Did the Institution of Slavery Cause the Civil War?

By John C. Fazio
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s Note: A debate on the cause or causes of the Civil War was held on January 10, 2007 as part of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable’s monthly meeting. It was an intercollegiate-style debate, i.e., two on the affirmative and two on the negative. The resolution debated was: Resolved: That the Institution of Slavery Was the Cause of the Civil War. The negative won, based on a vote of the attendees. Following the debate in that forum, John C. Fazio, the Roundtable President at the time of that debate, weighed in with the following.


The great debate was great. The negative won (i.e., slavery was not the cause of the war). The vote was 39 to 17. Whether this was a reflection of the cogency of the arguments or the persuasiveness of the debaters, I’m not sure. I think the result disturbed a few members, maybe more than a few, because the conventional wisdom that slavery caused the war is very strongly believed by most scholars, students, enthusiasts, etc. Indeed, one member told me that he absented himself intentionally because he felt so strongly that slavery was the cause of the war that just listening to the negative on the issue would cause his blood pressure to go up to a dangerous level.

Anyway, I would like to throw in my two cents, even though nobody asked for it. Do I think slavery caused the war? Well, yes, but with a qualifier, which I’ll get to later. First let us nail slavery down.

Slavery was an issue that divided the states even in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Though the Constitution sanctioned it and this fact was clearly understood by all the states (some said they wouldn’t ratify the Constitution if it didn’t sanction slavery), the Founding Fathers appear to have contemplated its extinction by providing for a termination of the slave trade after 1807. Significantly, however, provisions for the return of fugitive slaves and for counting slaves for purposes of apportioning Congressional representatives (i.e., a slave equals 3/5 of a person) were written right into the highest law in the land and stayed there until the 13th Amendment made them moot. References to slaves and slavery, however, were made euphemistically, which is further evidence that most of the Founding Fathers viewed the institution as an evil, though perhaps a necessary one.

From 1787 right up to the eve of war, Senators and Congressmen never stopped debating the issue. When the debate reached crisis proportions, they compromised. The first major compromise, known as the Missouri Compromise, was made in 1820. It prohibited slavery north of a certain point, following the example of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, but permitted it in Missouri and the Arkansas Territory. This cooled things off for a while, but it wasn’t long before they were at each other’s throats again. The squabbling grew red hot on the issue of whether slavery would be permitted in the territories acquired from Mexico after the war of 1846-1847, so they compromised again. This was the Compromise of 1850.

A depiction of Preston Brooks caning Charles Sumner

Again, there was a breather, but again it was followed by more invective, more insults and more threats over everything and anything relating to the peculiar institution and particularly its extension or non-extension into the territories, including the Wilmot Proviso (1846), the Ostend Manifesto (Cuba – 1854), the Kansas-Nebraska Act (“Bleeding Kansas” – 1854), the Topeka Constitution (Kansas – 1855), the sack of Lawrence (Kansas – 1856), John Brown’s depredations at Pottawatomie Creek (Kansas – 1856), the Lecompton Constitution (Kansas – 1857), the Dred Scott decision (1857), John Brown’s depredations at Harper’s Ferry (1859), and the election of 1860. Rhetoric reached such a fever’s pitch that on May 22, 1856, Rep. Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina took a cane and beat Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner with it, mercilessly, in the Senate Chamber, because of a speech by the latter opposing slavery in Kansas and insulting one of Brooks’ relatives.

O.K. So if the elected representatives of the people, or at least of some of the people, fought each other viciously over the issue of slavery for 73 years (1787 to 1860), which struggle culminated in the rupture of the Union, a civil war, 620,000 dead, the end of slavery, the 13th Amendment and the assassination of the savior of the Union and the Great Emancipator, then what more needs to be said? What about that qualifier?

The qualifier is simply this: To say that slavery caused the war is a little bit like saying we work for money. It’s perfectly obvious, isn’t it? Or is it? Do we really work for money? Or do we work for the things that money will give us, namely power and comfort and sometimes independence? If we could have power, comfort and independence from some means other than money, would we care about money? If one of us were the last person on earth and there was no one else to give us a product or service, would money have any meaning for us? When we are at death’s door, will money mean anything to us, or will we gladly give every last dime we have to be restored to good health? St. Paul said that the love of money is the root of all evil, and we do carry some sense of this into our daily pursuit of the stuff, which finds expression in such terms as “filthy lucre.”

Nevertheless, we pursue it because it will give us power and comfort and sometimes independence, which will improve our chances of survival, which, after all is said and done, in the final analysis, is what really motivates everybody all the time. In the same way, it was not slavery as such that caused the war, but slavery as the engine that drove the Southern economy, slavery as a means to ends for slaveholders and for non-slaveholders who benefited from the institution. What were the ends? Power and comfort and sometimes independence. So what, ultimately, caused the war? The love of power, comfort and independence. And what is that if it is not economics? About this time I can almost hear the cries of “Sophistry! What difference does it make if slavery was an end in itself or a means to an end? It’s still slavery and without it the war wouldn’t have been fought. If the Founding Fathers had prohibited it in the Constitution, there would have been no Civil War.” True. And if a fog hadn’t moved in at night to conceal Washington’s retreat from Brooklyn across the East River to Manhattan, in 1776, thereby saving his army and the revolution, there would have been no United States! The point is that the Founding Fathers didn’t prohibit slavery in the Constitution, but actually preserved and protected it, and that is the fact that we have to live with, not what might have been, but what was. So it isn’t sophistry.

The fact is that slavery was guaranteed by the Constitution in the states where it already existed. Northern fire-eaters and abolitionists could rail against it as much as they wanted to, but those who knew anything about the Constitution knew that the institution was untouchable in those states. Lincoln himself said, on the stump and in his First Inaugural, that he had no intention of interfering with the institution in those states where it already existed because, he said, he did not believe that he had the Constitutional authority to do so. And he was quite right about that; he didn’t. Even his Emancipation Proclamation was on shaky legal ground, because it was passed as a war measure (Taney was still on the bench!), which is why he pushed so hard for the 13th Amendment.

So why did the South secede? Because Lincoln’s record was perfectly clear to Southern leadership, even if it wasn’t quite so clear to abolitionists and members of his own party and even if it isn’t quite so clear to some students of the war today. Southern leadership knew that a Republican administration meant that they would no longer control things in Washington as they had done under Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan. Indeed, virtually every President of the United States from Jackson through Buchanan was a Southerner or a Southern sympathizer and therefore catered to Southern interests. Southern leadership knew that though Lincoln would not, because he could not, disturb slavery where it existed, he would draw the line on its extension into the territories. The territories would then be settled by free, white labor, and the entire country, from sea to sea and from Canada to Mexico, would be free, except for the southeast, which would be slave. They foresaw increasing isolation and a pariah status in such a Union, difficulty in getting their runaway slaves back, and the possibility, always, of slave insurrections such as had occurred in Santo Domingo, where, between 1791 and 1804, a series of insurrections had resulted in the annihilation of virtually the entire white population and frightful atrocities. So they left because they felt that their chances of survival were better out of the Union than in it.

So much for the South. What about the North?

Approximately what percentage of Northerners were opposed to slavery for ideological reasons that had nothing to do with economics, i.e., abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Wendell Phillips, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry David Thoreau, John Greenleaf Whittier, Susan B. Anthony, et al., and their supporters, and how many felt, as one Army of the Potomac officer put it: “We’ll take care of the secessionists first and worry about the niggers later”? I maintain that the latter were in the majority at least for most of the war. The evidence is strong that abolitionists were not particularly popular in the North and were positively anathema in the South. They were frequently spat upon, shouted down and otherwise abused when speaking to Northern audiences. They didn’t even try to speak to Southern audiences: They would have been torn limb from limb.

Anti-slavery newspapers were sometimes burned or trashed, as in Cincinnati. In New York, even as late as July 1863, i.e., seven months after the Emancipation Proclamation, there were major riots that targeted blacks, even to torching a black orphanage, which of course resulted in the murder of many of them, including the orphans. Even Lincoln, though in my judgment there is no question that he loathed slavery, had to tread lightly on the subject and frequently make statements in his addresses that were politically expedient but inconsistent with abolitionist sentiment. He countermanded General Fremont’s and General Hunter’s orders liberating the slaves in their departments because he was advised that if he did not do so, many soldiers in his armies would lay down their arms and refuse to fight because they said they were not fighting to free slaves, but to save the Union.

David Wilmot, author of the famous Proviso that would have prohibited slavery in the territories acquired from Mexico (which did not pass), announced that he had no higher motive than to open the territories for settlement by free, white labor and that he had no sympathy for slaves. Staring secession in the face, the Northern-dominated Congress caved. On February 28, 1861, the House approved the Corwin Amendment to the Constitution, which, incredibly, prohibited any future amendment of the Constitution that would abolish or interfere with slavery in the states where it existed, which is to say that it guaranteed slavery in those states in perpetuity! On March 2, 1861, the Senate approved it. It is to be noted that 45 Republicans accepted this concession because they knew that it was acceptable to Lincoln.

The Northern fire-eaters and the Southern fire-eaters hated each other’s guts because they were polarized by economics. The Northerners wanted, inter alia, their protective tariffs, a northern route for the Pacific railroad, money for internal improvements and settlement of the territories by free, white labor, all of which enhanced them economically. The Southerners wanted their bucolic fairyland, their Camelot, with lots of money from domestic and foreign sales of King Cotton, a lifestyle that Margaret Mitchell said went with the wind and is to be found now only in books. The Northern industrialists and merchants hated the planter aristocracy more than they loved slaves. They, for the most part –with some notable exceptions, like Thad Stevens– opposed slavery not so much out of any great compassion for “the negro,” but because it made the planters rich, powerful and arrogant. And, of course, the planters returned the sentiment with respect to Northern industrialists and merchants who became rich, powerful and arrogant by what the Southerners referred to as “the smell of trade.”

So what’s the bottom line?

The bottom line is that it is not true to say that slavery was the cause of the war if by so saying we mean that there was a great outpouring of compassion in the Northern states for the slaves; that a majority of Northerners, therefore, elected Lincoln to rid the country of the pestilential, odious and peculiar institution; that after the fashion of a white knight, he did so, at terrible cost, but a cost deemed by Northerners worth paying because they despised slavery so much. False. That is simply false.

What is true is that the two regions were very different from the beginning; that their differences – social, cultural, economic and political – became greater with time rather than less; that slavery was the engine that drove the Southern agricultural economy with the sanction of the Constitution; that slaveholders had hundreds of millions of dollars invested in their slaves and that to free them would have been economically ruinous to them, besides the enormous social disruption that this would have caused (What were they going to do with 4,000,000 ex-slaves? Annihilation? This was the term used by Jefferson Davis in his first commentary on the Emancipation Proclamation.); that some in the South opposed slavery on ideological grounds, but they were a tiny minority; that some in the North opposed slavery on ideological grounds, but they were also a minority, albeit a somewhat bigger minority than the one in the South; that most Northerners were indifferent to slaves and slavery; and that many Northerners were downright hostile to slaves and had no wish whatsoever to free them, again, most probably for economic reasons, i.e., job competition. (Virulent racism persists in the North in our own time. Martin Luther King said that he saw more race hatred in Cicero, Illinois, than he ever saw anywhere in the South.)

Most Northerners supported their government because it was a democratically elected government that was fighting, first and foremost, as Lincoln himself said in his famous letter to Horace Greeley, to save the Union. The abolition of slavery went with the territory. It went along for the ride, as it were, when Lincoln deemed it necessary to emancipate slaves in states and parts of states that were in rebellion in order to keep foreign powers from intervening in the war (which was imminent and he knew it) and in order to deplete Southern manpower and (the opposite side of the same coin) increase Northern manpower, especially fighting men in his armies.

Am I making excuses for the South?

Not at all. Rupturing the Union is a terrible thing unless done for a very good reason. I submit that the preservation of the institution of slavery is not a good reason, and the fact that it was attempted for economic or socioeconomic reasons does not make it a better reason. Lincoln offered slaveholders compensated emancipation. Stupidly (there is no other word for it), they rejected the offer. Even the border states – even Delaware, which had fewer than 1800 slaves – rejected it. He therefore had no choice but to wage war, a war that was thrust upon him. The war, therefore, was the quintessential American tragedy, occasioned, like Greek tragedy, by a flaw in our character. Grant said it best: All our troubles began with Mexico…Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions.

Let the debate continue.

Related links:
The Constitution Caused the Civil War
The Arguments of the Constitutional Unionists in 1850-1851
The Declarations of Causes of Seceding States
Frederick Douglass on the Constitution and Slavery, 1849