Was the Civil War about slavery?


This year marks the 150th anniversary of America’s Civil War, and the occasion is raising the perennial argument over whether that war was about slavery or state’s rights. While the history and politics of slavery in America would fill a long bookshelf, the debate is an occasion to look past the simplicity of pop history to a few highlights that illuminate some warts and wrinkles in our country’s beginnings.

Long before slavery spread to North America, the practice had taken deep root in the Caribbean and what we now call Central and South America, brought by European colonists along with their more advanced civilization, Christianity and a few virulent diseases.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting by comparison the natives were pure. All over the world, humans have been killing and enslaving each other since long before any written history, with the spoils going to the strongest. Our own native Americans practiced a rich variety of brutality and slavery, though a few tribes like the Cherokee Nation were extraordinarily civilized, making our lousy treatment of them particularly egregious.

As colonies in North America became established, the British soon recognized the profit potential in slavery for labor-intensive agriculture. It seems the smell of gold can nudge our susceptible minds to rationalize almost anything, and the crop-intensive southern colonies soon built a slave-based economy. A lot of that money found its way back to England, and some would use the moral excuse that the system of slavery was forced on them by the king.

In 1776 when the colonies were struggling against the chokehold of the British, they finally broached the subject of independence. While they debated in the Philadelphia Continental Congress meetings, the elephant in the room nobody wished to mention was slavery.

The colonies had never before acted in concert on anything, and leading spokesmen knew they had a chance to unite to fight for independence, or they could fight each other over slavery, but that either choice precluded the other. Southern colonies would tolerate no intrusion into the slavery base of their economy. Northern colonies held a rather convenient morally dim view on slavery since their pocketbook was not affected, but they soon learned they had to postpone dealing with the abomination of slavery in order to gain the cooperation of southern colonies.

The first meetings did not even consider the treasonous idea of independence. When John Adams of Massachusetts sensed the Congress shifting towards his notion of independence, he made a strategic offer to form a committee to draft a declaration while negotiations continued. Adams persuaded Thomas Jefferson to draft the statement since Jefferson was a persuasive writer.

Jefferson was from Virginia, one of the southern slave colonies and the most populous by far. Jefferson’s paradox was that he owned hundreds of slaves to work his plantation while he was philosophically opposed to the slavery system, and in his list of grievances against the king he inserted the following language into his draft, surely knowing the firestorm of division it would create:.

“… Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms against us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them, thus paying off former crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another …”

The drafting committee, perhaps Adams or Franklin, struck this slavery language out of the Declaration of Independence, replacing it with the following vague reference to the King’s promise of freedom to slaves in the colonies who would join the British to fight their masters: “… He has excited domestic Insurrections among us; …”

And thus began what I would call a conspiracy of silence on the subject of slavery in America. Those deeply involved in politics kept this festering division under wraps, America’s version of a crazy aunt locked in an attic, not to be discussed openly, the subject of whispers in dark corners to preserve a fragile union.

Thomas Jefferson may have been bold in drafting his indictment of the British on the subject of slavery, possibly thinking that would absolve him and other slave owners, but the truth is not quite so tidy. While Jefferson accomplished many notable things in his life, the subject of slavery was not one to give him any cause of pride.

For such a powerful and influential writer, he was remarkably silent on slavery even while others railed against the inhumanity and injustice of the system. In the decades following the Revolution, the population of freed slaves in Virginia grew rapidly as one after another slave owner freed their slaves as a matter of conscience, or included such freedom at their death by their will. But while some of his fellow Virginians were setting their slaves free, Jefferson never did.

When the war ended with America’s independence in 1781, the country operated under Articles of Confederation until the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 to shape the form of our government. At last, America’s great thinkers were gathering to decide how we would govern ourselves, and surely the slavery issue would be finally settled, wouldn’t it?

In the Pennsylvania State House, over three months the representatives of the former colonies, now states, worked and argued, forming factions to support this or oppose that. The southern states were most interested in preserving their status quo on slavery while large and small states were at each others’ throats over the issue of apportionment and how votes in Congress would be counted.

As a prime example of Congress’ noxious deal-making specialty, northern states struck a bargain with southern states to extend the slave trade for 20 years in exchange for making federal regulation of commerce a mere majority vote in Congress instead of requiring a two-thirds majority. It seems that northern morality, just as southern morality, had its price.

The infamous Constitutional clause (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3) counting slaves as three-fifths of a person is often derided as a gross example of racism, but that over-simplified view is mistaken even though the truth is not much better.

The fraction was a negotiated deal on enumeration to determine how taxes were distributed and how many representatives a state would have. Northern states didn’t want slaves counted at all, while southern slave states wanted slaves counted as a full person. Three-fifths was the compromise, the best deal either side could strike.

And so America’s Constitution was formed with nary an honorable attempt to get rid of slavery. While the new federal government kicked the slavery can down the road, the issue was bubbling at the state level and some states passed their own abolition laws.

By the time the first shot of the Civil War was fired in 1861, there had been ongoing struggles over slavery and compromises on the spread of slavery to western territories. Maybe the war and its bloodbath were inevitable, made necessary by deep, unresolved differences that grew into resentment, suspicion and suppressed anger just below the surface and ready to blow at the slightest provocation.

Does President Abraham Lincoln deserve the accolades he still receives for freeing the slaves in the Emancipation Proclamation? He said, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to 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. …”

Lincoln held the proclamation in abeyance as he waited impatiently for a Union victory on the battlefield to make the announcement, apparently to maximize political effect.

Furthermore, it was announced in September 1862, as a provision that would go into effect only for those Confederate states who had not returned to the Union by the following January. No Confederate state complied, and when Emancipation was announced on Jan. 1, 1863, it was an order to free 3 million slaves in the Confederate states where the Union held no power to enforce it, and it did not free the nearly 1 million slaves in Union states.

Secretary of State William Seward said of this absurdity, “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.”

Lincoln, a Republican, angered northern Democrats with this proclamation as they favored ending the war by accepting slavery. Both parties have committed far too many offenses since that time for either to claim any virtue on the matter.

Personally, I think Lincoln was a great man and a fine President, albeit with many flaws, illustrating our tendency to overlook facts to simplify history and beatify our favorite historical figures.

Was the Civil War about slavery? Well, sure it was, but it was also about the absolute unwillingness of some states to bend to the will of outsiders, and it was about the cowardice of Congress to deal with tough issues, to sweep problems under the rug, to postpone controversy so someone else might handle it in the future, to trade away the most profound principles for a little mutual back-scratching.

Sound familiar?

[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City and occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is terry@garlock1.com.]