TURES COLUMN: The evidence shows the Civil War was fought primarily over slavery

Published 4:56 pm Thursday, January 4, 2024

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Even though Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee shook hands at Appomattox Court House in 1865, it seems that arguments over the Civil War will never end. And no bigger argument about America’s internal struggle revolves around why it was started in the first place. We saw the conflict inserted into the 2024 election, as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley struggled to answer the question of what caused the Civil War.

“When asked a softball question this week about the causes of the Civil War, Haley, a former South Carolina governor, flubbed the answer, calling it a “difficult” question and mumbling on about “basically how government was going to run — the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do,” wrote Joshua Zeitz with Politico. He added that she walked back the issue, somewhat, in the following days with a press release, saying “Of course the Civil War was about slavery. We know that. That’s unquestioned, always the case. We know the Civil War was about slavery. But it was also more than that. It was about the freedoms of every individual. It was about the role of government.”

I happened to have researched this very issue, along with my students. We examined the secession documents written by South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and Texas. We found that the word “slave” can be found 82 times in these four secession causes. In fact, the states frequently refer to themselves as “the slave-holding states” in place of the Confederate States of America or the Southern states. We looked for several spellings of tariff (tarrif, tarif, tarriff as well) but came up empty. We didn’t find state’s rights anywhere in any possible wording (states rights, state right, states’ rights, states’ rights, states’ right…you get the idea). We did find the word right 32 times and rights 14 times, but frequently, it was about the right to own slaves.

In fact, you need to go no further than Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens “who in 1861 famously asserted that the ‘cornerstone’ of the new Southern nation rested ‘upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. 

This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.’” He adds that anyone who thinks blacks are equal to whites and deserve equal rights are “insane.”

Most Americans probably know this. Governor Nikki Haley does. When I got to ask her a question at a press conference during a Cobb County political rally I attended for Senator Kelly Loeffler (I asked a question about how to best handle COVID-19 about a month before the national shutdowns), there was a guy dressed as a Confederate soldier outside. When I asked him what he was doing, he told me he was protesting her implementation of a policy to remove the Confederate flag flying at the South Carolina Capitol Building. It was a courageous decision that earned her a lot of respect nationwide, but one could conclude now that she’s trying for a position acceptable to all, yet minimizes the true role slavery played in triggering our deadliest war, and the racism that fueled such policy.

As long as some politicians try to explain away slavery’s role in nearly destroying the United States of America, or (as others have) tout the positive benefits of slavery, or even call for the repeal of the 13th Amendment (and others from the Reconstruction Era), then there’s no guarantee that all of our freedoms and rights could survive, with the ability of the powerful to bring back some pre-1861 policies.