The causes of the American Civil War were many and varied, but the vast majority of them revolved around the issue of slavery. To deny the fact that slavery was the single most important issue which most of the other issues were rooted in, is to blatantly engage in apologetics and history revisionism.
“States’ rights” was the main issue you say? I would respond with asking which rights? To which the answers are, the “right” to take your slave “property” into free states; the “right” to expand slavery into the territory newly acquired during the Mexican war; the “right” to force free states like Massachusetts to send your runaway slaves back you in the South.
Of course, you could hardly say the South truly fought for states rights’ anyway; they explicitly wanted a federal slave code that forced free states to honor “slave property” if you so chose to move to a free state. If it was truly just about states’ rights the Southerners would have voted for Stephen A. Douglas, a person firmly sympathetic to the South and in favor of states themselves voting whether or not to have slavery. Instead, the South nearly unanimously voted for John C. Breckinridge, a Democrat like Douglas, but who ran on a national slave code platform which would override a state’s ability to be slavery free.
The South was also not for liberty; southern states infringed on free speech and freedom of the press every time a pesky writer or journalist published anything against slavery. Not to mention, slavery (owning another person as chattel property) is not exactly being very supportive of liberty.
Many southerners even wanted to reopen the slave trade! Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar was a Southern business man who wanted to reopen the slave trade so much that he invested in the ship called Wanderer which successfully (and illegally) brought 409 Africans from the Congo to sell as slaves in America in 1858. Fellow southerner William Lowndes Yancey proposed repealing the ban on the African slave trade. He reasoned that since it was legal for slave states to trade among each other, the African slave trade could not be reasonably prohibited either.
Southerners were quite serious about not just protecting slavery as it existed, but to expand it and have it flourish like never before. The future president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, believed in invading new territories like Cuba in order to “increase the number of slaveholding constituencies.” His associate, Senator Albert Gallatin Brown, said “I want Tamaulipas, Poltosi, and one or two other Mexican States; I want them all for the same reason—for the planting and spreading of slavery.“
George Washington Lafayette Bickley founded the Knights of the Golden Circle, a southern rights pro-slavery secret society whose name referred to the aspiration to conquer the whole of the central American and Caribbean countries to expand slavery into. Indeed, the lunatic filibuster William Walker temporarily captured Nicaragua and repealed their law abolishing slavery.
Southerners were for a fact extremely motivated by their love for slavery when they seceded from the United States.
But don’t just take my word for it, let us see what the states themselves said in their declarations of secession
“The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property… A 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. The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party. While it attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government, anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the state. The question of slavery was the great difficulty in the way of the formation of the Constitution. While the subordination and the political and social inequality of the African race was fully conceded by all, it was plainly apparent that slavery would soon disappear from what are now the non-slave-holding States of the original thirteen. The opposition to slavery was then, as now, general in those States and the Constitution was made with direct reference to that fact. But a distinct abolition party was not formed in the United States for more than half a century after the Government went into operation [Yale Law School]…The rest of Georgia’s official statement continues to center around slavery just as it began, and I cut it short merely in the interest of time.
In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery— the greatest material interest of the world.
Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization [civil-war.net]…”Again, that is more than enough to determine the reason for Mississippi’s secession, though one could continue reading if they wanted to see the dead horse beat into pudding.
“The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue. And now the State of South Carolina having resumed her separate and equal place among nations, deems it due to herself, to the remaining United States of America, and to the nations of the world, that she should declare the immediate causes which have led to this act… The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due. This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River… The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But 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… In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation [civilwar.org]…”
“Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery— the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?The States of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, by solemn legislative enactments, have deliberately, directly or indirectly violated the 3rd clause of the 2nd section of the 4th article [the fugitive slave clause] of the federal constitution, and laws passed in pursuance thereof; thereby annulling a material provision of the compact, designed by its framers to perpetuate the amity between the members of the confederacy and to secure the rights of the slave-holding States in their domestic institutions– a provision founded in justice and wisdom, and without the enforcement of which the compact fails to accomplish the object of its creation. Some of those States have imposed high fines and degrading penalties upon any of their citizens or officers who may carry out in good faith that provision of the compact, or the federal laws enacted in accordance therewith.In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.For years past this abolition organization has been actively sowing the seeds of discord through the Union, and has rendered the federal congress the arena for spreading firebrands and hatred between the slave-holding and non-slave-holding States.By consolidating their strength, they have placed the slave-holding States in a hopeless minority in the federal congress, and rendered representation of no avail in protecting Southern rights against their exactions and encroachments. They have proclaimed, and at the ballot box sustained, the revolutionary doctrine that there is a ‘higher law’ than the constitution and laws of our Federal Union, and virtually that they will disregard their oaths and trample upon our rights. They have for years past encouraged and sustained lawless organizations to steal our slaves and prevent their recapture, and have repeatedly murdered Southern citizens while lawfully seeking their rendition [civilwar.org].”So on, and so forth, almost every seceding state, and every grievance they stated, revolved around the issue of slavery and abolition.
What were the government leaders arguing most about leading up to the war?
John C. Calhoun addressed Congress in 1949 vilifying supposed Northern “aggressions” against the South. The speech was peppered from top to bottom with 67 mentions of the word slave/slaves/slavery.
The specific “aggressions” expounded on included the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 (which included a clause that banned slavery in the new northwest and Ohio River valley states), the Missouri Compromise (which restricted slavery expansion north of the 36th parallel except for Missouri), laws in the North which blocked slave-owners from being able to recover “property” that fled into northern territory, and the Wilmot Proviso (a legislative provision proposed by David Wilmot to exclude slavery from all of the newly acquired Mexican territory.
In other words, pretty much everything was about slavery here.
President Zachary Taylor addressed a group of Pennsylvanians in 1949, telling them that “the people of the North need have no apprehension of the further extension of slavery.” Taylor of course was in the process of circumventing the South (which wanted slavery to expand into the new territories) by allowing California, Utah, and New Mexico to skip the territory stage and join the Union directly as states. This was problematic for the South because those territories were filled with anti-slavery Mexicans and other settlers less supportive of slavery. Allowing them to join would give the Union more free states, and as a result, more free-state Senators in Congress. No surprise, the South was outraged.
Civil War historian James McPherson cites a Georgian of the times who said “The slavery question is the only question which in the least affects the results of the elections.”
Douglas, Lincoln, Davis, and Stephens
Leading up to the 1860 election, in the seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and fellow candidate Stephen A. Douglass, tariffs, banks, internals improvements, corruption, and all the other popular topics didn’t receive a word; slavery was the only thing discussed. Douglas said that the position Lincoln held, that the US founders included black people when they said all men were “created equal” was a “monstrosity.” That “the signers of the Declaration had no reference to the negro… or any other inferior and degraded race when they spoke of the equality of men.” He said black people “must always occupy an inferior position.” “If you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote… then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of the citizenship of the negro.”
Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address:
“On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it.
These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.
To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered Second Inaugural…”
“The condition of slavery with us is … nothing but the form of civil government instituted for a class of people not fit to govern themselves. It is exactly what in every State exists in some form or other. It is just that kind of control which is extended in every northern State over its convicts, its lunatics, its minors, its apprentices. It is but a form of civil government for those who by their nature are not fit to govern themselves. We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our Government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority.”
As spoken by him in the Senate on February 29, 1860, Davis even resorted to justifying slavery by saying that it is mutually beneficial to both races, and that African Slaves really didn’t have it bad:
“…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.”
And finally, the Cornerstone speech from the vice president of the Confederacy Alexander H. Stephens in Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861:
“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution…
…African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution…
Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
No honest and learned person can deny the fact that slavery was the single most important cause of the American Civil war. Continued denial either indicates gross ignorance regarding the historical facts, or an insidious drive to avoid facing inconvenient truths by justifying existing beliefs by any means necessary.
No, the North didn’t begin the war as a crusade against slavery; they began fighting as a defensive response to the South’s belligerent attack on the federal citadel Fort Sumter. Slavery simply became an issue that could not be ignored by the North after the war started. The South’s actions, however, were motivated by slavery from the beginning. They were terrified Lincoln would infringe on their “property rights” to own slaves, and that is why they seceded. Lincoln’s election was the straw that broke the camel’s back, though not the single cause.