How The War Was About Slavery

Gettysburg Address

In my capacity as editor of the Palmetto Partisan, I keep a very close eye on the news for articles regarding the Confederacy, especially as it relates to South Carolina, in the hope that our staff can use some of this information to produce timely and relevant content for our division journal. To do this I employ a news search programme that that emails a link to all news articles that contain the words “confederacy” or “confederate,” and “South Carolina.” Believe it or not, there is hardly a day that goes by that someone, somewhere in the world doesn’t have something to say about our fair state as it relates to our Confederate heritage and especially the symbols of that heritage. I have come to believe that if one wants to get his or her “name out there,” one simply needs to say or type the word “Confederate” and all hell will break loose!

Why is the “C-word” so provocative? Why is anything associated with the Confederacy treated with such contempt? Why is it that anyone who does not repudiate the cause for Southern independence convicted in the court of public opinion as being either ignorant or hateful, usually both?

The answer is as simple as it is predictable: It is because the Confederacy is “tainted” with the great enormity of the “S-word,” SLAVERY!

In the current dialogue, whether in the media, academia, or elsewhere, there is be one and only one acceptable answer to the questions concerning the cause and/or meaning of the war, namely, that it was “about slavery.”

Setting aside the fallacious assumption that secession causes war, this position—that the war was about slavery—normally implies that The South seceded from the union in order to preserve slavery or that The South seceded because the slavery was threatened by the election of Abraham Lincoln, or something to that effect.

However, the characterization that the war was “about slavery” can only have meaning if we look not only at the role slavery played in the division of the Union, but also during the actual conflict between those divided.

There appears to be a fundamental difference between why one political body separates from another and why they would engage in mortal combat.

It seems reasonable, therefore, for us to demand an answer to following question before engaging anyone wishing debate or discuss the relationship between slavery and the war: IF THE WAR WAS ABOUT SLAVERY, THEN HOW WAS IT ABOUT SLAVERY?

This is the question I am putting forth this evening.

Secession and Slavery

Let us begin with the issue of secession. (Although the notion that secession causes war is questionable at best, it is a commonly held assumption that must be addressed.) Before doing so, however, it must be pointed out that The South did not secede, but rather individual Southern states seceded. Because of this, it is erroneous to ask why The South seceded in the first place.

The only appropriate question, given this reality, would be why did individual Southern states secede?

The causes for the secession—or non-secession, as the case may be—of individual Southern states, was not a monolithic or one dimensional affair, but rather, a multifaceted response to the election of Abraham Lincoln and his subsequent determination to preserve the Union.

This is not to say that the conflict had not been brewing for decades, only that Lincoln was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

During the first wave of secession, beginning with South Carolina on 20 December 1860, many of the Deep South states made it clear that their actions were, at least in part, motivated by the perceived threat to the institution of slavery. Other “slave states,” particularly those of the upper and western regions of the South, remained in the union until Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to quell the “rebellion.” Still other slave states did not secede at all, but stayed in the union—some by express consent, others through coercion.

Insofar as slavery was linked to the stated reasons for secession in some of the individual Southern States, it consisted of the preservation of slavery where it existed, the extension of slavery into the territories, and/or the fugitive slave laws.

Of these, the preservation of slavery would appear to be the only relevant issue for the purposes of our inquiry.

This is because by leaving the Union, the Southern states forfeited any claim to settle or affect any legislation regarding how and by whom the territories would be settled.  Likewise, the fugitive slave laws of the United States became a moot point after the exodus of the seceding Southern States from that political arrangement.

The Corwin Amendment

Between December 1860 and April 1861, seven states had declared their independence from the United States without any shots being fired.

During this crucial interim, the 36th U.S. Congress set to work in earnest to find a compromise to bring the seceded states back into the Union, or at least avert the exodus of the eight other Southern states that where considering secession at that time.

Among the many proposals put forth, one gained significant bi-partisan support in both houses of Congress.  It was an amendment to the Constitution, what would have become (ironically) the 13th.  Named after Representative Thomas Corwin of Ohio, The Corwin Amendment would unambiguously and permanently protect the institution of slavery from any action taken by the central government:

Art. 13. No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of the said State.[i]

Although largely symbolic—no one at that time believed that the central government had such a power—this resolution was put forth to assure the South there would be no effort made by the United States government to interfere with slavery in the Southern States; that they were willing to put it in writing and guarantee that the issue would never again be a cause of concern to them if they would return to the union and/or remain therein.

Representative David Kilgore of Indiana, in arguing for its adoption, reminded his fellow Republicans that they had always repudiated the notion of interfering with slavery in the South, and that he was “willing that the principle shall be engraved upon the Mountain rocks, to endure for all time.”[ii]

Senator Steven Douglas, one of Senate’s most enthusiastic supporters of the resolution, characterized the Corwin Amendment as evidence that the North was neither hostile to the South nor to its domestic institution of slavery. “[I]f the northern states will by three forth majority come forward and insert this clause in the Constitution, it proves conclusively that there is no such sentiment [in] the North.”[iii]

Both men got what they wanted. The resolution passed the House on February 28, 1861 and the Senate on March 3, 1861.

In an unusual move, Democratic President James Buchanan signed the Amendment that same day, his last day in office.[iv]

In his inaugural address on March 4, 1861—THE DAY FOLLOWING THE AMENDMENTS PASSAGE IN THE SENATE—Abraham Lincoln said:

I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution—which amendment, however, I have not seen (sic)—has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service…. [H]olding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.[v]

Thirteen days later Lincoln sent a copy of the amendment to the governors of all the States, including those states that were out of the Union,[vi] an action that can only be interpreted as a lobbying effort to affect the passage of the amendment.[vii]

His efforts failed.[viii]

Not one of the states that had left the Union returned.  In fact, four of the eight Southern states contemplating secession during the attempted compromise would eventually leave the Union, bringing the total number of independent states to eleven.

The Emancipation Proclamation

Much has been made of what Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation actually did (or didn’t do), but little has been said of what it intended to do.

As “fit and necessary war measure” to suppress the “rebellion,” its purpose was NOT TO END SLAVERY, but to END THE WAR.

When the proclamation was issued on September 22, 1863, it provided a 100 day window in which those states or parts of states which were designated as being “in rebellion against the United States” could, THROUGH THEIR OWN ACTIONS, preserve slavery in their own territory by returning to the Union.

If any or all of the States comprising the Confederate States of America would have complied with the conditions enumerated in the proclamation, they would have extricated themselves completely from the threat of abolition, yet no state did.

While Union apologists would have us believe that Lincoln’s position on slavery evolved during the war, the facts do not support this conclusion.

The Emancipation Proclamation was nothing more than an echo of the Corwin Amendment which put forth the preservation of slavery as an enticement to woo the “wayward” states back into the fold of the Union.

The difference, however, was that this offer was free from the constraints of the legislative process and/or the adoption of it in sufficient numbers by the other states.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation has been hailed as a great moral achievement, one wonders how this interpretation came about.  It did not free one single slave where it was intended to have an effect, namely, the Confederate States that were not under Union control, and it held in bondage all those slaves residing in those states or parts of states that were under Union control.

In fact, an honest reading of the actual document reveals that it was nothing more than an offer to perpetuate slavery.

If the intention of the document was to free any slave whatsoever, then those slaves in the occupied areas of the Confederacy could have been set free at once.

Of course, Lincoln could have freed the slaves in the Union States as well, but the document is clear that only those states or regions “in rebellion” were to be effected by the proclamation.

If the intention of the document was to free the slaves in the Southern Confederacy, then why was not the proclamation to go into effect immediately? Why the 100 day window?  After all, there was nothing preventing the South from accepting the terms of the offer, thereby ending the long and bloody conflict with slavery left intact.

The moral content attributed to the Emancipation Proclamation results from the Confederacy’s failure to comply with its demands, thus triggering an emancipation that, according to the American mythology, freed the slaves, but according to the plain facts of history, did no such thing.

Ask yourself this: How would the Emancipation Proclamation be viewed today if the Southern States had chosen differently?  Would it be hailed as the sacred document that “freed the slaves”? Would still be called the “Great Emancipator”?

I think these questions answer themselves.

Slavery in the Territories

Because we have been conditioned to view the extension of slavery into the territories as a moral issue, it is necessary to deviate from our focus on slavery in the states and consider, briefly, the issue of slavery in the territories.

It is an undisputed fact that Lincoln was inflexible and unwavering in his opposition to the expansion of slavery into the territories.  In this regard he was clearly anti-slavery.

His opposition to slavery in the territories, however, had nothing to do with the actual institution of slavery.  Insofar as Lincoln was in favour of keeping the territories free, it was to keep them free for white immigration and free from black immigration.  According to Lincoln,

The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these territories. We want them for the homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted within them.[ix]

In Lincoln’s view the presence of “Negros” in any capacity was not only “troublesome” but would pose a threat to the white worker.

This was not merely a position of political expediency, for Lincoln it was a moral imperative.

“Is it not rather our duty,” he rhetorically asked, “to make labor more respectable by preventing all black competition, especially in the territories?”[x]

Lincoln’s position on the territories had nothing to do with whether slavery was right or wrong, but only with his personal distain for those occupants of the continent of African descent.

To employ an ill-defined “neo-yankee” term of derision: Mr Lincoln was a “racist.” [xi]

Conclusion

To conclude, let us return to our original question: If the war was about slavery, then how was it about slavery?

Was the war about slavery because some of the Southern States seceded, in part, because they perceived the election and ascendancy of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency as a threat to the “peculiar institution”?

If so, then how do we deal with the fact that Congress passed a resolution that would have expressly and permanently removed the perceived threat by amending the Constitution itself?

How do we deal with the fact that Lincoln was in favour of its passage, supported it in public, and promoted its passage in private during his first days in office?

How do we deal with the fact that the threat to slavery (whether real or imagined) was vanished before Fort Sumter and before the second wave of Southern secession?

Was the war about slavery because the South wanted to preserve the institution for themselves, to protect it from the machinations of the federal government?

If so, then against whom were they fighting?

Given the Corwin Amendment that preceded the war and the Emancipation Proclamation that occurred during the war, both of which offered the preservation of slavery in exchange for re-entering the Union, why was there a fight to begin with? Why did the fight continue as long as it did?

Was the war about slavery because of the threat of having slavery excluded from the territories?

If so, why did the Southern States voluntarily relinquish any claim to the territories they may have previously held by seceding from the Union?

How was it that they expected to gain any benefit from territories controlled by a government with whom they had just separated?   In what way did this further their interests?

Furthermore, how is it that the movement to prevent slavery in the territories by Abraham Lincoln and others is viewed as a great moral crusade held over and against the “racist” South when, in fact, the opposite was the case?

If it is intended, as I suspect it to be, to be a moral criticism of the motives and actions of the Confederate States or to give a moral justification for the criminal actions of the United States, then I think we ought to ask the people making this claim—especially given the foregoing—how the war was about slavery.

I, for one, would love to know!

[i] “H.J.R. No. 80.” 12 United Statues at Large, 36th Congress, 2nd Session, 1861, 251.

[ii] Quoted in A. Christopher Bryant’s “Stopping time: the pro-slavery and ‘irrevocable’ thirteenth amendment,” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, 26.2, (Spring 2003), 522

[iii]  Ibid., 528

[iv] Harp Week.  Slavery and the Secession Crises.  http://13thamendment.harpweek.com/HubPages/CommentaryPage.asp?Commentary=02CorwinAmend  (Accessed 26 September 2011)

Note: The Constitution does not require presidential approval for proposed amendments.

[v] Lincoln‘s Inaugurals, Addresses and Letters (Selections). http://www.archive.org/stream/lincolnsinaugura14274gut/14274.txt (Accessed 26 September 2011)

[vi]. Lupton, John A. “Lincoln and the Corwin Amendment.” http://www.lib.niu.edu/2006/ih060934.html  (Accessed 26 September 2011)

[vii] Lupton argues (See ibid.) that the letters do not expressly endorse the amendment (despite Lincoln’s remarks to the contrary cited in the first inaugural) and that even if he did, his views on slavery evolved from that time and these letters only serve to underscores Lincoln’s evolution toward emancipation.  It is my argument, however, that Lincoln’s view on slavery was consistent thought the war.

[viii] Three states, however, did ratify the amendment, viz., Ohio, Maryland, and Illinois.  This resolution, interestingly, has never been recalled and is still officially pending before the other state legislatures for ratification.

[ix] Lincoln, Abraham. “Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act,” 16 October 1854.  Documents for the Study of American History. http://www.vlib.us/amdocs/texts/kansas.html  (Accessed 30 September 2011, italics added)

[x]  Lincoln, Abraham.  The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol III.  Ed. Roy P. Basler, (11 vols.) Ruthgers, 1955, 79 (Italics added)

[xi] For a detailed work on the issue of Lincoln, race, and slavery, I highly recommend Lenore Bennett, Jr.’s Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 2000).   Mr. Bennett is an African-American scholar, author, historian, and former executive editor of Ebony Magazine.

About Paul C. Graham

Paul C Graham he holds a Bachelor and Masters Degree in Philosophy from the University of South Carolina. He is past president of the SC Masonic Research Society and the current editor of The Palmetto Partisan, the official journal of the SC Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Mr. Graham is a member of several organizations including The Society of Independent Southern Historians and The William Gilmore Simms Society. More from Paul C. Graham

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3 thoughts on “How The War Was About Slavery

  1. A small correction to your article, ….the preliminary emancipation was issued September 22, 1862,…not 63′, and was enacted into law January 1, 1863.
    ….otherwise, a fine, and historically accurate read! Well done!

  2. A good and thought provoking post.

    The paragraph about moral high ground is spot on. If appearing on C-Span, it is accompanied by a palpable smugness.

    Of course, it would be career limiting for court historians to conclude that the potential Confederates were good at math and understood the concept of tyranny of the future majorities, slavery or not.

    White South Carolinians also noticed that being a minority produced fitful sleep with the likes of John Brown and the Wide-Awakes gaining influence. How many Nat Turners does it take to understand parlous?

    If it weren’t for the 3/5ths clause, the arithmetic of 1787 would have meant no Union in 1860 from which it would have been necessary to secede.

    Democracy, unhinged from Constitutional restraint, produces powerful majorities. The Address of the People of South Carolina (1860) gives better insight as to “cause” than the now conflated and ambiguous term “slavery”.

    Secession was a great risk to the peculiar institution. Not seceding was a great risk to liberty. It was all in the numbers.

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