Slavery vs. States’ Rights: What Really Caused the Civil War?

This is the first of the all request week. I asked people to send me blog ideas and I’ll be writing them all week. Today’s blog deals with the central issue of what the cause of the Civil War actually was. Was it about slavery? Was it about state’s rights? Was it about the election of 1860? A lot of people, especially in the South, have trouble with this. So this will be more of a history lesson.

If you pick up any history book or watch any biography, you will read or see that the Civil War was fought over slavery. However, if you were to ask some of the people in Alabama and much of the South, they will tell you that it was actually fought over state’s rights…as my good friend that I interviewed in the previous blog did. But does this argument actually hold any weight? I would say unequivocally that it doesn’t, and I’ll explain why.

When we talk about America before the Civil War, the expansion of slavery was becoming a hot topic. As America was expanding and states were being added, there was much debate over whether they would be admitted as free states or as slave states. The southern states naturally wanted them admitted as slave states for a variety of reasons. However the biggest reason is the fear that if the number of free states increased, then the voice of slave states in Congress would be diluted and slavery would eventually be abolished altogether.

Another group who wanted to see slavery allowed in new territories was wealthy plantation owners. They saw the West as an opportunity to expand, but knew slavery must be permitted for them to make money. The North on the other hand, wanted new states to be admitted as free states, open to yeoman farmers willing to relocate. After the Civil War started, Lincoln tried to reduce the number of Southern belligerents by offering land in the West to anyone who did not take up arms against the North under the Homestead Act.

Another point that Southerners were pushing for was for slave owners to be permitted to take their slaves into free states when they traveled, and they still be considered as and treated as slaves. But isn’t this in direct opposition of the whole “state’s rights” idea? They would be the ones not supporting the rights of the free states. So again, slavery pops up.

After the election of 1860, states began seceding from the Union. Now here is where the story gets good. Several of the states who seceded wrote letters declaring the reasons for secession. Let’s see what they had to say, shall we? You can click the state’s name to read the full declaration.

South Carolina – “They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.” Oh so people are helping your slaves escape? Sounds like slavery is in the center of the issue. It mentions it 18 more times.

Georgia – “The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees it its favor, were boldly proclaimed by its leaders and applauded by its followers. With these principles on their banners and these utterances on their lips the majority of the people of the North demand that we shall receive them as our rulers. The prohibition of slavery in the Territories is the cardinal principle of this organization.” In reference to slavery expanding to new states…they are opposing those who want to expel slavery. Again, slavery…it is mentioned 35 different times.

Mississippi – “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.” I mean, you knew they would have a good one, right? It’s Mississippi.

Texas – “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.” Texas believed that because it was admitted as a slave state, slavery should last forever. Slavery is mentioned another 21 times.

Now I could go on and on, with the other states, but I think you get the picture. But just for fun, let’s hear from a person. The man who was voted as the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens. In his “Corner Stone” speech, click here to read the full text, he laid out clearly what the Civil War was over and why states began to secede.

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.

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.

The man who was the Vice President of the Confederacy saying very clearly that South seceded over the issue of slavery. And that the very cornerstone of the Confederacy was maintaining slavery. He called the subjection of blacks a “great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” And you want to argue that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery? Give me a break.

So where did this whole idea of the war being about state’s rights and not slavery come from? It actually didn’t pop up until the 1920’s. During Reconstruction, the South was desolate and devastated. There wasn’t anyone praising the effort that the Confederacy had put up. There wasn’t anyone saying that the South was going to rise again. There was none of that. There was only sadness and defeat.

After Reconstruction, and through the rest of the 19th century, Southerners struggle to adjust to living in a society where blacks and whites were equal. Almost immediately after Reconstruction ended, the first Black Codes were enacted. With the rise of Jim Crow, Southern a few Southern historians began to reconstruct history, giving birth to what would be known as the Lost Cause. The most prominent historians were Charles and Mary Ritter Beard, and the book The Rise of American Civilization.

The concept of the Lost Cause was wrapped up with the New South Creed, which argued that the Old South was a grand and glorious civilization. Slavery was an institution established by God for the goodness of the negro slave. Slaves weren’t treated badly at all, and the few instances which they were, the stories were exaggerated. No, slaves were treated as part of the family. And then, out of nowhere, the North came down and began attacking the Old South. They began freeing slaves before they were ready to be. They began infringing on the rights of states. Thus began the idea of state’s rights being the cause of the Civil Wa…I mean, the “War of Northern Aggression.”

While this idea of the Lost Cause was refuted relatively quickly by most historians, it did get mainstream notoriety. The films Birth of a Nation and later Gone with the Wind (based on the book by Margaret Mitchell) were made, romanticizing the South and portraying the Lost Cause’s idealization of the Old South. It was also partially because of this idea that we saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan again.

–To help identify with the concept of the Lost Cause, the KKK chose the confederate battle flag to display prominently at the majority of their rallies, lynchings, etc. This is also the same banner that the Dixiecrats would support later after splitting from the Democrats in hopes of maintaining white supremacy in 1948. It would again be adopted by the skinheads who were protesting the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. And finally, it was during all of this that southern states began adopting the confederate flag as either parts of their state flag or to fly on their state capitols. I know this was supposed to be about the cause of the Civil War, but I felt it needful to mention where the support of this confederate flag began. If you can’t understand how it couldn’t be viewed as a symbol of white supremacy by black Americans then you just refuse to.–[Sorry for the completely irrelevant rant here]

So in closing, there is really no logical way that you can say the Civil War was fought over state’s rights. And even if you argue that it was, there is NO way to deny that it was fought over a state’s right to maintain slavery. I mean honestly, today’s Republican Party is the champion of state’s rights…if the South really seceded over state’s rights, and the confederate flag is symbolic of that cause, then why don’t they embrace it? Why haven’t you seen the flag at rallies against Common Core or the Affordable Care Act? Why didn’t you see it flying around beside the Gadsden Flag at TEA Party rallies? Why hasn’t one single Republican presidential candidate come out and say he supports the flag because it represented state’s rights? I can tell you why. Because it doesn’t. It represents slavery and represents the South’s failed attempt at seceding from the Union to preserve the institution of slavery. Nothing more, nothing less.


If you want to read some great books on the ideas of the Lost Cause and the New South Creed, as well as Southern History in general, I recommend all of the following books. They can all be found on Amazon for fairly cheap. As someone who has taken numerous classes on Southern history and studied deeply the period of Reconstruction to Jim Crow, I have read all of these and thoroughly enjoyed them.

The Burden of Southern History and Origins of the New South 1877-1913, both by C. Vann Woodward

The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash

Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity by James Cobb

Southern Crossing: A History of the American South by Edward Ayers

The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking by Paul Gaston

Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause by Charles Reagan Wilson (This book looks entirely at how religion was adopted into the concept of the Lost Cause, and you can see why it is so interwoven today because of it.)

Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South by Tara McPherson

The Fall of the House of Dixie by Bruce Levine (This is a great book that discusses the revolution within the South that took place during the Civil War and doesn’t talk a lot about the Lost Cause, but could be great from background context. I include it simply because it’s one of the best books I’ve read.)





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