Myths of the Civil War


An excellent post at the blog Letters From Cato on Myths of the Civil War:

Jesse Kelly tweeted this out the other day:*

1. Slavery is a repulsive thing and a stain on the history of our country. 2. Did you know in the beginning Lincoln would have stopped the war and let the South keep their slaves? See? Complicated.

*This was either before or after he was suspended, which is another matter in and of itself.

This is a fairly standard talking point about the civil war. The longer form of it goes something like this: “The civil war wasn’t really about slavery, and as proof, look at Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was perfectly willing to go back to the status quo ante had the confederates laid down their arms early on in the war. So see – the civil war wasn’t really about slavery because Lincoln himself was willing to allow slavery to continue.”

This is one of several arguments about the war that I come across with some regularity, so I’ve decided to post about it and a few of the other common myths I’ve heard repeated.

Before I begin, let me note that I use “myth” with some reservation, because many of these arguments have a grain of truth. Therefore they are not complete myths or fabrications. Rather, they are arguments that either distort the context or leave off important bits of information. For simplicity’s sake, though, that’s the title I’ve gone with.

Myth #1: Lincoln’s aim was to preserve the union, not to end slavery.

I’ll start with the above-stated one first. As I said, there is a grain of truth to it. Lincoln’s primary aim truly was to restore the union, and he was willing at first to retain slavery if it meant an early end to the war. What’s more, Lincoln was anti-slavery, but he was not an abolitionist, meaning he desired the eventual eradication of slavery, but did not advocate immediate measures for its end. (Of course this is a point against another myth, which I’ll get to later.)

That being said, there are several reasons this argument is misleading. First of all, it leaves the impression that Lincoln wasn’t concerned about slavery at all, or that his passion for emancipation was lacking. While he may not have favored immediate abolition, he nonetheless spent almost the entirety of his public career forcefully and unequivocally condemning slavery, expressing a desire for its eventual abolition.

Also, one has to consider his House Divided speech. Only in the context of a united country could we arrive at a nation that was totally free. If the slave states removed themselves from the union, then abolition no longer is a possibility. So whole Lincoln was primarily interested in maintaining the union at all costs, it was to preserve a union which would eventually pave the way for the total eradication of slavery.

What’s more, as the war progressed, it became a war for emancipation. The Emancipation Proclamation is often dismissed as a cynical prop for perpetuating the war, but the proclamation changed the moral arc of the war. That most of Lincoln’s cabinet urged Lincoln not to issue the proclamation would seem to be a point of proof in how passionately Lincoln felt about this measure.


Go here to read the rest.


More to explorer


  1. #2 – In fact, according to a recent history book I read, there was what the author called, “The Other Thirteenth Amendment,” which was meant to resolve the secession crisis by “enshrining” (my term, right or wrong) slavery in the states where it was and not allow it to be spread. Hot heads on both sides of the issue killed it.

    And, here commenceth the diatribe. The pencil-necked geeks that run Twitter, the public school monopoly, the academy, etc. know as much about real history, real men’s motivations, etc. as they do about fornication.

    For decades they only taught Marxist catch-phrases, irrelevant political tirades, liberal gibberish, and propaganda that America is all and only evil, not real culture or History. No wonder we have the youth we have: illiterate, miseducated, misinformed, and socialist. They won’t or can’t read, or cannot deductively reason and understand documents like the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Word of God, the things that our nation is structured upon and founded upon; and in that way, then, the elite can do what they want with the useful idiots.

    Stop me!

  2. Abraham Lincoln’s statement must be taken as a whole thought, not to be taken out of context, the end of which is: “and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.” I have no comment on individuals who would deprive a man of his virtue.

  3. The anonymous author of these “Civil War Myth Busters” is very careful to avoid any mention of the Early American conviction that THESE (emphasis added) United States constituted a Union of Sovereign Countries and he denigrates the idea of Secession which was accepted as a valid possibility even in Northern States during the pre-Civil War years. To a railroad lawyer like Abraham Lincoln and his employers the idea of Secession was anathema, whatever their individual attitudes towards Slavery might have been.

    The author also belittles economic drivers, such as Tariffs and Industrialization, in the run-up to the Civil War which is incomplete history at its worst telling. Sadly, the Modern American Mindset considers Race and Slavery the great drivers of American History, and this anonymous Myth Buster is part of that problem.

  4. “denigrates the idea of Secession which was accepted as a valid possibility even in Northern States during the pre-Civil War years.”

    The right of secession was hotly contested prior to the Civil War, particularly by two Southern slave holding Presidents, Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor. James Madison on secession:

    TO N. P. TRIST. … MAD. MSS.

    Montpellier, Decr 23, 1832.

    Dr. Sir I have received yours of the 19th, inclosing some of the South Carolina papers. There are in one of them some interesting views of the doctrine of secession; one that had occurred to me, and which for the first time I have seen in print; namely that if one State can at will withdraw from the others, the others can at will withdraw from her, and turn her, nolentem, volentem, out of the union. Until of late, there is not a State that would have abhorred such a doctrine more than South Carolina, or more dreaded an application of it to herself. The same may be said of the doctrine of nullification, which she now preaches as the only faith by which the Union can be saved.

    I partake of the wonder that the men you name should view secession in the light mentioned. The essential difference between a free Government and Governments not free, is that the former is founded in compact, the parties to which are mutually and equally bound by it. Neither of them therefore can have a greater fight to break off from the bargain, than the other or others have to hold them to it. And certainly there is nothing in the Virginia resolutions of –98, adverse to this principle, which is that of common sense and common justice. The fallacy which draws a different conclusion from them lies in confounding a single party, with the parties to the Constitutional compact of the United States. The latter having made the compact may do what they will with it. The former as one only of the parties, owes fidelity to it, till released by consent, or absolved by an intolerable abuse of the power created. In the Virginia Resolutions and Report the plural number, States, is in every instance used where reference is made to the authority which presided over the Government. As I am now known to have drawn those documents, I may say as I do with a distinct recollection, that the distinction was intentional. It was in fact required by the course of reasoning employed on the occasion. The Kentucky resolutions being less guarded have been more easily perverted. The pretext for the liberty taken with those of Virginia is the word respective, prefixed to the “rights” &c to be secured within the States. Could the abuse of the expression have been foreseen or suspected, the form of it would doubtless have been varied. But what can be more consistent with common sense, than that all having the same rights &c, should unite in contending for the security of them to each.

    It is remarkable how closely the nullifiers who make the name of Mr. Jefferson the pedestal for their colossal heresy, shut their eyes and lips, whenever his authority is ever so clearly and emphatically against them. You have noticed what he says in his letters to Monroe & Carrington Pages 43 & 203, vol. 2,1 with respect to the powers of the old Congress to coerce delinquent States, and his reasons for preferring for the purpose a naval to a military force; and moreover that it was not necessary to find a right to coerce in the Federal Articles, that being inherent in the nature of a compact. It is high time that the claim to secede at will should be put down by the public opinion; and I shall be glad to see the task commenced by one who understands the subject.

    I know nothing of what is passing at Richmond, more than what is seen in the newspapers. You were right in your foresight of the effect of the passages in the late Proclamation. They have proved a leaven for much fermentation there, and created an alarm against the danger of consolidation, balancing that of disunion. I wish with you the Legislature may not seriously injure itself by assuming the high character of mediator. They will certainly do so if they forget that their real influence will be in the inverse ratio of a boastful interposition of it.

    If you can fix, and will name the day of your arrival at Orange Court House, we will have a horse there for you; and if you have more baggage than can be otherwise brought than on wheels, we will send such a vehicle for it. Such is the state of the roads produced by the wagons hurrying flour to market, that it may be impossible to send our carriage which would answer both purposes.

    As to Tariffs, they were at a low point prior to the Civil War and had nothing to do with secession movement of the winter of 1860-1861. The War was all about slavery as Jefferson Davis stated at the onset of the War:

    The climate and soil of the Northern States soon proved unpropitious to the continuance of slave labor, whilst the converse was the case at the South. Under the unrestricted free intercourse between the two sections, the Northern States consulted their own interests by selling their slaves to the South and prohibiting slavery within their limits. The South were willing purchasers of a property suitable to their wants, and paid the price of acquisition without harboring a suspicion that their quiet possession was to be disturbed by those who were inhibited not only by want of constitutional authority, but by good faith as vendors, from disquieting a title emanating from themselves. As soon, however, as the Northern States that prohibited African slavery within their limits had reached a number sufficient to give their representation a controlling voice in Congress, a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States was inaugurated and gradually extended. A continuous series of measures was devised and prosecuted for the purpose of rendering insecure the tenure of property in slaves. Fanatical organizations, supplied with money by voluntary subscriptions, were assiduously engaged in exciting amongst the slaves a spirit of discontent and revolt; means were furnished for their escape from their owners, and agents secretly employed to entice them to abscond; the constitutional provisions for their rendition to their owners was first evaded, then openly denounced as a violation of conscientious obligation and religious duty; men were taught that it was a merit to elude, disobey, and violently oppose the execution of the laws enacted to secure the performance of the promise contained in the constitutional compact; owners of slaves were mobbed and even murdered in open day solely for applying to a magistrate for the arrest of a fugitive slave; the dogmas of these voluntary organizations soon obtained control of the Legislatures of many of the Northern States, and laws were passed providing for the punishment, by ruinous fines and long-continued imprisonment in jails and penitentiaries, of citizens of the Southern States who should dare to ask aid of the officers of the law for the recovery of their property. Emboldened by success, the theater of agitation and aggression against the clearly expressed constitutional rights of the Southern States was transferred to the Congress; Senators and Representatives were sent to the common councils of the nation, whose chief title to this distinction consisted in the display of a spirit of ultra fanaticism, and whose business was not “to promote the general welfare or insure domestic tranquillity,” but to awaken the bitterest hatred against the citizens of sister States by violent denunciation of their institutions; the transaction of public affairs was impeded by repeated efforts to usurp powers not delegated by the Constitution, for the purpose of impairing the security of property in slaves, and reducing those States which held slaves to a condition of inferiority. Finally a great party was organized for the purpose of obtaining the administration of the Government, with the avowed object of using its power for the total exclusion of the slave States from all participation in the benefits of the public domain acquired by all the States in common, whether by conquest or purchase; of surrounding them entirely by States in which slavery should be prohibited; of thus rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, and thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars. This party, thus organized, succeeded in the month of November last in the election of its candidate for the Presidency of the United States.

    In the meantime, under the mild and genial climate of the Southern States and the increasing care and attention for the well-being 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 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 form 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 uniterruptedly 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 averted– 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 in 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.

  5. The right of Secession was indeed hotly contested prior to the Civil War even by slave owning Presidents, and here is a link to a modern discussion of the subject that is very interesting.

  6. Erwin:

    I’m willing to hear any evidence you may have to offer that tariffs were a major driver of political contention in the run-up to the Civil War.


  7. Many issues contributed to the hysteria/illogic/irrationality on both sides which resulted in secession and civil war.

    I agree with Erwin re: tariffs – more likely intersectional cultural, economic and political divergences. Here is a list of antebellum US tariffs: of 1789; of 1816; of 1824; of 1832; of 1841; of 1842; of 1857.

    In the1860 election, the Republicans were for everything a non-southerner could want; including northern manufacturers by retaining the protective tariffs. “The leaders of the South regarded secession as a golden opportunity to cast aside their generations of ‘vassalage’ to the North.” See page 408 and 415, The American Pageant, A History of the Republic, Thomas A. Bailey, D.C. Heath & Co., Boston, 1961. An AP HS text book from the 1960’s.

    Most of the antebellum 1800’s were decades of increasing intersectional divergence. The south developed “King Cotton,” an agrarian/plantation, cash-rich [huge income inequality] economy based on expanding world-wide (mainly Great Britain) demand for cotton and “free” labor – slavery. While the north, e.g., New England, grew with industrial development [huge income inequality]. The west developed agriculture and raw materials. Federal tariffs made northern products price-competitive with mainly-British imports.

    For decades, the Federal government used tariffs to foster the growth of northern industries. Most tariffs were paid in the south and its international trade – cotton. Ergo, the south’s cash-rich economy indirectly financed the economic/industrial growth/development/strength of the north (and abolitionist plutocrats) which ultimately resulted in its military defeat in the Civil War.

    My family were NYC Democrats until JFK. Their stance on the CW was that it was part of a larger plot to bring up north freed men to cut wages or take their jobs. Contributing factors to NYC “copperheadism” were the finance and shipping interests which were closely tied to the south and its cotton trade.

    In conclusion, the horror of slavery was a main cause of the CW. In addition to rank racism, the evil of slavery was an integral part of an economic system.

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