Saturday, 4 July 2009

The US Civil War Was About Slavery

Primary version of this post is at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with picture of Abe Lincoln!

The view is being repeated too much that the United States Civil War was nothing to do with slavery. It’s wrong to think that the Civil War started because President Abraham Lincoln (pictured above) wanted to immediately emancipate slaves. Undoubtedly a lot of people do have the vague idea that was how the Civil War started. That does not make it right to say the Civil War was only about the right of states to secede from the Union, as the Confederacy attempted to do, and had nothing to do with slavery, and that Lincoln had no concern with emancipating slaves. The leaders of the Confederacy put the right to maintain slavery at the centre of their reasons for leaving the Union. See the ‘Cornerstone Speech’ of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. Stephens refers to Thomas Jefferson’s increasing belief during his life that slavery was wrong and that God would punish the United States for the institution and replies:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

The idea that the secession of the Confederacy and the Civil War were not about slavery is clearly shown to be nonsense by that passage.

Lincoln was a life long abolitionist. No one has seriously denied this, what some apologists for the Confederacy emphasise is that Lincoln had no immediate intention of emancipating all slaves before the Civil War. That is because Lincoln thought it would be wrong an imprudent to force the southern states to implement abolition, and is a completely different issue from the principle of abolitionism. Apologists for the Confederacy (often known as Neo-Confederates) put themselves in the perverse position of accusing Lincoln of respecting state rights too much (with regard to slavery) and not respecting them enough (with regard to the right to secede). The Neo-Confederates have never argued that Lincoln should have passed a federal measure to abolish slavery in all states, so they cannot reasonably criticise him for doing something they say he should not have done.

The other thing the Neo-Confederates emphasise about Lincoln’s attitude to race is that he became more radical over time and that he it’s not clear that he was ever completely committed to the view that the whites, blacks, and all human races are completely equal. We don’t know what conclusions Lincoln would have drawn about race had he lived much after the Civil War, but that would be because the Confederate fanatic John Wilkes Booth assassinated him. We do know that shortly before that assassination, Lincoln had called for voting rights for the ‘most intelligent’ African-Americans and it maybe that the conspiratorial circle round Booth was only planning to kidnap Lincoln before that speech pushed them towards murder. Lincoln’s attitudes to race developed during his life, beginning with the idea that slavery was wrong but that black Africans were inferior to whites and probably could not live on equal terms with whites and that emancipation from slavery would be a slow process, progressing to the idea that slavery should be ended immediately and that African-Americans should be given the chance to fight for the Union (about 200 000 took that opportunity to take up arms against the Confederate salve holding republic), and finally that African-Americans should be given equal political and civil rights though that idea was expressed in qualified way.

Lincoln’s attitudes to slavery on the eve of the Civil War are indicated by this letter to Alexander Stephens (with whom he had very cordial personal relations)

My dear Sir

Your obliging answer to my short note is just received, and for which please accept my thanks. I fully appreciate the present peril the country is in, and the weight of responsibility on me.

Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would,directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears.

The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.

Yours very truly


At that time, as the letter and all public evidence of the time indicates, Lincoln thought that slavery was wrong and should not be allowed to spread out of the southern states into the new western territories. This was a major issue of the time as the United States opened up the Frontier and settled the west. A few years before the Civil Warm, pro-slave southern whites launched an incursion into Kansas to use violence to enforce slavery in the new state. This shows the centrality of maintaining and extending slavery for the southern white leadership. They were not satisfied that Lincoln was willing to allow slavery in the southern states, but not beyond, they recognised this as the death sentence for slavery, if a slower one than immediate Union-wide abolitionism.

Lincoln though that maintaining the Union and abolishing slavery were both deeply moral and necessary calls. He though continuity of institutions, respect for the constitution as it existed, laws as they existed and the maintenance of the union precluded forcing the south to abolish slavery . This view is expressed in a letter to the radical Abolitionist journalist Horace Greeley who complained that Lincoln had not made abolition a war aim

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. 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

Critics of Lincoln usually leave out the phrase after the semicolon in the second sentence, because they prefer not to draw attention to Lincoln’s willingness to free all slaves. Even some people are not so critical of Lincoln have been manipulated by this selective quotation. This letter has to be understood in the context of the following points

  1. 1. Slavery was already abolished in the northern states.

  2. 2.Lincoln was completely and resolutely against slavery being allowed to spread outside the existing southern states.

  3. 3. Both Lincoln and the Confederate leaders thought this would slowly strangle the existence of slavery as slavery restricted to the agricultural and relatively backward south.

The Neo-Confederates cannot deny that Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation later in the Civil War. One response to this is to talk as if Lincoln was not already an abolitionist and as if the Proclamation was merely born of military and diplomatic necessity, that is keeping France and Britain which had already abolished slavery away from recognition of, or even alliance with, the Confederacy. The fact is was Lincoln was already an abolitionist, the hero of the radical abolitionists most of the time, though his compromises sometimes disappointed them. As for the military-diplomatic causes, the Neo-Confederates keep quiet about all the African-Americans who fought for Union and Father Abraham (as Lincoln was known to Union soldiers) and that was a major consideration in the Proclamation. The Neo-Confederates accuse Lincoln of acting for ‘political’ reasons. What other reasons do political leaders have for their actions? How could they deliver ideal objectives without following the logic of political forces and alliances? Surely the Confederate leaders acted in this way, and the radical abolitionist leaders, and the founders of the American Republic, and all political leaders ever. It is manifestly empty to accuse Lincoln of being a politician, but then the Neo-Confederate arguments are empty, and that really is the best they can do.

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