(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.


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.


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