While a small and discredited minority of historians may still question slavery’s central war in the conflagration that was the Civil War, most historians, the vast majority and all of the serious ones, place the institution of slavery as the key reason for the war. Most people have vaguer notions if they have notion at all, but still tend to see slavery as central to the story (though what about slavery is a different question) of the war. That being said there are still redoubts of the Lost Cause and they are getting more attention than they deserve, including by this blog. If they weren’t so pernicious I’d ignore them, if they didn’t find echo in the Teabaggers and anti-immigrant brownshirts one could just laugh them off. But talk of ‘state’s rights’ has always been code for white rule in this country. It wasn’t just slavery and Jim Crow, in the 1830s it was evoked to to ignore the Supreme Court and remove the Cherokee, in current times it is proclaimed in enacting anti-immigrant laws. Etc. Etc.
The gala ball held recently to commemorate South Carolina’s slaveholders rebellion, the Sons of Confederate Veterans television ads peddling racially coded falsehoods wholesale, the kerfuffle over Virginia’s official declaration on the sesquicentennial, all these and many more even before we’ve reached Sumter’s anniversary opening the War in April, bodes poorly for the public discourse on the war. It is hard to dignify some of the characterizations of the causes of the US Civil War brought up by this week and the way they were largely handled by the mass media. The media’s shaky footing is a reflection of the continued myopia this country has on the War; on our history in general for that matter. The only question on the US citizenship test with two correct answers is ‘what was the cause of the Civil War?’ Both ‘slavery’ and ‘state’s rights’ are counted right. Wrong.
State’s rights? Southern elites had no problem with Dred Scott extending slavery’s writ to every state whether they liked it or not. State’s rights? Sure, the right to own and trade in slaves and the right of new states to as well. I’ll let James McPherson give the argument in the video below on the causes of the Civil War and how and why views on the causes changed over time. McPherson may have mellowed a little, but he remains invaluable. All of his books are worth finding and, unlike many of the best works on the period, available at your local library. Comrades who haven’t yet could do no better than to pick up McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom– perhaps the best single volume of history in the last 40 years- to read during the period of the anniversary.
While the meaning of the war has changed over time, history tells a damning story. I did a quick word search of the secession declarations of the Confederate States (not all issued declarations), including the one celebrated by the gala in Charleston this week (where’s the 54th Massachusetts when you need them?), for slave, slaveholding and slavery. While the Son of Confederate veterans may say different, the actual Confederates weren’t as shy. It was slavery folks. Yes, I know. It’s more complicated than that, but without slavery there is no Civil War. Lincoln famously said in the Second Inaugural of 1864:
‘One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.’
‘All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.‘ And from far less lofty, but no less reliable sources here are the secession declarations:
South Carolina, December 24th 1860, where slavery is mentioned 18 times is the most clear, secession happens because the slave-holding party lost control of the Federal government for the first time.
”On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States. The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.’
Mississippi, January 9th 1861: 8 times in a very short declaration.
‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.’ (pretty clear, that)
Florida, January 10th 1861: slavery is mentioned 14 times and among other choice quotes states:
‘A President has recently been elected, an obscure and illiterate man without experience in public affairs or any general reputation mainly if not exclusively on account of a settled and often proclaimed hostility to our institutions and a fixed purpose to abolish them. It is denied that it is the purpose of the party soon to enter into the possession of the powers of the Federal Government to abolish slavery by any direct legislative act. This has never been charged by any one. But it has been announced by all the leading men and presses of the party that the ultimate accomplishment of this result is its settled purpose and great central principle.’
Alabama, January 10th doesn’t issue a declaration but the Ordinance of Secession states (I’ll let the reader guess what the ‘domestic institutions’ mentioned are) :
‘Whereas, the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the offices of president and vice-president of the United States of America, by a sectional party, 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, is a political wrong of so insulting and manacing a character as to justify the people of the State of Alabama in the adoption of prompt and decided measures for their future peace and security’
Georgia, January 19th 1861:
Slavery is mentioned 33 times and opens with these lines: ‘The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slaveholding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery…’
…and from Texas on February 2nd 1861 where slavery is mentioned 14 times comes this nugget: ‘In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States. ‘
Straight from the source y’all. OK, over to McPherson.