Acton Institute Powerblog

Was the Civil War About Slavery?

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What caused the Civil War? That seems like the sort of simple, straightforward question that any elementary school child should be able to answer. Yet many Americans—including, mostly, my fellow Southerners—claim that that the cause was economic or state’s rights or just about anything other than slavery.

But slavery was indisputably the primary cause, explains Colonel Ty Seidule, Professor of History at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

The abolition of slavery was the single greatest act of liberty-promotion in the history of America. Because of that fact, it’s natural for people who love freedom, love tradition, and love the South to want to believe that the continued enslavement of our neighbors could not have possibly been the motivation for succession. But we should love truth even more than liberty and heritage, which is why we should not only acknowledge the truth about the cause of the war but be thankful that the Confederacy lost and that freedom won.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • hinckleybuzzard

    To be historically precise, it was not slavery as a moral or justice issue, but rather the fight to prevent the expansion of slavery, which was an economic and political issue, and to preserve the union. Either way, it obviously is good to have ended slavery, but that isn’t why the war was fought.

    • Tom

      The problem with that is that if there is no slavery, there is no expansion of it; however, American slavery required expansion to survive.

      • Lektrikwire

        The interests of the slave-holding and non-slave states diverged economically, not just on moral differences about slavery. Expansion had to do with needing new fertile soils to grow cotton after others had burned out, but it also had to do with having as many or more representatives in Congress so the North’s economic interests didn’t dominate.

        Perhaps most telling is that by seceding, the South surrendered any claims it had on the Western territories for expansion. The North should have been thrilled to have this sticking point decided in its favor by default. It wasn’t.

  • TheJokker

    Slavery was the issue but not the cause. The cause was how the issue was resolved. Southerners believed that the 10th amendment placed the decision in the jurisdiction of the States.

    If a Black preacher who believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, and the Federal Government over-stepped it’s role in deciding the matter instead of the States, than that preacher supports the position of the Southern States (welcome to the confederacy). Likewise the abortion issue.

    Slavery, abortion and Gay marriage from this perspective are the issues but the cause is the Federal Governments role in deciding the matter.

    • Parmenter

      The problem with this revision is that the Southern States were against States Rights, as we can see in the Fugitive Slave Act, the Dred Scot Decision, and the secession upon Lincoln’s election because they feared he would support the State’s Rights of the Free States and not enforce the Dred Scot Decision.

      • Lektrikwire


        The Constitution that all states bound themselves to in 1788 required the return of runaway slaves, and the federal government was required to enforce it. That was one of the compromises made by the original 13 states in order to agree to form a union. It was as odious in 1788 as it was in 1860.

        As sovereign states, they specifically ceded a portion of their sovereignty to the federal government on the issue of slavery and, when they did, those specific agreements and concessions were, by definition, no longer “states rights.” They didn’t own them anymore. Dred Scott and the Fugitive Slave Law, as odious as they were, were the Court and Congress’ attempts to enforce the Constitution.

        The South seceded because the North was violating its agreements of 1788, dissolving the Union by its actions, and the federal government was unable or unwilling to enforce the Constitution.

        • JeNaaitUtSteeds

          non-sense to your non sense. Historically there is no doubt that the war was predominantly over slaves, there’s plenty of evidence of that right here on this thread in the words of Southerners of that era.

          Present day conservatives are so convinced that stance too, they now desperately are trying to walk away from their rightful mantel of slavery. They try to smear present day Democrats with that. All of a sudden you hear ridiculous things like that the KKK is some sort of a government loving left-wing organisation.

          Like with most things conservatives perpetrated, they aren’t really successful in smearing progressives with THEIR crimes, which is why they are losing national elections.
          The only way they can make these points if we are to accept a ridiculous set of lies and distortions. Reasonable people don’t do that.

  • Tuck- bad

    The wealthy slaveowners were concerned about losing their assets (I.e., slaves) and sold the idea to their non-slave holding Southerners that the war was about states rights.

    • TheJokker

      You are ignoring the 10th amendment issue. According to the constitution it was not the Federal Governments place to decide the issue but rather the States.

      • zplonk

        duh. southern states committed the ULTIMATE act of TREASON, so NO!

      • zplonk

        According to the constitution it was not the states place to decide, but it was TOO the Federal Governments place to decide the issue.

        Everytime something happens that conservatives don’t like, they scream states rights but when it’s convenient, they TOTALLY TRAMPLE UPON states rights, as was the case in the 2000 election:
        Rafa Cruz was clerking then and the SC overruled the decision of the Florida Supreme Court to hold a state wide recount … according to these States Rights afficionados the Supreme court should have butted out.

        • TheJokker


          “Amendment 10
          The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people”

          The power to define morality by the Federal is not addressed by the constitution therefore those powers are “reserved to the states respectively, or to the people”.
          Likewise you are wrong about the Florida election. Prior to the election both parties agreed to the specific procedures for counting ballots in a recount. The democrats wanted change the agreed upon procedure for counting “hanging chad” ballots and the republicans insisted upon following the rules.
          Similarly the supreme court did not force itself on the State of Florida. The State “chose” to seek arbitration by the court therefore your claim of “States Rights” inconsistency has no merit.

          • Gwen Killerby

            The swing vote on that decision, Sandra Day O’Connor later came to regret that vote. She openly wondered if it had been the right thing to do.

    • Robert Freid

      Sorry again to disturb your simple life. Before the Civil War Northerm States sided with Southern States on the issue of slave owner rights. As a result many runaway slaves went to Canada to avoid being sent back South. The North imposed unfair trade restrictions (import taxes) forcing the South to buy equipment from them and not from England. The War started because of States Rights.

  • Lektrikwire

    I whole-heartedly agree with Col. Ty Seidule when he says, “Slavery is the great shame of America’s history.”

    The failure of America’s earliest Christian European settlers — who came to this land seeking freedom and opportunity — to reject slavery outright, but instead allow it to take hold, flourish and so weave itself into society and the economy that only a cataclysmic event like the war of 1861-1865 could end it, is America’s original sin. The Founders’ grand words in the Declaration of Independence are mocked by slavery.

    But my agreement with Seidule ends there.

    His 200,000-figure overstates a bit the number of blacks fighting in the Union Army, and charactizing them all as “former slaves” makes good copy, but ignores the large number of already free black citizens in the North who joined. That’s a minor point.

    What is manifestly false is his claim that slavery, “by a wide margin,” was the Confederacy’s primary reason for fighting the Civil War. Likewise the notion America, by which he means the Union, fought the war to abolish slavery.

    First and foremost, the institution was not at risk in the South. Slavery wasn’t going anywhere. It did not need defending or preserving.

    Slavery had been practiced in all 13 of the original colonies and was still legal in most of the states when the Constitution was ratified in 1788. That Constitution, adopted and signed by ALL states, recognized the legality of the institution and the enforceable property rights of slave owners, even in states that exercised their right to ban the practice for those residing within their borders. Everyone, North and South — and the states that subsequently joined the United States — were voluntary members of a covenant that recognized and protected enslavement of black people, a practice just as odious in 1788 as it was in 1860.

    While individual states could, and did, exercise their state rights and ban slavery, the only legal means to end slavery nationally was by constitutional amendment. There were not the votes (nor, do I believe, the will) to do so. So, the South did not have to “preserve” slavery against a constitutional challenge.

    Politically, there was little for Southerners to fear for slavery within their borders. Lincoln and the Republicans did not target slavery in the South, only in the new territories in the West. Lincoln himself said he did not believe he had constitutional authority to do anything about Southern slavery. He signed the Corwin Amendment, passed just two days before his first inauguration, guaranteeing slavery in perpetuity in those states where it was currently legal. If the South was concerned about “preserving” slavery, it merely needed to reject secession, return to the Union and avoid a devastating war.

    Four of the 11 seceding states provided Declarations of Cause which mention a variety of issues, but all address slavery. Their grievances have nothing to do with “preserving” slavery. Their grievances center on the North’s failure to abide by the Constitution to which all bound themselves in 1788. Contrary to its requirements, the North was refusing to return runaway slaves, it was failing to protect slave owners passing through their states with their property and it committed acts of violence that went unpunished against slave owners or their agents attempting rendition of their property. The North was even fomenting insurrection among slaves against their owners. Further, even though Southern states were full and equal members of the Union and even though their citizens had contributed men and treasure in the expansion of U.S. territory westward, the North was resisting Southerners’ right to move to those territories with their property just as Northerners could with their property.

    The South was not fighting to “preserve” slavery — that issue was legally settled in 1788 — the South fought to preserve the Constitution that the North was violating. And in refusing to be bound by the Constitution, the North had, by practice, dissolved the Union the Constitution created. Secession — like a divorce decree — was a mere formality.

    It should be noted that, in seceding, the South surrendered all rights to the Western territories and their desire to expand slavery there, and it surrendered all legal expectations that the North would ever return another runaway slave. For the South, preserving its liberty was primary — a liberty that denied the federal government access to the tax base that had been providing something like 70 percent of its revenues (if you want a reason for Lincoln’s prosecution of the war, follow the money).

    Final point, despite those pesky Southerners no longer being in Congress after secession, Northerners didn’t get around to passing the 13th Amendment ending slavery until 4 months before Lee surrendered at Appomattox and didn’t ratify it until December 1865. That means slavery lasted in the North (e.g. still legal and practiced in Delaware) eight months beyond the South’s defeat).

    This should be no surprise since at no point did Lincoln ever say he was prosecuting the war to free slaves — not even in the Emancipation Proclamation. Indeed, that document did not touch slavery in the so-called border states and barely touched it in Southern lands under Union control — it only declared emancipation for slaves in Confederate-held territories where Lincoln had no authority. But, here’s the clincher, if the Southern states would return to the Union by Lincoln’s deadline, they would then be under Union control and their slaves, too, would be exempt from emancipation. No harm, no foul, tote that barge, lift that bale!

    If Mr. Lincoln wasn’t fighting to end slavery, the South did not need to waste lives and resources to preserve it. Seidule has made the mistake of assuming the result of the war — a good one — was its cause and purpose — a bad one.

    A word on Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech” trumpeting “the Negro is not equal to the white man.” It’s racist, no doubt. I don’t see how it’s possible to keep a group in bondage or seek to exterminate them without a racist worldview and an entire society that supports that worldview. But Lincoln himself is on record saying, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races … And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Lincoln’s solution to the slave question was emancipation and then “send them to Liberia.” There’s plenty of shame to go around.

    Speaking of shame — or the lack of it — Seidule proclaims, “As a soldier, I am proud that the United States Army, my army, defeated the Confederates.” Oh, that his army had ended its carnage with its rampage through the South.

    Within a year of the War’s end, Union Gens. Sherman, Sheridan, Crook, Miles, Pope and Custer were on their way west to commit genocide against the Plains Indians, all under the Stars & Stripes.

    Native Americans who stood in the way of the transcontinental railroad — their treaty rights notwithstanding — were massacred or forced onto impoverished reservations in what Sherman termed “the final solution of the Indian problem.”

    “They did not,” he complained, “make allowance for the rapid growth of the white race … both races cannot use this country in common.”

    To Grant he wrote, “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children.” In a letter to his brother John, he said: “I suppose the Sioux must be exterminated …”

    To his soldiers, he ordered, “During an assault, the soldiers cannot pause to distinguish between male and female, or even discriminate as to age. As long as resistance is made, death must be meted out …”

    Eight years into his war of “extermination,” Sherman wrote Sheridan (of “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” fame): “I am charmed at the handsome conduct of our troops in the field. They go in with the relish that used to make our hearts glad in 1864-5.”

    Sherman and Sheridan were responsible for the near extinction of the American bison by 1882, its herds once numbering in the millions and the primary food source for the Plains Indians. Starvation was their goal — ecocide in the service of genocide.

    Black lives matter, Sioux lives not so much!

    I’ll leave it to someone far smarter than me — Col. Seidule, perhaps — to explain how two Union generals, who allegedly risked their lives to free Southern slaves, could turn around and callously murder Native Americans.

    • zplonk

      South Carolina’s casus belli was neither vague nor hard to comprehend:

      A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

      In citing slavery, South Carolina was less an outlier than a leader, setting the tone for other states, including Mississippi:

      Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin…


      As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of annexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.


      Upon the principles then announced by Mr. Lincoln and his leading friends, we are bound to expect his administration to be conducted. Hence it is, that in high places, among the Republi­can party, the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed, not simply as it change of Administration, but as the inauguration of new princi­ples, and a new theory of Government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions—nothing less than an open declaration of war—for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and. her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.


      …in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states….

      The big thing about these quotes is not that they are so clear but that there are still peeople who want to deny what they mean, or simply can not accept that their ancestors were slavers, which means they were vilest criminals ever to walk the earth. So, they mitigate, they tell us it wasn’t so bad, that the people from Africa also benefited from slavery. Just like their ancestors did. No-one serious can hold the vile actions of those ancestors against you …. unless you champion them.
      The whole “African-Americans should be grateful slavery because whites RESCUED them from living in Africa is WILDLY POPULAR among certain types of conservatives. For obvious self serving reasons: it makes them into heroes instead of people kidnappers who drowned 11 million people at sea.

  • Mike Amerine

    There was not a single shot fired, nor State invaded, to preserve slavery. This fact seems totally lost on the simple-minded.

  • Peter Taylor

    If slavery was the cause of the South wanting to leave the Union, they had every right to do so, whether slavery was right or wrong and this Right had nothing to do with Slavery.

  • Wendell Dávila Helms

    Didn’t watch the video, but I’m going to trust Lord Acton, who sided with the South, over someone that writes about “succession.”