Is it possible that the Civil War was about more than just slavery?
In one of my favorite Simpsons episodes from my teenage years, the friendly, if perpetually price-gouging, Kwik-E-Mart clerk Apu Nahasapeemapetilon endures a line of questioning from an examiner in order to attain U.S. citizenship:
Examiner: Here’s your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?
Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter…
Examiner: Wait, wait… just say slavery.
Apu: Slavery it is, sir!
The writers’ jab here is pretty simple. Apu, though an immigrant (albeit, one with a PhD), knows more about America and its history than many of our own citizens.
I understood this joke as a kid, so it’s mind-boggling to me to hear incredibly smart Americans play the role of the examiner in the above comedic bit in response to any suggestion that there might be a more complex, nuanced rationale for the Civil War.
Great thinkers on the right routinely tout that Abraham Lincoln led the war against the South to free the slaves. And because the South was Democrat and the North was Republican, it’s somehow this great historical honor that we Republicans own.
Never do they address the problems with that assertion. That is, if the Union’s war was a moral war intended to eliminate slavery (which it most certainly was not, at least in the early years of the war), that still presents potentially problematic constitutional implications of federal overreach. If it wasn’t a war intended to eliminate slavery, the other factors involved must be considered, and a more evenhanded appraisal than “the North was good” and “the South was evil” must be discussed.
I will begin by conceding an important point. Slavery was a primary cause of the Civil War, particularly insofar as Lincoln’s election in 1860 was the tipping point in a longstanding and bitter debate over slavery in which the two sides had, going back to the American Revolution, been defined as “slave states” and “free states.”
But to suggest that there weren’t other, very serious factors involved which led to the conflict is an intellectually obtuse position.
Volumes have been written to prove this point which have seemingly been nullified (because slavery, you see), and space permits only an example here. But it’s a big one which suggests the deepness of the divide based upon an issue other than slavery.
Federal taxation was a very serious point of conflict leading to the bitterness of the southern states. The Tariff of 1828, known in the South as the “Tariff of Abominations,” raised a tariff on imported goods (sometimes as high as 50%) on products that the South did not produce. The natural, and obvious, result of this was that the South was forced to buy northern products, and northern distributors could charge more for their goods because of the tariffs.
South Carolina actually threatened to secede in 1832 over these and other tariffs, but “changed its mind when [Vice President John C.] Calhoun suggested nullification.”
The federal government, however, “viewed nullification as treasonous and responded with a ‘force bill’ that allowed the president to use the Navy and Army power to enforce Congressional Acts.” A compromise was reached which allowed for gradual reductions to the tariffs, but a lesson was learned, according to the book Causes of the Civil War. That is, “[n]o state can stand alone against the federal government… Thus, the south in 1860 would respond very differently to the question of state’s rights and secession than it had in 1833.”
Which conservative today would suggest that the southern states had no right to be enraged over federal policy which was created to be uniquely painful to them?
After many years of study, I would argue that there is one, and only one, truly positive result of the Civil War. That is, the institution of slavery was abolished. It appears that many historians work from that point backward to suggest that the Civil War was therefore a noble effort to effect those ends, and all other detrimental outcomes are therefore the eggs in the proverbial omelet.
Colonel Ty Seidule (Professor and Head, Department of History at the United States Military Academy, West Point), for example, says that he is “proud that the United States Army, my Army, defeated the Confederates… In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform… destroyed chattel slavery, freed 4 million men, women and children from human bondage, and saved the United States of America.”
This is fair enough, and I’d like to make clear, I mean no disrespect to the colonel. But prior to this statement, he notes that Lincoln did not begin the war to end slavery, but “as the war progressed, the moral component, ending slavery, became more and more fixed in his mind.”
Here is the Achilles heel of the entire narrative. If Lincoln and his troops did not actually invade the South to end slavery, but that only gradually became their stated objective, why did they do it?
The answer? To preserve the union by using the military might of the federal government, visited upon the states which no longer wished to be a part of it.
There is a much larger component to this discussion than just the morality of slavery.
Slavery was legal in the United States when the Civil War began, and upheld as a constitutional right in 1857. It is, indeed, to our eternal shame that this is the case.
But with all of this in mind, what is the lesson here?
Is it that the federal government can wage war against a seceding state for whatever reason it pleases, considering that Lincoln didn’t actually wage war against the South to free the slaves? By his own admission, in a letter as late as 1862:
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.
But let’s pretend those words don’t exist, just as anyone who pretends that the North waged its war with the intention to abolish slavery must. What, then, is the lesson? That the executive branch of government may issue edicts contrary to existing law and Supreme Court rulings, or wage war against those states which secede, if he believes the “moral component” he is striving toward justifies his actions? Is it that Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and imprisonment of political opponents, the merciless razing of Southern cities, 620,000 lives ended: all of those things are justifiable if the morality of the cause seems to justify them? After all, though the Confederacy didn’t see themselves as part of the United States, Lincoln clearly did. Can we not, therefore, appraise his actions as actions taken against his own countrymen for sedition?
The simple point is that there are many complex reasons for the Civil War, many ways to have intelligent discussions about it, and many conclusions which can be reached. Yes, we can agree that slavery was an incredibly evil institution, and that its having ended is an incredibly good thing. But conversation about the Civil War should not end there.
To demand that the conversation end there is, in effect, the rewriting of history. This is what is happening across the South as we speak, as people clamor to remove Confederate memorials and such. No children have to ever again pass by that Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans and wonder: “Why?” Because they’ll learn in American schools, no doubt, the preferred narrative that it was all just about slavery. So, Lee was evil, and the federal government is righteous. End of story. (Though, as anyone who’s given even a passing study of Lee can say, he was no evil man.)
But beyond all of this, it is the accepting of a dangerous precedent.
There have been states speaking of secession in recent years due to the broadening scope of activity in Washington, just as there had been talk of secession for several decades prior to the Civil War.
If the only lesson we’ve learned is that the federal government can do whatever is necessary to save the union, irrespective of the states’ own sovereignty and the context of our laws, or that any moral impetus can justify military action by the federal government against the states, aren’t we doing more to approach another such conflict, rather than working to properly understand and, God willing, avert it?
William Sullivan blogs at Political Palaver and can be followed on Twitter.