The Civil War Was About Enslaving Black People

[This month marks the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, so I offer this post from the archives to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the United States.]


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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16 Responses to The Civil War Was About Enslaving Black People

  1. Pastor Bob says:

    The premise of your posting falls into the “ALL or NOTHING” that has dominated much of our modern thought. It was not ALL about any one issue, but none of them can be discarded either. Slavery was an issue burning behind all of these issues, but it was never strong enough until more factors came into play.

    At that time, allegiance to one’s state was considered higher than the calling to the country. There was also issues of cultural ideals that were magnified, the Northerners simply ‘could not or did not want to understand…’ these differences. Industrial vs agricultural was one that grew (validity in doubt, but why waste a good cause?)

    This was best shared by my college history teacher, whom I have loosely paraphrased above. A man who married a woman who was equal in education and training, both PhD candidates, both decedents of slaves.

  2. Pastor Bob says:

    The posting is an accurate historical summation form a legal perspective.
    Missing is the philosophical basis for much of the thinking by the non-legal people of the day.

    • Tim says:

      I didn’t lay it out as all or nothing; rather, this is an if-not-for-slavery argument. My main point, PB, is that without slavery there would not have been a war. This was a conflict delayed and deferred for almost a century, but was based on slavery first and foremost. No other issue of the day was as much a causal factor. Had slavery not existed, states’ rights never would have led to conflict.

  3. Pastor Bob says:

    This sure seems to lend weight to what I said:”Had slavery not existed, states’ rights never would have led to conflict.”
    Yet, the other “cultural issues” would have needed to be resolved, possibly (no doubt) without a war.

    Robert E. Lee, a non-slave owner made his decision based on allegiance to the state.

    • Tim says:

      And he was forced to make the choice because of slvery. It always comes back to slavery.

      • Pastor Bob says:

        We may have to agree to disagree on the importance of the causes.
        The Only Reason vs An Important Issue That Could Not be Ignored (any longer)

        Blessings my Brother….

        • Tim says:

          I never said it was the only reason. I am making a but-for causation rather than a sole causation argument. That is in line with calling it not only an important issue (as you do) but also recognizing that it was the most important issue.

  4. Loura Shares A Story says:

    I’m sorry Tim, but I am of PB’s mind too. The argument “but-for” or “if not for” slavery, only seems semantically different from the “only” or “all or nothing” arguments. Your argument is, that if it weren’t for slavery, the South would not have been interested in secession. I half-agree. The Southern states main gripe, was how much control/interference the federal gov’t had/should have. The Southern States were certainly trying to protect the institution of slavery through this complaint, but other issues were also at stake. This source provides some insight, as well as proving that each state had a varying degree of ranking the importance of slavery as a secession issue:

    Other issues going on at the time included exploitation of the South by Northern manufacturing, the interference and undermining of free states into (right or wrong) the economy (slavery) of slave states, loss of wealth, power, and culture, and especially sovereignty of the state vs. a powerful, central government.

    “But when push came to shove in 1832, it was not over slavery but tariffs. National tariffs were passed that protected Northern manufacturers but increased prices for manufactured goods purchased in the predominantly agricultural South, where the Tariff of 1828 was dubbed the “Tariff of Abominations.” The legislature of South Carolina declared the tariff acts of 1828 and 1832 were “unauthorized by the constitution of the United States” and voted them null, void and non-binding on the state.

    President Andrew Jackson responded with a Proclamation of Force, declaring, “I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one state, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.” (Emphasis is Jackson’s). Congress authorized Jackson to use military force if necessary to enforce the law (every Southern senator walked out in protest before the vote was taken). That proved unnecessary, as a compromise tariff was approved, and South Carolina rescinded its Nullification Ordinance.”

    Side note: I was fascinated to learn from this article that New England states had threatened to secede several times from the late 1700s.

    • Tim says:

      They might have been interested in secession, as some northern states were at times too, but my point is that no one went to war over such rights. It was only when the very foundation of the economy was threatened (by way of curtailing or abolishing slavery) that they went to war. Money was dependent on slavery and the slave/money issue led to war.

      • Loura Shares A Story says:

        I believe they did go to war over states’ rights. The underlying issue, propelled by the threat of abolition/economy, was the power of a central gov’t vs. individual states. At the end of the second article I cited, it said the South was actually considering gradual emancipation, but with the North reacting with tariffs, etc., the South took a hardline stance against abolition.

        The North didn’t go to war to free slaves, they went to war to keep the Southern states in the Union. It was a matter of legality: Did the Southern states have a legal right to secede?

  5. Good stuff Tim. I agree with the points you made and I do agree with you. Federal rights vs. states rights was the main conflict, but the root of that conflict was mainly slavery, as well as other issues. However, slavery was the major issue at play here. Another related topic that has always fascinated me is the belief anyone (state or federal) has the right to uphold an immoral law like owning a human being. Not to mention the fact it took nearly 100 years to grant those humans equal rights.

    • Tim says:

      The morality of slavery was hotly debated at the time (and still is in some quarters, unfortunately). 18th-19th Century people like Hannah More and William Wilberforce ably showed that slavery had no moral foundation to rest upon, either Biblically or socially.

  6. Opa Bear says:

    Coming from a home town that has the dubious distinction of being home of the last slave returned under the Dred Scott ruling, this is a deep and fascinating question for me. While there were definitely social issues that cut deeply (see, for the best exploration of the topic I know of, David Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed) what I’ve seen convinces me the economic question was paramount. In 1860, slavery was a going and growing concern – the value of slaves climbed during the preceding decade – and their aggregate value exceeded that of industry, including railroads, in the North. Take away the money that supports a way of life, and fallen men and women will fight and give any manner of justifications for their fighting. That being said, the situation of the Northern laborer was not that much better. Lincoln even spoke on this in one of his lesser-known speeches, and I would say that political freedom is not worth that much without economic freedom as well.

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