Slavery: Did it cause secession and the War Between the States?

By Bill Ward

"What were the causes of the Southern independence movement
in 1860? . . . Northern commercial and manufacturing interests had
forced through Congress taxes that oppressed Southern planters and
made Northern manufacturers rich . . . the South paid about three-quarters
of all federal taxes, most of which were spent in the North."

Charles Adams writing in, “For Good and Evil: The impact of
taxes on the course of civilization," 1993, Madison Books.

Ask several persons why the American Civil War or the War Between
the States (WBTS) was fought, and you’ll likely get answers
ranging from, “to free the slaves” and “states
rights,” to a few blank stares. Many will have trouble identifying
the difference between the Confederate battle flag, the “Stars
and Bars,” and the “Stars and Stripes.” Let’s
face it, the history education and knowledge of most U.S. citizens
leaves much to be desired.

During a discussion several years ago with the late Shelby Foote,
one of the great researchers and writers of WBTS history of our
time, I asked a common question of this very knowledgeable man.
Was the Civil War (my term at the time) fought about states rights
or freeing the slaves? I had been taught as an elementary school
child in the 1940s that it was all about the latter: freeing the

Shelby’s answer was quick and well thought out, as if he had
pondered the question many times: “A lot of people would like
to know the answer to that. If you want to make a million dollars,
do a lot of research, determine exactly why that war was fought,
and then write a book about it.” He went on to say that a
long list of social, political and economic differences existed
between the people of the north and the south.

Popular history has demonized the Confederacy on the issues of slavery
and secession, conveniently overlooking that neither originated
in the South. A simple fact understood by all serious students of
history is, the North no more fought a war to free any slaves than
the South fought a war to keep the institution of slavery intact.
To say, as some do, that the Civil War was all about slavery is
as foolish as those who say slavery had absolutely nothing to do
with the war. Slavery was far down the list of regional differences
mentioned by Shelby Foote, while the economic state of affairs ranked
very high.

Consider this startling statistic of present-day society: the top
50 percent of income earners pay 96.5 percent of the federal income
taxes, while the lowest 44 percent pay no federal income taxes at

Now, suppose you lived in a region of the country that paid 70 to
80 percent to support the federal government, while another region
received most of that money to benefit its citizens and businesses?

That was the financial situation in the United States in 1861 when
the Southern states were paying, through excessively high import
tariffs, most of the support for the federal government in Washington.
And most of that money was funneled to northern industrial interests
for expansion. In the mid-1800s, that was called “internal
improvements.” Today, it’s “business incentives.”

As to the slavery issue, the stripes in the U.S. flag represent
the 13 original colonies, the northern-most of which, in their infancy,
legalized and profited from slavery. Massachusetts, then including
Maine, became the first colony to legalize slavery in 1641, pressing
most of that state’s Native American population into bondage.
From 1755 to 1766, an estimated 23,000 Africans were sold or traded
through Massachusetts alone. And other northern states shared in
the human bounty.

A colonist quoted in Pennsylvania Packet, a Philadelphia newspaper,
on February 7, 1774 said, “I beheld a middle aged African
raised and exposed on one of the stalls in the shambles of Philadelphia
market at Public Sale, as a Slave for life. And this is the capital
of Pennsylvania, a land high in the profession of Liberty and Christianity.”

The shipping colonies of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire
chose financial gain from slave trading over moral considerations.
New England seaports thrived on a profitable business of slave importing,
clearly marking the pathway of the slave trade from north to south.

During the framing of the Constitution, in a third compromise, the
abolition of the slave-trade was introduced. South Carolina opposed
immediate abolition. Since the New England ship-owners made great
profits by the trade, the New England states joined South Carolina
and Georgia in voting that Congress should be powerless to stop
the importing of slaves before 1808, extending the slave trade by
Constitutional edict for twenty years. Virginia and three northern
states voted against the provision. Later, in 1832, the Virginia
legislature narrowly defeated a bill for emancipating all slaves
in the state. Part of the reason for the defeat was a perception
of interference in state business by Northern abolitionists, such
as William Lloyd Garrison.

By the mid-1800s, the slave trade had drastically declined, and
many states had adopted laws permitting gradual emancipation. Then
smuggling became an alternative industry during attempts to outlaw
the Northern slave trade. In 1858, just three years before the WBTS,
Yankee sea captains smuggled more than 15,000 slaves into New York
alone. The following year, 85 vessels sailed from N.Y. to bring
in more human cargo. By then, the slave trade had thrived on U.S.
soil and under U.S. colors, in some form, for some 200 years before
the Confederacy existed.

But perhaps the most surprising event that might have affected slavery
in this country is one that is seldom, if ever, mentioned in most
history textbooks, and is probably not known by most history teachers.
It was the introduction of the Corwin Amendment, or the proposed
13th Amendment to the Constitution, in March of 1861, which we’ll
discuss in a later column.

©April 2006