One unfortunate side effect of the tragedies at Charlottesville is that many people have decided to go back and re-interpret historical events to fit their political narratives. I’ve seen numerous people making the simplistic claims that “all Southerners were racists” or “North=good, South=bad,” implying that the Civil War was some sort of humanitarian struggle to abolish slavery. While these arguments are convenient and succinct, they are also predominantly false and lack any sort of nuance. Therefore, I am going to attempt, through the rest of this post, to offer a balanced and accurate perspective of the Civil War that places blame where it is legitimately due.
Let it be known that I am not a Southerner and do not really care about Southern Heritage. I am not a neo-confederate, a part of the Lost Cause movement, or a white supremacist. On the contrary, my family is predominantly from the North and I grew up considering the North the good guys and the South the bad guys. However, as I’ve learned more about the historical facts surrounding this struggle, I’ve coming to realize that this simplistic narrative is simply untrue. From my perspective, it seems that both sides were at fault and I am going to try to clarify some of these issues in the rest of this post. I do not have any sort of agenda, rather, I believe that horrific current events do not necessitate the perpetuation of historical inaccuracies. Racism is evil and should be condemned. However, we can denounce racism without going back in time, misstating history, and unnecessarily vilifying millions of people.
Racial Beliefs in America in the Early 1800’s
The perspective that all the racists and white supremacists in America in the 1800’s lived south of the Mason-Dixon line is patently false. As historian, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, notes, “with respect to race, both [North and South] practiced the same white supremacy, the black minority being either enslaved [in the South] or legally discriminated against [in the North].”
In the North abolitionists were a vocal minority. Individuals such as William Lloyd Garrison argued against slavery from a moral perspective and advocated that the North secede from the Union so as to avoid association with such an evil institution and to become a haven for runaway slaves. His views were so unpopular that a Boston anti-abolitionist mob dragged him through the streets and almost lynched him.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French commentator on 1830’s America, noted that “race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known.” This prejudice was codified in various Northern laws that discriminated against blacks voting or prohibited free blacks from entering various Northern states. As Hummel notes, “Most northern locales had legally mandated discrimination of some sort.”
In addition, the United States government actually subsidized slavery as an institution through the Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1793. This law compelled Northern, free states to return escaped slaves to their masters and, for the most part, the free states willingly cooperated with this legislation. Thus, even the Northern states were complicit in slavery’s continued existence in the 1800’s.
Northern Opposition to Slavery
Although few Northerners opposed slavery on grounds of racial equality, many opposed its spread into new states for other reasons. Hummel again notes,
“The single issue that commanded for abolitionists the greatest northern sympathy was slavery’s extension into new territories. Here was an antislavery position that carried no taint of disunion. It allowed Northerners to take steps against slavery in a distant sphere while honoring their constitutional obligation to leave the local institutions of the southern states alone. Here also was an antislavery position that could be made consistent with Negrophobia. Keeping slaves out of the territories was an excellent way to keep blacks out altogether.”
Antislavery Pennsylvanian David Wilmot represented a common Northern perspective on race and slavery. He authored the Wilmot Proviso, which sought to outlaw slavery in all newly acquired territories, and identified with the Free-Soil Party, which sought to keep the western territories available for free white laborers. Arguing for eliminating slavery in these new territories, he said, “The negro race already occupy enough of this fair continent. Let us keep what remains for us and our children.”
Thus, the idea that the North opposed slavery and its expansion on pure, moral grounds is incorrect. On the contrary, most Northerners were fine with allowing slavery to remain untouched where it currently existed. Hummel characterized the two extreme positions on slavery in this manner, “In one [the North], slavery was stigmatized at the national level and legally permitted only at the state level. In the other [the South], slavery was a national institution sanctioned and protected by the central government.”
Abraham Lincoln on Slavery
The beliefs on slavery expressed by Abraham Lincoln are a good example of the sorts of opinions held by Northerners at this time. Many people believe that Abraham Lincoln was a civil rights activist of sorts, who started the Civil War in order to eradicate slavery. On the contrary, Lincoln was a moderate on the issue of slavery who desperately tried to disassociate himself with the seemingly radical abolitionists.
During a debate in 1858, Stephen Douglas, a Northerner from Illinois, tried to discredit Lincoln as a radical abolitionist saying, “I do not question Mr. Lincoln’s conscientious belief that the negro was made his equal, and hence is his brother.”
Lincoln, rather than accepting Douglas’ accusation, defended himself,
“I will say that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they can not so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
This is not to say that Lincoln was uniquely villainous for holding these white supremacist views. Rather, these despicable beliefs made up the predominant opinion of this time.
While Lincoln opposed slavery’s expansion, he primarily criticized slavery based on its potential to divide the country and dissolve the Union. In addition, he agreed with some of the sentiments put forth by the Free-Soil Party saying, “The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these territories. We want them for the homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted within them.”
Similar to the views held by Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln believed that white and black individuals could never live in harmony. This lead him to advocate colonizing freed slaves in areas such as Haiti, Honduras, Liberia, and Ecuador.
Southern Arguments for Slavery
My purpose thus far has been to show that racism existed in the North in the 1800’s and that Northern opposition to slavery was not primarily based on moral grounds. This is not to say that the South should be absolved of all moral responsibility for the institution of slavery. However, I have not chosen to focus on these matters as much since they are more commonly known and are not currently being debated by many individuals.
That being said, slavery (as seen in America in the 1800’s) was a fundamentally evil institution that rejected the right of self-ownership and the idea that all men are created equal (and in the image of God). While there were differing degrees of treatment of slaves in the South, it is important to not attempt to excuse this evil institution by saying that some of the slaves were treated civilly. Regardless of whether or not some slaves were treated satisfactorily by their masters, this institution, by definition, violated the natural rights of the slaves and was thus, wrong.
In addition, the reasoning that many Southerners would use to justify slavery was truly horrific. Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina stated, “In all social systems, there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. It constitutes the very mud-sills of society and of political government. [This class demands] but a low order of intellect and but little skill, [but] fortunately for the South, has found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand.”
Similarly, Virginian lawyer, George Fitzhugh, defended slavery as a sort of socialism, “Liberty is an evil which government is intended to correct.” Denying the equal rights of all men, Fitzhugh stated, “It would be far nearer to the truth to say, ‘that some were born with saddles on their backs, and others booted and spurred to ride them’ — and the riding does them good. They need the reins, the bit, and the spur.”
Why Did the South Secede?
Clearly, the majority of Southerners supported the institution of slavery, but did they secede primarily to protect this institution? We must first note that there were many political, cultural, and economic factors that lead the eleven Southern states to secede from the Union between 1860 and 1861. While it is beyond the scope of this post to outline the decades of strife between the North and the South that lead up this point, it is important to be aware that this act of secession did not come out of nowhere. For decades the North had been exploiting Southern production through tariffs, and the election of Lincoln in 1860 was seen as the final straw in a long list of injustices.
People will often claim that the South seceded over the issue of slavery. This statement is correct, for the most part, but requires some nuance. For one thing, there were two waves of secession, each of which took place for different reasons. South Carolina began the first wave of secession and stated that they seceded because the country had elected, “a man to the high office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery … The Slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.”
The other six states from the Deep South (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) seceded for very similar reasons. Therefore, it is correct to say that slavery was the primary, but not the sole reason for this wave of secession.
That being said, the four states from the Upper South (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas) seceded for very different reasons. They remained a part of the Union until after the conflict at Fort Sumter, which lead Lincoln to call the national militia to arms. Virginia’s governor, John Letcher, blamed Lincoln for the altercation and said that Virginia would not go to war against the other Southern states,
“The militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington for any such purpose as they have in view. Your [Lincoln’s] object is to subjugate the Southern States, and a requisition made upon me for such an object — an object, in my judgment, not within the purview of the Constitution or the [militia] act of 1795 — will not be complied with. You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the Administration has exhibited toward the South.”
Thus, while it can be said that the first seven states seceded primarily over the issue of slavery, this assertion cannot be made regarding the following four states. As Hummel notes, “Previously unwilling to secede over the issue of slavery, these four states were now ready to fight for the ideal of a voluntary Union.”
It was noted previously that the first seven states seceded upon the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency. This is still a bit of a confusing rationale since Lincoln was not an abolitionist and clearly stated that he would not interfere with slavery where it already existed. Hummel notes, “Between his [Lincoln’s] election and his inauguration, he refused to compromise on keeping slavery out of the territories, but throughout his campaign he had steadfastly opposed any other antislavery policies. He promised to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law and respect slavery in the existing states.”
Lincoln reiterated these sentiments during his inauguration and assured the Southern states that he would not seek to eliminate the institution of slavery,
“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property [i.e. their slaves] and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you … I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
After some of the initial Southern states seceded, Congress desperately tried to entice these states to remain in the Union through a variety of compromises. One such effort, which Lincoln approved of, was a constitutional amendment that prohibited interference with slavery where it existed and was unamendable.
Why Did the North Fight?
Clearly then, Lincoln and the Northern states did not confront the Confederacy over the issue of slavery. On the contrary, they were willing to compromise again and again on the issue of slavery in order to keep the Union in place. After all, why would the Northern states all of a sudden go to war to try to overturn an institution that they had been largely apathetic towards for the past fifty-plus years? It is not as if the South seceded so that they could set up an institution that had previously been disallowed by the United States government.
Furthermore, Lincoln allowed slavery to remain untouched in the four slave states that did not secede (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri). If Lincoln primarily cared about the inherent immorality of slavery, he would not have continued to allow it to exist in these four states.
That being said, if the North did not fight to end slavery, why did they fight? Lincoln made his purpose clear in a 1862 letter,
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if 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 this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”
Again, Lincoln showed his willingness to compromise on the issue of slavery in order to keep the Union together. At times throughout the war, Lincoln even hinted that he would allow the Southern states to keep their slaves if they rejoined the Union.
The United States Senate reiterated many of these sentiments,
“This war is not prosecuted upon our part in any spirit of oppression, nor for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, nor purpose of over-throwing or interfering with with the rights or established institutions [i.e. slavery] of those States, but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and all laws made in pursuance therof; and to preserve the Union.”
It is clear, then, that the North did not view this war as a heroic effort to abolish slavery, but rather, sought to preserve the unity of the states.
Even the Emancipation Proclamation, which is commonly viewed as a definitive piece of anti-slavery legislation, only freed slaves in the Southern states (specifically exempting Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Northern-controlled counties in Virginia). Overall, it was more of a “war measure” designed to garner support from European countries, which would have potentially supported the South, then a statement on the inherent equality of all races.
Thus, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, criticized the proclamation stating, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” In terms of actually improving the plight of slaves, this proclamation did close to nothing.
In summary, while it can be said that the abolition of slavery was a positive, secondary effect of the Civil War, it was undoubtedly not the original, primary purpose.
Massachusetts abolitionist, Lysander Spooner, summarized the purpose of the war in this manner, “The principle, on which the war was waged by the North, was simply this: That men may rightfully be compelled to submit to, and support, a government that they do not want; and that resistance, on their part, makes them traitors and criminals.”
There is a lot more that could be said on these issues, but I’ve already said more than intended to. I’ll summarize my perspective through the following points:
- The majority of Americans in the both the North and the South in the early 1800’s held white supremacist views.
- Most Northerners who opposed slavery did not oppose it based on moral grounds.
- Slavery was a horrific institution and was excused by many Southerners based on terrible, immoral reasoning.
- The first seven states seceding primarily, but not solely over the issue of slavery and the next four states seceding primarily over the issue of self-governance.
- The North fought to preserve the Union and not to abolish slavery.
Thus, I would say that the Southern states who seceded over the issue of slavery were in the wrong, due to their reasoning for secession. And while it is beyond the scope of this post to deal with the constitutional right to secede, I would tend to affirm the compact theory which would legitimize the act of secession. Therefore, I would say that the North was in the wrong for not allowing the Southern states to secede.
Even if one rejects the compact theory and argues that the North was justified in their retaliation, I do not think that the North can unequivocally be labeled “the good guys,” based on the manner in which they conducted the war. From Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and other clear constitutional violations to General Sherman’s use of total war, the North undoubtedly employed immoral means to achieve their ends.
I want to add that, although it is easy to place all of the blame for slavery and past injustices on the Confederacy, in reality, slavery was at least implicitly condoned by the entire nation. And, while it is wrong to hold every individual from this time period responsible for slavery, my point is that the North repeatedly compromised on the issue of slavery and directly allowed for its continuance. Therefore, if you want to indiscriminately condemn people for the institution of slavery, at least be consistent and blame the entire country and not just the Southern states.
In summary, this is a complicated topic which requires nuanced analysis. Even if you do not agree with all of my conclusions, I hope that this post has given you a more refined perspective on the Civil War that moves beyond the simplistic narratives being perpetrated by individuals and news sources in lieu of current events.
Thanks for reading this post! Please feel free to leave me a comment or send me an email with your feedback to this post.
For further reading check out Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s book “Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men” and Ben Lewis’ articles “Did the South Secede Over Slavery,” and “Did the North Really Fight to End Slavery.”