A recent story on plans across the South to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the secession that sparked the Civil War reported that its advocates dismissed the issue of slavery as irrelevant.
One planner said “our people were only fighting [the Civil War] to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence.” Another, while “not defending slavery, which he called an abomination, [said] ‘But defending the South’s right to secede, the soldiers’ right to defend their homes and the right to self-government doesn’t mean your arguments are without weight because of slavery’ . . .”
Such efforts to deny that slavery brought on the Civil War come from the Right, but they eerily connect to similar denials from the Left. Both positions are wrong. It was slavery; it still is slavery.
It is understandable that descendants of Confederate soldiers would emphasize the nobler aspects of their struggle. More striking is the fashion on the Left – I think starting in the 1960s, perhaps the ‘30s – to minimize slavery. The argument that the slavery issue was merely a camouflage for economic interests became popular in many high school and college classes. Howard Zinn delivered one version of this claim:
The clash was not over slavery as a moral institution – most northerners did not care enough about slavery to make sacrifices for it, certainly not the sacrifice of war. It was not a clash of peoples . . . but of elites. The northern elite wanted economic expansion – free land, free labor, a free market, a high protective tariff for manufacturers, a bank of the United States. The slave interests opposed all that . . .
A year or so ago, I heard two sophisticated intellectuals discuss on public radio a different topic, but a caller asked rhetorically, Wasn’t it true that the Civil War had little to do slavery, that it was really about economic interests? The two learned fellows quickly agreed. This capitalism-versus-agribusiness explanation of America’s worst war seemed to have become the conventional wisdom on the Left.
But current historiography, by my reading at least, roots the Civil War in slavery. It was the expansion of slavery that Lincoln and his party opposed and that Southern leaders, correctly understanding that limiting slavery’s growth would begin its slow demise, insisted upon. Had Lincoln conceded on slavery – not on markets, tariffs, a bank, or whatever – in Spring, 1861, the secession would have stopped.
It is certainly true that most Union soldiers were not fighting to liberate blacks; if they had any ideological motivations at all – and probably most had none – it was about defending the Union. And probably most soldiers in gray were not fighting in order to protect rich men’s ability to own other men, but were motivated more by defending their home communities. (That, however, did not stop them from wreaking great vengeance on slaves or free blacks who joined the Union army.)
Nonetheless, the war was rooted in slavery, as were most of the fateful struggles in American history before the war – struggles over representation rules in the Constitution, enforcement of fugitive slave laws, entry of new states, and so on.
And slavery – or, at least, its effects – continues to divide the nation. Slavery was replaced by a system that treated blacks as serfs in much of the South and as a separate caste everywhere. It was not until the 1960s that Americans started to dismantle this system. And despite about three decades’ worth of halting – and now largely halted – efforts to make up for about three centuries of oppression, the gap between the descendants of those slaves and the rest of Americans is the deepest in our society. (I discuss this inheritance in an earlier post.)
We see this lasting division in many spheres. For example, scholars of residential patterns know that no kind of segregation – not by income, not by immigration status, not by age – is nearly as wide as that between blacks and others. Labor researchers have little difficulty showing explicit discrimination against black job applicants. And we are all familiar with the racial divide in the schools.
Finally, let’s turn to Lincoln’s own analysis. Even casual students of the Civil War know that Lincoln’s political strategy was to frame the Union cause as a matter of nationalism, not as a fight for abolition, and surely not as struggle for black rights. Similarly, he delayed the Emancipation Proclamation for political reasons. He could not afford to stir up anti-black feelings in the North nor alienate the border states. Yet, in 1865, just weeks before his death, Lincoln declared:
All knew that this interest [slavery] 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. . . . . 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.”
(This column was re-posted on The Berkeley Blog on December 14, 2010.)
Epilogue (June 19, 2012)
Historian Chandra Manning describes (here) how average Union soldiers came to develop the conviction that, whatever brought them into Lincoln’s army, slavery had to end in order to save the Union, save democracy, and sustain their moral instincts.