To the Editor:
In a letter Sept. 8, Donald E. De Golyer asserted that the Civil War was not founded on the issue of slavery. As a teacher of history, I feel compelled to set the record straight as to the actual causes of our country’s most bloody conflict.
When it is asserted that the war was fought over “states’ rights,’ one must ask, “states’ rights to do what”? Make rules regulating corporations? Establish schools? Issue marriage licenses?
Of course not. It was the right of a state to establish and protect slavery. That “right” was not immediately threatened in 1861, but many southerners feared it might someday be.
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, himself a holder of slaves, added to the list of complaints against the crown. He complained that the king had “waged cruel war against human nature” in foisting slavery on the colonies and even that he had stopped “every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce” in slaves.
Whether the king was responsible for this or not is not material. What is important is that Jefferson spent the most ink attacking slavery. This complaint did not make it into the final draft of the document. Why?
Certain slave-holding states said they would not sign the document, and therefore declare independence, if it remained. Even in the natal hours of our country, this issue nearly killed the young republic.
The founders expected that slavery would die. Congress passed laws to prohibit slavery from the Northwest Territories, and it seemed that slavery could not economically compete with free labor. The cotton gin, ironically invented by a Connecticut Yankee, changed all that in making upland cotton economically viable. All you needed was land and a lot of labor to raise that cotton. Hence, a new life for bondage.
In the early 19th century, property voting requirements were dropped as “Jacksonian Democracy” added the popular voice to the political process. In addition, the abolition movement gained ground. More people opposed slavery and had the means to make their opposition felt. The popularity of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in the north convinced the south that the north could not be relied upon to protect its particular institution.
There were voices that spoke out against the war against Mexico in 1846-48 as it was supposed that any new territory gained would eventually become slave states. Abraham Lincoln was one of those voices.
Ironically, both abolitionists and slave holders agreed on one thing. If slavery was to survive into the future, it would need to spread. Slave holders were determined to allow it. Lincoln was determined to stop it. But he did not say he had the power to outlaw it where it existed. He thought he did not have to as stopping its spread would eventually kill it.
When Lincoln got elected, many in the south were convinced that they needed to secede. The resolutions of secession all mention, defend and assert that slavery was a basis for their secession. They did not secede because of tariffs or internal improvements or monetary policy. It was about the extension, and by extension, the preservation of slavery. A southerner did not have to own slaves to support this position. Neither did a northern soldier have to transcend racism or be an abolitionist to change this fact.
There are many things dividing Americans. And there are many historical issues that are debatable. The cause of the Civil War should not divide us or be historically debatable. There is no need for a nefarious plan of a “progressive socialists to further their agenda” to prove the point. Instead, one must question what the motivation might be for those that want to recast reasons for the Civil War.