(Part Two of a Three Part Series)
The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves who were at the time beyond the reach of Union arms. So what was the role of slavery as a cause of the Civil War? Some have argued that the real cause was state's rights, tariffs, or Northern economic domination and aggression. They quote (accurately) numerous statements by President Lincoln, and other Northerners, that the war was about Union, not slavery. On the other hand, as Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural:
These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow, the cause of the war.It's important to distinguish between the cause of the war and the goals for which the parties fought in the war because they take you down different paths. Understanding these differences helps to make sense not just about the war, but also about the course of Reconstruction.
I think it clear that the cause of the civil war was slavery. There was no economic interest or tariff issue, in and of itself, that would have led the Southern states to secede. When South Carolina provoked the nullification crisis over tariffs in the early 1830s, no other Southern state joined it (it was South Carolina's fiery leadership in the tariff and slavery disputes that led James Petigru, a South Carolinian opponent of secession, to remark "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum"). Interestingly, it had been thought that in the wake of the 1830s crisis, nullification was dead as an issue in American politics, but it has been resurrected in the guise of the "sanctuary cities" movement to shield illegal immigrants from federal law enforcement.
As for state's rights, it was a cudgel to be used when convenient to protect Southern interests and something to be discarded when it did not. The first time in American history that Federal legislation was used to override the authority of State courts was with the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850. The Act, set up a federal court system in the Northern states to address the legal issues around escaped slaves, was enacted at the insistence of the Southern states.
There are abundant statements by Southern statesmen during the Secession Crisis of 1860-1 that the preservation of the institution of slavery was the driving force for secession - they weren't trying to hide it. From the South's perspective, in order to preserve slavery, slavery needed to be expanded. If not, the South could not maintain its veto power in the U.S. Senate where slave and free states were currently balanced. Preservation of the status quo within the United States was unacceptable. Only expansion of slavery to the Western states or via new acquisitions like Cuba or Santo Domingo could ensure slavery's longer term future.
The clearest expression of the Southern view was by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephen's speech of March 21, 1861 in which, quoting from the Liberty Law Blog, he called the Founders’ ideas “fundamentally wrong,” for(Alexander Stephens) they “rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.” His account of the Founding era’s opinion of slavery was unequivocal:
“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.”He then went on to praise the new Confederate Constitution:
"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".Stephens is a fascinating figure. Initially opposed to secession, he had openly violated Georgia law and caused local scandal by teaching some of his slaves to read and write, as well as allowing a few to travel on their own, unaccompanied by a white man, yet he could utter the sentiments quoted above.
A good example of the Northern perspective was expressed by Ulysses S Grant in his Personal Memoirs. Written as he was dying in 1885, the book is one of the landmarks of American literature.
"The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to slavery. . . .
Slavery was an institution that required unusual guarantees for its security wherever it existed . . . Hence the people of the South were dependent upon keeping control of the general government to secure the perpetuation of their favorite institution. . . . They saw their power waning, and this led them to encroach upon the prerogatives and independence of the Northern States by enacting such laws as the Fugitive Slave Law . . . Northern marshals became slave-catchers and Northern courts had to contribute to the support and protection of the institution.
Prior to the time of these encroachments the great majority of the people of the North had no particular quarrel with slavery, so long as they were not forced to have it themselves. But they were not willing to play the role of police for the South . . ."
As Stephens pointed out in his 1861 speech, attitudes towards slavery in the South had changed greatly since the time of the Revolution and the Founders. The leading Southern Founders like Jefferson, Madison and Washington agreed that slavery was a wrong. Although they fell short (particularly Jefferson and Madison) in matching their personal actions to their expressed beliefs and could not find a practical solution (from their perspective) they did not defend the institution. And twenty years later, in the early 1800s, the US Congress took the earliest opportunity provided by the Constitution to ban the import of slaves.
But, beginning in the 1820s, there was a change in the attitude of many Southern leaders who now actively defended the institution, with some (see, for instance, John C Calhoun) regarding it as a positive good for the enslaved, culminating in the views expressed by Stephens in his 1861 speech. These attitudes were driven by a combination (John C Calhoun of South Carolina; everyone remarked on his glaring countenance) of political, economic, technological (the cotton-gin) and religious factors. The bottom line is that by the 1850s, slavery was more entrenched as a Southern institution than in the 1780s.
If the cause of the war was slavery and the South fought to preserve the institution what about the North? For both North and South the underlying cause of the war was slavery. But the North did not fight to eliminate slavery, it fought to preserve the Union. While Lincoln personally abhorred slavery, he made clear his goal was preserving the Union, and that the southern states could come back into the Union based on the status quo.
As noted civil war historian Gary Gallagher shows in his recent book, The Union War (2011), Lincoln's view was also the view of the overwhelming majority of soldiers who volunteered to fight for the Union. The abolitionists in the ranks were a small minority.
The Emancipation Proclamation proves to be very interesting in this context. It certainly was a point of no return regarding slavery. Once slaves in the Confederacy were emancipated, it is hard to envision a scenario where they would be re-enslaved at any point in the future. But as Gallagher demonstrates, although there was general support by the volunteer soldiers for the Proclamation they did not view it as changing the cause they fought for. Abolition remained merely a strategy to win the war and this remained the dominant opinion to the end. Two points in particular aroused support for the Proclamation in the North.
- By late 1862 it became clear to many soldiers and citizens in the North that the only way to destroy the Confederacy and achieve Union was to destroy its economic base and that meant destroying slavery. It would also make Southerners on the home front less secure.
- There was a growing hatred of the Southern slave-owning aristocracy in the Union ranks. They were seen as a privileged class that had triggered a war that had already caused so much death and destruction, and Union soldiers knew the contempt this class had for the Northern workingman. The best way to get back at the aristocracy was to destroy the economy of slavery.
Since emancipation was merely a means towards the end of preserving the Union, rather than an acceptance of full political, economic and social equality for the freed slaves, it had a profound impact on how the Reconstruction period (1865-76) played out.
I'd like to think that Reconstruction would have achieved more for the former slaves if Abraham Lincoln had lived, rather than having Andrew Johnson, who was actively hostile to all African Americans, in charge from 1865 to 1868. But even Lincoln would have faced a huge challenge since Northern public opinion would not have accepted full equality. Could he have successfully maneuvered to create a future where the post-war Constitutional amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 did not become dead letters and at the same time not trigger a second rebellion or electoral defeat, even in the North, for the Republicans? If so, it might have been an even greater achievement than preserving the Union and guiding us through the Civil War.
In his memoirs, Grant also wrote about the dilemma of the freed slaves. He had tried to protect freed slaves in the South, albeit ineffectively, during his presidency (1869-77), and supported passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. His thoughts show the internal conflicts and unresolved attitudes about the ex-slaves:
It is possible that the question of a conflict between races may come up in the future, as did that between freedom and slavery before. The condition of the colored man within our borders may become a source of anxiety, to say the least. But he was brought to our shores by compulsion, and he now should be considered as having as good a right to remain here as any other class of our citizens. It was looking to a settlement of this question that led me to urge the annexation of Santo Domingo during the time I was President . . .
In 1876, during the Electoral College stalemate over Grant's successor, the North did not hesitate to reach a deal in which Reconstruction was finally abandoned and reconciliation was achieved with the white South, at the cost of the rights of the ex-slaves. The last Federal Civil Rights Act of the 19th century was passed in 1875. The next one was not enacted until 1957.
In his Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865) Lincoln eloquently pondered the meaning of the war and of the role of slavery in Biblical terms (today a President would probably be impeached for giving a religious sermon as his inaugural address):
(Lincoln, center - he's the tall guy)
Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and others 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 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 will be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.
A more recent U.S. President reflected on the continuing legacy of slavery in a speech at Goree Island in Senegal, which was the transhipment point for many of the slaves that came to America:
At this place, liberty and life were stolen and sold. Human beings were delivered and sorted, and weighed, and branded with the marks of commercial enterprises, and loaded as cargo on a voyage without return. One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes of history.
Below the decks, the middle passage was a hot, narrow, sunless nightmare; weeks and months of confinement and abuse and confusion on a strange and lonely sea. Some refused to eat, preferring death to any future their captors might prepare for them. Some who were sick were thrown over the side. Some rose up in violent rebellion, delivering the closest thing to justice on a slave ship. Many acts of defiance and bravery are recorded. Countless others, we will never know.
Those who lived to see land again were displayed, examined, and sold at auctions across nations in the Western Hemisphere. They entered societies indifferent to their anguish and made prosperous by their unpaid labor. There was a time in my country's history when one in every seven human beings was the property of another. In law, they were regarded only as articles of commerce, having no right to travel, or to marry, or to own possessions. Because families were often separated, many denied even the comfort of suffering together.
For 250 years the captives endured an assault on their culture and their dignity. The spirit of Africans in America did not break. Yet the spirit of their captors was corrupted. Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters. Years of unpunished brutality and bullying and rape produced a dullness and hardness of conscience. Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice. A republic founded on equality for all became a prison for millions. And yet in the words of the African proverb, "no fist is big enough to hide the sky." All the generations of oppression under the laws of man could not crush the hope of freedom and defeat the purposes of God.
In America, enslaved Africans learned the story of the exodus from Egypt and set their own hearts on a promised land of freedom. Enslaved Africans discovered a suffering Savior and found he was more like themselves than their masters. Enslaved Africans heard the ringing promises of the Declaration of Independence and asked the self-evident question, then why not me?
. . .
Down through the years, African Americans have upheld the ideals of America by exposing laws and habits contradicting those ideals. The rights of African Americans were not the gift of those in authority. Those rights were granted by the Author of Life, and regained by the persistence and courage of African Americans, themselves.
. . . (Fort at Goree Island)
That deliverance was demanded by escaped slaves named Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth, educators named Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, and ministers of the Gospel named Leon Sullivan and Martin Luther King, Jr. At every turn, the struggle for equality was resisted by many of the powerful. And some have said we should not judge their failures by the standards of a later time. Yet, in every time, there were men and women who clearly saw this sin and called it by name.- George W Bush, Goree Island, Senegal July 8, 2003
. . .
We can fairly judge the past by the standards of President John Adams, who called slavery "an evil of callosal magnitude." We can discern eternal standards in the deeds of William Wilberforce and John Quincy Adams, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Abraham Lincoln. These men and women, black and white, burned with a zeal for freedom, and they left behind a different and better nation. Their moral vision caused Americans to examine our hearts, to correct our Constitution, and to teach our children the dignity and equality of every person of every race. By a plan known only to Providence, the stolen sons and daughters of Africa helped to awaken the conscience of America. The very people traded into slavery helped to set America free.
My nation's journey toward justice has not been easy and it is not over. The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation. And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times. But however long the journey, our destination is set: liberty and justice for all.
. . .
We know that these challenges can be overcome, because history moves in the direction of justice. The evils of slavery were accepted and unchanged for centuries. Yet, eventually, the human heart would not abide them. There is a voice of conscience and hope in every man and woman that will not be silenced -- what Martin Luther King called a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. That flame could not be extinguished at the Birmingham jail. It could not be stamped out at Robben Island Prison. It was seen in the darkness here at Goree Island, where no chain could bind the soul. This untamed fire of justice continues to burn in the affairs of man, and it lights the way before us.
(Bush at Goree Island)
(Tomorrow: A Former Slave's Perspective)