The Following Post was originally posted way back on September 14, 2004. Soon after I posted it, Naked Villainy's Smallholder emailed a response to me which I thought was very thoughtful response, which I chose to add to the post. At the end of this post you'll see today's update.
This post is going to be a bit different for me. I want to ask a question of those who read my blog, and let the real meat of this post be in the comments.
As anyone who read my post on books will know, my interest in the American Civil War has been piqued only in the past ten years or so. Growing up in a portion of the country where no battles were fought, from which no regiments were sent to fight, a part of the country that was in its infancy when the war was being fought, it never had the personal impact on my heritage it does for easterners, not until you start learning about it on your own.
One of the issues that interests me most is the issue of the causes of the war. This is a source of great debate anmong historians, I do not as of yet have a concrete opinion on this. I am aware of the issues of Federal power vs. States rights, the sanctity of the Union, and slavery. I am aware of how ones regional heritage affects ones views of these issues (if you live back east especially).
What I'm curious about is this: Let us assume for the moment that the issue of slavery was secondary, and that it only served to bring to a head the other issues. If that is the case, what, if any, domestic issue would have served to bring those issues to a head if the issue of slavery had not existed. In other words, if you are of the opinion that the country was a powder keg, and slavery was merely the fuse, then what other fuse could have touched off the powder keg if slavery had not?
I wait to be taught.
Smallholder of Naked Villainy had quite a bit to say, and my comment section wouldn't hold it, so I have posted it here (as usual, I have a few replies to it of my own, in italics):
First of all, the issue is NOT a source of great debate between historians. I am unaware of a single professional, peer-reviewed historian working today who challenges the contention that the war was against slavery.
Granted. Most of the people I hear spouting the "States Rights" issue today are southerners and amateur historians (nothing wrong with that, that's the best I can claim for myself, as well).
There were some historians writing after the war -- “The Lost Cause” school who focused on other issues and there were several historians who wrote about the provocations of the North when viewing the world in a post-World War One light.
Many Sons of the Confederacy would like to obscure the issue because it is hard to realize that grandpappy fought for an evil cause. But the circumlocutions of the amateurs don’t unmake the reality of history.
The states rights issue is not the real issue; states rights, except perhaps for George Mason, has rarely been an end in itself; American history is replete with examples of the states’ relationship to the federal government being used as a fig-leaf to hide real motivations.
James Madison and the other framers of the Constitution insisted on ratification by conventions of the PEOPLE of the states rather than ratification by state legislatures precisely to avoid the use of state prerogative to void the will of the national government – they met in Philadelphia to replace a government rendered impotent by state prerogative.
But James Madison and his mentor Tom Jefferson were more than willing to revive the corpse of states’ rights when the Alien and Sedition Acts threatened their political party. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which awakened states rights, were very much a partisan political calculation. That partisanship can also be seen as sectional since the South heavily supported the Democratic Republicans and the Federalists were heavily supported by Northern mercantile interests.
The Democratic-Republican support of states’ rights bit them in the rear when the Northern states came to believe that they had nothing to gain and everything to lose from the war of 1812 and threatened (vaguely) secession at the Hartford Convention.
The issue of states rights popped up again when Georgia (with a wink and a nod from President Jackson) refused to abide by the Supreme Court’s decision on Cherokee removal. President Jackson wasn’t so indulgent when South Carolina nullified the Tariff of 1832, threatening military enforcement.
As the calls for abolition began to gather momentum in the North and the South’s peculiar institution became more and more entrenched socially, politically, and religiously, the South did try to use the concept of state’s rights to protect African enslavement. But it was a means, not an end. When federal power seemed likely to promote slavery, the South was eager to renounce the concept of states rights.
Examples of Southern support of federal supremacy can be seen at the outrage generated when Northern governors were reluctant to send funds and state militiamen to prosecute the Slavocracy’s land grab against Mexico in 1846.
I'm not the only one who noticed that, eh?
Southerners certainly supported federal supremacy when Roger Taney ruled that states did not have the right to outlaw slavery within their own boundaries, opening the entire union to legal slavery in the Dred Scott decision.
Southerners certainly supported federal supremacy when many Northern states sought to nullify the Fugitive Slave Law.
So states’ rights, while certainly discussed – and I know the Southern partisans are turning to old Army of Northern Virginia Newsletters to find quotes about their hero’s dedication to abstract legal principle – were used only with the intent of advancing the South’s real cause: the protection of perpetual bondage.
In other words, the rank and file soldiers of the Confederacy may have believed that State's Rights is what they were fighting for, but the real root cause really was slavery?
But I’m unlikely to convince anyone who proudly flies the Confederate flag with these examples. They will say a resident of Wisconsin is only trying to blacken the reputation of the noble antebellum South.
To which I respond:
Perhaps we should ask the leaders of the noble antebellum and South – and the secession movement -- what they thought was the cause of the war. A quick review of the primary sources created by the state legislatures of the time finds that the people who led the Confederacy had a very clear idea of what they were fighting for.
South Carolina’s Secession Ordinance is one long litany about the wrongs of the abolitionists – a conscious emulation of the Declaration of Independence’s indictment of the George III. Read it yourself at: http://sunsite.utk.edu/civil-war/reasons.html
South Carolina was not unique. Other ordinances of secession, while not as longwinded, also indicate that slavery was the central cause of the war. Georgia’s declaration of the reasons for secession says:
“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-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.”
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world.”
Texas also knew what the war was about, starting their diatribe against abolitionist “incitement” with:
“She (Texas) was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery-- the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits-- a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?”
If the primary documents are so clear, why are we still having this discussion?
1) I like to stir up trouble.
2) I was curious to see if any of the people who discount the role of slavery could come up with anything.
While Libertarian Girl has never read my post, she seems to agree with Smallholder. Her Readers do not. Especially not Old Blind Dog or The Unabrewer or the LCD.
I'm still just watching. :-)
Yet Another Update:
Back on Sunday, Merc's Place had yet another take on the same issue.