Slavery was at the heart of the Civil War. It was not only the cause of the War, but played an important part in the waging of the War. The increasingly acrimonious American debate over slvery led inexorbly to Souther secession. Slavery was the one issue that could not be resolved politically under the Constiution. And in the decade before the War, slavery was at the center of events like the Dred Scott case, fugaive slave laws, Bleedung Kanseas, and John Brown's raid. These an other developments made it clear that the growing sectional rift could not be resolved politically. Slavery was the cause of secession, but only a part of the Federal response. Here the more important motivation was presrvtion of the Union. President Lincoln had to recognize this politicl imparative, but skillfully expandd the Federl cause to emancipaion and not just emancipation, but full citizenship as well. Slavery also played a key role in interntional diplomacy which could have undermined the Federal cause. International recognition could have saved the Condfedracy, even brining about foreign support. Lincon's Emancipation Proclamation prevented this. The European powers were not going to recognize a slave republic. The Lost Cause historians who dominated Americn historiography for decades denied this because the Condeferacy could not be defnded if slavery was seen as the cause of the War. So the slavery issued was sept under the rug. Modern historians now recognize the primacy of slavery. as both the cause of the War and an important aspect in wageing the War.
The European countries which conquered native American civilizations in the 16th century
enslaved millions in Brazil and South America to work in mines and the tremendously profitable sugar plantations. The conditions were so brutal and European disesases so virlulent that native American populations were descimated. The Spanish and Portuguese turned to Africans. Millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic and sold into slavery in the Americas. Slavery in earlier epochs had no racial connotations. With the growth of the African slave trade, slavery in the Western mind became associated with race as with the collapse of Native American populations, it was Africans who were enslaved in huge numbers. European Christian who would not have tolerated the enslavement of other Europeans found little objection to enslaving black Africans.
The increasingly acrimonious American debate over slvery led inexorably to Southern secession. Slavery was the one issue that could not be resolved politically under the Constiution. The debate over slavery in the United States did not begin with the Constitutinal Convention (1787), but it was here that the issue first came to the fore. Some northern delegates were opposed to it. Southern delegates were committed to it. It became clear that there would be no Constitution without a compromise. The compromise was that a decission on the future of slavery wold be deferred. A curious arrangement was written in to the Constitution by which for voting purposes slaves would be counted as 2/3s of a person. Many delegates believed or at least hope that slavery would gradually die out as individuals states abolished it. Subsequent history was a series of compromises meant to difuse the issue. The centerpiece of this effort was the Missouri Compromise (1820). This worked for over three decades until promoted by Seator Stephen Douglas Congress undid it with the Kansas-Nebrasks Act (1854). The result was rising tensions, "Bleeding Kansas", the and a the breakdown of compromise, John Brown's raid on the Federal arsenal, and at last a breakdown of comprosise and civil war.
he Constitutional Convention largely side stepped the issue of slavery in the new Federal Constitution. As powers vested in the Federal Government has to be specifically enumerated, the question of slavery became a state matter. The Constitution did contain two provisions on slavery. First slaves were to partially counted in determining the apportionment of Congressmen and thus presidential electors. This in effect gave extra voting power to slave states. Second, the Federal Goverment was authorized to end the African slave trade in 1807. The abolitionist movement in the north had already begun to grow at the time the Constitution was drafted and ratified. And it gradually grew in importance leading to abolition in the original northern colonies and the new states formed in the Northwest Territory. Slavery did not, however, emerge as a major national issue until after the War Of 1812 when the number of free states began to outmumber the number od slave states making the slaves states a minority in the Senate. The debate in the Congress over Missouri statehood brought out some empassioned speeches for and against slavery. Movements were a foot to abolish slavery in the northern states and more criticim was being directed at the South's "peculiar institution". Representative Livermore (New Hampshire) asked "How long will the desire for wealth render us blind to the sin of holding both the bodies and souls of our fellow men in chains?" The Abolitionist movement in America was built around Protestant churches in the northern states. At first Quakers were the most prominent voice, but other religious groups in the North also began to question slavery. Southern churches, however, saw no religious problem with slavery. Southern slaves, however, saw considerable paralells with the bondage of the people of Israel in Egypt and their plight. American abolitionism soon found it faced a major problem that the British abolitioinist movement never had to confront. Slasvery so divided Americam on a sectional basis that it threatened the very existence of the nation--breaking apart the national union. The abolitionist movement was a northern moverment. There was no southern aboliionist movement. TYhe movement as it developed was led by a number of agitators. William Lloyd Garrison founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. Noted authors John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe became influential. Former slaves also had some influence, especially Frederick Douglass. Abolitionists could not become major nationmal political figures because of the need to apease southern voters. Only when the natiobal political parties broke apart on a sectional basis was it possible for an anti-slavery party and presidential candidate to win election. Abrahan Lincoln was not an abolitionist, he was, however, a clear anti-slavery candidate who opposed the spread of slavery. This was a turning point in the abolitionisdt movement. Abolitionists could not end slavery even after the Reoublican victory (1860). Ir was the secession of the Southern states and Civil War that made this possible. Lincoln issued the Emancipastion Proclamation (1863). With out southern Congressmen, the Republicans were able to pass Constitutional amendments enshrining the Emancimation Proclamation in the Constitution with the 13th Amendment.
Most southeners did own slaves and most of who did owned only a few who lived in rlatively comfortable circumstances. It was the planter class who owned the most slaves and who dominated southern society. Cotton was emormously profitable, building vast fortunes. Economists describ it as the Cotton Kingdom or often King Cotton.
Eli Whitney's cotton gin had transformed the South's peculiar institution from a dying institution which may have slowly been phased out to the centerpiece of not only the Americn economy, but the world economy. Cotton soon surpassed tobacco, the main crop of the 18thbcentury, to a central role in the merican economy. The outh by the time of the Civil War was producing 75 percent of the world's cotton supply. Cotton exports helped finance the industrialization of the North. It also provided the rw material for the factories of Britain and France. The Industrail Revolution began wih textile production (mid-18th century) and textiles were still a much more imporant part of industril output at the time than is the case today. Slaves were by far the most vluable asett in the American economy, made more valuable by ending merican participation in the international slave trade. Much of the South= slave tradewas concntrated in the Deep outh, South Crolina west to Texas. Other southern slaves benfitted by selling slaves into these states.
States like Albama and Mississippi we relarively new states which very quickly shidted from Indian lands to cotton plantation agricultur. Some of the Deep South states had larger black than white populations. The Nt Turner Rebellion had through a huge scare into the South. State legislatures passed law more strictly regulating the slave population. This also led to the increasing militarization. A ubstntial part of the adult white male population belonged to some kind of millitary or paramilitary force, this included both state militias and slave patrols. The institutio of the proverable Kentucky colonel was a southen traditiin well before the Civil War. This is a poorly studied subject, but is safe to say that more southeners had militry experience than northerners. This was probably a factor in the superior performnce of southern arms durung the first 2 years of the Civil War. One military historian discusses the miitarization issue in his Great Courses lecture series. s to the impact o the Civil War, he tlls us, "This is an area that deserves more exploration. I don't know exactly the relationship between the slave patrols and the State militias." [Roth]
In the decade before the War, slavery was at the center of events like the Dred Scott case, fugaive slave laws, Bleedung Kanseas, and John Brown's raid. These an other developments made it clear that the growing sectional rift could not be resolved politically.
Slavery was at the heart of the Civil War. Some mostly Southern writers have claimed that slavery was not the true cause the War, but rather this regional rivalry. They point out that most southeners did not own slaves. The Southern elite that dominated the political and economic structure did own slaves. And most southerners ho did not own slaves stronly supported slvery. The argument that slavery was not the dominant issue is often made because it is difficult to morally justify the Confederate cause as a fight for such an inhumane institution as chattle slavery. Regional economic differences were in fact important factors, but the economic an other issues involved could have been resolved by constitutional political processes. It was the slavery issues that inflamed emotions on both sides. Slavery occassioned the harshest words and most desperae acts in American history. This made it impossible for regional differences to be resolved politically. And the South persued policies aimed at expanding slavery. This was a factor in the Mexican War and the annextion of Texas. It more clearly was as factor in the Cmpromise of 1850 whivh essenbtially repealed the Missouri Compromise limitation on slavery. The result was Bloody Kansas. The Supreme Court Dread Scott decesion was another step. One historian explains, " It was not the existence of slavery that polarized the nation to the breaking point, but rather the issue of the expansion of slave territory." [McPherson, This] Slavery was clearly the issue that caused Southern sucession, a fact accepted by most modern historians. [McPherson, BookTV] One historian writes, "The South had fought to keep African Americans in slavery." [Ambrose] Many would like to rewrite history, but as Ambrose states, the South did fight to preserve slavery. That is not to say that most Confederate soldiers held slaves. Most did not. Less than a fourth of Confederate oldiers owned slaves. But most supported slavery, primarily because they saw it as a way of controlling the South's substantial black population which as a matter of policy and state law was uneducated and illiterate. While most professional historians now agree that slavery was the primary cause of sucession. Many others desiring to paint a more glorious picture of the Condederacy seek to down play the role of slavery because they know that slavery is indefensible. Many Southern authors supported the gallant "lost cause" argument that the South was right, but was overwealmed by Northern industry. One historian discussess the "lost cause", especially as it relates to Robert E. Lee and southern mythology. [Trudeau] This argument, however, is hard to make as long as slavery is accepted as the primary reason for seccession. And Lincoln fior his part never doubted that slavery was at the heart of the Confederacy and secession. [Zeitz]
Slavery was the cause of secession, but only a part of the Federal response. Here the more important motivation was preservtion of the Federal Union. President Lincoln had to recognize this politicl imparative, but skillfully expandd the Federal cause to emancipaion and not just emancipation, but full citizenship as well. While preservation of the Union was widely supported in the North, there was less agreement on emancipation and even less on citizenship. And doubts rose as casualty lists grew. The Democrats nomimated General George McClellan who favored a negotiated end to the War even if it meant accepting Southern slavery. Lincoln for a time was convinced that McClellan would win the 1864 presidential election. Only the Federal victory at Atanya, made possible by Confederate President Davis's choice of the firey Texan John Bell Hood as commander of the defending Confederate forces, saved the Lincoln presidency, and essentially the Union.
Slavery also played a key role in interntional diplomacy which could have undermined the Federal cause. International recognition could have saved the Condfedracy, even brining about foreign support. American coton was vital to both the British and French economies. Important elements in the industrial class wanted to recognize the South and evn povide military asitnce. This was possible while the ussue was preservation of the Union. Mny in Britin saw the United States as a rival in intrnatiinal trade. As late as the post-Wold Wr I era, some in Britain saw a future war with the United States as a possibility. To factors prevnted this. One was opposition mong the working class to slavery. The other was Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's concert. He saw more clerly than much of the British ruling class the importnce of America and the need to bild a positive relarionship. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation prevented European support for the Confederacy. The European powers were not going to recognize a slave republic.
It was not only the cause of the War, but played an important part in the waging of the War. Gh most obvious was the role of Black soldier. Black soldiers made a major contribution to the Federal victory. Nothing so signified the victory of the American anti-slavery movement than the appearance of black soldiers under tge colors of the American republic. The most famous Black unit was the 54th Massachusetts. While the Confederates were outraged by the Federal use of Blacks, by the end of the War they were considering the formation of their own Black units. The ideas of Blacks outfitted in military uniforms and equipped with weapons, however, proved a step the Confederacy could never take, even in the final desperate months. The fear was so intense that for decades after the formation of the Boy Scouts, southerners prevented Blacks from forming Boy Scout units. There are two notable aspects about the participation of Blacks in the Civil War. First was the importance of the Black units in the War. There were no Black units in the first 2 years of the War, but as the Federals were having increasing difficulties recruiting replacements and draft riots took place, Blacks helped meet the Federal manpower needs and Black units made a major contribution to the War. About 0.2 million Blacks participated in the Civil War, many of whom were slaves who ran away or liberated by the Federal Army. Blacks came to make up 10 percent of the Federal Army. They also played a major role in the Federal Navy. The other notable aspect is the fact how little credit the participation of Black soldiers was given by both historians and in the popular mind. The literature of the War and after the turn of the 20th century, the mass media essentially wrote Black soldiers out of the Civil War. This did not begin to change until the 1980s. The Confeeracy debate the use of bkck soldiers. They were used as laboers o build ortifications, but not as soldirs in any meaningful way. Blacks did play another meaningful role. The number of Blacks linerateby Federal forces or wjo rn way from plantations till in Confederate hnd, undermined the outhern economy adding o the pressurev of the Federal naval boycott.
The Lost Cause historians who dominated Americn historiography for decades denied this because the Condeferacy could not be defnded if slavery was seen as the cause of the War. So the slavery issued was sept under the rug. Modern historians now recognize the primacy of slavery. as both the cause of the War and an important aspect in wageing the War. The Lost Cause was the belief that the Southern Secession, even the defense of slavery, was honorable, but was destined to failure because of the industrial superiority of the North. The Lost Cause proponents also maintained that prostrate South after the Civil War was victimized by unscrupulous carpetbaggers, scalawags and barely civilized blacks. "The Lost Cause" was a historical myth which persisted for many years in American history. We see some of this view in such American classics as Gone with the Wind. And it has not entirely disappeared in the national consciouness. The Civil War in the minds of most northerners had been fought to preserve the Union, not free the slaves. Racism was not a belief prevalent only in the South. After Reconsnstruction there was no real Federal action to protect the rights of Black citizens in the South or to prevent terroist activities perpetrated by the KKK. The KKK was even established in northern states like Indiana. Southern historians with anti-Black biases established the Lost Cause myth. This was largely accepted even in the North, in large part because of the widly held rascist attitudes of most white Americans at the time. The historical myths went largely unchallenged except by scholars like W.E.B. Dubois, who was not given scholarly recognition at the time. The historical myths of the Lost Cause were not seriously challenged by academics until the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Ambrose, Stephen. To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian (Simon & Schuster, 2002), 265p.
McPherson, James. BookTV C-Span, October 12, 2002.
Zeitz, Josua. Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay and the War for Lincoln's Image (2913), 400p. John Hay and John Nicolay were President Lincoln's secretaries. They were thev cloest individuals to him outside his immediate family. After the War, despite the growth of the Lost Cause doctrine, they both worked to preserve Lincoln's conviction for the historical record that slavery was at the heart of the War.
Roth, Jonathan. P. San Jose State Uiversity, E-mail message (May 30, 2014).
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