Although the American Revolution resulted in independence for the United States and World War II made it an international power, the American Civil War was arguably the most important war in American history. It truly was an American watershed.
In order to appreciate that war’s significance, it must be understood what the Civil War was about. Contrary to all-too-popular opinion, the Civil War was not about states’ rights. Instead it was all about slavery and white supremacy. As shown in my just-released book, The Myth of the Lost Cause: Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won, there is compelling evidence that secession and the Confederacy were the result of Southerners’ desire to preserve slavery and white supremacy – not to promote states’ rights.
The evidence of the seceders’ motivations is clear-cut and convincing. Only slave states seceded, and the greater the percentage of slaves and the percentage of slave-owning families the more likely a slave state was to secede. Those states complained that the Federal Government was doing not too much but too little – Southerners wanted the central government to more aggressively enforce slavery, especially to return runaway slaves. They also were upset that other states were passing “liberty laws” to make it more difficult to retrieve runaways. The issue was not who had the power to do what but instead whether their powers were being used to promote slavery. Far from respecting individual states’ rights, they wanted to compel the Federal and other state governments to enforce slaveholders’ rights and preserve slavery.
The strongest evidence of seceders’ motivations is the language they used in their own secession documents. What could be more telling? Six of the seven early seceding states provided clear statements of their reasons for seceding. Their reasons included the election of Abraham Lincoln, who opposed extension of slavery into territories; the runaway slave issue; the threat to slavery’s existence with the possible loss of four to six billion dollars in slave property (the largest component of Southern wealth); the perceived end of white supremacy and the resultant political and social equality of blacks and whites, and desperate warnings of the effect all this change would have on Southern Womanhood.
South Carolina’s declaration of the reasons for secession said, “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution [runaway slave return provision].”
As he called for a secession convention, Mississippi’s governor declared, “The existence or the abolition of African slavery in the Southern States is now up for a final settlement.” Citing only slavery-protection reasons, that state’s legislature convened a secession convention. The latter’s declaration of the causes of secession got right to the point in its opening line: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.”
Not only did their own secession resolutions reveal slavery and white supremacy as their causation, but the seven states who seceded even before Lincoln’s inauguration immediately began an outreach campaign to other slave states. Their correspondence and speeches relied only on slavery-related issues to encourage other slave states’ secession. They only lobbied slave states.
Much other evidence demonstrates that slavery and white supremacy preservation were the causes of secession and even trumped possible Confederate victory in the war. All efforts to avoid war by compromise focused only on slavery issues. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said slavery was the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy and Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers had erred in stating that all men were created equal.
Even though it had a tremendous manpower shortage, the Confederacy officially rejected the use of slaves as soldiers (as inconsistent with its white supremacy views) and rejected one-on-one prisoner exchanges for captured black Union soldiers. Just as American colonists needed European intervention to win the Revolutionary War, the Confederates were desperate for British and French intervention; however, they declined to end slavery in order to achieve involvement by the slavery-hating Europeans.
Union victory ended slavery and kept America from being an international pariah. It also resulted in passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th constitutional amendments; these provided the legal basis for ending legal segregation and providing blacks with voting and other civil rights.
Despite the compelling evidence of slavery’s and white supremacy’s roles in fomenting secession, the Confederacy, and the Civil War, too many contemporary Americans cling to the myth that somehow states’ rights were at the root of the Civil War. We need to accept the reality of the racial underpinnings of that critical war in order to contemplate, confront, and overcome the continuing racial tensions in America.