The Perennial Question: Was Slavery the Cause of the Civil War?

Slave shackes

Slavery was the most divisive issue in U.S. history, but how did it influence the outbreak fo the American Civil War?

Slavery was the most contentious issue in U.S. history, but how did it influence the outbreak and course of the Civil War?  This question has preoccupied students of the Civil War history, particularly Southern ones, for the last 150 years.

In a Feb.1 New York Times Opinionator piece, author Jon Grinspan rekindled this perennial debate by weighing in on an issue tangentially related to this question.

He contends that 19th abolitionism, the social movement that inspires so many 21st century Americans to press on valiantly for social change despite the odds, was a flop.  Indeed, abolition ultimately prevailed only through the efforts of moderate Republicans, such as Lincoln, rather than those intrepid Northern radicals who initially conceived and nurtured it.

In a profoundly racist country where Northerners and Southerners alike valued sectional interests above equal rights, abolition remained a dirty word, Grinspan argues.

Even Lincoln Eschewed Abolitionism

Even Abraham Lincoln, who eventually would be lionized as the Great Emancipator, lamented in one political speech of being “denounced as impudent, foppish, immature and, worst of all, an abolitionist.”

And contrary to present-day popular opinion, the Republicans had no intention of ending slavery at the outset of the war in 1861.

A combination of several factors — Lee’s brilliant generalship, which prolonged the conflict, and the growing animosity toward the South engendered among Northerners as the death toll mounted — eventually led to abolition, Grinspan speculates.

So, if emancipation of the slaves wasn’t the root cause of the Civil War, what was? Granted, the institution of slavery, while not the sole cause of the war, was certainly was the principal one. This was certainly the case in the seven lower Southern states, which comprised the bulwark of secessionist sentiment. But this factor, potent as it was, did not assert itself in the way most modern Americans perceived that it did.

Free Soil Sentiment

Northern hostility to the extension of slavery into the Western territories is what drove much Southern radical sentiment.  Southerners, as U.S. citizens, felt that they were entitled to carry their all of their property, even human property, into Western lands wrangled from Mexico partly through the expenditure of Southern toil and blood.

The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was the election of a sectional party sworn to free soil principles.

The Alabama Secession Ordinance, for example, cites the election of a “sectional party” hostile to the “domestic [slave] institutions of the Southern states” as the one of the driving forces behind the state’s secession. Few Southerners feared an outright attempt by Lincoln to abolish slavery in the Southern states.  That would require a constitutional amendment — an impossible undertaking, given that there were more than enough hostile state legislators to oppose ratification.  Rather, the threat, as Southern radicals perceived it, was that by halting the spread of slavery, Republican free soil policies would eventually contribute to its extinction.

But then it gets more complicated.  The comparatively more moderate Upper South initially spurned secession. Secession conventions were held in these states but were voted down by wide margins.  Lincoln’s decision to call up 70,000 volunteers after the attack on Fort Sumter changed all of this.   Upper South political leaders viewed such a call as the sole prerogative of Congress.  Even Americans in other sections of the country viewed Lincoln’s call with grave alarm.  And it was this perceived constitutional breach that drove these states rather enthusiastically into the arms of the radical lower Southern states.

A Second American Revolution in the View of Some

Perhaps more than any other factor, Lincoln’s action helped reinforce the view among many Southerners that the ensuing struggle represented a Second American Revolution — a war to safeguard American liberty rather than to preserve slavery.

For his part, Lincoln certainly was driven by a sense of patriotism.  He genuinely feared that Southern secession would squelch the “last, best hope” for democracy in a world still ruled overwhelmingly by monarchs.

But revenue was a factor too.   Modern Americans forget that the bulk of the nation’s revenue was drawn from tariffs collected in port cities and that Southern ports collected a substantial share of this revenue.

At one point, Lincoln purportedly said that while the Southern states were free to fly their new national flag, federal revenue would continue to be collected in Southern ports.

Small wonder why the conflict started in the harbor of the port city of Charleston.

So, to sum it up, slavery was the principal irritant, if not the leading cause, behind the Civil War, but other factors contributed too, and these likely account for why legions of Americans find the war such a compelling topic of study even today.


About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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