Something those of us involved in Civil War reenacting and living histories hear quite a bit from the secessionist reenactors is the old chestnut that “The war wasn’t about slavery. It was about States’ Rights / tariffs/ Northern Aggression / some-other-twaddle.” Sure, the principle of tariffs were bound up in the whole ordeal, but there was really only one “State’s Right” that the secessionist leaders in Montgomery, or Mobile, or Richmond were really interested in: Their perceived rights to own slaves as human chattel. The typical “not about slavery” statement, while well-loved by those that choose to wear the grey, is pure, unadulterated tripe; and does a grave disservice to the actual history; and their presentation of it to the public does a grave disservice to those that they share their revisionist history with.
I won’t– I can’t— downplay the truth that the southern plantation class stood to lose a massive financial sum if staring down the barrel at unfettered abolition. By 1860, the cost of an average slave was around $800 (1)– that’s better than $20,000 in 2012 dollars according to West Egg’s Inflation Calculator. While the vast majority of whites in the South did not own slaves, it was the wealthy landowners– the plantation owners– that pulled the strings in southern government; and they surely did own slaves. The top 11.5% of southern slaveholders held 20 or more slaves; or $400,000 worth of slaves in 2013 dollars (2). Given that the international slave trade was outlawed by the US in 1807, this means that any additional slaves would need to be acquired strictly internally (and either by birth or market prices), it’s clear to see how slaveholders were deeply bound up financially in the system; even if you ignore the labor that slavery provided. In order to maintain their non-liquid wealth, they needed to maintain slavery, as that was a massive source of that wealth.
With that clear motive in mind, one need look no further than the various declarations of the causes of session written by the states that would form the basis of the Confederacy to lay bare the assertion that the war was “not about slavery.”
“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.”
“For twenty years past the abolitionists and their allies in the Northern States have been engaged in constant efforts to subvert our institutions and to excite insurrection and servile war among us…
These are the same men who say the Union shall be preserved.
…but they know the value of parchment rights in treacherous hands, and therefore they refuse to commit their own to the rulers whom the North offers us. Why? Because by their declared principles and policy they have outlawed $3,000,000,000 of our property in the common territories of the Union; put it under the ban of the Republic in the States where it exists and out of the protection of Federal law everywhere; because they give sanctuary to thieves and incendiaries who assail it to the whole extent of their power, in spite of their most solemn obligations and covenants; because their avowed purpose is to subvert our society and subject us not only to the loss of our property but the destruction of ourselves, our wives, and our children, and the desolation of our homes, our altars, and our firesides. To avoid these evils we resume the powers which our fathers delegated to the Government of the United States, and henceforth will seek new safeguards for our liberty, equality, security, and tranquillity.”
“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.
On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.
The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.”
…and Texas wrote:
“Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?” (3)
Some of the states beat around the bush a little; others understandably spent time sharing why they felt they had the right to independence. The core underlying commonality was that they indicated that the root cause of session was, after all, slavery; and their unwillingness to surrender slavery as an institution. Their motive to want to keep slavery is as clear as it is potent– no matter how empirically wrong holding another human in bondage is.
And honestly. The war was surely about one “States’ Right” — the presumed right to hold slaves. Any attempt to paint it as anything else is pure, unadulterated hogwash. The common Confederate soldier may not have owned a single slave in his life; but he was most surely fighting the cause of a man who did, and no amount of wishful thinking or revisionism will truly change that fact.
(1) Source: http://www.measuringworth.com/slavery.php
(2) Source: http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-antebellum/5347
(3) Source: http://sunsite.utk.edu/civil-war/reasons.html