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What the Civil War Was About (Spoilers, it’s Slavery)

May 7, 2017

Last week, President Trump stated that he did not understand why the American Civil War could not have been worked out. Furthermore he stated that people do not often enough ask, why was the war fought. He is wrong. Unfortunately, he is not alone in his wrongness. Far too many Americans are unwilling or unable to accept the fact that the Civil War was, above all else, about slavery. Whatever reasons one brings up in an argument about the causes of the war, they all lead to the same place: slavery. State’s Rights? The states’ rights to what? Slaves. A clash of economic systems, between an industrialized North and an agrarian South? The South’s economy was based on slavery. A fight over tariffs? The South disliked tariffs because it was less industrialized, because of slavery. And this is not all ex post facto thinking, we know the war was about slavery because the people of the time said that it was about slavery. 

Alexander Stephens – Vice President of the Confederacy and voracious defender of slavery

The articles of secession for South Carolina clearly lay out that the reason for their leaving the Union was the failure of the Federal Government to protect slavery. Many of the other states that followed South Carolina’s lead also include slavery as their principle reason for abandoning the Union. However, the clearest statement of slavery as motivation comes from the Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens,

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [of Thomas Jefferson’s claim that all men are created equal]; 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. [1]

This speech  declared in no uncertain terms that the goal of the southern Confederacy was to be a slave-holding republic. To ignore this aspect of the Civil War is to ignore the racism that was present from the moment of that movement’s creation. It implies that the abolition of slavery that stemmed from the war was somehow separate from the struggle of Union. 

Abraham Lincoln (R) – 16th President of the United States giving his second inaugural address where he clearly laid out the cause of the Civil War: slavery.

If quotes like this are accessible then why does the myth that the Civil War was about anything other than slavery persist? I believe that the answer to this lies with the North. For the first two years of the war, the Union bent over backwards to say that the war was about anything other than slavery. This was done for three reasons. The first was that northerners, and especially northern Democrats, did not want to fight a war over slavery. Secondly, Lincoln wanted a way to preserve the Union. If the South had asked for terms in late 1861 or early 1862, it is possible that the war could have ended with the Union restored and slavery intact. With the Emancipation Proclamation this became impossible. Finally, Lincoln wanted to reassure the slave holding, but strategically important, border states of Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland that the government was waging war on secession, not slavery. These reasons were famously given form by Abraham Lincoln in a letter to Horace Greeley in August, 1862,

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. (Emphasis added) [2]

All of these reasons are true. None of these reasons change the fact that the Civil War was about slavery. Eventually the north would admit this fact as well. Lincoln’s objective in 1862 may have been Union, but by the time of his second inaugural address, slavery was identified as the cause of the war,

Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came. 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. [3]

The reason for this addition is also made in the same speech,

Yet, if God wills that it [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” [4]

The greatest and longest lasting result of the American Civil War was the abolition of slavery and the beginning of a national project to form the “more perfect Union” envisioned in the Constitution. The United States has yet to make good on the promises of racial equality, and denying the causes of the civil war does not help further that noble cause.


[1] “The Cornerstone Speech,” Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America: Savannah, Georgia, March 21, 1861.

[2] Letter from A. Lincoln to H. Greeley; August 22, 1862.

[3] Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Saturday, March 4, 1865.

[4] Ibid.


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