Understanding the Civil War, Part 1

As some of you may know, April is often considered Civil War History Month, since fighting at Fort Sumter took place in April of 1861. (Interestingly, the only two people who died at Fort Sumter were killed when the Union Army botched a hundred gun salute.) So, I thought I would do a series of blog posts debunking the myths promoted by pro-Confederate individuals and organizations, articulating why the Confederate Flag should not be flown and Confederate soldiers should not be glorified, and explaining what I feel the significance of the Civil War to be in 2012. What you are about to read is the first blog post in this series.

Myth #1: The Civil War was not caused by slavery.

This myth can be broken into multiple parts. The first argument is the “states’ rights argument” that the South seceded because the North was forcing them to pay unfair taxes on imported goods. Let us first look at why some Southern secessionists, such as newspaper-owner Robert Rhett, cited the tariff issue as a reason to leave the union. First of all, the tariff was an economic blow to slavery. Because of its agricultural, slave-based economy, the South traded cotton with Europe in exchange for industrial goods. If imported goods were heavily taxed, the South could be forced to abandon slavery in favor of industrialization, in order to continue obtaining the industrial goods. Thus, the tariff was seen as a threat to slavery. John Calhoun, a proslavery South Carolinian who threatened to lead his state to secession in the 1830s ostensibly over a high tariff, wrote that, “I consider the Tariff, but as the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things. The truth can no longer be disguised, that the peculiar domestick institution of the Southern States, and the consequent direction, which that and her soil and climate have given to her industry, have placed them in regard to taxation and appropriations in opposite relation to the majority of the Union; against the danger of which, if there be no protective power in the reserved rights of the States, they must in the end be forced to rebel, or submit to have their permanent interests sacraficed, their domestick institutions subverted by Colonization and other schemes, and themselves & children reduced to wretchedness.” The terms “peculiar institution” and “domestic institutions” were acknowledged code words for slavery. Thus situated, the denial of the right of the State to interfere constitutionally in the last resort, more alarms the thinking, than all other causes.” Thus, Calhoun was stating that slavery had caused the South to be economically dominated by the North and that, as a result, Northerners could use the federal government to enact abolition. The term “colonization” referred to the plan that some Northerners proposed of ending slavery and resettling blacks in Africa. Additionally, with most Southerners not owning slaves, raising the issue of unjust taxation could appeal more to the region’s poor whites than promoting the war as a fight to preserve slavery. Second, a major reason that Britain and France were reluctant to aid the Confederacy, in spite of trading with them for cotton, was the fact that they knew that the European public would not support a war for slavery. Thus, deemphasizing the issue of slavery made strategic sense. That did not, however, stop Confederate leaders from generally citing the issue as their reason for secession. Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia all passed declarations of secession when they joined the Confederacy. The only issue that Mississippi and South Carolina referenced directly as a reason for secession was slavery. Texas’ Declaration of Secession was almost entirely about slavery, with the exception of one complaint about Northerners “having impoverished the slave-holding States by unequal and partial legislation, thereby enriching themselves by draining our substance.” The overall slavery-centered context of Texas’ tirade, however, as well as the use of term “slave-holding States” makes it apparent that Texans’ anger at this perceived injustice was largely due to seeing it as an attack on slavery. If alleged economic exploitation of the South by a supposedly Northern-controlled federal government was a major, distinct issue in causing Texas’ secession, one would think that it would get more attention in the state’s Declaration of Secession than one quick mention that also referenced slavery, in the middle of one big proslavery rant. Georgia’s declaration discussed other economic issues but made it clear that slavery was the reason for seceding with two quotes. First off, the declaration cites the prediction of Thomas Jefferson that federal restriction on the spread of slavery “would result in the dissolution of the Union. His prediction is now history.” The declaration concludes with the statement, “The people of Georgia have ever been willing to stand by this bargain, this contract; they have never sought to evade any of its obligations; they have never hitherto sought to establish any new government; they have struggled to maintain the ancient right of themselves and the human race through and by that Constitution. But they know the value of parchment rights in treacherous hands, and therefore they refuse to commit their own to the rulers whom the North offers us. Why? Because by their declared principles and policy they have outlawed $3,000,000,000 of our property in the common territories of the Union; put it under the ban of the Republic in the States where it exists and out of the protection of Federal law everywhere; because they give sanctuary to thieves and incendiaries who assail it to the whole extent of their power, in spite of their most solemn obligations and covenants; because their avowed purpose is to subvert our society and subject us not only to the loss of our property but the destruction of ourselves, our wives, and our children, and the desolation of our homes, our altars, and our firesides. To avoid these evils we resume the powers which our fathers delegated to the Government of the United States, and henceforth will seek new safeguards for our liberty, equality, security, and tranquillity.” Mississippi’s declaration is particularly tough to stomach, stating, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world…There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.” Both the president and vice president of the Confederacy cited slavery as the main reason for secession. Upon his resignation from the Senate, future Confederate president Jefferson Davis cited slavery as the reason for his decision to resign, saying that, “It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races…Had the Declaration announced that the negroes were free and equal, how was the Prince to be arraigned for stirring up insurrection among them? And how was this to be enumerated among the high crimes which caused the colonies to sever their connection with the mother country? When our Constitution was formed, the same idea was rendered more palpable, for there we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the footing of equality with white men–not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste, only to be represented in the numerical proportion of three fifths.” Less than two years earlier, Davis had articulated the reason for the North-South conflict by describing the antislavery movement and adding, “Thus it is that the peace of the Union is destroyed.” On March 21, 1861, Vice President Alexander Stephens gave a speech in Savannah about the new Confederate government. It is important to note that Stephens felt deep ambivalence toward slavery but still defended the system. If you read his speech, you can sense a bit of internal conflict as, doubtlessly in an attempt to assuage his conscience, he cites slavery as the “immediate cause” of secession. If taken to the letter, this could imply that Stephens saw slavery as part of a bigger issue. This interpretation, however, would only work if his speech ended there. He goes on to state that, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Thus, according to Stephens, slavery was not just a cause but rather the cause of the Southern states’ decision to secede. Finally, it would be wise to look at the Confederate Constitution. The document did prohibit the African slave trade, but this was for three reasons. First off, as I mentioned earlier, there was a strong desire by the Confederacy to placate Britain, something unlikely to be successful if the African slave trade was allowed. Second, the sanctimony of many slaveholders was actually offended by the African slave trade. The Confederate Constitution did, however, guarantee the “right” of white people to own black slaves anywhere under Confederate jurisdiction. So much for states’ rights. If you still believe that the South seceded over more than just slavery, you should stay tuned for Part 2. If you agree with me that slavery was the reason, you should still stay tuned for Part 2 in order to bolster your arguments.


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