What Caused The Civil War: Slavery Or States’ Rights?

Just for the heck of it (It’s kind of a slow news day), I thought it might be worth taking a moment to address an argument that seems resurgent of late, that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery. Instead the claim is that it was really a states’ rights issue.

The reasoning here goes that if the North had respected the right of the Southern states to secede, there would have been no war. Therefore, the Civil War was all about states’ rights. Incidentally, when you run across people who say Lincoln was a tyrant and a rotten guy, instead of one of the greatest American Presidents, it’s likely that they view the Civil war in states’ rights terms, and given that, believe Lincoln started an unconstitutional war that led to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

But when you get right down to it, the debate turns into sort of a, “which came first: the chicken or the egg” type of argument.

In this case, while I’ll grant you that had both the North and the South agreed on the question of slavery and whether the states could secede from the union, there would have been no war; clearly slavery was what led to the Civil war.

The “Bloody Kansas” battles didn’t occur over states’ rights issues and that lunatic John Brown and his followers didn’t go on a bloody rampage because they believed in a more centralized government. It was about slavery.

Furthermore, the aristocratic leadership of the Southern States chose to withdraw from the Union because they feared the balance of power was going to shift against slave holding states and that the practice would be ended (although I should note, the overwhelming majority of people in the South didn’t own slaves and fought primarily to defend their homes and families from attack).

So, the split was over slavery, not states’ rights. To say that the Civil War was actually about states’ right is like saying WW2 was fought because the Axis and the Allies had different opinions about how much “living space” a nation was allowed to have. Of course, if both sides looked at it the exact same way (i.e. Germany could do whatever it wanted) there would have been no WW2, but to try to claim that was the root of the conflict sidesteps the real issues.

The same principle applies to the Civil War.

Most of the men fighting for the South may have been good and decent folks who just wanted to defend their homes and families. Moreover, many Southerners may have genuinely believed they had a right to secede from the Union. Yet and still, what brought the North and South to each others’ throats and caused the war was the issue of slavery, not states’ rights.

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