In honor of the 4th of July, I wanted to write something timely and special.
This is a short history lesson in response to a discussion from a Facebook post of mine, that basically went like this:
Person A: The ACW was fought to end slavery.
Person B: No, the ACW was reactionary to secession, it was fought to maintain the union.
Yes, the proximate cause to the war was secession. But to describe the Civil War as having not been fought to “free the slaves” is a revisionist conclusion from revisionist historians in the latter parts of the 20th century. I think it’s a faulty conclusion even though it is a quite widespread idea.
And in particular on July the Fourth, when we celebrate our independence from tyranny, I think we should also honor the men who died to end slavery – both black and white – and the great men, like Lincoln, who made it possible.
Before I get into it, I recommend anyone who wants to know more about why war is part of the human condition to read Robert Kagan’s excellent tome “On the Origins of War”. It doesn’t discuss the Civil War, but it does eloquently explain why the starting of wars are so complex, and what ultimately causes them in human society.
A False Dichotomy
The Civil War’s initiation is a very complex subject and can’t easily be boiled down. But it’s a false dichotomy to argue that it was either “to maintain the union” or “to free the slaves.” It was clearly both, because those are ultimately the same thing: the union could only be maintained by answering the “slavery question” in the affirmative, making it the same, singular political issue.
Virtually all of the major political battles of the two decades preceding the war were about slavery – from the Compromise of 1950 to the Kansas-Nebraska Act – and “Bleeding Kansas.” The northern states wanted all newly created states to be free states, the south wanted the opposite. When Kansas became a state it had a unique situation because Kansas itself was allowed to vote on whether to be a slave state or free. So, people moved in from Missouri and elsewhere to increase the population of pro-slavery voters, and others came to increase the population of anti-slavery voters. Fighting ensued, and people were killed. No one died to prevent secession before the Civil War. But people did die over the issue of slavery quite specifically. That’s important. “Bleeding Kansas” is a direct prelude to the American Civil War. The very reason the South seceded was to maintain the institution of slavery because they could easily see that on the present course it was going to go away.
In the unique election of 1860 Lincoln won with a minority because there were four candidates from four parties. He won a plurality (and a landslide in the electoral college, too). Stephen Douglas came in second by popular vote, as the Northern Democratic candidate – he was technically anti-slavery, but his platform was all about compromise with the slave states, like the Whigs had been. John Breckinridge was the pro-slavery Southern Democrat. And John Bell was the pro-union candidate whose platform was about saving the union! He got the LEAST amount of votes. Most of his votes came in the mid-states where people knew that war would devastate them – in the states that had mixed populations of pro-slavery and anti-slavery voters. Lincoln’s Republican Party was by a large margin the most radical anti-slavery party.
So, if you were a pro-slavery politician in the election of 1860, you could see the writing on the wall very clearly. The two candidates who were anti-slavery (one fiercely so, but the other still against it), won the most votes, and the second most votes, respectively. Plus, only one out of four candidates was even pro-slavery at all! Anyone with a brain could see where the country was headed. Slavery was going to be on its way out.
Just how anti-slavery was Lincoln’s actual platform? Well, the published 1860 National Republican Convention read, in part, “That the normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of Freedom…as our Republican fathers, when they had abolished slavery in all our national territory, ordained that “no person should be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” it becomes our duty, by legislation, whenever such legislation is necessary, to maintain this provision of the Constitution against all attempts to violate it; and we deny the authority of Congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any Territory of the United States.”
Lincoln’s platform expressly stated that the Constitution forbade slavery (because of course it did: the institution of slavery was a complete logical contradiction to the American founding documents). And the platform expressly stated that the government cannot give “legal existence to slavery in any Territory of the United States.”
Lincoln was going to fight to eradicate slavery. But that doesn’t mean he intended to immediately declare a war to end it. He was going to adopt political means – his intent is that it would happen by law, probably over time, of course. But as Clausewitz famously put it, war is “the continuation of politics by other means.” Lincoln was prepared to go to war over slavery and secession, but that doesn’t mean his first act was to send troops into slave states and forcibly free them.
As history unfolded, of course, war was foisted on him anyway. Democrats in the South famously proclaimed that if a Republican were ever elected president, they would secede. And then Lincoln was elected in 1860. Seven states then seceded before Lincoln was technically president – before he was inaugurated.
Once Lincoln was in office, he basically walked back his party’s platform in his speeches and told the South that they could keep their slaves, but that no new states formed could be slave states. (And this is part of why there are some historically ignorant people today trying to desecrate and tear down statues of Lincoln – knowing a snippet of history is not the same as knowing history).
But the southern states – and not just those who had already seceded – did not believe him. They saw the writing on the wall correctly, that slavery couldn’t last much longer.
Now let me pause for a super important point:
Before Lincoln was elected, every president in American history was either pro-slavery or neutral. The supreme court was pro-slavery (or at best neutral, but I think it may have been pro-slavery the entire time). And the senate was basically 50/50. Only in the House were there ever anti-slavery majorities due to the higher population in the North. In short, the federal government was never anti-slavery until Lincoln.
The first time a true anti-slavery president was elected, the South began to secede. Think about that. There had been lots of political battles over slavery, and in particular with new states entering the union on whether they were free or slave states. But there hadn’t yet been a true anti-slavery president, a true anti-slavery supreme court, and a true anti-slavery Congress with true majority. So the question hadn’t been raised to the ultimate level yet. Now it was. And immediately secession began.
Everything that led to the election of 1860 was about slavery, as was the reason the South seceded. Therefore, to say that the North did not fight “to end slavery” is missing a major part of the history.
The American Contribution to Abolitionism
Sometimes it’s claimed that the US was not so much at the forefront of ending slavery, because there were many countries that legally abolished it before the American Civil War was fought. I think this is missing the point. Simply tallying up when each country abolished slavery doesn’t explain a lot about abolitionism.
Abolitionism was a widespread movement that had many critics, many adherents, and many sources of inspiration. But I think you would be hard pressed to identify a set of documents, (besides the Holy Bible), that was more inspiring, more referenced and more important to the abolitionist cause in most countries than the writings of the American founding fathers – in particular the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. This certainly counts as contributing greatly to the abolitionist cause worldwide. Of course, the fact that slavery persisted in the US undermined the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but it nevertheless was an important document – on its face – that abolitionists everywhere pointed to in their rhetoric.
Furthermore, after America was founded, the philosophical and ideological winds were blowing strong that slavery, an obvious evil, was something that had to eventually go away in society. Many important writers in the US of the early 1800s, even those who were still immoral enough to own slaves themselves, basically accepted this idea – that slavery was on its way out, historically. (This doesn’t excuse that it still existed, but I’m setting up for the next paragraph).
In 1830 S. Carolina threatened to secede from the union. That year and thereafter radical new thinking began to be promulgated that slavery was good! That it was something that “helped” the black folks, rather than a “necessary evil” which had become the common view. This was a new concept in America, and quite a sinister one. It arose, in my understanding, as a reaction to the fact that slavery was beginning to be seen more and more as a moral evil among everyone – even in the South. So, evil slave-owners and apologists began to write even using the Holy Bible as evidence that slavery for black folks is natural and good. This is particularly reprehensible, of course, and undermined the abolitionist movement which also heavily relied on the Bible.
My point here is that, in 1830 a new pro-slavery movement began, which also gave rise to a stronger abolitionist movement in the US. Once the Whigs became too compromising with the pro-slavery Democrats, the abolitionist voters had to found a new party – the Republican Party – which was more extremely anti-slavery than any platform in US history.
It’s also worth noting that England and France – which had technically abolished slavery by this time – wanted to intervene on the Southern side. Thus, the abolitionist cause was still quite relevant globally, and the outcome of the Civil War greatly affected it. It’s hard to overstate what it means when the two most important global powers – England and France – are threatening to intervene in the very young United States’ civil conflict on the side of slavery. You cannot argue that the global abolitionist movement had clearly “won” by the time the American Civil War had rolled around. It would be like arguing that democracy had won over communism by 1980, simply because so many states by then had become beacons of anti-communist democracy. But not all of them – and not the most important ones.
EDIT July 6th – in response to a well reasoned critique from commenter David, I will add that the perspective of the governments in England and France that wanted to intervene was because they were royalist, and anti-democratic, not pro-slavery per se. To be clear, the point of my paragraph above is not that England and France were pro-slavery, but that they could support so fully a regime that was, which implies my conclusion that the abolitionist movement had not fully “won” the ideological debate among humanity. (And to go down this road, no the dictatorships the US supported at various times during the Cold War were nowhere near as evil as the Confederacy).
Had the South successfully seceded, a major new and important country to the world founded on slavery (the Confederacy) could have easily given rise to more pro-slavery movements around the world. The outcome of the American Civil War was a massive win for the abolitionist movement, making any pro-slavery ideology even more obviously morally bankrupt.
God Bless America.