(Video) Was slavery the cause of the Civil War?

August 10, 2015

civil war blue grey

That’s always an intriguing question for those interested in the US Civil War and US History in general: why did such a promising young nation tear itself apart in a conflict that cost perhaps more than 800,000 lives? (1) Aside from slavery, proffered explanations include economic and other regional differences between North and South; discriminatory tariffs (from the Southern point of view) and unfair internal improvements; and federal violations of the Constitution against “states’ rights.”

But, to this armchair historian, these and other reasons never felt sufficient to justify the turmoil of the late 1850s and the carnage of 1861-1865. For me, at least, it always comes back to slavery, that “peculiar institution” about which northerners and southerners held increasingly mutually exclusive opinions.

In the video below from Prager University, Colonel Ty Seidule, head of the Department of History at West Point, makes the argument that the war was about slavery, period:

And I agree with him. Col. Seidule refers a couple of times to the secession declarations of the southern states, asserting that each one (2) wrapped its arguments around the core of preserving slavery. And historian William C. Davis in his history of the Confederacy, “Look Away,” marshals strong evidence that the Confederate constitutional convention, held at Montgomery, Alabama, focused on the need to preserve and expand slavery. Finally, there’s this from the famous “Cornerstone Speech” of CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens:

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.

Seems pretty clear, no?

Davis and many, many others saw slavery as an existential sine qua non for the new nation. If the United States was conceived in liberty and was unimaginable without it, the Confederate States and Southern society were founded on the bedrock of human bondage — and were equally inconceivable without it. With their very reason for existence threatened, secession and civil war became almost inevitable. Without slavery, there would likely have been no Republican Party committed to abolition, nor any reason to secede on the election of Lincoln.

Anyway, this isn’t meant to bash modern Southerners, and I recognize the sore spot created by the anti-Southern bigotry that grew rife after the massacre in Charleston and the nonsense over the CSA flag. It annoyed me, too.

But I think honesty and a sober assessment of the historical evidence requires a recognition of the truth.

Slavery was at the root of the Civil War.

PS: Sorry there were no posts the last few days. It turned into a busy, busy Friday and weekend.

Footnotes:
(1) Consensus estimates of total casualties hover around 600,000, but recent research indicates the toll of dead and wounded may well have been much higher.
(2) Unless I misheard him, the Colonel is wrong in this assertion. Several of the secession declarations make no mention of slavery — Florida’s, for example. But many do at length, and I think this shows the importance of slavery to the new nation overall.

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John Brown: freedom fighter or rebel?

October 16, 2014

506px-John_brown_abo

Today is the 155th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Brown, a fanatical abolitionist, seized the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in the hope of fomenting a slave insurrection. The Marines – lead, ironically, by Army Colonel Robert E. Lee – suppressed the rebellion after three days. Brown and several of his surviving comrades were swiftly tried and hanged. Interestingly, the crime for which Brown was executed was not treason against the United States, but treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. I wonder how many states still have treason statutes?

I’ve always had mixed feelings about John Brown. On the one hand, he was a fanatic, a rebel against the United States, and an insurrectionist who hoped to spark a slave revolt that surely would have cost thousands of innocent lives. On the other hand, the evil that lead him to his rebellion, the abomination against which he held a fanatical hatred, was slavery. While I can’t approve the means, I can surely sympathize with the motives. Those mixed feelings were felt much more intensely in the 1850s, and John Brown’s raid was the first flaring of the fire that would break out in civil war just two years later.

(Note: this is a republication of a post from 2009 that I thought worth sharing again.)


The anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

November 19, 2011

Exactly 149 years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln dedicated the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in a speech lasting a little over two minutes:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

No mention of himself, no teleprompter needed.

In my opinion, this is the single greatest speech in American history, surpassing Washington’s Farewell Address, Lincoln’s own second inaugural speech, and FDR’s speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war against Japan. Perhaps President Reagan’s address at Normandy on the D-Day anniversary in 1984 comes closest in oratorical power.

Regardless, in those few words captured the reason why we came into being and why we continue to exist, what makes us, in a word many use but few really understand, “exceptional.” In fact, it wouldn’t be out of line to say this was the moment of our second Founding.

PS: Did you know President Lincoln wasn’t even the main speaker that day? The “main event” was an orator named Edward Everett, who spoke for over two hours. Thank Heaven we weren’t required to memorize that in school.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)


Political gum on the governor’s shoe

April 7, 2010

Power Line reports on Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s proclamation in commemoration of Confederate soldiers and the political problems it’s caused him. Issuing such a declaration isn’t something I would have done; good men can fight for bad causes, but I doubt they should be honored for it. That is a matter open to argument, however, and it isn’t the real problem here. What may well land McDonnell in genuine hot water is his failure to include the usual denunciation of slavery:

So far, so good. McDonnell’s two Democratic predecessors refused to issue this proclamation, first given by George Allen when he was governor. But those who fought for the South were mostly honorable (and in many cases even heroic) men, even though they were on the wrong side. They deserve a proclamation.

Unfortunately, McDonnell decided to remove anti-slavery language from the proclamation. George Allen’s original proclamation did not contain such language, but Gov. Jim Gilmore added it. McDonnell explained its omission from his proclamation this way:


  • “There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.”


This attempt to give Virginia a pass on the issue of slavery is historically untenable and, I must add, rather offfensive. It also seems like bad politics.

To put it mildly. The last thing the Republican Party needs as it tries to work its way back to respectability is to minimize the role of slavery and its aftereffects in American History. Does McDonnell really want to feed the historic  lie that the Democratic Party is the only party for Black voters? And what kind of spot does this put Black conservatives in?

I’m not saying McDonnell defends slavery, the Confederacy’s rebellion to preserve slavery, or that he himself is a racist. Not at all, nor in any way by implication. But to downgrade what was the core conflict behind all other conflicts in that war and the political disputes that lead to it is to show a sad ignorance of American History and a consequent bumbling insensitivity toward a significant part of the population.

Let me put it this way: the Confederacy was founded to preserve and expand slavery; all other reasons, including “states’ rights” (what we now call “federalism”), were secondary to that and served as shields in the fight to protect slavery. In using those shields, the Confederacy did everlasting harm to the cause of limited government and federalism by giving statists and progressives a brush with which to paint limited government advocates as closet racists. (Witness the smearing of tea-party supporters and ObamaCare foes that been going on for just the last year. And that’s just one, sad example.)

Yet those ideas have gained renewed respectability and popularity in recent decades, especially since the progressive statists came to power with Obama’s election and started to act like hyperactive children on a sugar high. More and more people are taking to the idea that limited, federalist government, kept as local to the people as practicable, best empowers individuals and preserves their liberty. Rising stars with national exposure like Governor McDonnell should keep that in mind and be careful of what they say, lest they reinvigorate the statists.

LINKS: More at Hot Air and Sister Toldjah.

UPDATE: Governor McDonnell did the right thing later today, amending his proclamation and apologizing.


Freedom fighter or rebel?

October 16, 2009

506px-John_brown_abo

Today is the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Brown, a fanatical abolitionist, seized the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in the hope of fomenting a slave insurrection. The Marines – lead, ironically, by Army Colonel Robert E. Lee – suppressed the rebellion after three days. Brown and several of his surviving comrades were swiftly tried and hanged. Interestingly, the crime for which Brown was executed was not treason against the United States, but treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. I wonder how many states still have treason statutes?

I’ve always had mixed feelings about John Brown. On the one hand, he was a fanatic, a rebel against the United States, and an insurrectionist who hoped to spark a slave revolt that surely would have cost thousands of innocent lives. On the other hand, the evil that lead him to his rebellion, the abomination against which he held a fanatical hatred, was slavery. While I can’t approve the means, I can surely sympathize with the motives. Those mixed feelings were felt much more intensely in the 1850s, and John Brown’s raid was the first flaring of the fire that would break out in civil war just two years later.