We all get the bit. No matter in what context it is, no matter how historical the site is, no matter what it really means anything having to do anything with the Confederacy short of saying that everyone fighting for it was racist, is taken down. Statues are taken down, plaques are removed, flags are taken down, and places are renamed.
And internal emails of the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign
released by Wiki Leaks confirm, and even expand upon, claims that Bill Clinton did various actions which are seen as ‘supportive of the confederacy’. But still, we are told time and time again that the war was over slavery and that’s it. No nuance is given, no other options or even mixed causes of the war considered.
Specifically, in an article about the removal of a plaque about the Civil war in Texas, the article talking about it says
Following more than a year of complaints from elected officials of all political stripes, a state board that oversees the Texas Capitol grounds voted unanimously Friday to remove a controversial Confederate plaque that falsely asserts that the Civil War was “not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”
And the line ‘falsely asserts’ is not even prefaced by that’s the opinion of some people. No. It’s told to you as the truth and it’s what you are supposed to accept because in the eyes of the media, they are the ones who are the arbiters of truth, not you.
Now what I am going to do, I hope, won’t be your standard take of what revisionist historians normally do when they try and show that the civil war has more nuance, or that the war wasn’t over slavery. I’m not going to just show you pictures of black people fighting in the confederacy or black people holding up a confederate flag. We’re better than just doing that, although doing that per se isn’t bad, but should just be a supplementary point.
Lets get off on the right footing here. I’m not going to say that the Southern States left the Union for a whole list of reasons but slavery. It’s obvious when looking at the stated reasons why
each state left that all of them mention slavery to some extent or another. Some put more emphasis on it than others, and all of them have other grievances aside from just slavery. But there’s no doubt that the states left the Union after the presidential victory of Abraham Lincoln because they saw him as a threat to their institution of slavery (however misguided they might have been).
But what I will argue is that the war, was not over slavery and even if they hadn’t been a slave-centric society and had no slaves and left for issues of say tariffs, taxation or other much smaller issues the war still would have occurred. It’s just that in this instance the reason why they left was over slavery and the war was over slavery. But I’ll argue that the southern states leaving was what the war was over. Not what they were leaving over.
Before we hop into the Civil War and that time period. We should jump back several years to the first term of President Andrew Jackson. During his first term the former South Carolinian senator John C. Calhoun was appointed as vice president. But tension between the president and the vice president came to a boil with the increasing amounts of tariffs being set by the United States which Calhoun was against (seeing it as hurting the South, by favoring the North.) Tensions go to such a high point that Calhoun became the first (and so far only second) vice president to resign.
Upon resignation he returned back to the senate in South Carolina to defend his state. Calhoun was one of the promoters of the ideas of nullification. The idea that the states could nullify a federal law because it was unconstitutional and simply not enforce it. And this wasn’t just some spur of the moment idea that Calhoun supported. Calhoun wrote extensively about states rights’ and nullification.
Thanks to Calhoun’s efforts, in late 1832 the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were declared unconstitutional by South Carolina and any attempt to force them would result in the secession of South Carolina. This prompted Jackson to push the Force Bill through congress which gave the executive the power to force a state into compliance with federal law if they were not doing so. A blatant nod to South Carolina. However no military action came from the executive aside from sending a flotilla to South Carolina as a threat and a compromise tariff bill was agreed upon and the problem was defused.
This issue had nothing at all to do with slavery. It was about a conflict of interest between the industrial north that benefited from tariffs, and the agricultural south which was harmed by tariffs. Yet despite this issue being an economic issue not pertaining to slavery, force from the government was still threatened. In Jackson’s own words
in 1833 shortly after the situation diffused,
the tariff was only the pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question.
Upon hearing of South Carolina’s initial proposal to nullify the tariffs Jackson said that the Constitution of the United States (page 21 of Brion McClanahan’s 9 Presidents who screwed up America)
forms a government, not a league, and whether it be formed by compact between the States, or in any other manner, its character is the same. … To say that any state may at pleasure secede from the Union, is to say that the United States are not a nation…
The government threatened to force South Carolina in the Union not because they were against the tariffs, but because they were against the power of the federal government. It’s easy to see that the government would’ve also threatened to use military force against South Carolina if the issue was over anything else. In Jackson’s own words, the reason why they were defying the federal government wasn’t really important. It was the fact that they were defying the federal government at all that caused the hostilities.
Another area of US History were a similar event occurs, although microscopic compared the the Nullification Crisis, was in Texas. There isn’t too much information about this event, but I’m going to be talking about the county of Van Zandt leaving Texas. This county located in North East Texas was a non slave owning area that was opposed to both the Confederacy and the Union
. They had originally tried to leave Texas and join the Union, but fearing they would be attacked by Texas and the Confederacy they didn’t. But after the war during reconstruction they got fed up with the Union and voted to leave the Union, even making their own Declaration of Independence.
Despite being a non slave owning area, Van Zandt nonetheless defied the national government, but had a much harsher treatment than South Carolina originally did. After an initial set back the US Army was able to quell this peaceful secession through violent means of arresting the leaders of the revolution. Although their declaration of Independence was never overturned and is still technically effective.
However these people simply wanted to leave the Union for a reason not over slavery, and a ‘war’, although only two ‘battles’ occurred to quell it. I understand that on many levels this is a trivial manner, but if we were to accept that the Civil War was only over slavery then it would seem to reason that if a polity left the Union for another reason than slavery then they would be spared to leave. But through these two case studies I have presented that was not the case.
But for the icing on the cake we’ll take a look at our last case study I’ll present. That’s the case of West Virginia.
Until the start of the Civil War, West Virginia and Virginia were one combined state under the name ‘Virginia’, but there were substantial differences between the two sides of the state with West Virginia being more mountainous located on the Appalachian Mountains. Support for succession was very high in what is now Virginia, but the people and politicians in West Virginia were msotly against the idea of leaving the Union.
When Virginia left the Union several politicians in West Virginia seceded the rest of Virginia and then were admitted to the Union. Not as Virginia, but as West Virginia. A new state that was never to be united with Virginia again. So, when a geographical areas secedes and it’s in the interest of the federal government then that is allowed. This is an obvious contradiction. Secession as a principal isn’t objected to, but hurting the federal government is the principal that they object to.
And here we have another nail in the coffin on the idea that the Civil War was over slavery. The specific reason why the southern states left isn’t really important as we have seen through these case studies. Rather the test that the government has historically used is “does this secession hurt or benefit our interests”. In the two cases that it hurt their interests, which seceded over non-slavery reasons, the federal government took action. However, in the case that benefited the federal government, it was permitted. e federal government at all that caused the hostilities.
And here we have another nail in the coffin on the idea that the Civil War was over slavery. The specific reason why the southern states left isn’t really important as we have seen through these case studies. Rather the test that the government has historically used is “does this secession hurt or benefit our interests”. In the two cases that it hurt their interests, which seceded over non-slavery reasons, the federal government took action. However, in the case that benefited the federal government, it was permitted.
We can even bring up quotes of Lincoln during the war where he affirms the thesis that I am pushing. For instance, in an interview
in 1864 (late into the war), Lincoln said the following
You cannot concilliate [sic] the South, when the mastery & control of millions of blacks makes them sure of ultimate success. … My enemies say I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition. It is & will be carried on so long as I am President for the sole purpose of restoring the Union. But no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done.
As Lincoln here says, the sole purpose of the war is to restore the Union. He tried to free the slaves in the rebelling states, in his own words, to have an easier way to defeat the South. Not for moral reasons, but for utilitarian reasons.
Now we can play the quote game all we want, citing different things Lincoln said that might seem to contradict each other about slavery or whatnot, but ultimately I believe I have demonstrated that the war was not about slavery. The reasons for secession of the southern states was slavery, but Lincoln would of attacked them no matter what. The reason didn’t matter, the fact they tried to peacefully leave is what made Lincoln start the Civil War. It’s hard to see Lincoln allowing the southern states to just leave even if the issue wasn’t slavery. Lincoln was a Unionist and believed that the Federal Government came before the states.
But I’ll save all the other stuff for the next part that I plan to do on this. So stay tuned.