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.
(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.