After more than 100 years that the American Civil War has ended, the question of whether or not the entire conflict was based on slavery remains an active one. It’s a funny ordeal: the Civil War took the lives of over 2% of the entire American population of that time, yet we are still unsure of why it happened.
After more than a century that this dispute has been officially resolved, our conversations regarding the importance of race in this issue remains controversial. In a way, this is a positive thing. The ambiguity of historical events allows us to not only ramble about its influences on modern society, as understand the origin of these events as a way to prevent them from happening again in our future. Regardless, just like the French Revolution there have been numerous amounts of books, interviews, documents, and historians all over the world trying to decipher the mystery of the Civil War.
From the opposite viewpoint, the simple fact that slavery did exist amidst the Civil War points us towards a different kind of interpretation. That’s because, at that time, the most heinous social sin of all was slavery. So what made hundreds of wealthy farmers around the United States become compelled to enslave a race they started to consider as inferior? What sort of economic, social, or societal phenomenon was there in American life that perpetuated the horrid sin of slavery? “All people were equal in God’s sight; the souls of black folks were as valuable as those of whites,” author James M. McPherson explains. “For one of God’s children to enslave another was a violation of the Higher Law, even if it was sanctioned by the Constitution.” So what made eventual slaveholders go against this notion?
In 2015, Ken Burns revealed in Face the Nation that the Civil War was all about “slavery, slavery, slavery.” In this article, I try to ascertain myself of this fact so I can feel what Ken Burns did when he uttered those three words on live television.
1. Two Sides
From the Southern perspective, there’s a keen rejection of the notion that the Confederates were fighting to preserve what was a morally abhorrent system. Instead, they believe there was – or that there must be – another reason. After all, modern Confederates would have zero reasons to argue in favor of this system if it wasn’t for any other motive excluding enslaving a race that was allegedly inferior to them.
From the opposite viewpoint, a surprising amount of people have argued that other factors predated the slavery issue and ultimately caused the war instead. One of the most popular arguments is that the Southern states just wanted to protect states’ rights. However, wasn’t the maintenance and progression of slavery only permissible with these states’ rights? Wasn’t it in their state rights to keep the slavery cotton economy running? The very idea that some abstract concept of “state’s rights” could motivate a war that killed nearly a fifth of the South’s white male population was, and continues to be, ludicrous. Fundamentally, it seems like they were, indeed, protecting Black servitude.
(This graph demonstrates, in percentage, how much each state was devoted to the issues raised according to each of their Declarations, or Reasons for Secession.)
However, all of this was an ideological process. It’s not as if the Union was immediately against slavery at the start of the conflict. It’s just that they took some time to realize so.
2. The Ugly Truth
My view is that the civil war was predominantly generated from slavery. Before Lincoln was elected, a South Carolina newspaper called Charleston Mercury wrote, in early 1860, that “the issue before the country was the extinction of slavery.” Besides, the North and South shared a similar mindset in regards to the issue. As stated in the popular Battle Cry of Freedom, “Northern publicists ridiculed the Confederacy’s claim to fight for freedom. ‘Their motto,’ declared poet and editor William Cullen Bryant, ‘is not liberty, but slavery.'” The north, however, did not fight, at first, to free the slaves, yet it became, over the course of a couple of years, their central war policy.
“Within a year [after 1861], both Lincoln and Congress decided to make the emancipation of slaves in Confederate states a Union policy,” the author of the book, James M. McPherson, wrote. “The North was fighting for a ‘new birth of freedom’ to transform the Constitution written by the founding fathers, under which the United States had become the world’s largest slaveholding country into a charter of emancipation for a republic where not a man shall be a slave.”
Furthermore, farmers willingly rejected their most precious religious doctrines in favor of their alleged right to own slaves. Throughout the entire conflict, slaveholders did not even consider themselves egregious sinners, even though, according to the Constitution, they definitely were.
Take a moment to refer yourself back to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 – the state’s territory acquisition from France. At that time, the United States was an insignificant nation on the European periphery. However, “by 1860 the country contained nearly thirty-two million people, four million of them slaves,” James states. “During the previous half-century, the American population had grown four times faster than Europe’s and six times the world average.” Within less than fifty years, the tables had turned – now, Europe was the one who had escaped American periphery. With that in mind, if such a seemingly useful system like slavery made American society thrive so much, why would they have cared about what their religion told them? If being a slaveholder brought prosperity to one’s life, isn’t that logically better than being poor, religious, and consequently against Black servitude?
(The Louisiana Purchase of 1803: a time when Europe did not recognize the American significance in the industrial world.)
In truth, slavery is something that, albeit unethical, can serve as something incredibly effective in terms of economy. Just think about it: if we all had a race which served under us and provided all of our capital, their established inferiority would provide us with even more money and economic growth and well being. The problem, obviously, is that slavery is possibly the most significant violation of what we know as human integrity. The problem is that slaves didn’t want to be slaves. They didn’t attend school and only about one-tenth of them could read and write. Slaveholders would willingly reject their fundamental right to education for the sake of producing more in a system of ongoing industrial menagerie.
Still, if the notion of “human integrity” was not something we all abided by, slavery would be deemed as the fastest way to a prosperous life. That was, after all, the only reason why this system proliferated to such a large extent within religious families that, for tens of generations before, were disgusted by racial inequality.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. We do believe in human integrity, as we know the effect it has when it works correctly. However, the eradication of slavery arose due to a different reason. Instead of taking refuge in altruistic motives, slaveholders realized that a war was about to be imposed on them. When the Civil War finally began, an intriguing occurrence was established: an era of American life when subjective beliefs prioritized money suddenly became a decade dominated by the prospect of death and the forthcoming refusal to own slaves. The only way, then, that the Union could end the system of slavery, was to have those wealthy farmers abide by a different idea – and that was their own lives. That way, they would either die or have to refuse to enslave more people.
3. The Great Endeavor of Abraham Lincoln
Here’s a riveting question: did Lincoln really fight in the Civil War to keep the Union’s integrity or to eradicate the system of slavery?
At first, it seems like he was unrelated to the entire issue of slavery. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists,” Lincoln said in the early years of the Civil War. Despite that, excluding all the statistics that were given before this, there is one element of this question that is vital to acknowledge – the difference between intention and side effects.
In truth, although Lincoln vocalized that he fought in the war due to the Union, he also did so with the clear understanding that the only two possible outcomes were either that slavery would spread to other states or would be completely removed from American soil. There was a clear distinction between his intentions and the seemingly beneficial “consequences” that followed. Hence, the Emancipation Proclamation transformed those exact thoughts into legislation. “All persons held as slaves shall be free forever,” Abraham wrote .
Although Lincoln also did explain that he was not involved in any way in the institution of slavery (on March 4th, 1861), it was justly due to this other motive that the Union could preserve its unity. The reason for this is that what began as a conflict over the agreement of both sides and the states’ rights became a struggle over the meaning of freedom in America. Consequently, as the envisionment of the Civil War changed, so did the Union’s choice to support a different set of beliefs as to why they were going to war with the Confederacy.
(Above are a few other instances that Lincoln expressed his negativity against slavery. To read many more of these documents, click here.)
4. The Official Documents
South Carolina’s Secession documents make clear that they were abandoning the Union to protect their institution of slavery. The reasons for secession also states that “in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, to forbore at that time to exercise this right,” and that “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.” The Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, further clarified the South’s point of view when he delivered his “Cornerstone” speech in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21st, 1861. On that day, he said that:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.
Right before that, Stephens explains that the previous government “rested upon the assumption of the equality of races,” and that “this was an error.” He goes on to say that “our peculiar institution [of] African slavery exists amongst us [to] proper [the] status of the negro in our form of civilization.” As a result, the Confederates preached the idea that that slavery subordination to the superior race is the Negro’s natural condition .
Amongst other examples, another interesting one to note is Georgia’s motives for secession. In it, parliamentarians wrote that the “brief history of the rise, progress, and policy of anti-slavery and the political organization into whose hands the administration of the Federal Government has been committed will fully justify the pronounced verdict of the people of Georgia .”
In the end, slavery was essential to the Southern states. That said, a significant majority always won the votes to succeed in each of their states. South Carolina, for example, had all 169 of its politicians vote in favor of the secession. The other states – albeit having voted against as well – had apparent differences: Arkansas was 69 to 1, Florida 62 – 7, and so on. 
However, it also must be stated that there are just as many quotes that argue against slavery being a motivator for the Civil War, meaning that it becomes somewhat unproductive to present them. Even so, historical figures like Stephens bring valuable points, shining a light upon how it was all a matter of preserving what they interpreted as their rights. 
5. The Economic Argument
Nevertheless, many historians see the civil war as an economic issue. After all, the North has become much more industrialized in comparison to states from the South. Hence, the economic differences between the two areas of the United States eventually led to a geographical disparity, meaning that they couldn’t stay together from then on.
Despite that, the 19th century can offer us evidence that both sides were equally agrarian communities.
The North produced 17 times more cotton and woolen textiles than the South, 30 times more leather goods, 20 times more pig iron, and 32 times more firearms. The North produced 3,200 firearms to every 100 produced in the South.
Also, although only about 40% of the Northern population was engaged in agriculture in comparison to 84% of the South, the fact remains that both regions of the U.S. were, amidst the 1860s, predicated on agrarian societies. “Even in the agricultural sector, Northern farmers were out-producing their southern counterparts,” historian Benjamin T. Arrington explains. This difference existed because “Southern agriculture remained labor intensive while northern agriculture became increasingly mechanized.”
The major difference between both states usage of agriculture was that one of the areas – the South – exploited slaves. What is, to this day, considered by many as an economic conflict, can also be simultaneously labeled as a slavery-driven dispute. While the Northern farmers paid workers to do their job with a substantial amount of freedom, Southern plantation owners had total control over their Black servers in order to produce just as much.
With the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, equality seemed easier to be reached. As soon as Lincoln signed the paper, all of those slaves who managed to escape the Confederate government became legally free. But is that so? To what extent should the endless voyage towards equality be supported if those who were once unequal decide to retrieve the horror?
Even though this document specified that no more slavery would exist, there was still a significant deal of hatred, for obvious reasons, towards former slaveholders. African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass declared that “men do not love those who remind them of their sins.” Having said that, what would be the place of freed slaves and their descendants in this new order?
In 1865, a black soldier who recognized his former master among a group of Confederate prisoners he was guarding called out a greeting: “Hello, my sir; bottom rail on top this time!” But would this new arrangement of rails last? Were we merely building the path for modern slavery?
You look around and tell me.