Yes, the Civil War was about slavery

This is a subject that came up in a Facebook discussion about the famous Ken Burns documentary, and I felt compelled to expand on my views a little bit — compelled because I was once one of those who blindly subscribed to the so-called “Lost Cause” theory that attempts to explain the South’s cause as noble and just.

Except “blindly” really isn’t the right word, because I wasn’t exactly blind. I subscribed to the Lost Cause theory because that’s what I was taught in school. Subjects are taught by human beings, and all human beings are susceptible to bias. It’s little wonder that so many students of the South have been raised to believe that the Civil War truly was the “war of northern aggression.”

My awakening on the cause of the Civil War came through studying the war’s history — specifically as it applies to my home county, Scott County, Tenn. It’s always amused me a little when people from my hometown fly Confederate flags and insist that it’s part of their “heritage.” The truth is that for multi-generational Scott Countians, the Rebel flag isn’t their heritage at all. Scott County wanted nothing to do with the Confederacy — to the point that when Tennessee seceded, Scott County declared itself the Free & Independent State of Scott. Overwhelmingly, those who joined the fight from Scott County went north to Kentucky in order to join the Union army.

The same is true for the rest of East Tennessee, as well. If you’re from Knoxville or Johnson City or any point in between, your heritage is not the Confederacy. There were more Confederate sympathizers in some parts of East Tennessee than in others, but as a whole, the region was steadfastly opposed to secession — so much so that leaders from across the region met in Greenville and drafted a resolution seeking permission to leave Tennessee. It was, of course, denied.

The only difference between Scott County and the rest of East Tennessee is that Scott County didn’t ask permission. One old farmer is said to have jumped to his feet in the courtroom to proclaim, “If the g*d***n state of Tennessee can secede from the Union, Scott County can secede from Tennessee!” And, so, it did.

Understanding the cause

There are, of course, a lot of people who argue that the Civil War was about states’ rights. There are almost as many people who argue just as vehemently that the war wasn’t about states’ rights at all.

Both are partially right, and both are partially wrong.

States’ rights was an issue that had been simmering on the back burner since the days of the Revolutionary War. The American colonies, separated from Britain by thousands of miles of water, had become accustomed to governing themselves. Although they had fought for, and won, their independence from the British in order to stop England from telling them what to do, and unjustly taxing them, a central form of government was obviously necessary. And, so, the founding fathers framed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And, within those founding documents, certain powers were reserved for the federal government. But that didn’t settle the debate over exactly which powers the federal government should have.

Of course the Civil War was about states’ rights. It’s just that the right the Southern states were fighting for was the right to own slaves.

That’s contrary to what I was taught in school. My history instruction crafted a narrative that the Civil War was about Southerners standing up against the over-bearing Northern states, and President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation as a means to winning a war that the South was on the verge of winning.

There’s a sliver of truth within that narrative. If the South hadn’t been holding its own in the war, Lincoln would’ve never signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But it’s quite a stretch to claim that abolishing slavery only came into the picture as a means to end the war.

I consider Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” to be one of the greatest documentaries ever filmed. It’s magnificent. Unfortunately, the documentary has come under fire for supposedly not doing enough to combat the “lost cause” theory and point out that slavery was the primary cause of the war.

I find that criticism misplaced. I’ve watched the documentary more than a dozen times and I’ve never suspected that Burns attempted to minimize the role slavery played in the role. He did give a prominent role to historian and author Shelby Foote, and Foote is a bit too much of a Confederate apologist (I say that as someone who is a huge fan of Shelby Foote). But that doesn’t diminish the documentary’s overall tone with regards to slavery as the central issue of the war.

Unfortunately, people have a way of cherry-picking what fits their agenda. A row was stirred in 2017, when President Trump’s White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, said in a Fox News interview that General Robert E. Lee was “an honorable man.” The fallout led to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders invoking Foote’s comments from the Burns documentary, saying, “Many historians, including Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ famous Civil War documentary, agree that a failure to compromise was a cause of the Civil War.”

Frankly, Kelly wasn’t wrong in his assessment that Lee was an honorable man. We’ve fallen into a period where revisionist historians are embracing a tactic of vilifying figures of the past in order to cement a present agenda, and Lee is one of the victims of those tactics. There’s no doubt that Lee was on the wrong side in the war. But — as Foote himself alluded to in the documentary — you can’t properly judge people without placing yourself in their time and cloaking yourself in the values and norms of their day.

But Foote (who concluded early in the documentary that the war occurred because the United States forgot what it has a “genius for,” which is to compromise) was wrong. And I suspect that Sanders knew better. There was no compromise that could’ve avoided the war. The only compromise the South would’ve accepted would’ve been one that protected — and therefore legitimatized — the “peculiar institution” of slavery. And for the North to have done so would’ve been unconscionable.

A long time coming

The various Southern romanticisms that are loosely compiled under the “Lost Cause” theory require that we ignore just how long debate had gone on over the issue of slavery. This wasn’t a new issue when Lincoln was elected in 1860. It had been going on since the earliest days of this republic.

Even before America’s Declaration of Independence was ever signed, there was a Quaker-led abolitionist movement taking root in New England. Rhode Island and Connecticut outlawed the importation of slaves from overseas in 1774. Vermont abolished slavery completely in 1777.

That’s not to say that these enlightened northerners were perfect in their awakened approach to slavery. They still treated black people cruelly and without justice. Fast-forward nearly a century later and President Lincoln himself — who was by any measure an honorable man who stood taller in virtue and morality than most American presidents who came before or after him — viewed black people as less than white people. But northerners, who had never relied heavily on slavery, saw the institution for what it was: an unnecessary, immoral evil.

So lest anyone believe that the northerners were just and the southerners unjust, let the record reflect that those three colonies that led the way in abolishing slavery remained extremely racist. In Connecticut, for example, free African-Americans who owned land were forced to forfeit it to the township. In Rhode Island, if you were a white person caught giving a black person a cup of hard cider, you were fined and potentially whipped. Vermont gave black men the right to vote, but joined Connecticut and Rhode Island in creating restrictions that made it difficult for black men to find work or own property.

Still, a movement was underway. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia 10 years later, slavery was a central issue. Many of the founding fathers had moral qualms with slavery — and some, like Benjamin Franklin (although he had once owned slaves) and Alexander Hamilton ultimately joined antislavery movements — but many others owned slaves. In fact, about 25 or the 55 delegates of the Convention owned slaves.

It’s interesting that “compromise” would later become a point of consternation regarding the possible avoidance of a war. Because the first compromise on the issue of slavery took place in Philadelphia in 1787. Although many of the delegates were fundamentally opposed to slavery, they knew they had to make certain concessions to get South Carolina and Georgia on board. They were convinced that the survival of the newly-independent colonies was a strong central government.

So, the Constitution protected slavery. Among the compromises was the infamous Three-Fifths clause, which counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation. That clause actually increased the South’s clout in Congress and the Electoral College. Thomas Jefferson would have never been president without it.

The Constitution further prohibited Congress from outlawing the Atlantic slave trade — as Connecticut and Rhode Island had already done — for a period of 20 years, and it required that fugitive runaway slaves be returned to their owners.

Even some delegates who owned slaves seemed to realize the moral dilemma posed by slavery. Luther Martin of Maryland was a slaveholder but argued that the Atlantic slave trade was “inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution” and “dishonorable to the American character.” George Mason of Virginia owned dozens of slaves, yet argued that “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country.”

It was from the Constitution that the later argument of “states’ rights” would emerge — with the South arguing that the Constitution had established that slavery was, indeed, a right to be determined by the states without intervention by the federal government.

Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to sit on the Supreme Court, later argued on the 200th anniversary of the Constitution that the document was “defective from the start” because it contained protections for slavery and “laid a foundation for the tragic events which were to follow.”

Marshall wasn’t entirely incorrect, of course. But the founding fathers, in their genius, may have chosen the right course. It took another 80 years, nearly, for the institution of slavery to be abolished, but by making certain concessions to get the Southern colonies on-board, a central government was created that could — and would — eventually abolish slavery.

The end of slavery would have come sooner or later. The American conscience would’ve eventually awakened. But it would have taken even longer.

The anti-slavery movement grows

The debate over slavery wasn’t settled at the 1787 Convention debate. Rather, it was just beginning to heat up. As soon as the 20-year protection on the Atlantic slave trade had ended, Congress prohibited the importation of slaves. By that time, all of the Northern states had taken action to abolish slavery: Pennsylvania in 1780, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784, New York in 1799, Ohio in 1802 and New Jersey in 1804.

1820 brought another round of compromise. Missouri was admitted as a slave state, in exchange for legislation prohibiting slavery north of the 36°30′ parallel — except for Missouri.

The passage of time has diminished the importance of the Missouri Compromise. It’s still taught in history classes, of course, but we’ve lost sight of its true significance in its time. It was, 200 years ago, regarded as a move nearly as important as the signing of the Constitution itself.

It was also a move that seemed to doom America.

Today, historians generally recognize that the Missouri Compromise helped delay the war. But, as it turns out, that’s all it did: delay it. Because after the Missouri Compromise, it had become apparent that the nation had been legally divided between the North and the South. Thomas Jefferson wrote that the drawing of the 36°30′ line would eventually destroy the Union.

War becomes inevitable

No one was especially happy with the Missouri Compromise. Southerners were angered because it stopped the expansion of slavery. Northerners were upset because it legitimatized the institution of slavery. And as the years passed, tensions only continued to grow. The Northern states had long since abolished slavery, for the most part. But slavery had never been an important institution in the North. In the South, where the invention of the cotton gin had led to an agricultural revolution and reinvigorated an economy once depleted by the fall of tobacco farming, slavery was regarded as a necessity to a way of life.

Churches in the South increasingly framed religious arguments to justify slavery. Denominations began to split over the issue: The Methodists in 1844, the Baptists in 1845, and the Presbyterians in 1858.

In 1854, U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois, authored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which passed Congress and was signed into law. The act opened up the Kansas and Nebraska territories to help facilitate the transcontinental railroad. But it also repealed the Missouri Compromise by allowing each territory to decide for itself whether slavery would be permitted within its borders.

Northerners were incensed. The Republican Party was formed by former Whigs who were determined to stop the expansion of slavery. In Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was so moved by the Kansas-Nebraska Act that he re-entered politics. Lincoln had been a state senator and Congressman, but he had returned to his law practice in 1849.

In his Peoria Speech, delivered in October 1854 after Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act narrowly passed Congress, Lincoln scorched Douglas and the legislation, calling it “a covert real zeal for the spread of slavery” and adding, “I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world.”

Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt another blow to any hope that war could be avoided with its decision in the Dred Scott case, ruling that blacks were not citizens and had no rights under the Constitution. Lincoln criticized the ruling, saying it was contrary to the Declaration of Independence, which stated that all men were equal “in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

By the next year, the personal political feud between Douglas and Lincoln had come to a head. Still infuriated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln fully intended to defeat Douglas and oust him from the Senate. In his speech accepting the Republican nomination, he quoted Mark 3:25: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”

The resulting campaign featured a series of seven debates between Douglas and Lincoln, and they made Lincoln a political star. He cast Douglas as a conspirator to promote slavery, and argued that he was distorting the Founding Fathers’ declaration that all men are created equal. He lost the election, but became a nationally recognizable figure — one with enough political clout to run for president.

The final straw

Tennessee Gov. Isham Harris, a pro-slavery politician who had first been elected to Congress in 1847, warned as the 1860 presidential election neared that his state would consider secession if the “reckless fanatics of the north” gained control of government.

When Lincoln was elected, Harris swiftly moved to convene the state legislature for a referendum on whether Tennessee should secede. The referendum failed, but Harris was undeterred, and Tennessee eventually would secede.

Elsewhere in the South, states were rushing to secede. They realized that Lincoln’s election meant that the new Republican Party had gained footing with a majority of Americans, which in turn meant that slavery’s days were doomed.

Lincoln didn’t campaign on a promise to abolish slavery. In fact, he supported the failed Corwin Amendment to the Constitution, which would have protected slavery in states where it already existed.

But because Lincoln pledged to stop the expansion of slavery in the western territories, the pro-slavery South realized the institution’s days were numbered. Since the Constitution was signed, representation in Congress had been nearly equal between free states and slave states. As new states were admitted as free states, the South would slowly lose clout and would be unable to stop votes to further restrict slavery.

Back in Tennessee, Gov. Harris argued that Lincoln and the Republicans were determined to bring about slavery’s “ultimate destination.” And when Lincoln ordered 50,000 troops be provided to squash the Southern rebellion after the attack on Fort Sumter, Harris refused. He said, “Not a single man will be furnished from Tennessee,” adding that he would rather cut off his right arm than sign the order.

The proof in the pudding

While Harris’s first referendum failed, the battle of Fort Sumter changed the mood. When a second referendum was held in June 1861, it succeeded, and Tennessee seceded. But it did so despite the objections of East Tennessee.

So what was different between East Tennessee and the rest of the state? Slavery. The rocky, hilly terrain of East Tennessee wasn’t suitable for the large farms that existed in the western two-thirds of the state, and slavery was relatively unimportant in East Tennessee.

As of 1860, nearly half the people who lived in the greater Nashville area were enslaved. And in the greater Memphis area, it was closer to 60%. But in East Tennessee, slaves made up less than 10% of the population.

When Tennessee’s secession referendum succeeded, leaders from the eastern division met in Greeneville and drafted a resolution seeking to opt out of secession. It was refused by Harris.

In Scott County, slavery was even less important than in the rest of Tennessee. In 1860, there were only 61 slaves owned in Scott County — by far the fewest of any county in Tennessee. Scott Countians also voted against secession by the largest margin of any county in Tennessee, 541-19.

The overwhelming desire to remain loyal to the Union remains why Scott County declared its independence from the Volunteer State after Tennessee seceded.

Was it coincidence that the county with the fewest slaves in Tennessee voted against secession by the largest margin?


In Winston County, Alabama, pro-Union sentiment also ran deep. Only 3% of the population in Winston County was enslaved in 1860, compared with 45% of the Alabama population as a whole. The people of Winston County were overwhelmingly against secession and floated the idea of forming the “Free State of Winston.”

In Jones County, Mississippi, the “Free State of Jones” was declared and an American flag flew atop the courthouse. In 1860, 12% of the population of Jones County were enslaved, compared with 55% of the population across the state as a whole.

It would be quite a stretch to assume it was just a coincidence that each of these Union enclaves in the Confederate South just happened to be places where slavery was nearly non-existent compared with other parts of the South.

It bolsters the argument that the war was about slavery, first and foremost.

In their own words

When Mississippi seceded from the Union, the very first sentence of its Declaration of Secession declared: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.”

South Carolina became the first state to secede by arguing that President-elect Lincoln’s “opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”

That is, word for word, what Virginia said as it seceded: That Lincoln’s “opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”

And when Arkansas seceded, it claimed that the Republican Party was “highly derogatory to the right of slave states,” dogging the “insulting, injurious and untruthful enunciation of the right of the African race of their country to social and political equality with the whites.”

In Tennessee, Gov. Harris — who had vowed to cut off his right arm rather than supply Lincoln with troops to squash the Southern rebellion — said of slavery: “Abandon it, we cannot, interwoven as it is with our wealth, prosperity and domestic happiness.”

The Southern states left little doubt about their motive. It was to protect slavery. Yes, the Civil War could be framed as a fight for “states’ rights.” But the right that the states wanted was the sovereignty to continue the institution of slavery.

Slavery wouldn’t have continued indefinitely. Conscientious Americans would’ve eventually put an end to the practice. But, in 1860, Southerners still felt that slavery was an institution worth fighting for.

Burns said it best, in responding to Sarah Sanders’ “compromise” comment:

“Many factors contributed to the Civil War. One caused it: slavery.”

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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