Primary Sources: Slavery as the Cause of the Civil War

Primary Sources

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

Last week, I had someone challenge me on Facebook about the cause of the Civil War. Because slavery wasn’t a cause of the war, he said, the point I was trying to make was moot. “It wasn’t *a* cause of the war,” I countered, “it was *the* cause of the war.” When I tried to back up my claim with actual documentary evidence, he tried to tsk-tsk me away—but then the owner of the thread (a historian with Southern sensibilities whom I respect a lot) deleted his comment.

This sort of exchange happens more often than I’d like: people who cannot argue on facts and evidence resort to some other form of comeback that derails the discussion. They don’t like facts to get in the way of what they believe. The Washington Post magazine ran an excellent feature in its November 28, 2018, issue addressing this very topic. “The Confederacy was built on slavery. How can so many Southern whites still believe otherwise?” it asked.

Southerners themselves clearly identified slavery as the cause of the war, which one can see by taking a look at a variety of primary sources.

A good place to start is with the Ordinances of Secession. They’re highly legalistic and so can be hard to get through, although they are (mercifully) short. You can read them here.

Note that Alabama claimed Lincoln’s election was “avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions” of the state. Virginia objected to “the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States.” Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas each issued a supplementary “Declaration of Causes” that all specifically (and extensively) mentioned slavery.

Historian John Pierce offers a good analysis of these sources at the American Battlefield Trust’s website (which you can read here).

The ordinances and declarations do mention other reasons besides slavery, including states’ rights, but I always counter: “What’s the specific right the states were arguing about?” The answer: the right to own slaves, of course, including the ways that right played out in terms of Congressional representation and westward expansion.

Beyond these documents, one can also find explicit mentions of slavery in the Confederate Constitution. While slavery comes up in a number of places, its specific enshrinement comes in Article V, Sec. 2 (1): “The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.” You can read the full Constitution here.

You can find an assortment of other documents related to the founding of the Confederacy here.

On March 21, 1861, Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, delivered an address in Savannah, Georgia, that has become known as his “Corner Stone” speech. In it, he enumerates differences between the U.S. and C.S. Constitutions:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, 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.

You can read the full speech here.

After the war, many former Confederates tried to explain away the South’s loss and, in doing so, ignore the role slavery had played. Former partisan John S. Mosby, the “Gray Ghost,” would have none of it. Writing to Samuel Chapman on June 4, 1907, he said:

Now while I think as badly of slavery as Horace Greeley did I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. It was our inheritance – Neither am I ashamed that my ancestors were pirates & cattle thieves. People must be judged by the standard of their own age. If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of Slavery. South Carolina went to war – as she said in her Secession proclamation – because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding. . . .

Mosby’s letter is held in the archives of the Gilder Lehrman Institute. You can read a transcript here.

I’ve pondered much of this before—ironically, while sitting at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine. (Read “The Fourth of July and the Death of Independence” from 2012.) For a fuller discussion, I would also recommend the National Park Service’s Slavery: Cause and Catalyst of the Civil War.

Although 150+ years of Lost Cause Mythology has tried to drown him out, no less of an expert than Ulysses S. Grant summed it up most succinctly in his memoirs: “The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to slavery.”

This entry was posted in Primary Sources, Slavery and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

55 Responses to Primary Sources: Slavery as the Cause of the Civil War

  1. BGCT2VA says:

    Thank goodness that there are “hard copies” of historical primary source materials. With so much of today’s information created and stored electronically, future historians jobs may be even more difficult. But, then again, who would ever want to alter historical records?
    Thanks, Matt, or being so diligent and gentlemanly.

    • BGCT2VA says:

      I meant, thanks Chris. Just setting the record straight! lol

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      You ask “who would ever want to alter historical records,” and I immediately think of George Orwell’s 1984–chilling!

    • Karl Burkhalter says:

      Yankees get so caught up in looking down on the South that they don’t look behind them at the Northern Black Codes and Unionist slave states or worker exploitation at Textile Mills and Northern factories where the life expectancy was lower than that of slaves. Northern Banks held most slaves as collateral to facilitate their number one cash export, textiles. North wanted to be free of Blacks not free for Blacks. Union General Nathaniel Banks contraband policy became the Jim Crow laws that mirrored Illinois antebellum Black Codes.

      Edwin Stanton’s genocide policy against Native Americans coincided with his implementing total war against Civilians and subjugation and exploitation of Blacks under Confiscation Acts that made slaves Union Army property and required them to pledge to return to Africa.

      Author of Cornerstone Stephens warned Lincoln at Hampton Roads Peace Conference of a great humanitarian tragedy unless immediate assistance was given the Freedmen. Lincoln’s response war, “root hog or die” he meant died as a million Freedman starved to death while Robber Barons funded Transcontinental RR Transatlantic Cable and purchase of Alaska while stealing much of the contract money in the Credit Mobilier scandal. Segregation was a Northern construct and imposed on the South because Massachusetts Mills needed cotton.

      • Chris Mackowski says:

        Yes, America has a very troubling legacy when it comes to race relations, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. But none of what you say makes slavery any better by comparison or changes the fact that it was the cause of the war.

        Some of what you say is questionable. For instance, you can’t blame Lincoln for what happened to the Freedmen, which was largely a failure by Johnson, who forced the Freedmen’s Bureau to undo much of the humanitarian work it started. I also think it’s a fantastical stretch to say segregation was a northern construct imposed on the South. The antebellum South had plenty of laws to enforce its racial order without any help from the North. I need to be convinced that the Southern states, so protective of their “rights,” would allow the North to impose anything on them.

        I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make about Unionist slave states. (I assume you mean the border states that didn’t secede?)

      • Karl Timothy Burkhalter says:

        Stanton abrogated treaties with Native Americans and instituted genocide against them at the same time he began contraband policy that required Blacks to pledge to leave the country. This policy included forced labor, seperating the sexes, and confinement under guard. This was in1862, by 64 Lincoln admitted to Orville Browning Blacks were suffering. Louisiana Governor Allen documents massive death toll in late 65. This continued through Reconstruction but it was started under Lincoln. The policy did not change and mirrored Illinois antebellum Black Codes.

      • John Foskett says:

        All highly interesting – and completely irrelevant to the proposition that slavery caused the war because the seceding states seceded based on their fear that Lincoln’s election endangered the continued existence of their most important “institution” . Apparently you think that they weren’t very bright, as it turns out.

  2. Drabix says:

    I was having this very discussion at work late last week and was about to pull primary sources together. Thanks for saving me some time!

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      I’m glad it was of use. If you have any others you find handy that you’d like me to add, feel free to send along links or suggestions.

  3. Bob Huddleston says:

    There were complaints about State’s Rights in the various Declaration of Causes but they were complaints that Free States were using State’s Rights to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act and passing Personal Liberty Acts. Apparently Federal Power was OK when it protected slave owners.

    https://www.city-journal.org/html/truth-about-states%E2%80%99-rights-13685.html

    • States don’t have rights and never did. States have certain powers delegated to them by the Constitution.

      • Chris Mackowski says:

        Actually, States are supposed to have all powers not specifically prescribed in the Constitution to the Federal government. In fact, one of Madison’s arguments against a Bill of Rights was that if they started articulating specific rights, people might mistakenly assume that any right NOT articulated would be something reserved for the Federal government.

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      Great point, Bob. For instances, there weren’t many Southerners complaining about the Fugitive Slave Law or the Dredd Scott decision.

  4. John Pryor says:

    Chris, there is no difficulty in making the obvious argument for slavery, and its warped operation on the Deep South’s political and social institutions as the cause of secession. However, to stop at that point, as if there is a seamless leap between December, 1860 and the events of March through May 1861, misses several crucial points. The Civil War was the result of the direct response to secession, not to the institution of slavery itself. If that were the case, then the logical first step of the Union would have been a direct assault on the institution. After all, it had “caused” the War. We ignore the political decisions taken by the Confederacy and Lincoln’s government as if the war was preordained as a means of destroying slavery. It is uncomfortable to note that the Union approached the “special institution” in a most crabbed like fashion once the War occurred Until late in the War and in some cases after it the Union army’s command staff contained significant pockets of socially conservative officers who really were not enthusiasts for emancipation-Hancock and Sherman among them. We also overlook that several of the border Southern states had initially opposed secession, and seceded for reasons not as simple as the firebrands further south. So while it is certainly true that this War would not have occurred in the absence of slavery, it need not have occurred after secession took place. I always raise the question of what would have happened if Beauregard did not fire on Sumter, instead merely preventing the ragged relief fleet from disembarking its supplies. The Southern argument over states rights might seem specious to us today, as it was clearly tied to the preservation of their political and economic dominance. But states rights arguments had been made before, outside the context of the support for slavery, as in the Kentucky-Virginia Resolutions, the Hartford Convention, and various angry Northern responses to the Fugitive Slave Act. Great post, by the way. And I stand with Lincoln!

    • Thanks for adding some necessary nuance to the discussion, but I’d have to disagree with you on this statement: “The Southern argument over states rights might seem specious to us today.” States Rights are being aggressively asserted by a number of states today: Many states opposed the ACA (Obamacare – and its still working its way through the federal court system), states and cities are balking at immigration enforcement, marijuana laws, etc. The various political factions love federalism and “states rights” – except when they don’t.

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      Thanks, John. I essentially agree with you, although I would suggest that the earlier attempts to argue states rights also related to arguments over political power that stemmed from the 3/5 clause in some way or another. I don’t argue that the war was a war to abolish slavery–that didn’t come until later–but the preservation of the Union would not have been necessary had Secession not occurred, which happened because of Lincoln’s election because the Southern states believed he would interfere with slavery despite Lincoln’s protestations that he would not. Had Sumter been relieved and not fired upon, things certainly might have unfolded differently–that’s a fascinating question.

  5. Douglas Pauly says:

    If monuments and statues can be targeted to try to erase certain groups culpability as far as slavery and the war fought to preserve that, don’t be surprised if these kinds of ‘primary sources’ are eventually targeted for such removal as well. Utilize them while you can!

  6. David Corbett says:

    Superb article; thank you.

  7. John Foskett says:

    Chris: Nicely done. I would add that the correspondence and speeches of the secession commissioners delegated by the first wave of seceding states to their recalcitrant brethren to the north leave no doubt as to the primacy of slavery as the cause – reflecting both their own beliefs and what they thought would be the most persuasive argument to the others.

  8. Ralph Siegel says:

    Fabulous work to collect all of the best sources in one posting. In my own studies, Charles Dew’s “Apostles of Disunion” (2001) was the breakthrough work. But John Pryor above does touch on an interesting point, reinforced by Lincoln’s August ’62 letter to Greeley (” If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it…”). Defense of slavery was the root cause for secession but in point of fact it was Lincoln’s election that specifically triggered it, and the war followed because the Union would not accept secession.

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      I agree, but would suggest that the South’s decision to block the resupply of Fort Sumter, and then the South’s decision to fire on the fort, put the onus on the South. Lincoln certainly (and deftly) maneuvered the South into that position, but had the South not used force, I wonder how things would have panned out.

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      And yes, “Apostles of Disunion” is a great book that outlines the pro-slavery rhetoric of the secession commissioners as a reason for secession.

    • John Foskett says:

      Agree on the Dew book. One thing that gets confused regarding Lincoln is the distinction between (1) what Lincoln intended at the time he was elected and thereafter, until his intentions adapted to circumstances during 1862 and (2) what the seceders believed that he intended. The latter is clear – they saw his election as a direct threat to their “institution” and that was their motivation for secession and seizing federal property. It always astonishes me that some people apparently continue to think that the commissioners were prevaricating. They are entitled to be credited with brutal honesty.

  9. Charlie Downs says:

    Excellent article Chris. I believe that the events from the 1820’s onward also shed a lot of light on what led to secession. The Missouri Compromise, the Mexican War, Kansas -Nebraska, the Dred Scott decision, the Fugitive Slave act, the John Brown raid, etc. all led to what transpired. In fact it all started with in 1787 with how John Rutledge ensured that slavery was implicitly permitted by the Constitution. It is a very interesting subject that all of those interested in the Civil War need to understand.

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      That’s some excellent extra context, Charlie. Yes, the arguments over slavery go all the way back to the drafting of the Constitution, and one could easily connect those dots to lead right up to the eve of war.

  10. Rob Orrison says:

    An over simplification of a complex issue. Gary Gallagher treats this topic almost perfectly…yes, political documents are clear on why the south seceded. But once you get down to why they fought, its as clear as mud. I prefer we treat these topics and their complexities better than “gotcha” moments and “told you so” point of views. We can do better

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      I agree, it’s a complex issue, but often, Southern apologists try to hide behind the “complexity” in an attempt to avoid the stark and simple fact that slavery sat at the root of every single issue that led to war. That’s only a “gotcha” to people who insist on willful ignorance. If we can do better, by all means, write something up.

    • John Foskett says:

      There’s a big difference between (1) “gotcha” moments and “told you so” points of view, on the one hand, and (2) using the “plain English” words of those who urged secession to clear away the fog of modern efforts to explain away slavery as the primary motivation. It’s also difficult to artificially separate secession from war. Had there been no secession, there would have been no war. Or maybe i’m missing something about the ensuing seizure of federal property by seceded states.

    • Linda Walcroft says:

      Soldiers often fight for reasons that have nothing to do with what started the war. They may fight for their community, or for glory, etc. Why men fight is a topic of its own and should not be condused with what caused a war.

      • John Foskett says:

        That’s true but there are a couple of myths out there. The first is that an insignificant number of CSA soldiers “owned slaves”. True enough but misleading. Research (by Glathaar, IIRC) shows that a substantial percentage of the ANV came from families which owned slaves. So while the 20-year-old enlistee may not have had property his father or brother may have. The other myth is that very few CSA soldiers were motivated by the perceived threat to slavery. Research in primary sources – diaries, journals, correspondence – (by Manning, IIRC) shows that in fact quite a few were motivated at least in part by the threat to southern slavery even if they themselves did not own slaves or did not come from the slave holding class.

  11. Laura Ukura-Leir says:

    The war was about slavery. Perhaps “the right to secede” could be one of the many focuses of this facebook page. In my mind secession is THE pertinent topic. I would ask this Facebook page to thoroughly explore the Constitution’s stance on secession.

  12. John Pryor says:

    When you evaluate the Constitution as enacted what strikes me most was the indirect method with which slavery was addressed. The word slave is never used. It is almost medieval in its use of terms like other persons. One wonders at the psychology present to allow the abolitionists atthe time to put away scruples and vote to ratify.

  13. C Paul Martin says:

    Bookmarking this page for easy reference. I frequently tell my students that they have to be careful of reading the South’s postwar accounts of the causes of the war, given the strong influence of the Lost Cause. Though already familiar with these sources, I love the way they are collected, organized and presented here.

  14. If I may toot my own horn, let me point to a link:

    http://www.civilwarcauses.org/

  15. Sean Michael Chick says:

    The eternal problem of the Civil War comes down to this.

    The Confederacy was founded to protect a slave system that was the basis of the upper class’ power.

    The soldiers of the South fought for many reasons but home defense was the central reason, hence why once an area fell under Union occupation, desertion was rife among the men of that area.

    The North fought for a variety of reasons, but the unifying reason was the union. It gets mentioned disproportionately in the letters, diaries, and memoirs.

    It is hard to make good excuses for the Confederacy. Condemning all Southern soldiers is also perilous. More to the point, it is hard to see the North as being on a holy crusade to end slavery when it persisted in the loyal states until the fighting was nearly over.

    This is the thorn of Civil War history that both the Lost Cause and Just Cause cannot answer because they offer excuses, simplifications, and platitudes. It is why, despite the best efforts of some, the conflict remains unsettling and uncertain rather than glorious and Manichean.

    Good article by the way.

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      Thanks!

    • John Foskett says:

      Those are valid points but desertion once a home area came under Union occupation does not prove by any stretch that a man had not enlisted in order to defend the institution of southern slavery. It merely shows that an actual threat to those at home rendered the original motivation to enlist – whatever it was – less important than the welfare of the deserter’s family. The other reason it isn’t proof is that as Union forces occupied more territory, defeat was becoming more likely. Regardless of the original motive for enlisting, most people don”t like sacrificing themselves in an obviously losing cause.

      • Karl Timothy Burkhalter says:

        Every employee of Massachusetts Mills, every RR worker, Banker, Insurance executive was as depended on slave economy as the average Southerner. #1 export was Textiles, largest domestic market was for textiles, all made from slave grown cotton. Massachusetts Mill owners Boot, Jackson, Dwight, controlled the Canals and their power generation, most RRs, and government express contracts, Insurance Industry and slave trade. Their revenue came primarily from cotton and building RRs to their Mil towns from Boston and other Yankee ports. They loaned heavily on slaves, creating an entire profession the called Cotton factors, we would call consultant or Agent. Crop failure did not have to mean starvation for the slaves. Yankees applied Social Darwinism and took no responsibility for their worker who often starved to death. Yankees hated Blacks so they financed Brown to start an uprising to kill as many as possible. Forcing immediate uncompensated emancipation would have broken the Southern economy and starved hundreds of thousands of Blacks in an economy in foreclosure and no Credit. Mill owners would seize the prime land to lower their costs with Social Darwinism, of “company store” wage slavery. They could raise cotton price to Europe and take more of their market share along with Government Contracts giving them right of way hundreds of miles wide to finance their dream of Transcontinental railroad. They did not want Blacks in the territories preferring to import Northern Europeans. So yes war was slavery vs genocide and Aryan Supremacy. Of the two sides, Southern Noblesse Oblige Christianity was morally superior to Social Darwinism Contraband policy and Northern Black Codes. The average Southerner wanted gradual emancipation so a moderate gradualist President was chosen over Cotton Factors who didn’t have to live among the Slaves. These were politically, called Fire-eaters because maintaining a stable slave market was their living. And even the gradual emancipation with a time limit would destroy collateral loan value. Yankees love to focus on Fire-eater rhetoric while ignoring greater prosperity of Southern Free Blacks, Gens de Couleur Libres. Lee, Jackson, Ewell, Cleburn, Hindman and Governor Allen were gradualists, like most Northerners. So they did not fight to make slavery permanent. Corwin Amendment came from effort to maintain business relationship with the South as acknowledged by NYC Mayor. They wanted to distance themselves from Radicals like Brown and his financial backers. Quit implying North was innocent in starting war or benefiting from Slavery, they were and worse.

      • Ralph Siegel says:

        Anyone who claims the “North” was innocent in American slavery is ignorant of history. Mayor Fernando Wood wanted NYC to secede from the Union to preserve financial alliances with Confederate states. It is likely that every single cotton ship that ever left a southern port was financed or at minimum insured by a Northern institution. Companies in the South had a debt load to Northern banks of at least $300 million according to Prof. McPherson — a debt that vanished as unenforceable upon the outbreak of war. However — to suggest that horrid factory conditions were in some way comparable the chattel slavery is absurd in the extreme. The impulse to war, in fear of black emancipation, was to preserve a system of white supremacy. (It is no coincidence the first state to secede was 57% black.) And the idea that abolitionists who financed John Brown were secretly hoping for a black genocide is one of the most unhinged conspiracy theories I have ever encountered.

      • Karl Timothy Burkhalter says:

        Massachusetts Mill owner and industry leader Edward Atkinson wanted land in areas seized by Union Army to be allocated for cotton production utilizing Freedmen, when asked what they would think about it, he replied, “I they decline they can starve, thus eliminating the Negro question, but still we must have cotton.” He had been weapons supplier to Brown along with “Secret Six,” who were all in Cotton manufacturing.

        In “Age of Betrayal” Jack Beatty quotes from NY Times article exposing conditions in Immigrant
        dwelling company owned towns. It calls the “company store” system, “Another form of Slavery” as children were worked to death, and starved, while parents could not afford to bury them. No you can’t compare it to chattel slavery where workers have value, and their lives respected. The labor system of the North that was imposed on the South during Reconstruction was much worse.

      • John Foskett says:

        Where did the company keep the whips and where did they position the auction blocks so they could sell children?

  16. Pingback: Week In Review: January 21-27, 2019 | Emerging Civil War

  17. Bernard Winn says:

    I was born in the middle of the Seven Days Battlefield and raised on a diet of “Just Cause” theorists. I am pulled in two directions. At Sayler’s Creek, I stood at the point that two family members were mortally wounded, giving their lives to a cause lost months before. The institution of slavery instigated the war, we all know that. How am I to view all my ancestors, as fully evil? Misguided? Were they not just common folk caught up in a drama of good and evil?

    • Your ancestors were ordinary men following the norms and currents of their times. There is no reason to be ashamed of them. There is no reason to think them evil for having followed a “bad cause.” (Unless they were true Big Men of their region, perhaps.)

      Just my personal perspective.

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      I agree with James.

    • John Foskett says:

      What James said. My ancestor fought in the Army of the Potomac for three years. His diaries show that he was a 19-year-old kid of his generation, with the same prejudices, etc. they all had as a rule. I’m not holding him to my standards based on the culture I grew up in and live in. Frankly, your ancestors may – or may not – have fought to defend slavery. They presumably grew up in the antebellum South and we can’t evaluate them as individuals based on 21st century rules. Even “misguided” is not something that should keep you from looking at them in the right context. That’s much different from folks today who try to distort the historical record because they can’t accept the fact that their ancestors may have had beliefs and motives which today we view as wrong. And it;s different from defending the institution of slavery itself, failing to recognize why using some CSA symbols today has a harmful impact, or wishing that the CSA had prevailed. Destroying slavery was a good thing, no matter why or by what method that came about.

  18. Pingback: Primary Sources: Conclusion of a Series | Emerging Civil War

  19. Bob Huddleston says:

    “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”

    Ulysses S. Grant, _ Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: The Complete Annotated Edition_ (Cambridge: 2017), pp 721-722

  20. Great article. Seems to collide a bit with what you wrote about removing Confederate statues, et. al. Marvelous line of comments, by you Chris. Hope this topic comes up if and when you address the Buffalo Erie Civil War Roundtable once again.

  21. Pingback: What Was So Wrong with Slavery? | Emerging Civil War

  22. Pingback: “Independence Forever”–except in Vicksburg | Emerging Civil War

Leave a Reply to Chris Mackowski Cancel reply