I Was Wrong…

…the American Civil War was not about states’ rights, but about the South’s desire to keep slaves.

As you may be aware, I take a bit of pride in my knowledge of U.S. history, especially in knowing more than most ‘real’ Americans.  Getting a perfect score on my AP US History exam in high school, and my Mother teaching me thirty or so American songs like the Caisson Song, Goober Peas, and all 6 verses of When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, guaranteed me deep insight and a place in respectable society.

Seriously, before a week ago I thought that the Civil War is more aptly called the War of Northern Aggression and that, instead of slavery, it was really about states’ rights.  My Uncle, a retired Virginia State trooper, explains that throughout our history, the United States has generally encouraged the liberation of peoples rebelling in favor of self-rule, but only when they rebel in other countries.  Good point.  And, after all, as my friends and old neighbors in Atlanta, Georgia might point out, the South did not invade the North; they would have been happy to leave the North alone.  The North were invaders and then occupiers.  They could not stomach peaceful secession.

Also, I thought that slavery, rather than being the reason for war, was merely the catalyst for it; it could have been any number of other issues that would have challenged the Constitution’s lack of clarity on whether or not a state was allowed to secede from the Union.  The incidental issue of abolition, though morally upright, happened to be what the North was trying to ram down southern throats.

So I have held my nose up at those simple-minded people who read today’s morality into the motivation of the North—who don’t really know history.  Most Unionists were as racist as most Southerners, and still are.  Yet, while I still think there is good reason to call the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression,” I no longer think the war was really about states’ rights for three reasons.

First, in the compromise of 1850, the North sought and passed a provision guaranteeing that the North would help return slaves discovered in its territories.  This amounted to free states, that had passed laws banning slavery, who thought slavery was wrong, being forced to abide by the rules of another State that they strongly disagreed with.

(This also had the effect of generating a backlash of anti-slavery sentiment among Northerners who, though racist and quite willing to allow the institution of slavery to exist if out of sight, were not comfortable with the immorality that was being paraded in front of them.  I see striking similarities to the spread of pro-LGBT laws in America, which could cause a backlash if imposed on populations not yet ready it.)

Secondly, the South was unwilling to allow new states to decide for themselves, when entering the Union, whether they would be slave or free.  Because of the even balance of power in the Senate, slave states pushed the United States to mandate some territories to become slave states, even if they did not necessarily want to be.  At the time, the South argued that this did not violate states’ rights because a territory is not yet a state, but that is misguided for two reasons.  First, after a territory becomes a state, it would then need to acquire the rights of a state, which should include the power to decide whether it wants to change to a slave or free state.  Secondly, at the core of the ideology of states’ rights is the principle of self-rule—it should not matter if the area is a territory or a state, they still should have the right to self-determination.  This was violated in many ways.

In the Missouri Compromise, all land below the 36°30’ parallel (southern border of Missouri) was guaranteed to become slave states.  Because of this, efforts were made to annex foreign land and make them slave states.  Unsuccessful plans included annexing Cuba & Nicaragua.  Successful plans include the Mexican War, which was fought in large part by James K. Polk as a land-grab, not just for the United States, but for the slave-holding South.  Finally, the South wanted Kansas, when it joined the Union, to become a slave state, though in main its people did not want slavery.  Eventually it would become a free-state, but only after wrangling in Congress, bloodshed (150 killed or injured), and a raft of Missourians coming over the state line to vote illegally for pro-slavery constitutions.  Of course, this also broke the South’s compromise with the North: Kansas was above the 36° 30’ parallel.

What drives this point home for me, that the South was not really interested in States’ Rights, is that the Democrats, the only truly national political party at the time, with deep roots in the South and pro-slavery policies, tried desperately to hold together a national coalition by appealing to self-determinination: a middle ground which guaranteed the rights of states and territories to decide for themselves.  Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic nominee in 1860, was fighting for states’ rights.  But the South would not have it.  So, while 14 out of 15 slave states had voted Democrat in 1856, Douglas only got one in 1860.  Instead, Southerners opted for John C. Breckenridge, a pro-slavery candidate, who won 11 out of 15 slave states.  But Lincoln swept the North and became president.

The final reason why the Civil War was not really about states’ rights has to do with the South’s reaction to Lincoln’s victory.  What must be understood is that, since George Washington, only moderate and pro-slavery presidents had been elected. In fact, of the 15 presidents before Lincoln, five did not own slaves and 10 did, most of them Virginians and southerners.  Of those 10, eight owned slaves while they served as president.  Of the five who never owned slaves, two were John Adams, a practical moderate, and his son, John Quincy, who was powerless.  The other three directly preceded Lincoln: Buchanan (Dem), Fillmore (Dem), and Pierce (Whig).  They were picked in large part because of their acceptance of slavery.  (Source cited by factcheck.org is here.)

In other words, for years, abolitionists had been losing elections and accepting them anyway.  This, after all, is the essence of democracy.  But, when the abolitionists had won, the South could not accept the outcome.  They did not wait for their cherished states’ rights to actually get trampled on.  Seven states seceded before Lincoln even took office.

Ironically, Lincoln was a clear-eyed pragmatist who would have probably been quite reasonable and measured in his policies.  His Emancipation Proclamation is rightly understood as a war measure, meant to weaken the economy of states that were in rebellion, and to muzzle any possibility of France or England, both having already abolished slavery, coming to the aid of the confederacy.  Also, the Proclamation did not free slaves in Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware, and specifically excluded numerous counties in some other states.  Lincoln did this so as to not push border states to join the Confederate cause.  As a result, some of these states did not ban slavery until they ratified the 13th amendment over three years later—6 months after the war was over.  This points to the likelihood that while Abraham would have certainly applied pressure with an aim to end slavery, he was not prone towards ideological or drastic measures.  But the south took their marbles and went home, before their states’ rights were even infringed on, but after it was clear that their power in the federal government to protect the institution of slavery was waning.

After listening to about 30 lectures detailing the first 80 years of American History (6 part Heritage Series), it is difficult for me to see this era as being dominated by a burgeoning crisis of states’ rights—of the majority of states forcing their will on the few.  Rather, we are witnessing, primarily in the South, increased racism, increased dependence on slavery, and increased fear that necessitated the preservation of their power so that they could continue and spread the institution of slavery.

But of course, “the American Civil War was about the South’s desire to keep slaves” is a sweeping historical statement.  There were many other factors involved, economic and otherwise.  In the end, it is probably only mostly true—I’d say about three fifths.

About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

14 responses to “I Was Wrong…

  • Ben Lipscomb

    I miss having you around, too, Jer. Though it sounds like you’re having a delightful time in Sri Lanka. (There was a piece in the NY Times today, by the way, about whale populations off the Sri Lankan coast. You might find it interesting: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/03/science/traffic-in-sri-lankas-waters-threatens-blue-whales.html?hp.)

    A clarification on Kansas: I didn’t intend my comment to bear on the question of states-rights-versus-slavery. It was a standalone remark. The way the Kansas vote played out is, as you say, an excellent illustration of your main thesis: how much everybody was focused on slavery, whatever daughters-of-the-confederacy types sometimes say to the contrary. And you’re right about the late, and illegal, rush of Missourians into Kansas. The abolitionist migration came from elsewhere, and (if I’m understanding rightly) a little earlier in the process. I only wanted to note that *both* abolitionists and pro-slavery types (correctly perceiving the strategic importance of the vote) worked hard to get the vote to come out “right.” And not just by campaign literature!

    One last thing that seems worth saying: I was wrong about this for a while, too.

  • Jer Clifton

    Ben, in sum, I miss you and chatting with you.

    As far as making the time to listen to lectures, I am amazed how much time I manage to find in commuting, traveling, folding laundry, etc., but I think it helps not to have kids to be managing ; )

    As for Kansas, I would push back on you a little bit. My understanding was that a great many people came from slave-holding Missouri in particular. Also, even if both sides transgressed equally in trampling on the rights of Kansas, the North did not fight a war about states’ rights.

    I think you put this brilliantly: “So was the was about states’ rights instead of slavery? As you so persuasively argue: no way. Was it about slavery instead of states’ rights? That’s closer to the truth, but threatens to obscure the *psychology* of the conflict…” It sounds like we are in solid agreement. I totally agree with this and your list of statements.

    Also might be worth mentioning about the South’s psychology: John Brown’s bloody uncompromising position scared the South: they thought all abolitionists, even all Northerners, were as dogmatic.

    I hope life is going well. Thank you so much for commenting.

  • Ben Lipscomb

    Helpful analysis, Jer. (I meant to comment, and compliment, last week, and forgot!) I admire (envy?) you the time you’ve found for these lectures. Two quibbles: first, both sides–very sensibly, from an amorally pragmatic point of view–rushed people into Kansas in advance of the big vote. And second, a quibble about framing (one you implicitly accept already, in your closing comments): it isn’t either-or. The following sets of statements are complementary: 1. The south was concerned with what it correctly perceived as a medium-term political threat to its economy. 2. That economy being massively dependent on slavery. 1. The south was on a path to being outvoted on any question where their perceived interests diverged from those of the north. 2. These divergent perceived interests were all mixed up with slavery. 1. The conflict between north and south manifested itself in ways that could conceivably be understood separately from slavery (e.g., tariff controversies of the 1830s), but 2. they weren’t ultimately and in fact separable from slavery. 1. The north produced its own manufactured goods, while the south imported its, setting them against one another on protectionism. 2. Can we understand the agriculturally dominated economy of the south apart from its peculiar institution? No.

    So was the was about states’ rights instead of slavery? As you so persuasively argue: no way. Was it about slavery instead of states’ rights? That’s closer to the truth, but threatens to obscure the *psychology* of the conflict: how the cultures of north and south diverged in the early 1800s (in ways, yes again, that had everything to do with slavery) so that the immediate impetus to conflict (on the part of many southerners) could be a sense of procedural unfairness and team loyalty. “THEY always get their way, and THEY don’t care in the least about us, and THEY compound it by making out that THEY’RE so morally superior.” Well, the position of northern abolitionists was morally superior. But as you helpfully suggest, with your remarks about backlash (though you’re talking about the north), it breeds resentment to be treated with contempt. I don’t know that there was another path available to northerners, that wouldn’t have seemed contemptuous. But I think this can help us get inside their heads. Moreso than simply calling them “bad people,” as Whit does.

    They’re like us. By which I mean to highlight a moral danger for us, not to excuse them.

  • Nathan

    I just noticed you Therefor Joy tab (rather Shannon noticed it). That is really cool and impressive. On an unrelated note, can you imagine if there were two countries occupying the land of the USA? What would it be like? How close would they be? At what point would the South have outlawed slavery? What would California be a part of?

    • Jer Clifton

      I’m not sure. I feel like there were many transplanted northerners in california. I feel like long term the south would have outlawed slavery on it’s own. Who knows? At that point there would, I”m sure would have been strong forces for reunification. On the other hand. The south, and the north, might have splintered off into even smaller groups and would have eventually been dominated by foreighn powers ; ) That would have been interesting.

      Glad to hear you guys saw the therefore joy page, my agent and I recently updated it. I think I’ll tweet it out at some point.

      • Benster

        You ever read any “alternate history” books such as those by Harry Turtledove? (He’s the most famous practitioner). He’s been on my “to-read” list for a while. He goes all the way into the 20th century with the “what-if-we-had-two-countries” hypothesis. Think I’m in about the same place as you on the whole Civil War causes debate–I used to see it as a tragic collision between two sincerely different political visions for the country (stronger states vs stronger federal gov’t) but the passion with which people defend the States’ Rights interpretation seems to belie their discomfort with having to explain away slavery’s role.
        Of course, states’ rights continues to rear its head as a red(-state?) herring for racially charged issues in the 20th century (Civil Rights–George Wallace, etc) and today–Arizona’s immigration bill. Keep the analysis coming, brother.

        • Jer Clifton

          Thanks Ben. I agree. I also agree that states rights is important, as I think most sensible people would, but it is easy to use process issues to skew the real issue that is getting people riled up. Thanks for commenting Ben!

  • Whit

    First; best title ever by the way. Keep those up. If you need any ideas, I’m here for ya.
    And your 3 fifth comment was divinely cheeky. You deserve some props for that.
    Which brings me to:
    Secondly: I’d like to raise the level of civility and discourse, and yes, yes you said it well yourself, but I don’t think it can be over stated enough; The South is a vile bag of morally dyslexic and diarrhetic hyenas.
    Like a 6/4 comment on weibo, slavery and the civil war has been white washed, re-imagineered and revisionilized by the South in order to sustain their arrogance, ignorance, and thin-skinned vanity.
    Seriously, go ask the good ol’people of the south what the civil war was about and most will tell you “States Right.” States Rights – end of conversation, end of nuance. These people also think Obamacare is socialism, Global Warming is non-sense and that it’s a reasonable position and possibility that our president was born in Kenya.
    ‘Northern Aggression’ syncs perfectly into The South’s whiny-victimhood narrative, which they pretend is a ‘Noble Southern Gentry Rebel with a Cause, Back Against The Wall Narrative.’ Acknowledging how unequivocally and despicably wrong they were about the Civil War (how all their ancestors fought on the evil side of a just war) simply cannot compute with their cultural identity; their sense of self and self-worth. So better cut and paste “Norther Aggression,” and “States Rights” into their history books lest their children one day wake up to the fact they are the decedents of bad people; that the tanners of the Bible Belt are the great-grandchildren of people who killed other human beings for fucking States Rights over fucking Human ones. I’m so sorry South Of 1861 that it’s no longer legal for you to rape certain races of woman, it’s such BS that another area of the continent is forcing that on your majority elected state government. Their blood boiled with passion that spilt over into a yell; fervent and hallowed yelps; at the thought somebody was going to stop them from being able to own another human being. That is evil; and a sure tell that you’re the devil’s play thing. So go fuck yourself south. The Confederate Army was the perfect incarnation of ‘the bad guys’ that most boys fantasies about righteously killing when they’re playing with sticks and galloping along side of King Arthur’s Court. And yes, perhaps they just know not what they do; but that spastic ignorant passion seems to still tremor just beneath the surface under every waving confederate flag. Southern Pride shuns introspection; for it would burst under the weight of it’s transgressions that it previously thought didn’t exist.
    Southern Pride -ha. Let us all scoff. Never before in the history of man has such jingoism been so inexplicable; hubris so undeserved, or cultural sinews so benighted.
    The south is a hyper sensitive all-star space cadet combination of Miller Lite, Alan Jackson, Copenhagen, public education, adolescent pride and Mountain Dew.
    If the citizenry of the south could even for a moment wake from their superciliousness trance they’d drop to their knees and thank their maker for the coastal elites who begrudgingly guild their destines like an agitated pro-bono dog sitter- jerking the leash of the unprincipled mutts that stubbornly insist on lagging behind the rest of humanity; blackening the eye of the country they claim to love more then the rest of us.

    I could write more, but I don’t want to go over the top 🙂
    Yes, so this was a bit much, I’m just trying to get you more hits Jeremy.
    But I do think that treating mid 19th centry America like it was having a State Right vs. Fed Rights squabble is disingenous, distracting, and has contributed to lingering racism.
    I just wish that the South’s posture was more like post-war Germany or Japan, instead of post season canceling Firefly fans.

    • Jer Clifton

      Wow. So much poetry and so much absurdity. You out-do yourself yet again. 🙂 Question: how many of those words did you have to look up in a dictionary? Your last line is especially precious…and spot on.

      One good point you make for sure is that the confederacy is an opponent that young boys of today dream of fighting. There were nearly 4 million slaves in 1860. And, in the same way that it is laudable that Germans today look upon WW2 with a sense of shame, it is troubling that the South looks upon the Civil War and cries “state’s rights.” Germany, after all, was horribly treated at Versailles by ancient enemies. It had some good reasons to be angry.

      • Whit

        It’s 2012 Jeremy, nobody looks shit up in dictionaries any more. I google the big words with my Android. No I’m kidding, I’m kidding, I have iPhone what am I poor

  • Linda Clifton-McCormick

    As for me, singing fun songs of our country’s heritage will always be more fun than sorting out the reasons for war..but kudos to you for doing so. I suggest now listening to or reading O’Reillys “Killing Lincoln” as a postlude to your recent self imposed US History course. It’s riveting!

  • Ben

    Could you link the Heritage Series you mention?

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