At the risk of being infested yet again with Southern nationalists, I want to take a look at the issue of slavery and the civil war. It has become almost a mantra in some circles to say “the civil war wasn’t fought over slavery, it was fought over state’s rights.” This is a rather fatuous statement, as I’ve pointed out before; what “right” did they demand preserving other than the “right” to continue to hold slaves, which is not by any sane criteria a right at all? Whether one wants to believe it or not, the overwhelming issue was slavery and the push to abolish it, not only in the Western territories but in the South as well.
This post will proceed on one simple basis: the fact that those who advocated secession and led the Confederacy made very clear that, for them, the overriding issue was maintaining the institution of slavery. Thus we have Alexander Stephens declaring of the Confederacy, of which he was Vice President, “Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery . . . is his natural and normal condition.”
The seeds of the Civil War were planted long before it started. Future Confederate leaders were calling for secession prior to the election of 1860 if a Republican were to be elected because of the platform against slavery. Alfred Aldrich, a South Carolina legislator, declared:
“If the Republican party with its platform of principles, the main feature of which is the abolition of slavery and, therefore, the destruction of the South, carries the country at the next Presidential election, shall we remain in the Union, or form a separate Confederacy? This is the great, grave issue. It is not who shall be President, it is not which party shall rule — it is a question of political and social existence.”
He was joined by many prominent national politicians from the South, including James Hammond, Congressman from North Carolina. Hammond minced no words in a speech to the House, saying, “”the moment this House undertakes to legislate upon this subject [slavery], it dissolves the Union. Should it be my fortune to have a seat upon this floor, I will abandon it the instant the first decisive step is taken looking towards legislation of this subject. I will go home to preach, and if I can, practice, disunion, and civil war, if needs be. A revolution must ensue, and this republic sink in blood.”
Likewise John Calhoun, perhaps the greatest intellectual voice for slavery and the south, was warning that abolition would result in a civil war decades before it happened. In an 1837 speech on the floor of the Senate, he declared:
Abolition and the Union cannot coexist. As the friend of the Union I openly proclaim it, and the sooner it is known the better. The former may now be controlled, but in a short time it will be beyond the power of man to arrest the course of events. We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions. To maintain the existing relations between the two races, inhabiting that section of the Union, is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both. It cannot be subverted without drenching the country or the other of the races. . . . But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil: far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition.
13 years later, Calhoun delivered his famous Southern Address, which addressed the growing tensions between the North and South, all of which were centered around slavery. In the very first paragraph he announces that the subject he is addressing is “the conflict between the two great sections of the Union, growing out of a difference of feeling and opinion in reference to the relation existing between the two races, the European and the African, which inhabit the southern section, and the acts of aggression and encroachment to which it has led.”
Slavery was the foundation for the entire conflict. Defenders of the South may point to tariffs laid against goods from the South, but those tariffs were laid because of the unfair advantage the South held by using slave labor. All of the major issues were tied directly to slavery. The issue of slavery in the Western territories was a much larger one than most realize. Shortly after the election of Lincoln, Robert Toombes, later the Confederate Secretary of State, delivered a speech laying out the case for secession. He said:
In 1820, the Northern party, (and I mean by that term now and whenever else it is used, or its equivalent, in these remarks, the Antislavery or Abolition party of the North,) endeavored to exclude the State of Missouri from admission into the Union, because she chose to protect African slavery in the new State. In the House, where they had a majority, they rejected her application, and a struggle ensued, when some half a dozen of Northern men gave way, and admitted the State, but upon condition of the exclusion of slavery from all that country, acquired from France by the treaty of 1802, lying north of thirty- six degrees thirty minutes, north latitude, and outside of the State of Missouri. This act of exclusion violated the express provisions of the treaty of 1802, to which the National faith was pledged; violated the well-settled policy of the Government, at least from Adams’s administration to that day, and has, since slavery was adjudicated by the Supreme Court of the United States, violated the Constitution itself. When we acquired California and New- Mexico this party, scorning all compromises and all concessions, demanded that slavery should be forever excluded from them, and all other acquisitions of the Republic, either by purchase or conquest, forever. This position of this Northern party brought about the troubles of 1850, and the political excitement of 1854. The South at all times demanded nothing but equality in the common territories, equal enjoyment of them with their property, to that extended to Northern citizens and their property ~ nothing more. They said, we pay our part in all the blood and treasure expended in their acquisition. Give us equality of enjoyment, equal right to expansion – it is as necessary to our prosperity as yours. In 1790 we had less than eight hundred thousand slaves. Under our mild and humane administration of the system they have increased above four millions. The country has expanded to meet this growing want, and Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri, have received this increasing tide of African labor; before the end of this century, at precisely the same rate of increase, the Africans among us in a subordinate condition will amount to eleven millions of persons. What shall be done with them? We must expand or perish. We are constrained by an inexorable necessity to accept expansion or extermination. Those who tell you that the territorial question is an abstraction, that you can never colonize another territory without the African slavetrade, are both deaf and blind to the history of the last sixty years. All just reasoning, all past history, condemn the fallacy. The North understand it better – they have told us for twenty years that their object was to pen up slavery within its present limits – surround it with a border of free States, and like the scorpion surrounded with fire, they will make it sting itself to death. One thing at least is certain, that whatever may be the effect of your exclusion from the Territories, there is no dispute but that the North mean it, and adopt it as a measure hostile to slavery upon this point. They all agree, they are all unanimous in Congress, in the States, on the rostrum, in the sanctuary – everywhere they declare that slavery shall not go into the Territories. They took up arms to drive it out of Kansas; and Sharpe’s rifles were put into the hands of assassins by Abolition preachers to do their work. Are they mistaken? No; they are not. The party put it into their platform at Philadelphia – they have it in the corner-stone of their Chicago platform; Lincoln is on it – pledged to it. Hamlin is on it, and pledged to it; every Abolitionist in the Union, in or out of place, is openly pledged, in some manner, to drive us from the common Territories. This conflict, at least, is irrepressible – it is easily understood -we demand the equal right with the North to go into the common Territories with all of our property, slaves included, and to be there protected in its peaceable enjoyment by the Federal Government, until such Territories may come into the Union as equal States-then we admit them with or without slavery, as the people themselves may decide for themselves. Will you surrender this principle? The day you do this base, unmanly deed, you embrace political degradation and death.
He likewise complains that the Northern states had passed laws refusing to return escaped slaves to their “rightful owners”. That is the key fact in all of this. To those who fought, slaves were their property, period, and anything that denied them the “right” to own their fellow human beings was an unjust denial of their property rights. We now know that this is an absolutely unconscionable position, but it is the one they took nonetheless. Toombes declared:
But this is only one of the points of the case; the North agreed to deliver up fugitives from labor. In pursuance of this clause of the Constitution, Congress, in 1797, during Washington’s administration, passed a Fugitive Slave law; that act never was faithfully respected all over the North, but it was not obstructed by State legislation until within the last thirty years; but the spirit of hostility to our rights became more active and determined, and in 1850 that act was found totally insufficient to recover and return fugitives from labor; therefore the act of 1850 was passed. The passage of that act was sufficient to rouse the demon of abolition all over the North. The pulpit, the press, abolition societies, popular assemblages, belched forth nothing but imprecations and curses upon the South and the honest men of the North who voted to maintain the Constitution. And thirteen States of the Union, by the most solemn acts of legislation, wilfully, knowingly, and corruptly perjured themselves and annulled this law within their respective limits. I say willfully, knowingly, and corruptly. The Constitution is plain – it was construed in 1793 by Washington and the Second Congress. In the Senate, the bill for the rendition of fugitives was unanimously passed, and nearly unanimously passed by the House of Representatives, and signed by Washington. All the courts of the United States, Federal and State, from the Supreme Court of the United States to the Justice Courts of all the States whose actions have ever come under my notice, construed this Constitution to mean and intend the rendition of fugitive slaves by law of Congress, which might be aided, not thwarted, by State legislation, until the decision of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin held otherwise, and that decision was unanimously overruled by Northern and Southern judges in the Supreme Court, and which Court, in the same case, unanimously affirmed the constitutionality of the act of 1850. But these acts were not only annulled by the abolition Legislatures, but annulled under circumstances of atrocity and aggravation unknown to the legislation of any civilized people in the world. Some of them punish us with penitentiary punishment as felons for even claiming our own slaves within their limits, even by his own consent; others by ingenious contrivances prevent the possibility of your sustaining your rights in their limits, where they seek to compel you to go, and then punish you by fine and infamous punishments for asserting your rights and failing to get them.
Could it possibly be plainer that when the Confederate leaders spoke about their rights being denied, the “right” they had in mind was the non-existent right to own another human being? One can dance around this all they like, but the irrefutable fact is that slavery is the issue that prompted the Civil War and the issue over which it was fought. And the outcome of the war was to assert, once and for all, that no man has a right to own another man.
Nothing less than the basic principle of human equality was at stake and it was a war that simply could not be lost without grave implications for all of humankind. And you want to see just how delusional the voices for slavery were at the time? Take a look at this statement from Henry Wise, Congressman from and later Governor of Virginia:
“The principle of slavery is a leveling principle; it is friendly to equality. Break down slavery and you would with the same blow break down the great democratic principle of equality among men.”
It was upon this insane and preposterous idea that the Confederacy was formed, and the world is a far better place for having relegated such claims to the dustbin of history.