Saturday, October 13, 2007

Was the civil war was about slavery or states rights?

I got into another brief discussion about the causes of the civil war yesterday. The issue of contention seemed to be:
  • What was the civil war really about?

And as a special bonus question:

  • Was Lincoln a good guy or a bad guy?

I took the liberal position ("Slavery, duh" and "good guy") my counterpart took the conservative position ("states rights" and "bad guy"). Here’s my thinking. Let me know if I’ve missed something.

By our modern standards Lincoln was a racist, but so was just about every one else of that era. When judged by the standards of his day he seems down-right progressive. He always opposed slavery personally but when it was politically impossible to get rid of it he held that it was up to the states to decide. When getting rid of slavery became feasible he happy to force states to end it. Is this so different from what we see with modern politicians on issues like Gay Marriage?

Lincoln’s views on slavery were relevant because the US was on the verge of inducting a lot of new states and each would have to decide whether to allow slavery or not. Slave holders thought (fairly) that slavery would not last politically if Free states far outnumbered Slave states. The status of slavery in those new states – not the right of each state to choose – is was what lead the South to start the civil war.

In fact, the confederacy cared so little for states rights that under its constitution new states had no choice in the matter of slavery: “In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”

Granted the majority of confederate soldiers probably believed they fought for states rights and not slavery. But I bet most Russian soldiers in WWII thought they were fighting for freedom and equality rather than extending the power of Stalin into Eastern Europe.


Aaron said...

On the one hand Lincoln made a big fuss about how the preservation of the union should have been sublimated above the slavery issue. the item most quoted by those who make the case that lincoln was amoral on this issue, always partially, is that "if [he] could have saved the union without freeing a single slave," he would have. that's only half the quote though: the rest is that "if [he] could have saved the union by freeing every slave," which he essentially did, he would have done that. the point was the union.

although it's also worth remembering that lincoln did a lot of window dressing on this issue and that his election was the event that precipitated the civil war. the south knew what he wanted and represented.

he was also probably the best president and arguably the best writer ever to hold the office, even better than jefferson. we share a favorite passage in shakespeare, too.

Bret said...

The entire quote is "If I could save the union without freeing a single slave, I would do it. If I could save the union by freeing the slaves, I would do that. And if I could save the union by freeing some slaves, and leaving others, I would do that also."

And that about sums it up. Let's not also forget that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in areas wrested from Confederate control subsequent to its enactment. It freed zero slaves in Union-held territories, and it also contained a clause saying that no slaves would be freed in Confederate areas that surrendered peaceably.

This suggests two things: Lincoln did not really care about slavery, and neither did most Confederates.

The Civil War was about both, and Lincoln was an awful President. He "preserved" the nation by forging it into something far different than the founders intended.

Paul said...

Considering how awful the founders' collective visions and intentions were, I'd say that ought to go down as a mark in Lincoln's favor.

Wyndi said...

So glad to find this info. I needed to see more points of view on this issue!
I read that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free slaves in Union held Territories and states. But I also thought most of the Union was already free from slavery.
Can you tell me how widespread slavery was in the Union?

Anonymous said...

The slave states that remained in the Union were Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland. West Virginia joined the Union as a slave state later into the war.

Seamus McFauth said...

It could be argued that Lincoln used emancipation as leverage against European intervention. Emancipation came mid-war as the anemic army of the north was floundering campaign after campaign as Lincoln continued shuffling generals. The North was never in any danger of losing the war militarily. They simply out produced and out numbered the south and with the blockade working the only shred of hope the south had was a stalemate. One that could have been expedited with European intervention. Europe did not want to see a more powerful version of the US but it also didn't want to enter another war with it. Lincoln's angle on emancipation could be that he wanted anyone willing to recognize the confederacy to, in part, seemingly endorse slavery which had been far removed from Europe.

This certainly could be a political motive with Europe. However it would come at a cost. It was before Gettysburg and Sherman's razing of Atlanta and a month after a devastating defeat at Fredericksburg. Though I guess you could argue that the union was so weak at this point they needed to stave off any European intervention at any cost. Perhaps it was desperation. Lincoln's letters suggest otherwise though.

One of the things that drives me crazy about this period is, for all the glory and praise bestowed upon Lincoln, there is no antithetical denouncement of the presidents that preceded him who, for several consecutive terms did little to quell the growing division. Both politically and economically the signs were obvious. If Chamberlain and others can take it on the nose for WWII then certainly Buchanan and the like can bear some blame for their lack of leadership prior to the war.

I'm fascinated with this discussion.