Rights and Wrongs of the War Between the States

I love history. The American War for Independence and World War II are typically my favorite periods to study (and why is it that times of war are the most interesting?). However I have avoided the most hotly debated and most talked about era, that of the War Between the States,being often mislabeled as the American “Civil War”. I have avoided it because it is a most complicated and multifaceted topic which would require much research and even soul-searching to come to a conclusion over. WWII is simple. Some nutcase wanted to take over the world and the rest of the world had to stop him. But the War of Northern Aggression (sorry, I couldn’t resist) is vastly different. It involved so many “yes, buts”. There is a lot of “This, however that also” which causes it to be a confusing topic especially when you try and discuss the causes.

This is not a cut-and-dried topic and it ruffles my feathers when people treat it as such. So many folks try to paint the War Between the States as “evil Southerners wanted to enslave a people, and the heroes of the North led by Lincoln had to come and defeat the Southern powers of darkness.” It was hardly as simple as all that. Both sides overstepped the bounds of law and decency and there were atrocities committed by the Union as well as the Confederacy. No, Lincoln should not have sent American troops to march on American states but also the Confederacy’s attack on Fort Sumter was unprovoked. I have only been studying this topic for a few weeks now but here I want to list a few events that are rarely taught in school and that opened my eyes to the complexity of the issues at the root of the War Between the States.

It Wasn’t Fought Over Slavery, But Over States’ Rights!

Yes, however the right to own slaves was the state right in question. Southern politicians and Southern plantation owners needed slaves. Plantation owners needed slavery to support Dixie’s socio-economic status. Southern politicians needed new states to have slavery so as to maintain the slaveholding South’s political clout.

There is something interesting I have discovered however. The large slaveholding plantation owners were not the majority, at least not in numbers. Most Southern farmers were small fries who could barely support their families much less a house full of slaves and servants. And as a result most middle- and lower-class Southern whites didn’t give a rip about the slave issue. By the same token most Northern folks didn’t either. It was an argument for politicians and aristocrats mostly. But what did get the attention of middle- and lower-class Southern whites was a Northern invasion of the South which resulted in the first battle of the war, the Battle of First Manassas (also called Bull Run).

Abraham Lincoln was the hero of the slave and his purpose was to free blacks.

No, Lincoln’s self-declared purpose was to maintain the Union. The founding fathers formed “a more perfect union”. How would you like to go down in history as the man who let it go down the drain? Yeah, Lincoln didn’t like that prospect either. He even said that if freeing the slaves would save the Union, he would do it, or if maintaining slavery would save the Union, he would do it. He no doubt believed slavery was wrong and he wanted to see it end but that is not why he invaded and fought the Confederacy.

The Emancipation Proclamation Freed the Slaves

Well, partially. The Emancipation Proclamation (EP) freed Confederate slaves. The slaveholding Union states outlawed it legislatively. And the EP was not given as some sort of idealistic “let my people go” edict. As mentioned above, the end of slavery would mean curtains for Southern socio-economic strength. Without slaves, the rich, economically-necessary plantations could not operate. Lincoln knew that freeing Southern slaves would harm the Southern war effort.

Lincoln’s EP also had another political effect and thus arose from a political motive. It kept Great Britain out of the war. Britain was close to entering the war on the side of the Confederacy. However, having recently undergone abolition of slavery herself (thanks to William Wilberforce), it would have been a conflict of interest for Britain to join a war fighting against a nation (the United States) which had taken a formal stance against slavery (the EP). The EP produced a most desirable effect (the freedom of Southern slaves), but the motivation was purely political.

Yes, but saving the Union was the right thing to do!
Was it? I suppose this is a matter of opinion. It all depends on how you view states’ rights. The question of states’ rights is still a debate. Just because the Civil War-era debate over states’ rights involved the question of slavery does not mean it was or is a non-issue. The United States is just that: an agreement, a pact among sovereign states. Just read the Declaration of Independence which declares that these are “and of right ought to be free and independent states.” The Declaration also states that when the bonds that have tied one state to another no longer serve the purposes of those involved then such bonds should be dissolved. That is the right of every free and independent state and is the very right that South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina were attempting to exercise when Lincoln sent American troops to attack American states. Was that action just?

Then again, was it just that the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter without provocation?

In the final analysis, I would have to say that both sides should have left well enough alone. The Union should have honored the South’s right to secede and the South should have simply seceded and went on its merry way. It is my personal belief that these states are stronger united than separate and that even without a war both sides would have seen their mutual need of one another and the Union would have been restored through the natural course of time. By the same token, there had already been great moral concerns over slavery and since only a small aristocracy had any personal advantage in keeping it around, I believe that slavery would also have come to an inevitable demise. Abolition was already winning the day in other parts of the world so it was only a matter of time before it would come to American shores (in the same way that American segragation eventually ended on its own). But Lincoln forced the issue and thus economic harm and years of resentment resulted. Also Lincoln’s efforts made the federal government too strong and today we pay for it economically and in terms of states’ rights. Thankfully we have been able to overcome the resentment and the economic woes of Reconstruction and the South is strong and so I believe we will eventually overcome the harm done to states’ rights and sovereignty through the natural course of time.

Josh H.


4 Responses to “Rights and Wrongs of the War Between the States”

  1. 1 Angie
    December 18, 2008 at 11:23 pm

    Fascinating, your point of view, since it mirrors much of my own and I’m usually standing in the corner all alone! The structure of the Constitution, as well, was intent on preserving States’ rights and limiting the power of the federal government as much as possible. That other lilbit about severing the ties to another State when a union no longer serves its purpose has also been another of my little tinkering in the mind exercises regarding my State of Michigan – usually coming out in terms of gangrenous limbs and amputating the limb to save the body – and Michigan is pretty necrotic these days.

    Thanks for another awesome post!

  2. December 18, 2008 at 11:30 pm

    Good post overall, Josh! I’ve been interested in this topic on and off over the last three years, and it is indeed a complex subject; there is no doubt, however, that states’ rights were at the heart of the Southern vs. Northern antipathy leading up to and making possible the war. I hope you don’t mind if I add a some nuances to a few of your remarks.

    …but also the Confederacy’s attack on Fort Sumter was unprovoked.

    Then again, was it just that the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter without provocation?

    I submit that the Confederates’ actions were hardly “unprovoked”. Remember that the Confederacy sought negotiations to purchase Federal properties in the South, but Lincoln responded by denying the Confederacy’s legitimacy as a government and maintaining his earlier position that the U.S. would retain its holdings in the South by force if necessary. Lincoln wanted the war, but he couldn’t just attack a state and appear to be the aggressor. Lincoln intentionally provoked the conflict by sending reinforcements to a fort they should have been withdrawing from if anything; Lincoln knew the South Carolinians would take this as retaliation and resent it as an attack on South Carolina’s (and the Confederacy’s) sovereignty. After warning the U.S. garrison, they eventually fired warning shots and set up siege; no one was injured, but an accident (wholly unrelated to the South Carolinians) caused the death of one U.S. soldier, giving Lincoln a perfect excuse to retaliate with a full-blown war. The Confederacy tried to find ways of avoiding this conflict, but in the end, because it was South Carolina’s right to defend its border from foreign invasion, the South was left holding the bag when the inevitable conflict broke out.

    Yes, however the right to own slaves was the state right in question.

    True, but that’s not much of a caveat though, when you consider that no one denies this. Had there been no slavery, other conflicts of interests would likely have led to acts responses like secession (and thus probably war), since the northern states had certainly been moving for a larger and more imposing federal government for years. Like the death of Private Galloway at Fort Sumter, the slavery issue served as a convenient catalyst for redressing a host of other grievances.

    …and the South should have simply seceded and went on its merry way.

    As I argued above, its merry way was obstructed by a foreign army on its soil. And if it hadn’t been that, it would be have been something else; if you believe the lines you quoted from the Declaration of Independence were valid, then you would have to agree that it would have taken less than an all-out declaration of war by the U.S. federal government to justify the South’s measured response.

    All this said…I’m sure there were mistakes made by the South. And yes, I do resent that slavery was the hot button states’ rights issue that served as the catalyst. The philosophy of Lee and many other Southerners to educate and then integrate slaves into society before letting the host of uneducated, illiterate people go free to wander around and find jobs would undoubtedly have led to less of the enduring problems with race relations that we have seen, and would certainly have mitigated the bad economic standing in which blacks were enslaved after their emancipation, which has in turn been passed down as an heirloom in many areas of the South right until the present day. But that’s another topic for another time…

  3. December 18, 2008 at 11:46 pm

    It was a good post, wasn’t it? And as for Michigan, I have a friend up there named Ed Burley who’s blowing his top about liberal Michigan politics on two blogs, http://www.rightmichigan.com and http://www.michigantaxes.com/wordpress/. Glad to hear another Michigander siding with the Resistance. 🙂

  4. 4 Tiffany
    December 19, 2008 at 12:33 am

    I’m glad that you mentioned the slaves of the North as well. It’s not something you read in history books any more, but the fact of the matter is Northerners owned slaves as well and worked them to death in their factories. Also, as far as slave trading ships, most were owned by yanks. The South was tired of big government. Government getting all in their business and telling them when, how, and on what they could spend their money. Sound familar? The South produced the raw goods needed for the Northern factories and a lot of the politicians at the time had ties to the factories. They didn’t like having to depend on the South because they were unable to produce the materials needed for their factories and tried to impose tariffs on the goods that were being exported to the north and tariffs on the imports from the factories. Basically wanting to tax them into poverty. Slavery was a large work force on the few large plantations in the South. But like cattle (not comparing people to cattle) slavery was an investment. And most people don’t like when others try to take money from their pockets. It really boils down to money if you look at the overall picture. And Lincoln was a politician looking to get elected.

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