The role of slavery in bringing on the Civil War has been hotly debated for decades. One important way of approaching the issue is to look at what contemporary observers had to say. In March 1861, Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, gave his view:
The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution . . . The prevailing ideas entertained by . . . most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. . . Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of . . . the equality of races. This was an error . . .
Today, most professional historians agree with Stephens that slavery and the status of African Americans were at the heart of the crisis that plunged the U.S. into a civil war from 1861 to 1865. That is not to say that the average Confederate soldier fought to preserve slavery or that the North went to war to end slavery. Soldiers fight for many reasons — notably to stay alive and support their comrades in arms — and the North’s goal in the beginning was preservation of the Union, not emancipation. For the 200,000 African Americans who ultimately served the U.S. in the war, emancipation was the primary aim.
When the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, however, the interests of slaveholders and those who profited from slavery could not be ignored. Although slaves could not vote, white Southerners argued that slave labor contributed greatly to the nation’s wealth. The Constitution therefore gave representation in the Congress and the electoral college for 3/5ths of every slave (the 3/5ths clause). The clause gave the South a role in the national government far greater than representation based on its free population alone would have given it. The Constitution also provided for a fugitive slave law and made 1807 the earliest year that Congress could act to end the importation of slaves from Africa.
The Constitution left many questions about slavery unanswered, in particular, the question of slavery’s status in any new territory acquired by the U.S. The failure to deal forthrightly and comprehensively with slavery in the Constitution guaranteed future conflict over the issue. All realistic hope that slavery might eventually die out in the South ended when world demand for cotton exploded in the early 1800s. By 1840, cotton produced in the American South earned more money than all other U.S. exports combined. White Southerners came to believe that cotton could be grown on with slave labor. Over time, many took for granted that their prosperity, even their way of life, was inseparable from Africa slavery.
In the decades preceding 1860, Northerners increasingly supported the right of farmers and workers to enjoy the fruits of their labor and try to better themselves. Slavery did not fit with this view. Many Northerners opposed its presence in the territories, which were viewed as the birthright of ambitious, free white men. The proposed admission of Missouri as a slave state in 1820 provoked a national debate over slavery. After much discussion, the 1820 Missouri Compromise was worked out. Under its terms, Maine was admitted as a free state at the same time that Missouri came in as a slave state, maintaining the balance between slave and free states. Additionally, Congress prohibited slavery in all western territories lying above latitude 36° 30’ (the southern boundary of Missouri).
Mostly as a result of tensions over slavery, a new party, the Republicans, arose in the North in the 1850s. The Republicans made prohibition of slavery in the territories their chief issue. The party was the first in the nation’s history to draw its support from one section only. Inevitably, the party aroused deep anger in the South. Attitudes in the two sections of the nation continued to harden in the late 1850s. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision ruled that Americans of African descent were not U.S. citizens. A failed effort to start a slave uprising in Virginia by abolitionist John Brown in 1859 spread fear and distress across the South.
One by one, seven states — South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas – left the Union. Lincoln hoped desperately to maintain the Union without war. When he decided to resupply the U.S. army at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, Confederate forces fired on the fort. Lincoln then asked for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. This prompted Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas to join the Confederacy. Civil war had come.
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery... Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money [the estimated total market value of slaves], or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property.”
Slavery, Lincoln, and the Civil War
Last updated: March 7, 2023