Slavery was the central, but not the only, cause of Civil War

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

One hundred and fifty years ago, South Carolina seceded from the Union and put the nation on the path to its bloody civil war.

The NAACP and media commentators argue that plans by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other groups to commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the origins of the Confederacy ignore slavery’s role in the Civil War. Confederate celebrators rebut that the Rebs fought for noble causes like states rights and defending home and family against Northern invaders, and that the North hardly went to war to end slavery. Lincoln waited until mid-war to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Why can’t neo-Confederates and their critics find common ground? The problem is that both sides simplify the past. Let me explain.

Lincoln hated slavery, but he and his Republican party insisted they had no intentions of using federal power to dismantle slavery in southern states. Republicans knew the Constitution had clauses protecting slaveholders’ interests, although it avoided using the actual term "slavery." Lincoln, a lawyer, did not believe his party had the right to violate the Constitution, and knew the clauses had been included so Southern states would ratify the document in the first place. Neither Lincoln nor his party endorsed the abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry to free the slaves.

On the other hand, the Constitution did give Congress governance over U.S. territories. The most divisive disputes between the North and the South before the Civil War had to do with slavery in the territories.

The Civil War came because Lincoln and Republicans opposed slavery expansion, though Southerners had other grievances like Northern non-compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act. Initially, Republicans worried about slavery spreading westward ("Bleeding Kansas"). By Lincoln’s inauguration, they had won the West for freedom. No western territories became slave states after 1845, but several including Kansas became free states. Slavery could, however, still go southward towards the tropics.

In fact, it was already heading that way. Not only did Lincoln’s predecessors as president try to purchase the slaveholding island of Cuba for the U.S., but American adventurers called "filibusters" had been trying to conquer it. Just a few years earlier, Mississippi’s former governor and Mexican War hero John A. Quitman, who owned several plantations himself, plotted an expedition to make a slave state of Cuba. William Walker, a Tennessee native, conquered Nicaragua and then became president and legalized slavery there. When Central American armies expelled him, he dedicated himself to re-conquering Nicaragua, announcing publicly he was doing it for the South.

Lincoln understood the threat, telling Republicans to block a last-ditch deal to preserve the Union by guaranteeing slavery in territory the U.S. "hereafter" acquired in Latin America. He warned them to prevent "compromise of any sort on ‘slavery extension’ "because if it passed "filibustering and extending slavery recommences." He undoubtedly knew from newspaper headlines that just weeks earlier a Honduran firing squad had executed Walker during yet another attempt to conquer Central America.

To emphasize slavery expansion rather than slavery in the states is not to excuse neo-Confederates from dealing with slavery. One need only read what Southern leaders said in 1860, their secession ordinances, or the Confederate Constitution, to see how absurd it is to divorce slavery from the Civil War. The Confederate Constitution mandated that in all territory "the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected." Late in the war, when desperate proposals were floated for arming and freeing slaves to stave off military defeat, Southern politicians protested it would negate the whole reason the war was fought.

As Robert Hunter, the Confederate Senate’s president pro tempore exclaimed, "What did we go to war for, if not to protect our property?" The ultimate purpose of slavery’s expansion was, of course, to perpetuate and strengthen the "peculiar institution" in the South itself, by giving the South more political power and more land for plantations. Many Southerners believed that if slavery didn’t expand, it would die. So did Lincoln and the Republicans.

Slavery had more, not less, to do with secession than most people think, but not in the simplistic way Civil War causation is usually interpreted. For the Sesquicentennial to get it right, both neo-Confederates and their critics need to explain to the American people that the war was over slavery as refracted through the issue of territorial expansion, southward as well as westward. Until they get it right, they will continue talking past each other.

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