Why Did We Have the Civil War? – Learning From History

Today’s conventional wisdom is that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves.  The additional implication is that the war was the only way the slaves would ever have been freed.  In cost of human life, this was the most costly war we have ever had either before or since.  Only about 6% of the Southerners owned slaves and less than 1% owned more than 50 which was what entitled them to be known as “Plantation” owners.   So why would all the non-slave owners fight fiercely in such a bloody war?  Prior to the 1800’s slavery was common throughout much of the world, from South Africa to Brazil, the West Indies and Cuba.  Slavery was ended in these places without the blood shed that we had here.  What was different?  There is no argument that slavery wasn’t a factor since the emancipation proclamation came during the war and the Southern states all permitted slavery.  But growing up in the South, I was told that the war was primarily over “states rights” and I never heard anyone defend slavery as being “morally right”.  President Lincoln said  at the beginning of the war that it was a fight to save the Union.  The emancipation proclamation was not issued until 2 years after the war started.  The proclamation only applied to the states that had seceded and there were others that permitted slave ownership.  One rule of life is – nothing is as simple as it seems.   Perhaps this rule applies here also.

When I was much younger – about 6 or 7 years old – I learned a lesson about relationships that I have always remembered.  The aunt  who taught me this was probably never aware that I have valued it all this time.  She had 2 sons, one who was a year older than I and the other was about 2 years younger.  They lived across the street.  One day I was over playing with them when they got into a heated disagreement.  I was not involved, but I decided – with the best intentions – to try to mediate the dispute.  To my surprise, they both turned on me.  My Aunt who was watching this from the porch I think understood that I was well intended, but she said to me; “Don’t ever try to come between two brothers.  They are family, you are an outsider.  They won’t welcome your interference, they need to settle their own dispute.”

By 1860, the Southern States had issues and discussions going within their own borders concerning how and when to end slavery.  The world was moving in the direction of ending slavery in most locations.  The slave trade was outlawed.  There had been slaves in the all the Northern states at the time of the Revolutionary War.  New England traders and seaman had been involved in the slave trade before it was banned.  But most of the Northern states had decided not to allow slavery.  But in the South, it was still important to the economy.  The large cotton plantations needed manual laborers.  Abolition of slavery, even if done peacefully, could have significant ramifications to the economy, the social structure and the way of life.  The black population in the south was much larger than in the north – in some southern counties, the blacks outnumbered the whites.  In this environment, “how” to end it was no doubt seen as crucial.

Even so, there were Southerners who had freed there slaves and were speaking out for the Abolition of slavery.  Earlier this year, when we were in Southwestern North Carolina – near Highlands – there was a plaque which commemorated the Hampton family that had lived in the area.  It seems that the Hamptons had been one of the largest slave holder in the south with over 4,000 slaves working on plantations in Louisiana and South Carolina.  Before the war started, they had freed their slaves and spoken in favor of Abolition in the South Carolina legislature.  What the plaque didn’t say was what the freed slaves did after they were freed.  My guess is that many, if not most of them stayed on at the plantations.  Those were the jobs that were available and the ones that they knew how to do.  We were in Colonial Williamsburg over Christmas and had the opportunity to have a “Conversation with Thomas Jefferson”.  Jefferson believed that slavery was wrong and should be abolished, but he thought that the first step in a process to end up in their freedom was to give them an education so that when free, they would know how to take care of themselves.  They would have the skills and knowledge to be able to support themselves.

Growing up, I was also told that for the most part at least, the slaves in the south were not badly treated.  Rather, most of the bad treatment was on the trading ships, and with the slave traders.  By the early 1800s, slave trading had virtually ended, and the relationship between slaves and plantation owners were generally what Margret Mitchell wrote in Gone with the Wind.  I suspect that is not what people in the north believed at the time.  What no doubt got the most public attention were the inevitable exceptions.  But treatment should not have been the central issue in any event.  As the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution says, we the people believe in individual freedom.  I should have the freedom to decide what I should do for work, who  I should work for, where I should live and who I should live with. Slavery is wrong even if one is well treated.

Abolitionist from the north had nothing to give up if the southerners abolished slavery.  They had no “skin in the game”.  The northerners had nothing to lose. It is not hard to believe that the southerners felt a kinship to each other and did not welcome outside interference any more than my cousins had.  Even those who felt abolishment of slavery needed to be done, probably believed that how it was done was critical.  In addition, I’m sure some felt that moral righteousness is easy when you have nothing to lose. Slavery was important to the North when they made money in slave trading, but now it was no longer a factor for them.  They no doubt felt that our forefathers idea of states rights was that if it did not concern the whole country, then the states should be allowed to solve their own problems.

My dictionary defines “slavery” as “submission to a dominating influence”.  Slavery – loss of freedom – can take different forms.  It can happen as a result an oppressive government.   This is obviously one of the concerns of our founding fathers.  In high school Civics class, I learned about the separation and balance of powers that was the reason our federal government was organized into three different independent branches – the supreme court, the congress and the executive branch.  What I don’t remember hearing about was the other attempt to curb runaway power – the limitation of duties.  The authority of the federal government was limited to those things specifically listed in the constitution.  All other powers were reserved for the states.  This has set up a running tension between what the federal government should be allowed to do and what should be decided at the state and local levels.  I don’t believe that this was either accidental or had anything to do with communication technology.  I heard member of the U. S. Congress speak today.  He said that smaller governments – state and local – are inherently more efficient than the larger federal government.  Not only that, but I believe that they are more responsible and responsive to the voters, for at least two reasons: 1) the voters know and understand local issues much better than national issues. 2)  they know more about the people they are voting for.   Thomas Jefferson also believed that the voters needed to know and understand the issues and the people they are voting for if democracy is to be effective and lasting.  Furthermore, if I should have the freedom to solve my own problems as long as it doesn’t effect someone else, why should lower levels of government not have the same freedom?  Finally, we have the Federal Government that can watch over the states and make sure they are acting in the best interest of the common good.  But who will monitor the Federal Government?  The answer to this is the voters, but what if they are not knowledgeable enough (or don’t have the time) to understand the issues and the consequences.

States rights have been an issue since the founding of the country, and it’s still an important issue to all of us today.  If the slavery issue had been left to the states would we still have slavery today?  Was there a way the war could have been avoided?  If the states had ended slavery on their on authority, would we have had as much trouble with segregation?  We’ll never know the answer to these questions with certainty.  But I have difficulty believing that we would still have slavery today if had been left to the individual states to decide.  But there is no way of knowing how long it might have taken.  One guess, by one of the Southern leaders in 1860 was by 1900.  Maybe, maybe not.  But I believe that “states rights” is still an important issue.


About tjc13

BE - Chem Engineering, Vanderbilt Univ, MBA, University of Tulsa - Worked for an energy and chemical company for many years and then started a management consulting business working for both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
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One Response to Why Did We Have the Civil War? – Learning From History

  1. Bob says:

    You nailed this one pretty good, Tom.


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