The Civil War… Slavery or States’ Rights? (Answer: Both)

Was the Civil War about slavery or states’ rights? And are supporters of states’ rights, by extension, supporters of slavery?

I recently responded to a Facebook debate over these very questions (I know, I know…I should avoid that sort of thing…but in my defense, I did ask for permission to enter the discussion and was approved), and what I intended for a succinct reply quickly grew into the following more essay-like response. So instead of constantly re-inventing the wheel, I figured it would make a good blog post (I have slightly expanded it here).

First, to suggest that it was EITHER slavery OR states’ rights is far oversimplified. It was clearly both. But real history doesn’t fit on bumper stickers.

To clear one important point up , many southerners were genuinely concerned about the future of slavery in the south, and hence the language in their declarations of secession that testify to that. There is clearly no moral defense of this concern; it should rightly be condemned. However–and this is a key reminder–at the outset of the war1, and indeed even through most of the war, the end or continuation of slavery was not in immediate question or the immediate cause of the war. Lincoln did not start the war with any intent to end slavery in the south. In fact, he had earlier supported a Constitutional amendment that would have specifically protected slavery where it existed. The decision for the emancipation of southern slaves was a strategic move to destabilize the southern economy and encourage southern slaves to have a vested interest in a Northern victory.2 I comment on Lincoln’s views of slavery in the footnotes.It also exempted states like Kentucky and Missouri (where secession was still in debate throughout the early part of the war) and allowed them to retain their slaves if they remained in the Union.

With that being said, saying that the Civil War was about either slavery or states’ rights is like saying the American Revolution was about either taxes or self-government. It’s clearly both. To risk redundancy, saying that the war was really about slavery and not really about states’ rights would be to say that the American Revolution is about self-government and not about unjust taxation. (I’m not drawing a moral equivalency–for crying out loud!–just observing the facts as they stand.)

Let’s start with states’ rights, the legal and immediate question of the war. In 2017, we can’t really understand the states’ rights arguments in the way they were viewed in early American history because we live in a day and age of increasingly centralized power. Local self-government had much of its roots in the Middle Ages, which then endured very importantly in England itself, and many of the American conservatives throughout the colonial period had enjoyed self-government for so long that it was considered, to them, to be part of the unwritten, but very real British Constitution.

The southerners were very much in this vein of belief that power ought to be distributed between multiple sources, in line with the Jeffersonian position (and most of the Constitutional Framers). The modern central state that we have today was not the federal government of the U.S. founders, and as southerners saw it becoming more and more powerful, cesetion was their recourse as negotiations broke down.

This was not something they made up. Multiple states only ratified the Constitution itself on the promise by Constitutional supporters that it did not bring an end to state sovereignty. The states were the primary political unit (like the countries in the UN), and the federal government was formed by the states for pragmatic purposes, mostly related to foreign affairs. During its ratification process, Virginia ratification delegates deliberately said they would only ratify if they retained their right to secede if the federal government went beyond the limited powers granted in the Constitution. Rhode Island and New York maintained similar provisions. When the southern states seceded, the reality that the U.S. was becoming a centralized modern state was on the forefront of many peoples’ minds both in the north and south.

Robert E. Lee wrote, “I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only are essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.”4

Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were both against slavery on moral grounds. Lee called slavery a “moral and political evil.”5

The question of secession (and states’ rights more generally) had a more vigorous northern tradition than southern. In fact, New England states had been the first to seriously consider withdrawal from the Union during the War of 1812 due to what they considered unfair federal tariff laws and a federally-imposed embargo. As one of many examples, the Connecticut legislature proclaimed in 1812, “It must not be forgotten, that the state of Connecticut is a free sovereign and independent state; that the United States are a confederacy of states; that we are a confederated and not a consolidated republic.”6 The Massachusetts governor, MA Supreme Court and legislature all concurred and issued a similar statement. New England secession was openly debated at the Hartford Convention of 1814-1815. Later, after the Fugitive Slave Law of the 1850s required active state participation in the rounding up of slaves who had escaped to the north, multiple northern states actively nullified the law—instructing their police forces to ignore it, and several passed “personal liberty laws” for this very purpose.

As for the soldiers in the war, most war memoirs and letters show that soldiers, by and large, were first and foremost concerned with self-government and the self-determination of each political society to decide its own course, as the Founders had been in 1776.

The question of states’ rights and secession was pushed to the point of crisis because of the question of the expansion of slavery. With newly acquired territory from Mexico in 1848, and a population balance in the north putting far more northerners into the federal government than southerners, attempts to compromise on decisions about whether or not newly created states would be permitted to have slavery or not frequently broke down, and those that went through were fraught with controversy. Voting fraud during the vote on statehood in Kansas led to bloodshed there as early as 1854. (There were only 2 slaves in Kansas at the time!)

Also, the abolitionist movement in the North was very small, but very loud. Led by people like William Lloyd Garrison, a small number of passionate abolitionists were very active. Of course, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had profound effect on northerners, drawing many into the abolitionist viewpoint. With that, free-soil parties, like the Republican Party, were formed on the basis of preventing the expansion of slavery into newly created states. (It is important to note that many northerners were opposed to the expansion of slavery because they thought it would crowd out work opportunities for northern laborers moving west.)

Nevertheless, southern concerns that an increasingly powerful federal government filled with more and more abolitionists who might seek to end slavery were real. There is no illusion about the fact that many southerners were very intent on ensuring the institution continue. (As a side note, only 25% of southerners owned slaves. The aristocratic structure of southern society ensured that it was these people who held the vast influence over southern policy.) With people like Jackson and Lee as exceptions, many certainly had their personal financial investments anchored in slavery, and even George Washington had not been able to overcome his financial dependence on the enslavement of humans (while he lived; he bequeathed them freedom after his wife’s death), despite his disdain for the institution as a whole (I commented on this briefly in my previous post, as well.)

So clearly it’s not an ‘either-or’ question. When the war broke out, Lincoln nor his generals were fighting to end slavery; that wasn’t in the question with regard to immediate causes of the war, though many southerners were concerned about the trend in powerful central government that might limit or seek to end the institution.

Real history doesn’t fit onto bumper stickers.

And more than anything, it is so important to understand (and accept) that people who argue that the war was fought for states’ rights are not supporting slavery and may, in fact, be supporting the very traditional and conservative principle of self-government. They can both argue that point and argue that southern slave-holders were profoundly hypocritical in their views on liberty and condemn slavery as the despicable institution that it is; there is no dissonance with that position. To explain or endorse the states’ rights cause of southern secession is not even a defense of the Confederacy, let alone to support slavery or even ‘white nationalism’. Likewise, we shouldn’t ignore the slavery issue and its broad cultural acceptance at that time, nor be insensitive or uncharitable to those who bring attention of this reality to the forefront. But let’s not pretend that the evil of slavery is still being supported by the vast majority of those who see the argument made by Robert E. Lee, as quoted above.

I ask for charity both ways. A rarity, to be sure.

As in all things, condemn what is evil and immoral and praise what is good and virtuous, rather than picking teams and calling names. Let’s be charitable, understanding, and honest.

Some will argue that Lincoln did not start the war because the south fired the first shots at Ft. Sumter, which in fact they did. However, most historians agree, on account of Lincoln’s discussions with his Cabinet, that he very much intended to provoke them, even after the Confederacy government had offered to pay for the land occupied by federal bases, including Ft. Sumter. 

In August of 1863, Lincoln wrote his friend, attorney and federal agent James Conkling, “I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. .. I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you.” 

Lincoln was opposed to slavery as an institution. He wrote, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is.” But he also argued that the “physical difference” between blacks and whites prevented them from ever being able to live together, and argued clearly that whites ought to have the superior position. He supported a plan to encourage blacks to move to Liberia. He later on did appear to have been glad of the opportunity to free slaves as a consequence of the war on moral grounds, but even after the emancipation declaration, he would still contend that he would have sought war to preserve the Union with or without the end of slavery. 

4Quoted in 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask ©2007, Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Ph.D, page 76.


6 Ibid, page 31.