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.