The American Civil War: Power at Stake

The causes of the Civil War are, unfortunately, disputed among countless people on countless forums.  Most of the time, either bad history is being practiced or untrue statements are being made.  The true causes reside within countless primary documents and an understanding of American culture at the time.  After looking at the evidence, I have come to two conclusions that I will argue in this brief essay.

Presidents Lincoln and Davis

Presidents Lincoln and Davis

1.) Slavery was a Necessary Factor for Southern Secession whereas State Sovereignty was hardly at Play.

      South Carolina, the first state to secede, did not come to that decision over night.  Just like most confederate states, South Carolina’s decision to secede can be traced back to 1850.  This was the year that the U.S. congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act.  Specifically, the act required that northern states enforce laws concerning fugitive slaves.  The northern states were now required to return slaves that had escaped for freedom.  Furthermore, the act declared

“And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them, from arresting such a fugitive from service or labor, either with or without process as aforesaid… and shall moreover forfeit and pay, by way of civil damages to the party injured by such illegal conduct, the sum of one thousand dollars for each fugitive so lost as aforesaid.”[1]

 

In other words, those who aided escaped slaves could be charged and fined.  The reason that southern states were upset about this is rather ironic.  The south was not upset about these new laws.  They were upset that northern states either nullified, or refused to enforce them.

Almost immediately after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, Vermont passed the Habeas Corpus Law which effectively nullified the Fugitive Slave Act in Vermont.  Four years later, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the Fugitive Slave Act was unconstitutional.  Furthermore, jury nullification was common among northern states.  The fact that the Federal government did not force the northern states to follow the Fugitive Slave Act is what led to secession, beginning in 1860.  In fact, this reason is mentioned several times throughout the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.”  One section of the declaration reads

“We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”[2]

 

This type of language was common among southern declarations of independence.  The evidence is clear.  Slavery and a weak federal government were necessary for southern secession.  Northern nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act pushed the South towards secession.

2.) The Federal Government was interested in Federal Expansion whereas the Liberation of Slaves was hardly at Play.

             There were numerous reasons behind the Union’s prevention of southern secession.  Primarily, the notion of Manifest Destiny and the need for federal revenues motivated the Union to take action.

It should be acknowledged that, although slavery played a huge role in southern secession, the Union did not go to war to free the slaves.  President Lincoln, the commander in chief during the Civil War, stated

“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 save the Union.”[3]

Ulysses S. Grant, the Union General, wrote that

“The sole object of this war is to restore the Union. Should I become convinced it has any other object, or that the Government designs its soldiers to execute the wishes of the Abolitionists, I pledge you my honor as a man and a soldier I would resign my commission and carry my sword to the other side.”[4]

The real reason for the Union’s response to southern secession was a sentiment that was at the heart of U.S. policy.  It is commonly known as “Manifest Destiny,” a philosophy centered on U.S. expansion “from sea to shining sea.”  In fact, this was the same philosophy that led to the Mexican-American war of the late 1840s.  This nationalistic idea, more so than the seizure of Fort Sumter, is what drove the Union to stop the south from breaking away.

Further, the Union needed southern money to maintain its continental expansionism.  This is due to the federal tax system of this time period.  Specifically, until 1861, the Union relied on tariffs imposed on various ports.  The south, however, contained most of the country’s ports.  Furthermore, an estimated 75% of federal revenue came from the southern ports.  Without these funds, the Union would have to contract rather than expand.  There was a reason that top ranking Union officials were concerned with maintaining the Union.  Southern money played a role in continental expansionism and was necessary for “Manifest Destiny.”

Ultimately, neither the Confederacy nor the Union should be admired.  The confederacy left the Union because of its’ opposition to northern nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act.  The Union went to war with the confederacy in order to maintain the funds necessary for an expansionist policy.  The Civil War should not be thought of as a war of liberation.  Instead, it should be looked at as a war between two governments seeking power.

- Will Shanahan, Contributor, the Humane Condition


[1] U.S. Federal Congress, USConstitution.net, “The Fugitive Slave Act.” September 18, 1850. (Accessed April 24, 2013) http://www.usconstitution.net/fslave.html.

[2] Confederate States of America, The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” December 24, 1860. (Accessed April 24, 2013.) http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp.

[3] Abraham Lincoln, “Lincoln’s Letter to Horace Greeley,” (August 22, 1862) 1.

[4] Ulysses S. Grant, “A letter to the Chicago Tribune,” (1862).

3 thoughts on “The American Civil War: Power at Stake

  1. I really like this article Will, thanks for providing a refreshing unbiased look at such a charged event in history.

    What exactly do you mean when you say:

    “Slavery and a weak federal government were necessary for southern secession.”

    If you get a chance could you explain what you mean? Would a stronger federal government have prevented the South from attempting to secede? Or was it the very possibility of a growing federal government that pushed them towards secession?

    • If the federal government had enforced the fugitive slave laws in northern states, it is unlikely that the south would have seceded, in my opinion. What I meant by “a weak federal government” was that the federal government was not cracking down on fugitive slaves. The fact that the federal government was weak on this issue is good, but it also caused slave holding states to leave the union. What I was arguing is that the south was not as concerned with state sovereignty as is often emphasized. The fact that southern states were upset with northern states ignoring federal slave laws seems to prove this. Thanks for the question.

  2. This seems like somewhat of a contradiction (not on your part, but on the part of Southern States, as you portray them). Why would the Southern states secede because of slavery if the Northern Powers That Be didn’t care about abolishing slavery and in fact openly supported it (and where they did in fact reject it, it was on regional economic grounds, not principled abolitionist grounds)? If the North was not going to abolish slavery, then why would any of the Southern states have seceded on primarily the slavery issue? You write that the North, or at least some of the Northern states, did in fact try to abolish at least certain aspects of the institution of slavery, the part of which was incorporated into the Fugitive Slave Act, that is, the “obligation” of others to return “property” to its “rightful owners”. I can certainly see why this would anger certain slaveholders, but I wonder if it really had any impact on most of them other than upon their ego. I doubt it. How many slaves ran away? A few probably. Enough to stir the majority of the populations in more than a dozen states? That’s very suspect to me. This explanation ignores the fact that most Southerners, even in the Deep South, were not in fact slaveholders and therefore would in no way be impacted by the nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act, or even the abolition of slavery. And yet vast portions of them still supported secession. Why? What was motivating them? Perhaps not state sovereignty per se, but not the slavery issue either. Could it in fact have been what most “Neo-Confederates” suppose: the Tariff Issue? I think so. That is not to say that slavery wasn’t among the greatest motivating factors for the plantation class, which was one of the most influential factions in many of the Southern States, but this is mostly mitigated by the fact that popular support was still needed, and thus other, and greater, causes had to have been appealed to. Support for the politicians’ decision to secede was needed from laborers, merchants, farmers, and the like, who would have been unduly impacted by various Federal trade and tax policies. In some cases, it was a popular vote that decided the issue and not the state legislatures. Slavery was still a motivation. Even one of the more obvious and most often cited ones, but hardly the primary one. And The Upper South certainly didn’t secede because of slavery, even if it can be shown that the Deep South did for the most part. The Upper South seceded because of the abuse of powers that started happening on the part of the Federal Government in response to the secession by the Deep South. Look at the timeline of events. They seceded to stand in solidarity with the Deep South, not on the issue of Slavery, but on the issue of state sovereignty and the abuses of Federal Power. It was the encroachment upon state sovereignty that pushed the Upper South, including some of the greatest statesmen and strategists it had to offer, many of whom opposed slavery and supported the Union, into the arms of the Confederacy. Not slavery.

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