Was slavery the only issue in U.S. Civil War?

The following was written as a letter to the editors at The Philadelphia Inquirer in response to several letters (See fifth letter down.) in the past week or so protesting commemorations of The Civil War as “glorifications” of slavery (i.e. commemorations in the southern U.S.).

I really do not understand all the sudden angst over observances related to the American Civil War.  I do not understand the insistence on framing the war totally within the context of slavery.  Anyone, who has taken the time to study the development of the American experiment through the 18th and 19th centuries and the origins of the hostilities that broke out in 1861, recognizes that slavery was not the only issue that defined the war.   

The American republic had many more issues before it than the horrors of slavery.  The questions of states rights, the strength of a centralized federal government, the interests of agrarian vs. industrialized economies, even the success of a Lincoln-led administration were all factors of immense national interest at stake.  As such, both the North and the South had legitimate vital interests in the conflict that went beyond the insidious practice of slavery. 

Slavery as the only issue related to the war does not explain Lincoln’s own admission that he would have resolved the conflict – if he could – without freeing a single slave.  It also does not account for the fact that hundreds of thousands of poor, non-slave owning Southerners fought willingly against the overwhelming advantages of the North.  The fact is that hundreds of thousands died in that war with no stake on the issue of slavery.  Many of them unemployed immigrants fighting for the North just for money to survive in a new world. 

There is no reason to restrict “glorification” of a preeminent event in American history solely to the issue of slavery.  To do so dismisses so much more that can be learned about how the United States stayed a united nation and the experiment continued on its epic journey.  

Mike —-

 All the angst seems motivated by the fact that the wrong people – Southerners – might want to commemorate an event that was also crucial to the history and development of that region.  Not to mention the fact that hundreds of thousands died there also, many of them dirt-poor farmers who did not own and could not afford slaves.

This is so much more about Liberal guilt over American history than it is any attempt to put that event into its proper historical context.

9 thoughts on “Was slavery the only issue in U.S. Civil War?

  1. I would have to consider the author’s attempt to backpedal from the South’s focus on slavery an admirable try at rewriting history, but the facts are simply not there to back him up.

    Let’s start with Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery vis-a-vis ending the Civil War. As the author states, “Slavery as the only issue related to the war does not explain Lincoln’s own admission that he would have resolved the conflict – if he could – without freeing a single slave. ” this fragment of a quote is built around a convenient omission of the rest of what President Lincoln said. In his letter to the New York Tribune of August 22, 1862, the President said “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.”

    OK, we all see he was a pragmatist on the issue, he’d hold the Union together before he’d abolish slavery….However, in that same letter he made his personal stance perfectly clear, in fact he clarified that he had an official stance as President (preserve the Union at any cost) and his own personal opinion aside his duties as President-he went on to say, “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.”

    As to the rebel states and their stance, I don’t think we need go much beyond the state that started it all, South Carolina’s “declaration of independence, the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union”. One sees that there are several grievances that have upset our friends in the Palmetto State. But these varoius problems keep coming back to one subject: slavery.
    -According to The Declaration, several of the Northern states were in violation of Article 4, section 2, item 3 of the US Constitution, “No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due” they were upset because fugitive slaves were not being returned. Slavery.
    -Also according to The Declaration, they were unhappy that some Northern states were agitating against slavery, “they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.” I suppose States’ rights don’t count when one state thinks another is doing something morally repugnant, that is to say the North had no freedom of speech and no right to enforce their laws. It’s the slavery, not the States’ rights
    -As Mike mentions in his letter, there was concern about Lincoln, “the success of a Lincoln-led administration (was a factor) of immense national interest”, let’s hear what the south was interested in. Once again, The Declaration: “all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.” Slavery again.
    South Carolina’s Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union is a long rant trying to justify slavery legally coming at the issue from every angle imaginable.

    The other two states making declarations of secession I can find were Mississippi and Georgia. (they are here:http://sunsite.utk.edu/civil-war/reasons.html)
    Georgia’s declaration of secession starts with the declaration that they were dissolving their bond with the United States, and they would present the reasons why. The second sentence is about slavery, “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.” The Georgians go on to rail against the various anti slavery issues similar to the things South Carolina had said, expanding on the South Carolinians by bringing up the fact that new territories above the 36º30″ line (from the Missouri compromise couldn’t have slavery.) Here’s where that gets interesting, they go on to say, “The prohibition of slavery in the Territories is the cardinal principle of this organization.” (the ‘organization’ they speak of is the Confederacy)…What does ‘cardinal’ mean? Probably not a red bird or a high ranking Catholic in this context…how about: car·di·nal (kärdn-l, kärdnl)adj.
    Of foremost importance; paramount: a cardinal rule; cardinal sins.

    So according to the State of Georgia, their big problem was (you know what I’m going to say)…slavery!

    Shall we go on and do Mississippi?…Lets do!

    First sentence is words to the effect of we’re outta here, second sentence is, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery…”

    When my friend Mike says the “The questions of states rights, the strength of a centralized federal government, the interests of agrarian vs. industrialized economies, even the success of a Lincoln-led administration were all factors of immense national interest at stake.” it sounds impressive, when we scratch the surface and look at what the people were publicly declaring, I see something very different. Do the various declarations of secession say things like “We hold these thruths to be self evident that all men are created equal?” Hardly…instead we have declarations like:

    “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”

    and, of course, the whopper…

    “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery”.

    I feel that I’m standing on strong ground when I state (quite emphatically) The Civil War was about slavery.


    • Hi, Jon … Glad you stopped by. I guess that’s an understatement considering you probably spent a good hour-and-a-half composing that comment.

      First off, the background – not mentioned in the post – that set that letter up was 3-4-days of at least one letter in The Inqy bemoaning the fact that the South had the temerity to commemorate The Civil War. This was several months AFTER The Confederate Ball in Charleston, SC; so it went beyond that one event. The statements were along the line that commemorations of The Civil War IN THE SOUTH (but only there apparently) were “celebrations of slavery”. I took it as criticism of ANY Southern commemoration of that war.

      Second, if you read my letter, I never disputed the fact that slavery was AN issue, even THE issue of the war, only that it’s not THE ONLY ISSUE. From that point of view, I think the Lincoln quote (which I don’t think is taken out of context, even if you consider Lincoln’s espousal of his own personal views) perfectly illustrates.

      His over-riding issue was preserving The Union. Was reading one of the pieces on Disunion the other day (Tried to find the specific one.) that described Lincoln’s belief that The Union had to survive as either all-free or as all-slave. But it could not survive as half of both. So his intent was to force the issue to be settled by whatever means was necessary. I think his statement on freeing slaves vs. preserving The Union fits that ultimate belief that there was much more at stake for the country than just protecting or abolishing that peculiar institution.

      I also go back to the makeup of the armies that fought the war. Many on The Union side were very recent immigrants and replacement draftees (Can’t recall the accepted term.), who were paid by richer people to fulfill the rich’s army draft duty. The South’s forces were composed largely of dirt poor farmers who could afford no slaves. I doubt that slavery played an important part of either group’s motivation to serve.

      That was my point in the letter. That despite the issue of slavery, there are many reasons why native Southerners would be interested in commemorating The Civil War, not the least of which that a war as momentous as TCW, fought almost entirely on Southern soil would be an event ingrained in the region’s history.

      But I have to agree The Civil War was largely about slavery, just not entirely.


      • When you state “The Civil War was largely about slavery, just not entirely.” I need to ask youare we talking about 97% or 98%?

        Yes, I must admit that there were other factors, we will always have differences between the industrialized, urban parts of our nation and the rural, agricultural areas… and both sides will always be bothered by the perceptions of inequality, but the declarations of secession are quite clear what the real problem is.

        I think you miss the point on Lincoln.
        Lincoln the man was 100% clear that slavery was wrong.
        Lincoln the President was staying true his oath of office- to his job, he was 100% clear that preservation of the union was his duty. I feel that the way you edited Lincoln’s statement about preserving the Union, “Lincoln’s own admission that he would have resolved the conflict – if he could – without freeing a single slave.” while failing to mention the full content of his letter to the NY Tribune is dishonest and would slant a reader’s view toward an acceptance of slavery that I don’t believe Lincoln would have wanted. You mention (without attribution) that Lincoln was all or nothing on slavery, “Lincoln’s belief that The Union had to survive as either all-free or as all-slave”…I must disagree and by presenting his words of August 1862 to the NY Tribune, I’ve shown that he was willing to accept any sort of intermediate solution if it preserved the Union.

        The makeup of the armies is interesting; as you admit, the poor northerners were not much more than paid mercenaries…if one is new to a place, what better way to fit in than to agree with the natives…I’m poor and fresh off the boat, heck yeah I’m against slavery! Oh, you’ll pay me to go fight for that point? sounds great!, I’m in.

        As to the poor Southerners, I see two things- defending the supremacy of the white race..as Montesquieu stated in 1748: “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures [slaves] to be men; because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.”

        I also see the same hopefulness I see when people want lower taxes for the billionaire just in case they strike it rich.

        Finally, I must again point you at the words of the rebels as they left the Union, they stated clearly and unequivocally that this was about slavery. How much clearer do you need than, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery…”?

        You claim the point of your letter to the editor was because the people of the South have the right to acknowledge/celebrate a war that was held on their soil because there were things other than slavery. That is to say they are free to celebrate the war that they started since it happened where they started it-on their soil. However, I must ask, what are they celebrating? The war? or the Cause? I’m forced to ask: Should the Germans celebrate WWII because the trains ran on time and there was some cool oompah music?


        • Jon:
          You never disappoint in your efforts to keep a discussion lively and interesting. So here’s where I rest the foundation of my argument vis-a-vis Lincoln’s call-to-duty insofar as preserving The Union. I will continue to recognize the difference between the beliefs of Lincoln the man and Lincoln the politician/President. I will take issue with the accusation that I’m being “dishonest” or “disingenuous”, as I think anyone who looks around enough will find that Lincoln – above all else – saw preserving The Union to be of paramount importance.

          To repeat, I’m not suggesting that slavery wasn’t the central or most important issue in The Civil War, only that it wasn’t THE ONLY issue. I have endeavoured to provide the proper references and sites this time. Always enjoy the banter.

          Here one indication of Lincoln’s unique situation:

          (Abolitionist William Lloyd) Garrison had already rebuked the position by which President-elect Abraham Lincoln had secured his electoral victory weeks earlier. Candidate Lincoln had won that race by promising, as the nation’s leader, to put aside his own personal distaste for slavery and accord priority to preserving the Union. (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/29/the-messianic-schoolmaster/#more-74715)

          Here’s another read on Lincoln’s ability to separate his personal beliefs from his duties as CIC:

          During these tense, violent days, Northern blacks anxiously awaited Lincoln’s inaugural address. No group was more disappointed by it than they were. Lincoln vowed to vigorously uphold the Fugitive Slave Act, suppress slave insurrections and never interfere with slavery in the slave states. He even supported the new 13th Amendment guaranteeing slavery in the states. (Note: This proposed 13th Amendment obviously never passed, and was intended as a desperate compromise by pro-unionists in the North.) Frederick Douglass spoke for most Northern blacks when he said that Lincoln’s inaugural “is little better than our worst fears.” In the days that followed, thousands more blacks began making plans to emigrate to another country. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/22/fear-and-doubt-in-cleveland/#more-74317

          Finally, there’s Lincoln’s own words from his famous 1858 House Divided speech, given in front of the Republican State Convention in Illinois:

          I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved�I do not expect the house to fall�but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new�North as well as South. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=103

          So unless the honorable Mr. Lincoln was himself being disingenuous, I think that should be sufficient to illustrate Lincoln’s halving of the baby when it came to his personal beliefs vs. the realities of national unity. In his own words, he saw the POTENTIAL for preserving The Union as all-slave. Not that he WANTED that, or that he thought that would be the eventual result. I do think it explains his inclination to allow the country to slide down the slippery slope towards a dangerous, bloody and conclusive confrontation. But I doubt he foresaw just how bloody the end result would be.

          Of course, if you see any inconsistencies with my understanding, feel free to dig further. I know you will!

          Insofar as the South’s practice of commemorating (I think “celebrating” is a bit misguided.) the events of The Civil War, it’s perfectly natural for people of a region with a strong historical record of an event to ceremoniously recognize how said event affected the South’s post-war future. I also have no problem with commemorations designed to recognize the personal sacrifices Confederate soldiers made in their interpretation of “patriotic duty”, no matter how misguided we view their reasoning. Remember that the South and those who fought for her were forgiven their sins as part of reconciliation.

          In contrast to your comments on Germans “celebrating WWII” (Again, I think commemorate is a more appropriate term.), do you think they are also “celebrating” The Holocaust?


  2. How weird, the spouse and I were just discussing this the other day, why I don’t remember.

    I recall being instructed that slavery became the focused issues of the Civil War when a stronger motivation for the war and its rigors was required in the North as the CSA had gathered such momentum and was gaining the upper hand in the bloody conflict as Antietam (a fantastic battlefield to tour by the way) ended. It is a good thing about Pa., my home state, that it was the strongest abolitionist state in the North however, the level of aversion to slavery was not the same across the entire North. Also the act of Emancipation, an opening step in freeing the slaves, was intended to signal the Lincoln Administration / US’s disagreement with slavery to a wider audience which included European sympathizers, like France and England, whose support economically or in support of trade embargoes etc. may be needed to ultimately ensure the victory of the North. It was not a given that the North would triumph given the resolve of spirit it would take to face the unimaginable losses of life that were to follow leading up to Appomattox Courthouse.

    I think one of the great details of the Civil War is Lincoln’s comment that if he could save the Union without freeing a single slave he would do so.

    What a great leader, what a great American hero and dare I say, a Republican, Huzzah! (If you ever can do so visit his Springfield home / neighborhood and his tomb, very moving.)


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