What Caused the Civil War?


The Battle of Gettysburg (Currier and Ives)

The Battle of Gettysburg (Currier and Ives)

Today is the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union, the action which precipitated the Civil War. Edward Ball has written an opinion piece in the New York Times clearly blaming slavery as the root cause of the civil war. It was not about “small government, limited federal powers and states’ rights.” He quotes South Carolina’s statement at the time: “The non-slaveholding states . . . have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery” and “have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes.”

So did slavery cause the Civil War? This is close, but not quite right on two essential points. First, slavery was a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of the civil war. Second, the civil war delayed the end of slavery. After the war ended, conditions functionally equivalent to slavery continued in the South for decades; and this was an important effect of the war as well.

It’s interesting to contrast northern and southern leaders’ opinions before and after the war. Before the war, everyone in the north was saying that the big issue was the union, and everyone in the south said it was slavery. After the war, everyone in the north said it was about slavery, and everyone in the south said it was about state’s rights.

So Ball is right to draw attention to the importance of slavery; without slavery, there would have been no civil war. But that does not imply that slavery made a civil war inevitable. This was also a war about communication, boundaries, and perceptions. People in the North and the South were probably, in fact, not that different from each other — but they thought they were.

The south equated the north with the Republican party and the Republican party with abolitionists — as, in fact, South Carolina’s statement which Ball quotes clearly shows. This was a gross misperception; the Republican party had deplored John Brown’s raid and specifically stated that it had no intention to abolish slavery where it already existed. In fact, those in the north were pretty much as racist as those in the south, and most people in the north, with the exception of a growing minority of abolitionists, didn’t want to fight for slavery.

Even the most staunch abolitionists, if they could have foreseen the bloodshed of the next four years, might have hesitated to fight a civil war to end slavery. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, when it finally came (and which did not end slavery in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware) was quite unpopular, though it probably helped U. S. foreign policy.

Could the Civil War have been averted? Reading the history, it is difficult to see how U. S. leadership could have completely averted the Civil War. If Lincoln had not ordered up those 75,000 troops after Fort Sumter, there would have been outrage in the North and he might have been thrown out of office. A lot of people on both sides were incensed and wanted war. Probably there was no reasonable way we could have averted the first battle of Bull Run and some other early battles.

But I think in late 1861 and early 1862, after the issue of the four border states had been settled, and after it became clear that the war would be no quick affair, the war could have probably been ended by the simple expedient of letting the South go. Policy would be directed towards ending slavery, rather than preserving the Union. And there was an obvious way to do that.

The sticky problem would have been the territories. However, I think the U. S. could have held on to the territories and ended slavery there with a minimum of bloodshed.  The U. S. could have imposed an economic stranglehold by just going on the defensive and imposing a blockade until the South agreed to its conditions. A defensive war is always easier than an offensive war; and the North was actually much stronger in population and industry than the South. Defending the South against the North, it still took four years for the war to end; but defending the North against the South, with superior numbers and economic strength, the North would have been impregnable.

The South could protest against the U. S. taking the territories, but as the years went by and its economy was continually dragged down, they would eventually have no choice — unless, of course, they wanted to rejoin the Union, which by (say) 1865 might not have looked like that bad of a deal. The South was not that united to begin with — some have commented that the Confederacy was more like a well-organized mob than a government.

Once the South was independent, the next move for the U. S. would be to pass a constitutional amendment (which the South had in its constitution!) to make secession unconstitutional, sealing in the states that had remained loyal. After that, they could have abolished slavery in the north. This could have been done by the expedient which Lincoln actually proposed in a different context, that of buying the slaves’ freedom. After that, there would be a foreign policy initiative, to put tariffs or even a boycott on slave produced goods, and to get the European powers who had already abolished slavery to go along. And, any slaves that did manage to make it to the Union would be free — no more need to worry about fugitive slave laws.

In the meantime, the South would have had to worry about its own economic problems and resolve its own internal differences, which probably would have been considerable. Because of the mechanization of agriculture and commerce, slavery actually was not going to be economical that much longer anyway, and the South would have been gripped in a grinding poverty. The North could have put an offer on the table: rejoin the Union and we’ll buy your slaves’ freedom. Or, we’ll be happy to let you fester in your own economic mess.

This offer, if accepted, could have spurred investment in the Southern economy with the cash they needed. As the years rolled by, and international opprobrium increased, this offer would have seemed more and more tempting. Eventually, some southern state would have wanted to grab the offer, and then the U. S. would have had the delicious satisfaction of seeing if the Confederacy could stop these states from seceding from the Confederacy.  It would have been hard to resist an offer of substantial economic help from a country with a common language, a common history, a common culture, strong, prosperous, and united.

In the historical situation, the conditions for many southern blacks was actually worse after the war than under “slavery.” Slavery, for all economic intents and purposes, continued to exist for decades. After the war, no one wanted to invest the financial or emotional energy needed to deal with racism or economic stagnation in the south and in black communities. We had just fought a war over that, hundreds of thousands of people had died, and no one wanted to revisit the issue. And there’s nothing that inflames tensions more in a country than killing hundreds of thousands of its citizens. As a result, we are still struggling with racism and economic strangulation to this day, 150 years later.

If we had let the South go, we would have — relatively speaking — been rolling in money, compared to the historical situation. Slavery would have ended shortly anyway, whether or not the South remained independent or (more likely) rejoined the Union. More importantly, all the resources that had gone into making war (on both sides) could have been devoted to building the southern economy.

Most importantly, the poisonous residue of the mass murder of the Civil War would have been avoided. Yes, racism would still have been a problem, but I could foresee a massive civil rights struggle taking place in the 1900’s rather than the 1960’s, and probably with much more positive results, too. Even today, we are struggling with the effects of this slaughter. It is hard to forget and it is totally amazing that it ever happened.

So I have a message to all you people living in the United States in 1860: let them go.


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