Slavery and the Rebellion

The War Between the States; War of Northern Aggression; Second American Revolution; War of 1861; War for Southern Independence; Mr. Lincoln’s War; American Civil War; Civil War; or simply, the War.

These are some of the names that have used to describe the military conflict in the United States between 1861 and 1865.  The War of the Rebellion – the official name of what most Americans refer to as the Civil War – is the subject of many books.  In some book stores, there is a section called U.S. History and a separate section called The Civil War.  The Civil War holds a special place in American history.  This is not surprising given that the war produced over 600,000 casualties, more than all other American wars combined.  Also, the divisions in the country then, which helped ignite the conflict, still exist today.  The cultural differences between the North and the South are still with us.  The sectional political differences that existed then persist to this day (most states in the South are reliably “Red” and most states in the North are reliably “Blue”).  And, of course, the racial divide, which often meant the difference between bondage and freedom early in our history, has not quite healed.

The different names referring to the conflict also, in some ways, reflect the differing in the reasons and perspectives for the conflict.

Ask random people why there was a war, and you will invariably hear “slavery” was the reason.  Some will cite “state-rights” as the core issue.  A few will even point to “the tariff” as the cause.  It is quite telling that Americans cannot quite agree on what caused a national crisis that resulted in Americans taking up arms against each other for four long years.  This lack of clarity is one reason of many reasons why there have been so many books written on the subject, and continue to be written.

The question of why there was war between the two regions is one worth answering.

In November 1860, American voters went to the polls and elected the Republican Party nominee President of the United States.  The presidential nominee, Abraham Lincoln, was the country’s first Republican president.  Both houses of Congress were also controlled by the Republican Party.  The party was only six years old, having been founded in Wisconsin in 1854.  Wisconsin, itself, had only joined the Union six years earlier.  The Republican Party had been put together by former Whigs, Free Soilers, and a few Democrats.  The new party had adopted most of the platform of the Whigs, namely, economic protectionism and modernization.  The Republican Party had also adopted the position that it wanted to stop the spread of slavery within the United States.

To many in the Southern states, this must have been quite shocking.  A brand new party; with no base of support in the South; founded by abolitionists; opposed to the spread of slavery; formed in a relatively new state, so far north it may as well been part of Canada, had just taken over the U.S. government.  It is no surprise that several of the Southern states would announce their intentions to leave the Union.

The consensus of the rest of the country was that the nation breaking apart would be a bad thing.  It could easily set the precedent of other states wanting to leave the Union.  It would also suggest that the experiment of self-governance did not, and, perhaps, could never work.  Abraham Lincoln did not want to be the president that presided over the dissolution of the United States of America.

The South, led by Jefferson Davis, wanted to leave the Union and was willing to use military force to achieve this goal, since it was not in its interest to stay.  The North, led by Abraham Lincoln, wanted to keep the country together and was willing to use military force to do so, since it was not its interest for the South to go.  “And the war came.”

The intentions of the South warrant closer scrutiny.  In 1861, Lincoln stated in his inaugural address that he would not interfere with the institution of slavery where it already existed.  Lincoln also tacitly approved in the same address a proposed amendment to the Constitution (Corwin Amendment) that would prevent any future amendments from interfering with the institution of slavery.  These concessions would not deter the Southern states from their intentions to leave the Union.

Why did Lincoln’s words not reassure the South?  Why would the Southern states risk war by attempting to secede?  What did Southerners fear?

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.

Lincoln, Second Inaugural, March 4, 1865

Those three sentences in Lincoln’s 1865 address may provide useful clues.  First, in reference to slavery itself, Lincoln acknowledges that the institution was somehow the cause of the war.  He seems to be saying that slavery had something to do with the conflict but may not have been the primary cause.  Second, it may be helpful to refer to the census of 1860.  South Carolina, the first state to announce its intention to leave the United States, has a slave population that represents 57% – an absolute majority – of the total residents of the state.  Mississippi, the second state to announce its intention to leave, has a slave population that represents 55% – also an absolute majority – of the total residents of its state.  The next four states to announce their intentions to leave were Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana.  Those states had slave populations as a percentage of their entire state of 44%, 45%, 44%, and 47%, respectively.  It is almost the case that the higher the slave population percentage, the sooner the state announced its intention to secede from the Union.  The other clue in Lincoln’s address was that one-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves.  Had the slaves been Irish or French, there probably would not have been a war.  It is very likely that the people of the South were less in love with the institution of slavery but more in favor of keeping the United States a white nation.  Had the slaves been white or some other non-black race, in the face of war, slavery may have ended sooner and without bloodshed.  Since the slaves were black (or “mulatto”) and clearly ethnically different from American whites, it would not have been in the interest of Southern planters to free those in bondage because it could have meant sharing or surrendering political power and resources with those easily identified as former slaves.  This may have led to intermarrying with individuals whose ethnic features would have been difficult to breed away.  Fearing the emergence of a “mongrel” race that could have real political and economic power was of concern to Americans, particularly those in the South.

Slavery ultimately became a tactic to control those of African descent in the (Southern) United States.  We know this because shortly after the war ended, Southern legislatures passed laws that were known as “Black Codes” and these laws were a tactic designed to control the conduct of those of African descent in the (Southern) United States.

The Reluctant Conservative believes that for the American South, secession and war were about race and national identity.  Since blacks were mostly localized in the southern part of the nation, Southerners were far more concerned about demographics than their northern counterparts.

On this 150th anniversary of Secretary of State William Seward issuing a proclamation of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, it is worth revisiting how the amendment came to be.

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