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What Really Caused the Civil War?

Civil War SoldiersI remember being taught in my history classes back in my school days that the primary cause of the Civil War was slavery. But as I got older, I saw a lot more contrarian views that said it was about other issues, like states rights, tariffs, or other economic issues. This topic has come up a lot more recently with the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and I even had a conversation with a friend who thinks the Civil War was mainly caused by tariffs. Looking at the survey results in a Pew article, Civil War at 150: Still Relevant, Still Divisive, nearly 48% of people think the war was primarily about states's rights, with only 38% thinking it was primarily about slavery.

Had I been misled all those years in history class? It wouldn't be the first time school had gotten something wrong. I decided to look into it, and what better source is there than the secession documents the states themselves wrote listing their justifications for seceding from the U.S. ? Below is a link to the full text of the secession documents from Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. These are the official reasons those states themselves gave for seceding.

Civil War Trust - The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States

If you go through and read those documents, there's one primary issue that jumps out as being repeated over and over - slavery. Even when the documents discuss states' rights, it's in the context of slave-holding vs. non-slave-holding states, or as a rationale of why the states should be allowed to secede. But if the seceding southerners themselves are to be believed, slavery was the primary reason for their secession.

Here are a few highlights from the various documents. First, here are the first two sentences from Georgia:

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

Here're the first two paragraphs from the Mississippi document:

In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

South Carolina mentioned 'slaveholding States' in the first paragraph, but most of its introduction was about the states rights justification for being allowed to secede. But after that, all their reasons for wanting to leave are slavery related. Here's one of those paragraphs (note the way it callously refers to owning slaves as 'rights of property'):

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

The Texas document started off with a little background on Texas's admission into the U.S., and had a couple paragraphs about the federal government not providing sufficient security, but the bulk is about slavery. Here's an especially bad paragraph:

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

The Virginia document was very short, without much justification given for why they were seceding. The first paragraph was about the extent of their justification. Note that it does specifically mention 'Southern Slaveholding States'.

The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.

Now, it's true that the full causes of the war are a little more complicated than that. While the north (i.e. the United States) was generally opposed to slavery, I'm not sure most people were so opposed that there was majority support to go to war over it. Many in the north supported the war to maintain the country. But it's rather clear that the primary cause for secession in the south was slavery.

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As an aside, I'll mention how I personally feel about this shameful aspect of our nation's history. Although I grew up in 'Yankee' states, I have ancestors from southern states, so I have heritage from both sides of the war. And while there are lots of aspects of my heritage I'm proud of, this certainly isn't one of them. When I see the Confederate flag, the feeling I get is what I'd imagine a German has when they see the Nazi flag. Slavery was a horrible, disgraceful institution, responsible for untold suffering through this country's history, culminating in a population of 4 million slaves at its peak. That slavery was ever practiced here is bad enough, but that it took a war to bring it to an end, that there were people willing to fight to the death to defend their right to own other human beings, is simply shameful.

We shouldn't necessarily demonize the people of the past, recognizing the Zeitgeist that permeated the culture ("no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit"). But we definitely shouldn't celebrate that part of our history, with monuments and memorials to the leaders of that shameful period, nor by proudly displaying any symbols of the Confederacy. That's not to say those symbols should be hidden and forgotten about. They should be maintained in museums. Slavery and the Civil War are a part of our history, and like the concentration camps in Germany, they must be remembered to remind ourselves of what normal people are capable of in the wrong circumstances, guarding against similar atrocities in the future.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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