Saturday, September 17, 2011

Opinions: Reasons for the Civil War

Ask practically anyone at all - even people who don't live in the U.S. - what the American Civil War was fought over, and you will get a quick and simple answer: slavery.

Was it?

Certainly the issue of slavery was a big part of the Civil War equation, but it is a bit far-fetched to imagine tens and hundreds of thousands of northern white men leaving their homes and families to put their lives on the line for years on end, because they knew the cause was just, and they were willing to die for the freedom of their black brothers and sisters in the South.

Give me a break.

In the same vein, I can't really imagine tens and hundreds of thousands of Southern boys going off to fight and die for the right of some rich slave owners to own slaves, either. These people who went off to fight didn't own slaves. Or even a winter coat. Some of the generals and politicians did, but not the boys with no shoes, for whom it was probably rare to even interact with slaves. But these men went off willing to fight, just as the Northern men did. Why, then?

Other people say the Civil War was fought over the principle of what came to be known as "States Rights" - the contention that the Federal Government was usurping the constitutional sovereignty of individual states more and more with each passing year. Many people in the South felt the North was bullying them with unfair laws and taxes, and generally conspiring to screw them over, and that it was getting progressively worse with every passing year. These people say (with some truth, frankly) that the situation finally became intolerable. Just as certain British laws and taxes had become intolerable to their ancestors, four-score and seven years earlier, so, too, had the Federal Government - the NORTHERN government - become a hated symbol of oppression in the South.

The Civil War didn't resolve that way of thinking, of course; it is still very prevalent in our politics even today.

Were either of these things the reason the U.S. had a civil war?

If we take the word of the man who was the U.S. President during the Civil War, the reason the war was fought was "to preserve the Union" and nothing else. To quote him:

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views."

And then he added:

"I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free."

This was in August of 1862. A few weeks later he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Apparently he thought freeing the slaves would injure the South's war effort. So did many others. Of course the Proclamation meant nothing until the North won the war.

What do I think personally was the reason for fighting the Civil War? I've tried to read books on both sides and try to understand both sides over the years. My inclination is to take Lincoln's statement at face value and say the Civil War was fought to preserve the Union.

The only minor tidbit, though, is that the U.S. Constitution doesn't forbid states from leaving the Union. It only says Congress shall prescribe by law the manner in which new states are admitted. And all Congress required was a blood test and a 3-day waiting period. (Actually, it requires most of the other states to agree to let the new state join the club.) Neither says anything about having to stay 'til death do them part. I guess no one contemplated that, once admitted to Heavenly Union, no state would ever contemplate giving up such divine bliss.

Legally, then, the South was right.

Moral? I suppose it would be that "being legally right" doesn't always mean you get to do it unmolested. The North had more than a little invested in the South over the years - not just money but many other things - and felt the country - as a whole - now sort of "owned" the South, in a manner of speaking. In the larger scheme of things, everybody owned everybody else, and nobody was just going to be allowed to take their ball and go home. Sometimes, even though it is your ball, someone bigger and stronger sometimes comes along and forces you to stay in the game instead of going your own way with your ball. Or your slaves, either, as far as that goes.

What do YOU think the cause of the Civil War was?


  1. The American Civil War was caused by several things, not just one. Slavery and States Rights were a couple of them. Pride and loyalty to State and not to Federal government was another, along with economic/industrial boundaries, the South imposing higher taxes on the industrial North because they held more representation, and the North reciprocated it. Also, the election of Lincoln and the bombardment of Fort Sumter. The Founding Fathers knew that when they created the Perpetual Union that they could not eliminate the issue of slavery, because the southern States would have rejected the Constitution and the United States would not have been formed and/or phased directly into a civil war. But they limited much of it particularly by the year 1808 I think. I agree that Lincoln was concerned with preserving the Union, but it was because he, like the Founders, realized the horrors of what awaited a broken Union. A vengeful reconciliation with Great Britain was chief among them. He didn't dismiss the issue of slavery or feel it was less important, but rather knew that America could better deal with it through legislation rather than bloodshed. Unfortunately, it all got rolled into one war, repairing a lot of brokeness, and yet leaving deep scars.
    I love your posts, they're very thought provoking and intellectual. They have much more substance than most others'.
    Enjoy your weekend!

  2. @Julius Cicero - Thank you for your input. What you say is true and adds much to understanding the complex background of the war and the events leading up to it. I really appreciate your stopping by.

  3. No problem, I rather enjoy intellectual discussions. And thank you for stopping by as well.

  4. Julius took my answer.

    There wasn't just one reason and not only were some people motivated by more than one reason, there were probably any number of people fighting for apparently minor reasons not included here, reasons they saw as personal.

    We forget, sometimes, too, that communication was not like it is today nor was education ubiquitous. Many people were inflamed and inspired by literature, somewhat biased local papers and exhortations of what the other side would do if "their" side didn't act.

    Let us not forget, either, that, though the South might have intended to quietly secede using their legal rights, they were the ones who fired first.

    Both sides, I think, began the war thinking the other side would fold quickly if pushed militarily. Sadly, primarily for the South which suffered the most, that was not true.

    I often wonder, if either side had appreciated the cost, if a more diplomatic effort might have been made to avoid the war.

    Just saying.

  5. @Stephanie Barr - Of course you are right about there being many, many causes for the war - probably even more than we are listing here. Or, on the other hand, some might say that the ONLY reason was "to preserve the Union," and all the others are reasons why "preservation" became necessary in the first place.

    But that isn't entirely correct in either case, is it? I mean, "to preserve the Union" wasn't (obviously) the reason the South went to war. It is only the reason the North went to war. You rightly point out that the South fired the first shot. In light of that, maybe we should be asking the question a bit differently: why did the SOUTH go to war? That's really the crux, assuming we KNOW why the North went to war - to preserve the Union. Probably the real underlying question here is why the southern states felt they must leave the Union. That's where those other complex issues come into the picture.

    War is never the best solution in settling disputes. Both the North and the South SHOULD have thought about the terrible costs and consequences of going to war. All parties in ANY war should know there will be terrible costs and consequences.

    I'm not saying wars wouldn't still happen if we tried to talk and resolve differences harder instead of stalking out of the room. Sometimes, wars are legitimate, though, because a greater danger threatens than even war. For example if you get attacked and someone tries to take your country over, then war happens. I don't know if "legitimate" is ever the right word to use when one is talking about war, but being attacked was the only thing I could think of that comes close to a "legitimate" making of war.

    You might say that a weak sister such as Jimmy Carter, who apparently believed nothing - no act, no insult, no humiliation - would be cause enough to fight back. In that case, wars can ALWAYS be averted: you simply give up what you've got and start obeying the demands of your enemies.

    I'm not one of those people. I don't know for sure, but I don't think you are, either.

    Getting back to the Civil War, I think all Presidents before Lincoln bear some of the blame for the war, not just Buchanan, the man who had the last chance and didn't act.

    For example, while it is true the Constitution couldn't have abolished slavery (because without the South there would have been no real "Union,") but, I don't see why the Constitution couldn't have abolished the further importation of slaves right off the bat. And I don't see why there couldn't have been an agreement, very soon after the country was set up, to not let in future slave states. Why would the existing slave states care? - more for them.

    All along the way, not just in James Buchanan's time, we were given opportunities to begin to work on the issue of slavery, but we didn't seem to work hard enough and suddenly it was a crisis.

  6. They did try passing a Constitution in which slavery was severely limited, though the south wasn't much happy, nor in agreement with it. So they settled on the three-fifths clause, and imposing heavy taxes on slaves and indentured servants until 1808 at which time the Founders figured that the issue would have been addressed. If the Constitution would have prohibited future slave states, then it would not have been ratified. But that's not to say that an amendment couldn't have been immediately proposed. Existing slave states would have recognized the affront to their economies, and I think Shay's Rebellion would have been much bigger. The Founders knew the issue of slavery would be a difficult uphill battle, that's why the three-fifths clause was so important, otherwise the south would have maintained a super-majority of representation in Congress and there would have been absolutely no diplomatic solution to it. The Founders had to tread softly to maintain the Union, whilst mounting the 'offensive' on slavery.

  7. Interesting discussion.

    I've never bought into the idea that the war was fought to free the slaves as it just doesn't make sense for reasons that you have so eloquently put forth.

    I have bought into the idea that it was more "State's rights" than anything and that when push came to shove, President Lincoln had no choice but to reciprocate when Fort Sumter was fired upon. I'm sure he had no great desire for a long and bloody war that pulled the country in two directions while hundreds upon thousands of its citizens blew each other up on battlefields but I don't see where he was given much choice in the matter.

    It's just too bad that it couldn't have all been settled in the Rose Garden over a mug of beer and couple of cigars but then again, all things happen for a reason, don't they?



Related Posts with Thumbnails