The Civil War and Slavery

We’re not fighting for slaves.

Most of us never owned slaves and never expect to,

It takes money to buy a slave and we’re most of us poor,

But we won’t lie down and let the North walk over us

About slaves or anything else.

                              We don’t know how it started

But they’ve invaded us now and we’re bound to fight

Till every last damn Yankee goes home and quits.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body


I certainly agree with video above from Prager University that the Civil War was started over slavery.  As Jefferson Davis stated in his initial address to the Confederate Congress:


In the meantime, under the mild and genial climate of the Southern States and the increasing care and attention for the wellbeing and comfort of the laboring class, dictated alike by interest and humanity, the African slaves had augmented in number from about 600,000, at the date of the adoption of the constitutional compact, to upward of 4,000,000. In moral and social condition they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction. Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition, but to convert hundreds of thousands of square miles of the wilderness into cultivated lands covered with a prosperous people; towns and cities had sprung into existence, and had rapidly increased in wealth and population under the social system of the South; the white population of the Southern slaveholding States had augmented from about 1,250,000 at the date of the adoption of the Constitution to more than 8,500,000 in 1860; and the productions of the South in cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, for the full development and continuance of which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable, had swollen to an amount which formed nearly three-fourths of the exports of the whole United States and had become absolutely necessary to the wants of civilized man. With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled, the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced. With this view the legislatures of the several States invited the people to select delegates to conventions to be held for the purpose of determining for themselves what measures were best adapted to meet so alarming a crisis in their history. Here it may be proper to observe that from a period as early as 1798 there had existed in all of the States of the Union a party almost uninterruptedly in the majority based upon the creed that each State was, in the last resort, the sole judge as well of its wrongs as of the mode and measure of redress. Indeed, it is obvious that under the law of nations this principle is an axiom as applied to the relations of independent sovereign States, such as those which had united themselves under the constitutional compact. The Democratic party of the United States repeated, in its successful canvass in 1856, the declaration made in numerous previous political contests, that it would “faithfully abide by and uphold the principles laid down in the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions of 1798, and in the report of Mr. Madison to the Virginia Legislature in 1799; and that it adopts those principles as constituting one of the main foundations of its political creed.” The principles thus emphatically announced embrace that to which I have already adverted – the right of each State to judge of and redress the wrongs of which it complains. These principles were maintained by overwhelming majorities of the people of all the States of the Union at different elections, especially in the elections of Mr. Jefferson in 1805, Mr. Madison in 1809, and Mr. Pierce in 1852. In the exercise of a right so ancient, so well established, and so necessary for self-preservation, the people of the Confederate States, in their conventions, determined that the wrongs which they had suffered and the evils with which they were menaced required that they should revoke the delegation of powers to the Federal Government which they had ratified in their several conventions. They consequently passed ordinances resuming all their rights as sovereign and Independent States and dissolved their connection with the other States of the Union.


However, it is one thing to say that the War started over slavery and another to say that every Union soldier was fighting to end slavery and every Confederate soldier to preserve it.  As the passage from Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem on the Civil War, John Brown’s Body, indicates, there existed various motivations for the soldiers in the ranks.  Robert E. Lee noted at the end of the War that rather than fighting to preserve slavery, he rejoiced that the War ended it, and we have no reason to doubt his statement.  Slavery was the spark that caused the War, but once it started the issues of Union and independence for the Confederacy were key motivations to fight.  Lincoln, while hating slavery, indicated on several occasions that his primary goal was the preservation of the Union.  Jefferson Davis, ever the defender of slavery, by the end of the War was willing to give it up if that was the price that must be paid for the Confederacy to win its independence.

More to explorer


  1. Here is how I responded to this last week on Facebook:
    “Note to historians:

    “Dualistic interpretations and explanations that are utterly lacking in nuance; engaging in demonization; arrogant displays of cultural and/or regional superiority; inattention to (or completely glossing over) those details that detract from the particular “narrative” you seek to create; and, in general, triumphalist, oversimplified, chest-thumping bravado, constitute utter rubbish as history.
    “And I don’t care what your credentials are, what rank you hold, how proud you are of the uniform you wear, or which institution of higher learning you work for. If you do the above, you’re crap as a historian.”

  2. I followed up with this:
    “I hope that I’m an honest enough student of history that I can acknowledge the fact that differences over slavery and over the South’s economic reliance thereon and Northern reactions thereto were at the root cause of the division between North and South. With that in mind, I utterly reject neo-Confederate interpretations that seek to diminish the primary role slavery played in leading up to the War.
    “But I also utterly reject the sort of “Nyah, nyah, you suck!” chest-thumping jingoism that seeks to downplay all other considerations that went into the decisions of 11 states to secede. Did Virginia secede over slavery, after having initially voted down secession in convention? Or did Virginia secede over Lincoln’s decision to call up troops from Virginia to invade their fellow Southern states? Did Robert E. Lee resign his commission in the U.S. Army — a decision over which he seems to have agonized — over slavery?
    “Any “historian” who glosses over the differences between why, for example, South Carolina seceded a mere 4 months after Lincoln’s election and why Virginia ultimately voted to secede, and goes straight for “ALL Southerners who supported secession and/or who fought for the South did so with the sole intention to keep black people in bondage” is not being an honest broker. Col. Ty Seidule is NOT an honest broker. He is a political HACK.
    “My objection to Col. Seidule is primarily to the tone of his presentation, to what he has left unsaid, and to his appearance of having a simplistic, dualistic ulterior agenda beyond presenting historical facts.
    “As noted above, I don’t seek to downplay our Nation’s sordid history regarding chattel slavery. I hope that this comes through in many of my posts about the American Revolution — I’ve noted on at least two occasions the irony of American patriots producing prose about freedom from bondage and all men being created equal, yet punting on the issue of slavery for future generations to have to deal with, all the while their supposed British oppressors were actually proclaiming freedom for slaves. I’ve said many times before: history is rarely as cut-and-dried as some try to make it. You will very rarely find simplistic answers to the questions history presents to us.”

  3. Amen, Jay. While slavery was in some sense the proximate cause of the War of Northern Aggression, there are important facts that do not neatly line up with the current anti-Confederate hysteria.

    Virginia’s secession is exhibit #1. My state did not want to secede and, as the first among the southern states, had voted against secession… until Lincoln insisted on forcing states to raise armies and traverse states in order to invade South Carolina and other seceding states. It was then, and only then, that Virginia took the principled position that the Federal government has no constitutional authority to send armies into peaceful states, such as Virginia, and make those states party to an invasion of a sister state.

    As usual, history is more nuanced than the narrative of the victors. Certainly there were firebrands who wanted to secede over the issue of slavery. But there were Northern firebrands also, like John Brown, who hoped to provoke a war to end slavery, which would be an entirely lawless unconstitutional war, since like it or not, slavery was a practice guaranteed protection under the Constitution. And, contrary to Lincoln’s change of heart on the issue, no state, combination of states, or the Federal government, had (or have) a right to invade a state simply because they disapprove of a lawful practice of that state.

    But if the claim is “the Civil War was caused by slavery” I deny it as an incomplete statement: Virginia’s secession alone proves that for at least for Virginia, the direct “but for” cause of the war was Lincoln’s demand that a peaceful state provide troops for an invasion of a sister state, and allow that invasion force to traverse the sovereign territory of the state.

  4. As a Southerner, I have friends who are descendants of slaves, and friends who are descendants of slaveowners. Is it prudent to uproot an entire society from top to bottom, in order to correct a grave injustice? I know that my friends have differing opinions on that question. Sometimes, it works, e.g. Germany and Japan post-World War II. Sometimes, it does not work, e.g. Iraq.

    I do not rejoice over the sufferings of others. Making an extrapolation from Southern history, it seems that Iraq may face 100 years of violence before she ever finds peace again.

  5. “We’re not fighting for slaves.
    Most of us never owned slaves and never expect to,”
    The example of the British West Indies showed that slavery was of dubious economic value to the slave owner. The cost of sugar production showed a small but significant fall after abolition. Free labour could be hired when needed, paid piece-rate and laid off when not required and capital was not tied up in a wasting asset. A very significant part of the compensation was paid to bankers and others with interests in security in slaves.
    Walter Bagehot, usually a shrewd observer, believed that many in the South saw slavery as an essential police measure for the control of the black population, not primarily as an economic issue at all.

  6. The whole “northern aggression” argument is, to put it mildly, bunk.
    Virginia’s argument and its modern-day advocates is basically that a government may not respond to a coup d’etat by sending in loyal troops.

    As for why so many non slaveholders fought for the south, they were tied to the slave economy just as much as slaveholders. Plantation owners ginned and marketed cotton for local farmers. Thousands of jobs depended on moving and housing slaves who were transported from one market to another. For a modern parallel just picture just image all the jobs that depend on long-haul truckers (motels, restaurants, services stations).

    The war was caused by the South’s Satanic pride — oops! I mean “honor”.
    Like today’s pro-choice and gay-marriage advocates they would not be satisfied until everyone admitted was slavery was a positive good and legal everywhere.

  7. Victor Davis Hanson has documented how many Union soldiers who began Sherman’s march through Georgia with indifference to slavery were actively anti-slavery by the time they reached Savannah. They saw the reality of slavery in a way that no museum could recreate today and still expect their patrons to keep their meals. As Don McClarey has alluded, It is really hard to advocate for slavery’s place as a casus (and continuous) belle without facing the fact that people’s perceptions and motives changed during the course of the war, and not only for tactical political reasons.

  8. No one here has taken issue (at least I haven’t) with the FACT that slavery was the cause of the war. I have taken issue with Col. Seidule’s slanted presentation of the facts (not to mention his glossing over and completely ignoring those facts that detract from narrative).
    But not to worry. The view of the “Satanic South” has apparently prevailed in our culture so that monuments of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson will be removed wherever they are located, and those once-honored men and the men who fought for them will no doubt be seen by posterity as little more than the American version of Nazis. And not even historical reenactments of battles will be safe from the ban hammer of the zeitgeist:
    Rather than comparing the “Satanic South” to “today’s pro-choice and gay-marriage advocates” that will “not be satisfied until everyone” conforms to the “correct” view of things, you might want to look at those forces for “progress” for whom victory was not enough — those who seek to wipe out all historical vestiges that don’t conform to “the right side” of history.

  9. I think the formal/material distinction works for the motivations of the participants in the Civil War.

    For some, slavery was the formal cause from the beginning–what they were expressly fighting against or for–Jeff Davis, radical Republicans.

    For many Unionists, it became their formal cause after the Emancipation Proclamation, though many Unionists would disavow that long after it was issued (e.g., George McClellan).

    For your average Johnny Reb who didn’t own slaves, I think he could quite credibly deny that he was deliberately fighting *for* slavery right to the very end. That wasn’t the formal reason he took up arms, and he was being honest about that.

    But for everyone, the war was materially about slavery, and what drove the conflict.

  10. Dred Scott died in 1858, denied citizenship, sovereign personhood, and freedom. Using the Fifth Amendment, Scott became eminent domain, property of his owner, not to be taken away from his owner. Maybe the Civil War was not about slavery but about, defining the human being as a person, a battle still being waged in Roe v. Wade.

  11. “The war was caused by the South’s Satanic pride — oops! I mean “honor”.
    Like today’s pro-choice and gay-marriage advocates they would not be satisfied until everyone admitted was slavery was a positive good and legal everywhere.”

    OK, let’s not overstate the case. The *logic* of the slaveholder argument (and of the Dred Scott decision) led to a claim that slavery should be universal. Lincoln certainly argued that during and after the debates with Douglas. And, indeed, at least one popular pro-slavery extremist (George Fitzhugh) argued that all free laborers should be enslaved, regardless of color. That said, I don’t think most southerners, even the “fire eaters” ever argued that it should be universal across all states. Their essential argument was that it should be preserved where it was and that they be allowed to take slaves into certain of the territories. And that seemed to be the national consensus with the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Then Stephen A. Douglas and Roger Taney blew that consensus to bits with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Dred Scott, respectively.

  12. and Johnathan Swift argued that Irish babies (of which some people claimed that there were too many) must be eaten before two years old as after two years old the babies got tough.
    That all men are slaves for having to work for their bread by the sweat of their brow is true. That one person can own another person to deny them their freedom and sovereignty, or cannibalize them or buy and sell them as property. It is a miscarriage of Justice to define the human person as property…as all men are created equal…as “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Did Taney read our founding principles?

  13. Yes he did, and like Napoleon, the pig of Orwell’s fable, he thought some were more equal than others.

  14. Last time I checked, Roger Taney was not a Confederate. Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri were slave states, but they stayed in the Union. So please stop painting the South with a broad brush.

  15. I do not know Taney’s state of residence . I do know Taney’s state of mind. Taney was politically correct… but he still had not read…that “all men are created equal and that “We, the people hold these truths to be self-evident truths. But not Taney. Did Taney not consider himself one of the people? Then Taney impeached himself…and everyone who held that the Negro, Dred Scott, was not a sovereign person also impeached themselves. North or South, anyone who did not hold these self-evident truths, that all men are created equal, were responsible for the Civil War. The Confederate states rejected The Declaration of Independence when it came to self-evident truths, and then used The Declaration of Independence to declare their independence. Wouldn’t you say?

  16. Funny me, I actually believe in the rule of law and the vitality of the Constitution. That document grants express powers to the federal government. Nowhere in those express powers do I find that the federal government has the right to demand that states provide troops. Nowhere do I find the right for the federal government to send armies through a state, such as Virginia, without its consent, for whatever reason.

    And nowhere do I find the authority for the federal government to abolish by force of arms a practice entirely within the power of individual states.

    Sorry, but Virginia was perfectly within her rights to resist Lincoln’s unconstitutional attempt to compel her to provide troops and a venue by which the federal government would attack a sister state.

    Slavery was a moral evil, but was permitted under the constitution. Was abolishing it worth the discarding of the constitution and the establishment of a centralized federal government that would never again respect constitutional restraints and its limited role under the system of federalism devised by the founders? Perhaps the person who equated the south with pro-choice and gay marriage advocates could tell us, since those two evils have become federalized as a direct result of the passage of the 14th Amendment, a Reconstruction amendment forced on the country by the triumphant radical Republicans.

  17. Lincoln had declared martial law under the Constitution, suspended habeas corpus and the press from denigrating him as president with martial law power. This is a good subject to familiarize oneself for when Obama declares martial law under constitutional powers, but not to save the Union but to impose one world government under the godless world bank.

  18. Slavery was never permitted under the Constitution. The South had laws to execute any person who would teach a Negro how to read and write. The South denied the Negro the acknowledgement of personhood and citizenship. The Negro had no rights without personhood. See Frederick Douglass See Fort Sumpter. Once the southern states had joined the Union it was not their right to secede.

  19. “Nowhere in those express powers do I find that the federal government has the right to demand that states provide troops. Nowhere do I find the right for the federal government to send armies through a state, such as Virginia, without its consent, for whatever reason.”

    Constitution: Article One, Section Eight:
    “Clause 15:

    To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

    Clause 16:

    To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;”

    Militia Act of 1807:

    Ҥ 332. Use of militia and armed forces to enforce Federal authority

    Whenever the President considers that unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages, or rebellion against the authority of the United States, make it impracticable to enforce the laws of the United States in any State or Territory by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, he may call into Federal service such of the militia of any State, and use such of the armed forces, as he considers necessary to enforce those laws or to suppress the rebellion.”

  20. “Was abolishing it worth the discarding of the constitution and the establishment of a centralized federal government that would never again respect constitutional restraints and its limited role under the system of federalism devised by the founders?”
    Ben Franklin commented on the ratification of the Constitution, “You have a republic, if you can keep it.” The CW and the stuff committed likely were the beginning of the end of the republic. Today, we operate under the whimsical misrule (and ruination) of omnipotent men and women; corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats, elites, politicians; not laws.

  21. “The CW and the stuff committed likely were the beginning of the end of the republic.”

    Rubbish on stilts. The Tories in the Revolution, many of whom had their property confiscated and went into exile at the end of the War, would have loved to have been treated as the erst-while Confederates were after the War. The Civil War has zip to do with the pathologies that currently beset the nation.

  22. Rubbish on stilts.

    People do tend to confuse priority with causality.

    If you were serious about this, T. Shaw, you’d understand that the beginning of the end of the Republic occurred when wire-pullers intent on expanding the reach of the central government outrageously mis-interpreted ‘To establish Post Offices and post Roads;’ to mean the federal government could build post roads rather than merely designate post roads. William Voegli, take it away…

  23. Slavery was a moral evil, but was permitted under the constitution. Was abolishing it [i.e. the Moral evil of slavery] worth the discarding of the constitution and the establishment of a centralized federal government that would never again respect constitutional restraints and its limited role under the system of federalism devised by the founders?

    Could this be the same Tom whos been haranguing us all this month about the immorality of The Bomb? Why, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were just here to troll.

  24. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more thorough refutation of an argument than Don’s response to Tom above. I doff my cap, sir.

  25. “Could this be the same Tom whos been haranguing us all this month about the immorality of The Bomb? Why, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were just here to troll.”

    Without the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tom might well be speaking Japanese.

  26. Is there anyone in this forum who would be in favor of dropping a nuclear bomb on Atlanta or Vicksburg in order to shorten the Civil War?

  27. Mico Razon: If the atomic bomb were dropped on Atlanta Georgia or Vicksberg, make no mistake, the blood guilt and the guilt would be all Jefferson Davis’ and any other individual who gloried in the enslavement of another human being and the denial of sovereign personhood to the other person. Start with Roger B. Taney.

  28. “Dred Scott died in 1858, denied citizenship, sovereign personhood, and freedom.”

    Not quite — he died a free man, at least. At the time Scott filed his original suit for freedom in Missouri in 1846, he “belonged” to the widow of an Army doctor who had taken Scott to duty stations located in free states and territories (giving Scott a basis for claiming he was legally free). Several years later, while the case was still winding its way through the courts, the widow married a staunch abolitionist. She later “sold” Scott to a relative of his original owner, who was NOT favorably inclined toward slavery, and who clearly intended Scott’s suit for freedom to be a test case. This owner freed Scott, his wife and his daughters shortly after the Supreme Court decision; the only reason he didn’t do so sooner was to keep the court case alive.

    Today, one of Scott’s twice-great-grandchildren runs a foundation in St. Louis dedicated to preserving Scott’s memory and to promoting genuine, faith-based racial justice:

  29. Scotland had its equivalent of Dredd Scott – the case of Knight v Wedderburn, but with a very different result..

    A Scottish gentleman, Mr. John Wedderburn of Ballendean, who owned plantations in Jamaica, bought Mr Joseph Knight In 1762 from the commander of a vessel, in the African trade.

    In 1769, Wedderburn came over to Scotland, and brought Knight along with him, as a personal servant. Knight wished to learn a trade and Wedderburn paid for his apprenticeship with a barber in Dundee.

    Knight continued in Wedderburn’s service until 1774 and married Annie Thompson, a fellow-servant of Wedderburn. He had got her pregnant and Wedderburn dismissed her from his service, but allowed her to lie in at Ballendean, paid her doctor’s bills and for the funeral of the child, who died. She moved to Dundee and Knight continued the relationship. Thompson fell pregnant again and Knight married her. All this appears to have led to a falling out between Knight and Wedderburn.

    Knight decided to leave Wedderburn’s service. Wedderburn had him arrested and the local justices found “the petitioner entitled to Knight’s services, and that he must continue as before.”

    Knight saved up his pocket money and took proceedings to suspend the warrant before the Sheriff of Perthshire (the sheriff is a judge in Scotland). The Sheriff Depute, John Swinton, pronounced an interlocutor without proof, finding “the state of slavery is not recognized by the laws of this kingdom, and is inconsistent with the principles thereof; that the regulations of Jamaica, concerning slaves, do not extend to this kingdom;” and repelled the defender’s claim to a perpetual service. Mr. Wedderburn having reclaimed, the Sheriff found, “That perpetual service, without wages, is slavery; and therefore adhered.”

    Wedderburn took the case to the Court of Session, where Knight was represented by Mr. M’Laurin, afterwards Lord Dreghorn and Mr. Maconochie, afterwards the great Lord Meadowbank.

    Lord Kames declared that “we sit here to enforce right not to enforce wrong” and the court emphatically rejected Wedderburn’s appeal, ruling that “the dominion assumed over this Negro, under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent.”

  30. Perhaps I should have added that, at the hearing in presence, Henry Dundas, the Lord Advocate and future 1st Viscount Melville, led for Knight.

    The Lord Ordinary took it to report, upon informations and these were drawn by M’Laurin and Maconochie. Being a question of general importance, the Court ordered a hearing in presence, and afterwards informations of new, upon which it was advised.

    It is much to the credit of the Scottish Bar that a litigant of such slender means was so ably represented by the leaders of the profession.

    Wedderburn was also reperesented by two future judges, Mr. Ferguson, afterwards Lord Pitfour, and Mr. Cullen, afterwards Lord Cullen

  31. Thanks for posting this Michael! It is rather sobering to compare the history of slavery in other English-speaking and European nations with the history of American slavery. I don’t believe any other nation had to resort to civil war to end slavery — IIRC, Brazil was the last Western Hemisphere nation to abolish slavery in 1888, but they did so by a system of gradual emancipation somewhat similar to those proposed in the U.S. prior to the Civil War.

  32. Haiti did. The horrific violence involved may have had a role in hardening Southern resistance to ending slavery. I doubt if slavery would have been abolished so easily in Great Britain if slavery had been wide spread in Great Britain. The prime slave holding regions of the British Empire were far from Great Britain and lacked the political clout of the American South, or the ability and willingness to rebel.

    In regard to slavery, a good case can be that in much of the contemporary Arab world it goes on under other names. Migrant workers held in debt slavery and treated abominably in many cases by their “employers”.

  33. Elaine Krewer wrote, “IIRC, Brazil was the last Western Hemisphere nation to abolish slavery in 1888, but they did so by a system of gradual emancipation somewhat similar to those proposed in the U.S. prior to the Civil War.”

    Lord Melville, in Parliament and as a government minister, favoured a gradual abolition of the slave trade, as a prelude to emancipation. Of course, as an advocate, he would never allow his personal views to affect the way he represented his client’s interests.

    One of the judges in Knight v Wedderburn, was Lord Auchinleck, father of James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer. He delivered a trenchant opinion: “Although in the plantations they have laid hold of the poor blacks, and made slaves of them, yet I do not think that is agreeable to humanity, not to say to our Christian religion. Is a man a slave because he is black? No. He is our brother; and he is a man, although not of our colour; he is in a land of liberty, with his wife and child, let him remain there.”

    Don’t forget, most British plantation owners did not live on their plantations; a majority never even visited them. For them, it was an investment pure and simple; very different that to the American system.

    The serious opposition came from the ship-owning and underwriting interests; slave-owners were given handsome compensation, much of which went to the British banks that held the slaves in security. Slave traders, by contrast, got nothing. These was not a cause to excite general sympathy.

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