Yes, I’m talking about the American Civil War.
For my friends in the North slash most of the rest of the world, yes, this is a conversation we’re still having.
For my friends in the South, holy shit, how exhausting is this conversation we have to keep having?
For everyone who thinks this is a conversation we SHOULD keep having because you disagree that it was about slavery…well, we’re probably not friends.
For everyone who’s confused, this piece is meant to break it down for you. I’ll go over the arguments people make, and why they’re wrong, and what I think the war was really about (hint: it’s slavery).
First, a brief history lesson.
The American Civil War was fought from 1861-1865 under the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. He was elected on a platform to ban slavery throughout the Union, and in response seven Southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America (or the Confederacy). The Confederacy then expanded to include 6 more states, 2 unofficially, plus the Chocktaw and Chickasaw nations and the then-uncontrolled Confederate State of Arizona. Many of them, in their official declarations of secession, addressed slavery directly or indirectly as the reason. The Confederacy believed that several European states would be dependent enough upon their cotton production to intervene on their behalf, but none did. The Union spoke of avoiding war, but a Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina began hostilities in 1861. The war was the deadliest in American history, with estimates showing the deaths of about 10% of Northern men aged 20-45 and 30% of Southern men aged 18-40.¹
And now, the arguments:
“It was about states’ rights”
Okay, yes. It was about states’ rights.
To own slaves.
I mean, come on.
The war was literally fought because the Republicans, particularly Lincoln, wanted to abolish slavery. When Lincoln was elected on this platform, the South was so intent on holding to their slaves–motivated, I might add, by money, as their economy depended heavily upon slave labor–that they seceded from the Union. Seceded. And they knew they were risking war to do this; risking the lives of millions of their own people. And like I mentioned above, they lost close to 30% of their young men.
Make no mistake: while a good percentage of poor whites in the South supported slavery³ (which, gross), this was not their war. All they had to gain from slavery was being not the very lowest social class; slavery was not good for the majority of society even in the South. Poor whites believed the lie of white supremacy (this mentality is still totally there, too, but that’s for a different day) and like many poor Americans to this day, identified with the ruling class and hoped to be part of it someday. Many of them supported the war and many of the descendants of these people are the most outspoken supporters of it to this day. But, though the mindset of the masses only further clarifies the fact that slavery was the primary motivation, they weren’t the ones deciding on this war. This was a ruling class war, directed by the wealthy slave-owning class to protect their status, and fought by the masses.
It’s worth noting that support for the war and for slavery in general was much lower in slave-holding places with low numbers of slaves. Some believe this is because it was easier for whites of all classes to imagine a society in which blacks were free when a) they were not the majority and b) the economy was not so heavily dependent upon slave labor.
The war did become, in part, about the right to secede, when the Union was like “bruh, you can’t secede” and then fought a war over it. Which, I mean, fair? Kinda? But none of the states seceded over the right to secede, they seceded over their right to own slaves.³ South Carolina even mentioned the fact that the Northern states had stopped returning escaped slaves to bondage as part of their reasoning, saying they weren’t “fulfilling their Constitutional obligations.” If anything, the war was more about secession on the part of the North than it was on the part of the South. The North was fighting primarily to keep the Union together, emancipating the slaves came after the fact. But the South started the war to protect their right to own slaves, not to protect their right to secede.
Look…even if it was about the right to secede. This country is weird and its government is weird and kind of unfair and we’ve been arguing since the very beginning about whether more power should be concentrated federally or on a state level. It took us four freaking years after winning independence to write our constitution because of this argument. We almost lost Rhode Island over it. I get that people were split over this, and I get that it was complex. It still is. The right to secede might be a right that someone not-terrible could fight for.
On top of the fact–and I can’t stress this enough–that the war was not actually fought over the right to secede…even if you were a small-government type, agreeing on a federal level to get rid of slavery shouldn’t have been a hard sell, except to protect the economic interests of the Southern ruling class.
Nearly every other country in the Western world had outlawed slavery. The cotton plantations of the American South had long been considered brutal and barbaric by huge factions of America as well as others around the world. Even during the American War for Independence, we were mocked for pompously declaring that “all men are created equal” while running one of the most horrendous slave systems the modern world had ever seen.
The “it was a different time” argument really doesn’t work here. Everyone knew slavery was morally wrong, even then. Because it’s pretty obvious. They just did it anyway. See: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, etc.²
Also, #justsaying, the Confederate constitution declared outright that “negro slavery” shall be “recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government” which sounds to me like a constitutional mandate FOR slavery which, you might notice, also goes against “states’ rights.”4
So. Y’know. At the end of the day, I think it’s pretty obvious.
“Slavery was already on its way out”
Nah, bruh. This is 100% not true. I’m going to cite the same WaPo article for a third time here…slavery was making Southern elites a buttload of money.³ Slaves were worth more than all the railroads and manufacturing companies in the nation. No ruling class has ever given up that kind of power of its own accord.
This shit was not on its way out, I don’t buy that for one second.
Also, if it were, it doesn’t seem like the South would be so opposed to just ripping off the band-aid and outlawing it that they’d secede and start the bloodiest war in American history over it, does it?
“It was really about taxes and tariffs”
Nope. I’m sorry, this is just cold hard facts.
This argument was circulated after the war in the “anything but slavery” phase. There had been a complaint or two about taxes & tariffs in the century leading up to the war, but by 1860 tariffs were the lowest they’d been since 1816.5 It was not expensive to be a slave-owner, and lower taxes were not anyone’s motive for fighting this war. Sorry. Next.
…oh wait, that’s it? That’s all the arguments?
Just about, yeah. Pretty stupid, huh? It seems really fucking obvious to me. Hopefully it does to you too, now, or if it already did, hopefully it gives you more ammo when you inevitably end up in this argument with someone on the internet.
In happier news, New Orleans took down a statue today of Confederate President Jefferson Davis,6 so at least we’re slowly (sloooowwwwwwllly) dismantling the systemic worship of the people who led millions of people to their deaths to defend their right to own other people like cattle. Fun!
Tell me how wrong I am in the comments below!
- Huddleston, John (2002). Killing Ground: The Civil War and the Changing American Landscape. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-6773-6.
- Ambrose, Stephen. “Founding Fathers and Slaveholders.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 01 Nov. 2002. Web. 11 May 2017.
- Loewen, James. “5 Myths about why the South seceded.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 09 Jan. 2011. Web. 11 May 2017.
- “Constitution of the Confederate States; March 11, 1861.” Avalon Project – Constitution of the Confederate States; March 11, 1861. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 May 2017.
- Flanagin, Jake. “For the last time, the American Civil War was not about states’ rights.” Quartz. Quartz, 08 Apr. 2015. Web. 11 May 2017.
- Mele, Christopher. “Jefferson Davis Statue in New Orleans Is Removed.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 May 2017. Web. 11 May 2017.