Taxation = Slavery

As always, when history is being made in the present, or the present is clearly marked in a historical cycle, we delve into it here on the HP.

In this case, it is the debate in Congress over whether to raise the debt ceiling or default. The main sticking point has been the refusal of a sizable minority of Republicans, mostly belonging to the Tea Party faction, to allow the federal government to collect tax revenue. This group demands tax breaks for the wealthy, including corporations, and the maintenance of tax loopholes that allow millions of dollars of tax revenue to go uncollected.

This is not the place to go into the details of their platform, or the response by moderate Republicans and Democrats. Here, the issue is the extreme instransigence of the Republican minority on the issue of taxation. It has become, to them, a crime for the government to raise taxes or even to collect taxes. To them, there is no compromise on taxation: you are either for it (and therefore un-American) or against it. Again, we’ll leave aside for this post the historical fallacy of anti-tax advocates calling themselves “Tea Party”; read about that here. For now, we’ll focus on the black-and-white issue they have turned taxation into. It’s hard to think of a time when Congress was so completely divided, so unwilling and unable to compromise on an issue; when you look back at our history, only one comparable time comes up—the slavery debates of the late 1850s.

You could not compromise on slavery during those Congresses. You were for it or against it, and this divide worked its way into many other, seemingly unrelated issues, and the uncompromisable issue of slavery could not be resolved. Congress could no longer function to govern the country, and civil war ensued at the 1860 election.

Today, Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on taxation is quite similar to the earlier Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on slavery. But there are two key differences: first, the American people were becoming just as divided over slavery as their representatives; second, slavery really is an issue you can’t seriously compromise on.

Americans in the 1850s didn’t want to fight a war over slavery, but they were rapidly becoming more polarized over it. Even those who didn’t particularly want abolition for morality’s sake blamed slavery for all of America’s ills, and would have gotten rid of it for economic or political reasons. Their representatives’ furor over slavery was not out of line, then, with Americans’ feelings about slavery. It does not seem accurate to make that claim today. Many Tea Party Congress members have said their constituents contacted them to say it’s okay to raise taxes to avoid default, but those members refused to do so out of principle. The extreme polarization in Congress today does not really have its roots in how Americans are feeling.

And taxation is not slavery. It’s not a black-and-white, moral issue that no one can take a moderate stance on. The government raises taxes in order to provide services. It’s a very simple and fundamental tenet of government. We have representation to our government to decide what services and how much taxation, not to stop the collection of tax revenue.

The taxation issue is part of a larger move to reduce the federal government to a negative function: the federal government will not provide social services (no Medicare, Social Security, Head Start, etc.), will not regulate business (protect the environment, police Wall Street, etc.), will not really legislate (instead, Constitutional Amendments will be put in place to handle social issues), amd will not extend civil rights to immigrants, gay people, etc. All it would do under this plan, apparently, is fund wars.

No one really wants to live in that world. It is undemocratic, and unself-sustaining. This experiment with such negative chaos is a dangerous one. The first experiment ended in civil war; it remains to be seen where we are headed in the next 20 years.

Black Confederates, slavery, and the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War

Just a day late to join the many people commemorating the start of the Civil War on April 12, 1861, when South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter. I noticed that many of the news stories focused on whether we are “still fighting the Civil War” today (since there is still racism), and one story harped irritatingly on the misguided idea that many enslaved black Americans fought for the Confederacy.

The show (NPR’s The Takeaway) had a few black Americans in to talk about ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. I was about to post here in despair, in an attempt to set the record straight, but thankfully, the show brought in the wonderful Kevin Levin, author of the Civil War Memory blog, to set it straight himself. You can hear the interview here.

Here’s what Kevin had to say later on his blog:

“Unfortunately, the time [on the show] went by way too fast.  I would have been happy to listen to any number of people on this issue, but of course, I am pleased that they asked me to join them this morning. For additional reading, I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War and Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.  You may also want to take a look at my Black Confederate Resources page, which provides an overview of what I’ve written on the subject on this blog.  You will also find a great deal of commentary on this site about Earl Ijames, who was mentioned in the course of the interview.  Click here for the post on Ijames and Henry L. Gates.”

I pass these resources along to readers of the HP, and pass along my thanks once again to Kevin for his tirelessly objective and valuable work.

On the other points, I think it’s hard to say we’re still fighting the Civil War; I think the Civil War was one watershed event in the history of acknowledging racism as an evil. We fought the Civil War as one battle in the war on racism. We’re still fighting that war, but not the Civil War.

Finally, there were many predictable claims that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but states’ rights. This began life immediately after the war, when Confederate leaders and supporters immediately began a spin campaign to put their actions in the best possible light. They claimed they had never fought for slavery, that the Constitution and states’ rights were the be-all and end-all of the Cause. This was debunked thoroughly over the years, notably by Charles Dew in his book Apostles of Disunion (see “Slavery leads to secession, secession leads to war” for more).

Once it was clear that southern leaders were 100% in their desire to fight the war to protect slavery, the argument shifted: now revisionists said that while powerful southerners fought for slavery, the average Confederate in the trenches was a poor man who didn’t own any enslaved people, who only fought because his homeland was invaded. Most notable in spreading this idea was Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civi War, who quotes a Confederate telling a Union soldier that he fought “because you are down here.”

And this is the argument put about now—that the average Confederate soldier did not fight for slavery, and therefore bears no shame for his part in the war. But why was the Union “down there” in the first place? Because the southern states had seceeded so they could continue slavery. From the moment the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, January 1, 1863, the Union was fighting to end slavery, and even before that date, many Union soldiers had that as a personal aim.

If the average poor Confederate really did resent the rich whites who hired substitutes to fight for them, why fight their war? Why fight and die so those rich whites could continue to control society and politics, have slaves, and keep poor white people poor?

No war is simple. There’s no one reason why poor southern men fought for the Confederacy. They fought, as all people do, for a mix of reasons; in this case, fear and anger at being invaded, a sense of having no choice but to enlist once war began, wanting to join their friends in the army, loyalty to rich white leaders in their own towns and counties, excitement at the prospect of war, resentment of the North’s “anti-southern” policies, and a host of other, private reasons. Union soldiers had the same mix, and many of the same inducements.

But no matter why they fought, they fought, and they fought for the Confederacy, to preserve its slave society. There’s nothing noble about that.

The one way we’re still fighting the Civil War is in our unending attempts to understand what it was about, in all its complexity. But a few concrete facts must guide that understanding, and the fact that it was a war fought for slavery, even by the lowliest Confederate soldier, is one  of them.

Consequences of the Mexican War

Part the last of our series on interesting facets of the Mexican War concludes with the 1848 peace Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which gave the United States full ownership of Texas, with its western border at the Rio Grande, and the modern States of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, almost all of Arizona, Colorado, and part of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming (the rest of Arizona and New Mexico would be acquired through the 1853 Gadsden Purchase). In return, Mexico received a little over $18 million in compensation and forgiveness of $3.25 million owed by Mexico to the U.S.

Immense as the territories ceded by Mexico were, there were a number of U.S. Senators who urged Congress to take advantage of Mexico’s internal political chaos and force it to also give up its states of Nuevo León, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas, in today’s northeastern Mexico. This would have extended the U.S. hundreds of miles beyond Texas’ current southern border. Partly because there was growing opposition to the war in the U.S. (Illinois Rep. Abraham Lincoln was opposed), and partly because the parts of Mexico that the U.S. had so long desired, particularly California, were already handed over, Congress declined to pursue the war any longer, and this plan was dropped.

The Mexican Cession was at once a great acquisition for the U.S. and the end of the U.S. as it had been. The new lands made the slavery debate impossible to resolve through political compromise. The 1820 Missouri Compromise would have allowed slavery in New Mexico, Arizona, and the southern half of California, but not in Colorado, Utah, Kansas, or Wyoming. But anti-slavery Americans were not about to let California, the greatest prize of them all, the one that held out the most promise to small farmers and free labor, become a slave state (since a state could not be half-free, half-slave, California ran the risk of becoming a full slave state). Pro-slavery Americans knew that New Mexico and Arizona were not lands that lent themselves to plantation farming, and determined more fiercely than ever to have California, and the farmland that would become Kansas, too.

Free-Soil, free-labor, anti-slavery, and abolitionist Americans said now was the time to contain slavery altogether—to see the new territories not in the context of the north-south line of the Missouri Compromise, but as The West, a new entity that was not bound by the north-south politics or agreements of the eastern states. Keep slavery out of The West, they said, and keep it contained in the southern states until slave states were so outnumbered by free states, and slavery such an anomaly in the country, that slavery itself would die out.

Pro-slavery Americans had been ready for this fight for years. The nation had expanded along the Missouri Compromise line for nearly 30 years, it was the law of the land, there was no reason to change it, and any anti-slavery agitation in The West would be illegal, and punishable by law.

The problems the Mexican Cession caused would have to be quickly hammered out in the Compromise of 1850, a five-part piece of legislation that tried to create true compromise between anti- and pro-slavery Americans, not along purely geographical lines, but more philosophically. Slavery was not banned in the West (1), but California would enter the Union as a free state, end of story (2). Each of the remaining  western territories that wanted to become a state would decide on its own whether to come in as slave or free: popular sovereignty let the people in the territory vote on their status before applying for statehood (3). The Fugitive Slave Act was introduced, which allowed slaveholders to violate the personal liberty laws in free states (4), and slavery would remain a feature in the capital, Washington, DC (5).

This Compromise would be short-lived. As settlers poured into all regions of the Cession, the stakes became higher and higher on both sides of the slavery issue. Pro-slavery Americans needed numbers; they couldn’t allow slavery to be restricted to the existing southern states or their needs would never be met in Congress, where free-state Representatives and Senators would far outnumber slave. Anti-slavery Americans also needed numbers, to reduce slavery to a regional curiosity of a small number of states, rendered economically useless. The battles over how western states would come into the Union led to vote-rigging, where people from outside a territory would pour in when it came time to vote slave or free, making a mockery of the concept of popular sovereignty. The violence that ensued in these situations was made legendary in Bloody Kansas.

In short, the Mexican War was most important both for expanding the U.S. and for hastening the coming of the Civil War. Both events made the nation greater, one geographically, one morally. It was a dress-rehearsal for the Civil War in that so many men who fought together in the Mexican War fought against each other in the Civil War, including both Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee. And it nearly completed the U.S. conquest of the continent between Canada and what was left of Mexico (the last bits settled in the Gadsden Purchase). The discovery of gold in California the year after the war ended spurred not only Californian settlement but the western rush of pioneers that dominated American demographics until the end of the 19th century. It also left the United States as the undisputed great power of the western hemisphere—a great deal of impact for a war that is often skipped over as students of U.S. history move from the Revolutionary War directly to the Civil War.

The Logic of Southern Secession, 1860-1

Often historians talking about the secession of southern states after Lincoln’s election to the presidency will stop to wonder just why it even happened. Not all the states were on board with secession after Lincoln’s win—the major southern states, including North Carolina and Virginia, were against it. There had been secession scares before, and most southerners believed the hysteria would blow over and they would go back to doing what they had always done: fighting for slavery in Congress and the courts. They had been very successful at this, and there was no reason to suppose that would change. In fact, with Lincoln in the White House and Republicans in the Congress, the south would have to fight harder and even more cleverly to protect and spread slavery, and that was a challenge most southern legislators were likely up for.

So the immediate secessions of the seven Lower South states was no guaranty at all that the rest of the south would go, and southern public opinion was divided, to say the least. So why did it happen? Why did the dominoes fall?

It’s a good question. In fact, it’s been pondered over in a completely different arena: World War I.

The similarities are striking: one nation declares war over an act of violence, the other side declares war back; a tense waiting period in which frantic diplomacy is employed to defuse the situation; the majority of the public against war, or at least neutral; and then the rest of the dominoes fall. Ever since the summer of 1914, people have been asking how this happened when it was so far from being inevitable and there was so much to lose on all sides by going to war.

I don’t have the answer, of course; I’m just noting, for the first time that I know of, the similarity of the two situations. I suppose there’s something always to be said for the human desire to act, and to react in kind. If one country or leader is violent, it/he can expect a violent reaction. And there’s always the need to be part of your group: if your ally declares war, you will likely follow suit, no matter what misgivings you have, because the relationship impacts your honor, your sense of yourself, and your public image. And then it’s just easy to go to war; when a situation is difficult, maybe impossible to untangle, you can always run a sword through it. Last, a declaration of war is a powerfully emotional moment that it is very easy to get swept up in: an unthinking, heady, exciting, join-or-die, shoot-now-and-ask-questions-later moment.

If anyone has a good idea of how to answer the question of 1861 and 1914, let us know!

Union or slavery?

We were rereading David Potter’s timeless book The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861 and thinking about how it sounds to us today to read that some Americans valued union over abolition.

It sounds awful. It sounds like cavilling, cowardice, inhumanity, and loathsome empty-headed pseudo-patriotism.

But that is because this is not 1850, or 1858, or any point antebellum. It’s so hard to forget or to avoid the impact of hindsight on historical vision. We know that the Civil War did not end in permanent disunion, that the United States continued, grew, and thrived after 1865. But as Americans before 1861 contemplated the possibility that slavery might cause a civil war, they did not know any of this. They only knew that a civil war might erupt over slavery.

Think of it this way: what if right now, as you sit reading this, the United States was in danger of civil war. Some group of states had actually written up papers outlining how they would secede, and they had the power and the foreign backing to do it. Imagine that every week you read about how these states—let’s say 15 western states—were ready to actually sever their ties to the U.S., and leave the nation with 35 states and a big hole.

It’s impossible for us to really imagine this. We are faced daily with serious threats to our economic, intellectual, and political unity—there’s constant talk about red and blue states and how the coasts hate the  middle and vice-versa, etc.—but we cannot imagine this translates into a threat to our actual political unity. We can’t picture facing the possibility that civil war would break out over these issues and that the United States as we know it would cease to exist.

And all over one political and social issue. An important issue, to be sure, but not one that you thought could destroy the United States. Say it was illegal immigration. It’s been simmering for decades, but it’s begun to boil in the past 10 years, and people’s emotions are getting stronger about it. What do you think will happen in this situation?

Well, you expect it to keep dragging along as a divisive issue that will someday get enough minor legislation to die down, and be replaced by something else. Inertia or a solution, those are the options.

You never expect it to cause an actual civil war, with people in your state fighting people from another state. You don’t expect to see armies formed in the western U.S. states to fight the U.S. amed forces. You don’t expect to have your home destroyed by battle next year.

And that’s the way Americans viewed slavery in the antebellum years. It was a divisive issue, and was getting hotter after 1848, but civil war? Really?

Once it became frighteningly clear that the southern states really were prepared to secede, and really were gathering an army to fight the rest of the U.S., many Americans clung to union as a sacred obligation in order to forestall war. And you can see why, if this thought experiment has worked. If our nation were about to actually go to war over illegal immigration right now, wouldn’t you protest that union was more important than this issue? that the issue could surely be worked out legislatively instead?

Of course, illegal immigration is not truly like slavery, but the conditions many illegal immigrants work and live in here in the U.S. can approach slavery. And the hatred and revulsion some Americans feel for these people is equal to the hatred and revulsion some Americans had for enslaved black Americans. And, like free black Americans, even legal immigrants are in many cases mistreated and denied equal access to the law. Still, could we possibly go to civil war over it?

Americans felt the same way in the antebellum period: yes, slavery was a big issue, but it was just one of a half-dozen big issues. Why go to war over slavery? It seemed irrational. It seemed much less of a sacred cause than union, the great union of states that shone the light of democracy over the world.

This is just an attempt to really put ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors. When we do so, we can better understand why the cry of “union!” was stronger for many Americans than the cries of secession or abolition. Only when we truly try to put ourselves in those shoes can we begin to understand the seemingly incomprehensible decision to support union over abolition that many of our ancestors made.

Lincoln: Hero, not villain; truth, not myth

Here we are at the last post of my Truth v. Myth series on Lincoln and slavery.


With the Emancipation Proclamation, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Abraham Lincoln finally abolished slavery in the United States. By which I mean to say, slavery was finally abolished, someone finally acted to end it, and Lincoln finally lived up to his principles. “Finally” seems harsh to apply to someone whose actions and convictions changed so radically in just four years (1858 to 1862). “[Viewed] from the abolition ground, [Lincoln was] tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent… Measuring him by the sentiment of his country… he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined,” said Frederick Douglass. Abolishing slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation “is the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century,” Lincoln said. [Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 250, 186]


So how can it be that Lincoln is called a proslavery racist so often today? Lincoln was, of course, slowly but surely tarnished by education in this country after the Civil War, when he slipped from hero to villain as southern Confederate sympathizers rewrote his motives and actions to make him a fool. Texas and Florida are two of the largest textbook markets in America, and their textbook committees made sure the “right” information was published in their American history books throughout the 20th century.


And as the dream of true equality seemed to slide farther and farther away from black Americans during Jim Crow, Lincoln’s deeds and promises did seem hollow. By the 1960s, when the horrors of violence inflicted on black civil rights protesters and leaders had been witnessed by the entire nation, a few key black scholars and leaders rejected all white efforts on behalf of race equality as empty, including Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation. Lerone Bennett’s work, naming Lincoln as “a reactionary white supremacist” was particularly damaging.


But this kind of treatment of Lincoln was just an early symptom of Americans losing faith in America. “The withdrawal from Lincoln by African-Americans has moved in step with the emergence of a profound nihilism in the minds of many Americans who see no meaning in American freedom and no hope for real racial progress,” Allen Guelzo says, and I think he is right. [Ibid. 248] I also agree with him when he says that “It would be special pleading to claim that Lincoln was in the end the most perfect friend black Americans have ever had. But it would also be the cheapest and most ignorant of skepticism to deny that he was the most significant.” [Ibid. 11]


Myth: The Civil War was not fought over slavery.


Truth:  It was, and deliberately so.


Damage done when we believe in a myth: Guelzo has it cold: when we believe the absolute worst of myths, we see—and are part of—“the emergence of a profound nihilism in the minds of many Americans who see no meaning in American freedom and no hope for real racial progress”. There is meaning in the Civil War when it comes to racial progress, and if there was hope that was realized in 1863—in the middle of a nightmare war, after 203 years of entrenched slavery—then there is hope today.

Slavery leads to secession, secession leads to war

Final post of my series showing how slavery caused the Civil War, and we start with secession.


The whole south didn’t leave at once. It was the seven states of the lower south—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—that seceded almost instantaneously after they heard Lincoln won the election. South Carolina went out on December 20, 1860, and the rest followed by February 1, 1861.


But the other slaveholding states, most notably the powerhouses of North Carolina and Virginia, did not secede with them, and indeed seemed likely to stay in the Union. The lower south had to get those key states, as well as all the other slaveholding states, out of the Union and into the Confederacy.


So the lower south states sent out secession commissioners to those states. And here we come, once again, to the real truth of secession and war. Because while the seceding states publicly framed their reasons for leaving the Union in political terms (states’ rights), privately, they stated quite clearly that they were seceding to keep their slaves.


Secession commissioners were sent out from the lower south to the slaveholding states that had not seceded, with orders to convince those states to join the Confederacy. These commissioners gave impassioned speeches to the people and their state governments, and wrote to key state government officials, imploring them to join the Confederacy. Charles Dew unearthed and studied these speeches and letters, and wrote the invaluable book Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War about them. Dew found that “what is most striking about them is their amazing openness and frankness. [They are] white Southerners talking to fellow Southerners with no need to hold back out of deference to outside sensibilities. These men infused their speeches and letters with …a powerful ‘Let’s cut to the chase’ analysis that reveals, better than any other source I know, what was really driving the Deep South states toward disunion.” [Dew 21]


And what was driving secession? Fear of losing slavery. Plain and simple. The secessionist commissioners went to the men of the south and said, We are seceding to protect slavery. If you want to protect slavery, you must secede.


And was slavery worth seceding over? Well, it was if you didn’t want your daughters to be raped and murdered by black men, according to the secession commissioners. They harped on the usual strings of race fear: black people will be our equals, black people will make our laws, we’ll have to eat in restaurants with black people, our children will be forced to marry black people, and we all know that black people are savages who can never be anything but savages, so all of those things are worse than death.


William Harris, commissioner to Georgia, put the choice before the south squarely in the context of preserving slavery: “[Either] this new union with Lincoln Black Republicans and free negroes, without slavery; or, slavery under our old constitutional bond of union, without Lincoln Black Republicans, or free negroes, either, to molest us.” [Dew 29] 



Jacob Thompson, sent to persuade North Carolina, said Lincoln’s election put power in the hands of “a majority trained from infancy to hate our people and their institutions,” who would soon be saying that “slavery is overthrown.” Judge Alexander Handy, commissioner to Maryland, stated that “The first act of the black republican party will be to exclude slavery from all the Territories, the District [of Columbia], the arsenals and forts, by the action of the federal government. That would be a recognition that slavery is a sin… The moment that slavery is pronounced a moral evil—a sin—by the general government, that moment the safety of the rights of the South will be entirely gone.” [Dew, 33]


All of the quotes here are repulsive, but they have to be aired so we can know the truth, which is that the lower south seceded strictly over slavery, and convinced many people in the other slaveholding states to do the same.


Dew asks an important question at the end of his book: “Did these men really believe these things? Did they honestly think that secession was necessary in order to stay the frenzied hand of the Republican abolitionist, preserve racial purity and racial supremacy, and save their women and children from rape and slaughter at the hands of “half-civilized Africans”? They made these statements, and used the appropriate code words, too many times in too many places with too much fervor and raw emotion to leave much room for doubt. They knew these things in the marrow of their bones, and they destroyed a political union because of what they believed and what they foresaw.” [Dew, 80]


So it was indeed slavery that caused the Civil War. The two-party system broke down under the strain of dealing with slavery in the new territories of the United States, first with the parties becoming more regional than national, then with the Whigs dissolving and the Democrats splitting. The Republican party was formed with the express intent of keeping slavery out of the west, and once they were in office, the south believed the Republicans would eradicate all slavery, everywhere in the country, and so the south seceded, and the Civil War began.


So it was slavery indeed that caused the Civil War. The Union was not immediately fighting to end slavery, that would come later in the war. But it was always fighting to curb slavery, to keep it in an ever-smaller part of the nation as that nation expanded. The war wasn’t about tarriffs or states’ rights. It was about slavery.

What made the North and South different before the Civil War?

In today’s post, part two of my series on how slavery led to the Civil War, I’ll be leaning on the historian James McPherson for quotes, from his fascinating book This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War.

First, all that data on tariff debates and farmer v. factory worker is, indeed, not the stuff of civil war. The main difference between north and south, the one that led the nation to war, was slavery. The north did not want it to spread to the new western states being created, and the south did. The south fought federal attempts to ban slavery in the west, using the states’ rights argument. Each state has the right to decide for itself whether it will be slave or free, the south said; any federal attempt to ban slavery outright is illegal.


So all the vague talk of the federal government interfering in “state government” or “state policy” sharpens up considerably when you face the fact that the only “policy” at stake was slavery. Slavery made north and south different—and enemies: “On the subject of slavery, the North and South… are not only two Peoples, but they are rival, hostile Peoples,” said the editor of the Charleston Mercury in 1858. [McPherson, 11]


But the southern states were quite willing to interfere with northern state policy, as southern Congress members passed fugitive slave laws that allowed the federal government to go into northern states that had passed anti-slavery laws and personal liberty laws and force those states to hand over people identified as escaped slaves. The fugitive slave laws also allowed southern slaveholders to bring enslaved people into free states without punishment, and forced northern citizens to help slave catchers.


When northern states complained about their personal liberty laws being violated, the southern-majority Supreme Court reminded them that national law outranked state law, and national law had a mandate to protect slavery. Southerners in Congress also imposed a gag rule in the 1830s which disallowed antislavery petitions from northern states to be presented to Congress. [Ibid., 9]  So states’ rights were not so sacred for the south when it came to slavery, and the south hotly demanded that the federal government override northern states’ rights to outlaw slavery in their own states.


That’s why Lincoln’s election to the presidency caused secession and civil war. For 49 of the 72 years in the period 1789 to 1861, the American president had been a southern slaveholder. Now a northerner whose party was created expressly to stop the spread of slavery was president, and the deep south panicked. South Carolina went first, and its secession convention stated that with Lincoln as president, “the Slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.” [Ibid., 7-8, 11]


Note that it’s the slaveholding states losing their independence that is the last straw; when it was non-slaveholding states whose rights were violated, the south was okay with that.


Lincoln’s election not only meant the end of slavery, in the south’s opinion, but was the final nail in the coffin of the two-party system, and the party unity, that had dominated American politics in the 1800s. From 1787 to 1860, the nation was involved in a debate over slavery. That debate was contained by the party system. When that system fell apart, the debate could no longer be contained, or kept contained within the political system.


Few Americans today would recognize the death of the Whig party as a major contributor to civil war, but it was. In the next post, we’ll see why.

Amazing Fact: The Civil War was fought over slavery

Myth: The Civil War was not fought over slavery.

Supporting myth: Lincoln was okay with slavery, and he declared war.

“Proof” of myth: Slavery wasn’t ended until after the war, because Lincoln couldn’t do it earlier because the North would have stopped fighting, and wouldn’t do it because he was pro-slavery.

The Civil War was fought over slavery. That’s just all there is to it.

I didn’t grow up hearing this. When I was in K-12, in the 1970s and early 1980s, I got the old saw that the Civil War was fought because the North and South were just so darn different. The South was agricultural and rural, while the North was industrialized and urban. The North wanted tarriffs on imports, while the South didn’t. Their stands on banking, railroad subsidies, and other economic matters were what made the North and South so dangerously different. Slavery was just a side issue, really a small part of southern life, and one to which northerners were completely indifferent.

It never occurred to me, as a youth, to wonder how differering positions on banking could drive a nation to Civil War. Could opposing ideas on where to place the intercontinental railroad really divide a nation? But the textbooks I was given (and this was in a northern state) rushed me right past that to the start of the war and the issue of states’ rights.

This argument says that southern states seceded not to protect slavery, but to stand up for their constitutionally given rights to chart their own internal course, without interference from Congress. The southern states resisted efforts by the federal government to limit state power, goes the argument, and they did so for the benefit of all states, north and south. The federal government was violating the Constitution and threatening democracy, and the liberty-loving southern states could not live with this. They seceded, thus preserving their states’ rights. And the Constitution says they could.

Well, as you know from my About page essay, this whole package was still being pushed very recently by the K-12 publishers. And in fact, someone I know who is 73 gave me the same story recently. Slavery didn’t cause that war, he said; northerners didn’t care, there was no difference between northern and southern boys fighting, and the whole war was a shame. This man’s grandfather fought for the Union. Yet this man is ashamed of the whole thing, because he was fed the same amazing pack of lies about the Civil War that I was; lies that damage America today.

This is the first in a series of posts, because the myth of the Civil War is so big and so insidious. Next time, I’ll begin to show how slavery drove the nation to war. And before I’m done, the unforgivable and obvious lie applied to Lincoln–that he was proslavery–will be demolished.

Next: what did make North and South so different?