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.
- Georgia: Confederate States of America—Georgia Secession
- Mississippi: A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union
- South Carolina: Confederate States of America—Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union
- Texas: Confederate States of America—A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union
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.”