Yes, The Civil War Was About Slavery

[This is a repost of an article originally posted to Medium.com that I downloaded and deleted from that website when I made my departure from it. I repost it after having read John C. Wright’s “A Question for Neoconfederates“, which is an intriguing philosophical fork, but rather gives the Rebellious States too much credit for their motives. ]

Henry: …Methinks I could not die anywhere so contentented as in the king’s company — His cause being just and his quarrel honorable.

Will: That’s more than we know.

Bates: Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough if we are the king’s subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.

– Shakespeare, Henry V

There is a strange idea lurking about, unexamined, that a soldier is responsible for the cause he fights for. He isn’t. This might seem counterintuitive, but it isn’t wrong. Governments declare wars, and then call upon soldiers to fight them. Governments alone are responsible for the cause being just or not. Whatever anyone thinks of recent American wars in the Middle East, no one blames the soldiers, Marines, airmen, etc., who served in them.

Thus, when I prove the assertion of my headline, I intend no accusation of any soldier or officer of the Confederate States Army. The list of men who disliked the practice of chattel slavery, or even opposed secession, but who felt obligated to follow their state when it seceded from the Union is long, beginning with Robert E. Lee himself. The vast majority of southerners owned no slaves and the majority of Confederate soldiers were fighting for no other reason than war had come and the state they lived in was on one side of it. That is how war works.

Witness Jefferson Davis’ statement of resignation from the U.S. Senate when his home state of Mississippi announced its secession:

If I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation…I should still, under my theory of government, because of my allegiance to the State of which I am a citizen, have been bound by her actions.*

But because of that strange notion, there has been a desire to spare dishonor to those long-dead soldiers by pretending that the cause for which they fought was other than it was. The attempts to argue that the Civil War was prompted by Constitutionalism, by resistance to federal tyranny, are as old as the war itself. Jefferson Davis again in the same speech:

We but tread in the paths of our fathers when we proclaim our independence and take the hazard…not in hostility to others, not to injure any section of the country, not even fo our own pecuniary benefit, but from the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited, and which it is our duty to transmit unshorn to our children.*

So the claim has gone among neo-Confederates and others who would prefer that the whole ugly business about slavery not be mentioned. They were fighting, like the Founders before them, for their rights. What rights? Their high and solemn rights. Yes, but which ones in particular? Precisely which right was the Federal Government of the United States, in 1861, threatening?

One of the uses of the Declaration of Independence is that Thomas Jefferson et al. defined clearly what the Revolutionary War was about. Most Americans know the part about Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, but the bulk of the Declaration is a series of accusations made against the British government. 27 of them in fact. They mostly have to do with the interference with existing colonial governments and institutions, which were democratically controlled, by imperial bureaucracies and militaries, which were not. The accusation of tyranny by the British government becomes thus persuasive.

If only we had such a document to declare the motives of the Southern leaders.

As it turns out, we do. Several of them, in fact.

The link goes to a complete copy of the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, at the Avalon Project. This statement was issued December 24th, 1860. South Carolina was the first state to secede: ten others would follow, and they formed the Confederate States of America. You may read it in full and decide for yourself if my characterization is accurate.

The document begins with a brief history of American political compacts and argues — reasonably — for the sovereignty of the states who created the Constitution and alone imbued it with power. It points out that only nine states of the thirteen were required to ratify the Constitution, but that any state that did not due so was not bound by it, and that two former colonies that did not ratify it immediately and functioned as independent nations until they did.

The rhetorical goal is to establish the right of secession, both in principle, as the Founders did, and under existing American law and tradition. It’s a deft argument.

But back to the cause of this specific secession: what were the gentlemen of South Carolina driven to this precipice by? What high and solemn rights were being violated by the federal government?

The right to keep slaves:

We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

This is the whole of the complaint against the U.S. Government by the South Carolina Convention. Not taxation without representation, not interference with freedom of speech, or of the press, or of religion. Not the quartering of soldiers in homes during peacetime. Not any of the 27 complaints that the Founders made against George III. Only this: that the government failed to enforce the rights of slaveowners to their slaves. Not that they interfered with the institution, mind: that they did not enforce it well enough.

No other complaint is listed. Read the document, if you doubt me. Given the nature of this document, it follows that they had no other complaint.

Secession happened because of slavery; it did not happen for any other reason. You might think that perhaps, other states that seceded had other reasons. You may examine their ordinances of secession as you will, but you will find the following:

  • Mississippi’s declaration focuses entirely on slavery and Northern hostility to slavery.
  • Florida simply secedes without mention of cause.
  • Alabama declares the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to be “avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama, preceded by many and dangerous infractions of the constitution of the United States by many of the States and people of the Northern section”, which seems largely an echo of South Carolina and Mississippi.
  • Georgia goes into more detail than Alabama denounces the Republican Party as a purely anti-slavery party, and giving a brief history of it. It then echoes South Carolina’s complaint about failure to enforce slavery.
  • Louisiana simply secedes without mention of cause.
  • Texas echoes the complaints of South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia, stating that Texas was admitted to the union as a slave-holding state. It also accuses northerners of direct interference with the practice of slavery, by theft of slaves and violence against Southerners in the course of same.

After this, no further states succeed until Ft. Sumter is fired upon, so the Civil War has already broken out:

  • Virginia mentions briefly “the oppression of the Southern slave-holding states” but goes into no further detail.
  • Arkansas objects to the conduct of the War by the Federal government. It does not mention slavery.
  • North Carolina simply secedes without mention of cause.
  • Tennessee simply secedes without mention of cause.

With the exception of Arkansas, who condemned the war that secession has caused, there is no cause mentioned by any of the Confederate States of America, impelling them to secession, other than slavery. It follows, then, that secession was caused by slavery.

And the war was caused by secession. A grand fount of sophistry attempts to argue here that the secession of the various states was owed recognition by the U.S. Government from the moment of their enactment. These often reside in some manner of an appeal to Constitutional liberty, despite no provision in the Constitution requiring any such thing of the Congress, President, or Supreme Court. Secession literally doesn’t exist in the Constitution of the United States. It has nothing to say on the subject.

Which might mean that states are free, under Jeffersonian principle, to secede anyway, and take their chances, as the Founders did. But that means that the federal government is likewise free to not recognize any such secession, and to treat as traitors and insurrectionists those who do violence to the government under claim of such secession. Which is precisely what happened. The Founders knew that secession from Great Britain meant continued war and possible traitors’ deaths. Jefferson Davis knew it, too:

I glory in Mississippi’s star! But before I would see it dishonored I would tear it from its place, to be set on the perilous ridge of battle as a sign around which her bravest and best shall meet at the harvest home of death.*

The only alternative to connecting war with secession is to argue that the Northern States and the Republican Party were planning on abolishing slavery and using military force to enforce this even if the southern states had not seceded. Such a statement is bluntly, absurd. There is nothing in the 1860 Republican party platform, for example, to suggest that they intended any such thing. It speaks only that slavery should not exist where its state laws do not permit it, that it should not be extended to any new territories, and that the slave trade should not be reopened.

No slavery, no secession. No secession, no war. It’s precisely that simple.

Hence, the war was about slavery. Arguments about federal tyranny and states’ rights are entirely overblown, and in any case revolve entirely around the issue of slavery. There was no other issue that the Southerners mentioned. None.

This will discomfit those who would prefer to believe that their ancestors and ancestral heros were not fighting for a bad cause. But we need not smear men who believed themselves fighting for their homes and families. We need not judge them at all. They risked their all, and many did not return from that harvest home of death. And in any case, they have all gone on to whatever reward awaits them.

But we need not refrain from naming a bad cause a bad cause, or condemning those who led their people to butchery because of it. The fire-eaters who signed their declarations have a great deal to answer for.

Will: But if the cause be not good, the king himself have a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall joine together at the latter day and cry all, “We died at such a place;” some swearing; some crying for a surgeon; some upon their wives left poor behind them; some upon the debts they owe; some upon their children rawly left. I am afeared that there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? Now if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

-Henry V

*Quotations of Jefferson Davis’ speech of resignation from the Senate are found in Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville, Random House, 1986, pg. 5


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