Dear Dr. Boli: I was talking to some guy who said he was a professor of history at some university in Georgia (the name escapes me at the moment), and he was saying that the Civil War was never about slavery. What did he mean by that? —Sincerely, A Woman Who Thought the Civil War Was About Slavery.

Dear Madam: The average ill-informed yokel often supposes that the American Civil War was fought mostly on account of slavery, but such risible ignorance would be unpardonable in a serious historian. In fact there were many questions that divided North and South, of which the existence of slavery was actually one of the least important.

Foremost among these questions was the question of states’ rights. Did the Southern states have the right to take their ball and go home like a bunch of whiny spoilsport crybabies the first time the country elected a president who publicly opposed slavery? On this question the North and South could not agree. The Southerners insisted that the individual states had the absolute right to withdraw from the Union whenever they desired to do so, and in general took an uncompromisingly strong stance on states’ rights.

There was also the question of enforcement of federal laws. Did the Northern states have the right to pass laws that hindered the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act? Here again there could be no agreement: the Southerners insisted that the federal law must be supreme, and in general took an uncompromisingly strong stance against states’ rights.

Then there was the question of the territories. Should slavery be allowed in them or not? Should they be admitted to the Union as slave states or free states? Many Southerners vehemently opposed the Missouri Compromise, which roughly divided the territories between free in the North and slave in the South, on the grounds that each newly admitted state should be allowed to decide the question of slavery for itself. Likewise, Southerners were appalled when California, at its own request, was admitted to the Union as a free state, on the grounds that the admission violated the Missouri Compromise.

So you can see that slavery was in fact the least of the difficulties dividing North and South.


  1. Just to play Devil’s Advocate here, some also cite the fact that Northern states, thanks to immigration to the big industrial cities, were starting to get the population, and thus the clout in congress, to dictate trade and taxation policy. So the trade practices that had favored exporting cotton and importing manufactured goods from Europe were in danger of switching to policies that favored exporting manufactured goods TO Europe and discouraging the export of cotton, so as to keep the cotton prices low for New England’s burgeoning textile-mill industry. For New England’s textile mills to compete with Old England’s more mature textile industry would take a set of taxes and tariffs to discourage the exporting of cotton overseas, glutting the domestic market to keep cotton prices low, while taxing the heck out of imported cloth and clothing, keeping prices high for goods produced using that domestic cotton.

    Similar disputes over tax and trade policy is one of the oft-cited reasons for the original 13 colonies to rebel against and secede from England, so surely these sorts of disputes could be at the heart of a later declaration of independence, right?

    Balderdash, I say, taking off my Devil’s Advocate hat. Unlike the 13 colonies in 1776, the Southern States in 1861 had direct and formal representation in the legislature passing these tax rules. So they were being outvoted, so what? The 13 colonies would likely have been outvoted on tea taxes and stamp taxes even if they had formal representation in Parliament. But if the colonies had formal representation, they could at least have traded their votes on other issues for support on these trade and tax issues and had a chance to make their voice heard in a formal way that can’t be simply ignored. The Southern States didn’t have this excuse, they were if anything over-represented in Congress, thanks to the infamous clause in the Constitution letting them claim 3/5 of the slave population when it came to parceling out Congressional Districts, without letting those slaves do any 3/5 of the voting.

    Another interesting discussion along these lines is the comparison of the Constitutions of the USA and CSA, to see what exactly the Conferderates changed when they decided to form their own federal government. But that analysis was already done better than I could, and by a Canadian of all unlikely things:

    • Dr. Boli says:

      South Carolina’s Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union seems like a good place to start to see what was really eating at the South. These are the specific complaints “in the present case”:

      1. That the states of the North have been interfering with the rendition of fugitive slaves;

      2. That a president was elected “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery”;

      3. That ex-slaves have been made citizens in some Northern states;

      4. That an anti-slavery party has been elected to the government.

      So we see that the dispute was clearly not about slavery at all, but rather about the enforcement of federal laws, the possession of the presidency, the requirements for citizenship, and party politics. It is worth noting, however, that trade and tax disputes are not even mentioned in the Declaration, so we cannot in honesty say that the desire for secession was animated by those questions.

  2. The head of the history department at West Point has weighed in on this matter.

    I’m sure the confederate sympathizers of the world will disregard any opinions on this matter held by someone who literally follows them up with a statement that he’s proud to wear the same blue uniform of the Union troops who destroyed slavery. I’ m equally sure that few to none of those confederate sympathizers are intelligent and cultured enough to be among the regular readers of the good doctor’s celebrated magazine.

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