…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.