people were willing to fight for.

  3. Jeannie says:

    Thank you for this, Tim. My knowledge of American history is pretty abysmal, so I learned a great deal from your post. The part that stood out to me most was this: “1836 – Congress enacts gag rules forbidding debate on slavery in the Senate and House.”

  4. Greg Hahn says:

    Case closed! Excellent work Tim!

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Greg. You’d think this wouldn’t need to be said any longer, but apparently people are still dealing with the revisionists who want to teach alternate-history.

  5. lauradroege says:

    I’ve heard that argument about the war not being about slavery at several points in my life. I live in Alabama, and the people who usually trot out this argument are always white, usually really into states’ rights issues, and (oddly?) do Civil War re-enactments as a hobby. (They seem to think that there were “good” slave owners; ya know, the kind who only owned people and whipped them when it was “necessary” and really, honestly and truly, didn’t like slavery but were forced to be slave-owners because, um, they were wealthy and just HAD to own lots of land and make lots of money. Yeah, whatever. Years ago, I read this version of history in a particular Christian historical fiction series and was thoroughly disgusted, even as a junior higher.)

    When I took African-American Lit in grad school, our professor stated in the first class, “Let’s get this straight: the Civil War was about slavery.” In a class of twenty strong-minded, diverse graduate students, we couldn’t always agree about many topics, but we all agreed with that.

  6. I have long held an interest in slavery, which has been practiced in various forms around the world over the millennia. I have read books – the most recent being ‘Slave’ by Mende Nazer, about her escape from slavery to a Sudanese Arab family in the 1990s. It is truly shocking to consider that there are more people in slavery today than ever before. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, was quite remarkable in that he was one of the first abolitionists, and indeed the Quakers are/were the only Christian movement which sought to pay reparations to former slaves, sometimes bankrupting themselves in the process (isn’t it shocking that no other ‘Christian’ group did this?).

    William Wilberforce is a hero of mine – especially as he was a local lad (he grew up less than 50 miles from where I live) and a fellow Christian. I have a teatowel (of all things!) with a quote from him: ‘You may choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know’ (from a speech given to parliament in 1791). This quote seems particularly relevant when learning about 21st century issues too. It also seems rather to sum up your blog post. I don’t know much about Abraham Lincoln, so thank you.

    To go off on a tangent (and to set the cat among the pigeons) as someone studying for a degree in International Development, Environment and Statistics, I also would say that wherever we in the West are buying clothing made in sweatshops, or by children, or where a farmer is not paid enough to afford healthcare or to educate his children (i.e. ‘fair trade’), we are supporting a form of modern slavery. And where we knowingly abuse our environment, promoting climate change, we also do the same, because as the climate changes it is the poorest who will suffer most. Where we do nothing, we are culpable. God help us all.

    • Tim says:

      The modern day issues are all around us, as you say Sandy. Slavery continues to exist and even where it is not true slavery there is still oppression in the name of trade and economics interests.

      Have you ever read Uncle Tom’s Cabin? There’s quite a bit in it where Quakers are helping people escape slavery. I have a couple posts on the book here on the blog.

  7. lovelyvalady says:

    I express this to my students every time I teach about the Civil War. It was most definitely about slavery!

  8. lovelyvalady says:

    Reblogged this on More Than A Conqueror.

  9. I need to go find my 11th grade American History teacher and thank him for teaching history accurately. I’ve never doubted that the Civil War was about slavery. He taught that the economic feasibility of slavery probably would have died out without the cotton gin. What’s your view?

    • Tim says:

      Northern and southern economies were a lot closer to each other before the cotton gin made cotton king in the south. Without the economic incentive to continue enslaving people, I think it would have been easier to convince the south to give it up eventually.

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  13. jorymicah says:

    Truth, it was about slavery! I do think the root of the whole war was the love of money and slavery equaled money! They hated people and loved money!

  14. Allen says:

    Thanks for this. In the early 1980s I was the only African – American in my AP History. During a discussion about the Civil War, I stated that the cause was slavery. My teacher shamed me in front of the entire class by stating that I was wrong. He taught us “Lost Cause” and “states rights”. This was in Maryland. Only in the U.S. can the LOSERS write the history!

    • Tim says:

      How people can teach that as history with a straight face is beyond me, Allen. I’ve heard from friends that this is still happening in some states. Yikes.

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  17. Karen Smith says:

    My Texas family proudly traces our roots back to Roger Williams in Rhode Island, Stephen F. Austin’s first colony in Texas, and some-vague-distant-but-real relation to General Robert E. Lee.
    My ancestors died in this war, and my mother, to this day, calls it “The War of Northern Aggression.”

    I disagree, but when your family dies for something, confirmation bias is very, very real.

    Just a point of understanding.

    I’ve never joined the Daughters of the Confederacy, although being eligible is still an honor in wealthy white circles here.

    (BTW, I like being descended from Roger Williams!!)

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  19. purple kitti says:

    i was told both points, but i was under the impression that it was *started* for one reason which was quickly (and needfully) eclipsed by the issue of slavery, at which point the civil war DID become ‘about’ slavery!

    thinking it over now (haven’t read the blog yet, about to eat dinner and pass out for the night, got it bookmarked though), i’m not surprised that that was a lie. smh.

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