May 7, 2005

The Civil War was not about Slavery

Well it was, kind of. The Civil war was about States Rights. In this case it was about whether or not the Whole of the United States had a right to dictate public policy about a moral issue -- slavery. At the time there was a general sense that slavery was wrong and that it should not be encouraged or spread. Slave trade and importation had been declared illegal some years before. For most slave owners, it was an economic issue. They viewed the situation as a farmer would today if you were declare that combines and tractors were illegal and took them away without compensation.

The prevalent view of the big plantation with hundreds of slaves is a farce. The vast majority of slave owners owned one or two slaves. In many cases these slaves lived and worked beside their owners. This was still wrong, but the notion that all the South was a big Tara is just not true. There were evil and bad masters who whipped the slaves. The separation of families did occur, but most owners had a significant amount of money tied up in their "property" and knew that a well fed, happy slave was a more efficient worker.

As new territories were added to the union the slave states saw the beginning of the end. They knew eventually the industrial North and small farmers in the plains and Midwest would overwhelmingly reject slavery. These individuals had no need (or money for) slaves like the labor-intensive cotton and indigo farms of the south.

The issue was, and I repeat myself, did the WHOLE OF THE UNITED STATES have the right to dictate to the individual state? In today's terms, does California have a right to insist its onerous gun control laws or air standards be forced upon the rest of us? The burning question of the day concerned the make up of the collection of states. Should the union be a loose confederacy held together for common defense and economic strength? Should the union be a strong central government where the individual states were concerned with local issues? These are the same questions we face today. The EU will wrestle with this for years to come. Before the Civil War there is little doubt that the union was a loose confederacy. The common man owed his allegiance and identified more with his state.

By the middle of the 19th century there was a change in this attitude. Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, the states formed from the Northwest Territories were all populated from the original colonies. Many families moved west several times in search of better land and way of life. Lincoln was born in Kentucky, spent his boyhood in Indiana, and finally moved to Illinois. His example is not unusual. These pioneers did not have the same loyalty to the state as the original colonists. A soldier from Virginia or New York would say they were fighting for Virginia etc. A soldier form Illinois or Iowa would have said he was fighting for the Union.

Thus the Civil war was not about slavery. It was about the future of the Union and its make up. It was about States Rights and the Union as a whole. The majority of Southerners did not own slaves (less than 20% did). Their position was that no outsider from (name your state) was going to tell him what to do. For the average Union soldier the issue was preserving the union, they view the war as a rebellion, not a revolution. The War changed forever the view of the Federal Government and fostered enmity and anger for a generation after the end of fighting. In many ways the fight continues to this day. The role Lincoln played in this, I will address in the next post.


Anonymous said...

I have to respectably disagree. The main cause of succession was the election of Lincoln without a single vote from the southern electoral colleges. That led the "fire-eaters"(radical slave masters) to the conclusion that they will not be able to expand slavery into the territories. The expansion of slavery into the territories was crucial to the south to keep a balance of free and slave states in the Senate, and now that they saw that under Lincoln expansion of slavery was improbable, Deep South states succeeded from the Union. Following were four of the Upper South states of Virginia, Tennessee, north Carolin, and Arkansas that also succeeded, causing the Civil war. The war was essentially about slavery and protecting white supremacy, and if you don't believe me look South Carolina's succession documents.

Anonymous said...

It never ceases to amaze me that people keep bringing up the issue of how slaves were often treated "decently, almost like family members". Never was there a more irrelevant idea. Slavery is a horrific evil simply because it robs the slave of his freedom. End of story. Any apology or attempt to mitigate this evil reality misses the basic point. The inevitability of the Civil War was baked into the Declaration of Independance and the Constitution because of the unwillingness of the founding fathers to deal with the evil of slavery from the beginning (out of knowledge that the nation would never have been born if the issue had'nt been swept under the carpet for a later day). The Civil War was about ending this evil once and for all.

Anonymous said...

The south should have killed them before they conceded. Would be a better world today.

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