Talk American history long enough to end up discussing the Civil War and inevitably you will encounter the argument that, contrary to popular belief, the Civil War wasn’t a war about slavery, per se, but a war about state’s rights.
It’s inaccurate, of course, but it’s a convenient alternative reality theory if you’re uninclined to debate in facts. The argument, however, is a byproduct of a couple of things. First, we as humans have a natural inclination to make things more complicated than they often need to be or should be. Anyone can say the Civil War was about slavery, but if you’re really intelligent, if you’re really thoughtful you know the Civil War was about states’ rights. It’s an intriguing position to take because it’s both provocative and thoughtful.
The second is pretty obvious: a war over slavery where one side is advocating for the systemic protection of that peculiar institution and the other is on the side of liberation makes the pro-slavery side pretty obviously the “bad guys” from a historical perspective. How do you, or your descendants, defend your defense of such a practice? You don’t. Because you can’t. In fact, slavery was such a contradiction to our values that even during the time it was in place in America, legislators often avoided using the word because it was deemed improper. In some cases, the use of the word was banned. We enforced it, but we didn’t want to talk about it.
So we started this process of essentially re-writing history. That process was two-fold. The first was on the part of Confederate veterans and their families who, in many of their defense, were not called into service by their government to protect slavery but to protect their state. As you might imagine, it would have been exponentially harder for the Confederacy to recruit young men to die with posters saying “Come protect slavery!” or “They’re trying to take our slaves!” than it was if the sign instead said “Come protect Georgia!” Slaves were seen, from a macro level, as economic tools at the time. Mothers and fathers were no more likely to submit their sons to war over slavery than they would be today for a war over interest rates. Prior to the Civil War, states were far more autonomous and culturally unique than we think of them today. Sans perhaps Texas, most states today feel as though they are part of a collective whole; during the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the United States operated as essentially a loose collection of multiple governments, with the federal government acting as a facilitator of trade and protector against foreign threats. People identified with their state, not their country. So a call to action to protect Louisiana was no different than a call to action to protect America today. And if you don’t think that’s an effective message, just go visit the Army’s website.
When the war was over, the Union had won and the nation was put back together again, except this time without the institution of slavery. The historical writing was on the wall. An institution so despicable that we didn’t even want to say it out loud when it was legal and had tormented even the greatest minds of the time like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and even Robert E. Lee was now also a relic of the past. If you thought abolitionists had eviscerated that institution before the war, you knew historians were going to give the metaphorical “business” to it and everything associated with it afterwards. Whether you believed in the institution or not, you sure as hell couldn’t say so out loud anymore. And if you fought in the war for the government that had tried to preserve it, the last thing you wanted was for your service to be remembered as a mercenary for slavery. You and your family’s reputations would be destroyed. Ask any relative of a former Nazi soldier. If Hitler had had children and that lineage was still alive today, let’s be honest: how would we really treat them?
So there was a mad dash to make clear that what the soldiers were fighting for was completely independent of slavery. There were stories of freed blacks fighting on the side of the Confederacy to further this narrative. Soldiers would tell stories of loving black folks and growing up with black folks, so they couldn’t possibly have fought a war to protect keeping them in bondage. And absolutely every part of that narrative is true. However, at no other point in history, American or otherwise, have we so casually allowed history to disassociate the cause from the fight. If you fight to protect a system that is oppressive, the premise of your fight is drenched in oppression. Every shot you fire in pursuit of that fight is a shot in protection of that oppressive system. It boggles my mind to even think that someone could disagree with that because logic dictates that had the Confederacy won, that peculiar institution would have remained in place. Therefore, if you are fighting with victory in mind, that has to be a part of the equation.
Which leads me to the second of the folds. Many people will disagree with the basic premise of my historical accounting because, they will say, the Confederacy was not born out of a desire to protect slavery but to protect states’ rights. That argument is critical to the overall argument that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. The argument entails that when the states began succeeded from the Union, they were doing so citing the 10th Amendment, which says “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Proponents of this argument will concede that the political catalyst may have been slavery, but it was the federal government’s attempts to abolish slavery despite no slave state being in favor of such a move that prompted succession.
That’s where the debate is, to put it mildly, intellectually dishonest. First of all, the 10th Amendment was not referenced during the debate preceding succession. There’s a reason for that. It wasn’t until 1961 (yes, 1961) that there was legal authority on the Bill of Rights applying to the states. In Mapp v. Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled that, to keep it brief, the Fourth Amendment applied to a criminal case in Ohio. It wasn’t until that case that there was true clarity on the issue. This actually began a process commonly referred to as “incorporating” the Bill of Rights that the Warren Court led for the better part of the 1960s, beginning with Mapp. If you don’t believe me, another more obvious example of the ambiguity of the Bill of Rights prior to Mapp is Jim Crow. Jim Crow laws could have never passed in Congress because they were obvious infringements on free speech, freedom of religion, search and seizure protections, etc. They would have immediately been ruled blatantly unconstitutional. But at the state level, legislatures had no problem passing such laws because they didn’t think those restrictions applied to them.
Second, virtually every single state that succeeded from the Union cited Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution as its primary basis for succession in their individual declarations. South Carolina said of the constitutional provision: “This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made.” Said Georgia: “This provision and the one last referred to [Clause 2] were our main inducements for confederating with the Northern States.” Texas claimed that it was northern states’ legislative actions that they felt violated the provision.
I’ve deliberately withheld what, exactly, that provision says for dramatic effect. But here goes:
“No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.”
Or, what is commonly referred to as the Fugitive Slave Clause.
Some of you may be thinking that I just coined that phrase and I’m using my own personal bias in my interpretation of that clause. Perhaps the clause could mean imprisoned persons held in service or labor? Unfortunately, that would be Clause 2. I’ll let Texas, again from their letter of succession, explain what they believed the provision meant.
“The States of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, by solemn legislative enactments, have deliberately, directly or indirectly violated the 3rd clause of the 2nd section of the 4th article of the federal constitution, and laws passed in pursuance thereof; thereby annulling a material provision of the compact, designed by its framers to perpetuate the amity between the members of the confederacy and to secure the rights of the slave-holding States in their domestic institutions– a provision founded in justice and wisdom, and without the enforcement of which the compact fails to accomplish the object of its creation. Some of those States have imposed high fines and degrading penalties upon any of their citizens or officers who may carry out in good faith that provision of the compact, or the federal laws enacted in accordance therewith.
In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.”
Mississippi didn’t make it past the second sentence before explicitly making clear why it was succeeding:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.”
The states told you why they left. They specifically cited slavery as the primary factor. They formed a government in protection of that institution and created a flag that represented that government, which was protecting the institution of slavery. They fought a war against the Union in defense of a government that was protecting slavery. Succession, which in and of itself is an act of war, was based primarily on the South’s frustration with the North’s increasingly liberal views on emancipation. Therefore, the war was about slavery. There was the side that was for it and the side that was against it. In fact, the Confederate Constitution, the one that if there genuinely were state’s rights that had previously been lacking should have contained them, was essentially a carbon copy of the United States Constitution except that it included explicit protections for the institution of slavery, the protection of slavery should the Confederacy admit future states and the protection of domestic slave trade.
On June 15, 2015, nine people were shot and killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a denomination in which I grew up and my mother is an ordained minister, in Charleston, South Carolina by a domestic terrorist who’d written a racist manifesto prior to the attack and confessed to police after his capture that he carried out the attack in an effort to incite a “race war.” In the weeks that have followed, debate arose about the merits of the Confederate flag still waving not only on South Carolina’s state grounds, but across the entire south.
For years, we have accepted a quasi-truce with the folks who say remembering the Confederacy is about ancestral pride and regional history. We even tuned in to watch a TV show that featured two Southerners driving in a car named after a Confederate general with the Confederate flag painted on the top of it. We voted for politicians like Pat Buchanan for president despite being members of groups like the Confederate Sons of America. We accepted a revised history that said the Civil War, for all of its bloodshed and controversy, was never about slavery, but about protecting state’s rights.
And that’s true. It was about protecting states’ rights. The state’s right to keep and expand the institution of slavery. The Confederacy was built on the backs of and motivated by the institution of slavery. The flag that represented the Confederate government and the flag that Confederate soldiers took into battle represented that circumstance. You cannot disassociate the cause from the fight.
The problem, however, is that ultimately, we hear what we want to hear. Just like the hesitation and, in some cases, flat out refusal to call the Charleston massacre a racially-motivated terrorist attack despite the alleged killer specifically confessing to just that, it really didn’t matter how many facts I threw at you in this piece today. This article isn’t going to convince a pro-rebel flag waver that the Civil War was about something other than state’s rights or that the flag represents an oppressive, defeated regime that staged a mutiny against the federal government. I know that. And if you’re clapping your hands in approval right now, you likely didn’t need to read this article to have come to the opinion you currently possess.
I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind. If I can help alleviate some of our natural ignorance, awesome. But it’s our willful ignorance that will always keep us stuck in neutral when it comes to truly reaching a place of equality, understanding and empathy. If your “facts” are different than my “facts,” we can never have a meaningful conversation. And that, my friends, is what I’d really like to see.