“The Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about ‘states’ rights.’” Actually, no. It really was about slavery.
In a recent opinion piece, Ron Paul has taken the time to applaud the efforts of those Americans who want to secede from the U.S. With all of this talk of secession that has been flying around recently, it seems that it is time to clear up the facts of the most famous secession attempt in American history – the Civil War.
When confronted with objections to the confederate flag, many inevitably respond saying, “if you are offended by the confederate flag, you need to learn your history. The south seceded over states’ rights, not slavery.” As it turns out, it is actually these people who need the history lesson. It is an undeniable fact of history that the Civil War, and the secession of the South, was over slavery.
The right for states to allow slavery was being contested during the run-up to President Lincoln’s election. New states were being added to the country, and many in the South were concerned that, if the new states were all free states, then the scales would tip such that a constitutional amendment banning slavery could be passed.
Lincoln ran on the platform that the new states admitted to the Union should be free states. Thus, his election caused many in the South to become quite fearful that this was the beginning of the end for slavery.
Because of this, just one month after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina was the first state to secede. However, this fact alone does not prove the South seceded over slavery alone. For that damning piece of evidence, we need only turn to the South itself.
Luckily, each Southern state published a document explaining the exact reasons for its secession. South Carolina’s begins by expressing it’s dismay about the federal government encroaching on the rights of “slaveholding States.” It goes on to list two main reasons for its secession: (1) the fugitive slave act not being enforced properly, and (2) that it feared that the federal government would attempt to limit the right for states to allow slavery. All in all, this document mentions slavery 18 times.
Here’s a fun little quote for the Texas Declaration of Causes (for secession):
“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
“That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.”
Mississippi explicitly says, in the very beginning of their causes of secession document:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery— the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”
The other official documents outlining the reasons for secession proceed in much the same way.
So, when asking why the states seceded, it seems reasonable to look towards the very documents that explain their reasons. In all of these documents, it is made abundantly clear that the sole cause of their secession was their right to own other human beings.
They did secede over states’ rights, but not “states’ rights” as some abstract thing. They left the Union over a very specific right – the right to have slaves.
Thus, the confederate flag really does represent slavery and racism, nothing more. This is straight from the mouths of the states that seceded.
But what about the Civil War? That wasn’t about slavery, was it? Interestingly, this question is as old as the Civil War itself.
The reason for denying this is that originally, Lincoln did not fight the war to free the slaves. Lincoln fought the civil war in order to protect the Union, and not to abolish slavery.
But really, why did he need to protect the Union? Because the South seceded. And why did they secede? So they could continue to profit from slavery.
Lincoln may not have fought the war to free the slaves, but the metaphorical “first shot” – the secession of the South – absolutely was about slavery. Thus, whatever Lincoln’s reasons, the war was over slavery.
I hope this little history lesson has cleared some things up. Yes, the confederate flag is a symbol of slavery. Yes, the South seceded over the right to own slaves, not some abstract idea of states’ rights. And yes, the Civil War itself was about slavery. If someone tells you any different, then they are the ones who need a lesson in history.