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Slavery and the Civil War

76 posts in this topic

Slavery and the Civil War -- Joe McQuade challenges the view, still widely held in the South, that the Civil War was not about slavery.

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(Editor's note: Civil Discourse began as an email forum among friends in 1998. The following discussion was sparked in November, 1999, by a conversation now posted under "Moral Ambiguities of War." Feel free to join either discussion. This one centers on what caused the American Civil War.)

After nearly 60 years the decision to enter WWII seems correct, just as the North forcing the South to remain part of the United States, resulting in the Civil War, seems correct.

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( In reply to Michael Millican's latest ) A quibble. The Civil War didn't result from the North forcing the South to remain a part of the US. It resulted from the South's secession immediately upon the election of Abraham Lincoln, who was too moderate on slavery for Southern tastes.

An aside. I am so sick of hearing Southerners say that the Civil War wasn't about slavery. That kind of revisionism, which I heard in my Texas high school in the 70s and again at an educated acquaintance's home last week, almost meets the Stalinist standard for evil inaccuracy.

The revisionists point to Lincoln's willingness to permit slavery in the early years of the war as proof that the war was about economics or trade or tariffs or some other vague idea. This all misses the point.

The fact that the North didn't declare war to abolish slavery doesn't prove that the war wasn't about slavery. But the South proved it by seceding immediately after the victory of Lincoln, a moderate who favored the incremental abolition of slavery.

After the war began, Lincoln was willing to compromise on slavery to restore the union (in which he believed slavery would die an inevitable death), but the slaveholding South would have none of that.

If there were no slavery, the South would not have seceded. If the South didn't secede to protect slavery, it wouldn't have begun secession the day after Lincoln won.

The earth is round, folks. We're descended from apes. And the Civil War was about slavery from beginning to end

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( In reply to Joe McQuade's latest ) 1. You're right in that the Civil War was about only one thing. However, that "thing" was the right of a state to secede from the Union. From a constitutional standpoint, it is difficult to argue against that right.

2. The issue of slavery was the primary (but by no means only) reason for the South's desire to secede. As with any war, one must look at the culture of the people involved, promises kept and broken, centralized vs. decentralized governmental theory, etc., when evaluating the reasons for a war.

3. By reversing one's field of thought, my point is proved. For the war to have been only about slavery, the people in the North must have known and agreed with this theory.

To the contrary, the majority of Northerners would not have supported a war if they believed that it was only about slavery. For confirmation of this, I would point to the many books written by Shelby Foote and James M. McPherson (two highly regarded Civil War historians) who wrote about the political atmosphere in the North during the war.

4. While many Northerners supported abolition, far less than a majority would have gone to war over it. It was the combination slavery along with many other issues (including personal enmity) which gave the North the will to fight.

5. With a minority of Southerners being slave owners and a majority of Northerners not willing to fight for the abolition of slavery, it is idiotic to suggest that "the Civil War was about slavery from beginning to end."

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( In reply to Kelly Dancer's latest ) 1. A responsible argument can be made that states have a constitutional right to secede. But it's not responsible to suggest that is what motivated the South's secession.

The South didn't secede over the right to secede. It seceded over slavery, which you seem to acknowledge in your first sentence under (2).

2. Yes, slavery was the primary -- and the only decisive -- reason for secession. There were (and are) dozens of other minor resentments. But combine them all and you still don't come close to secession or war -- until you add slavery.

If slavery was the primary and decisive reason for secession and thus for war, it follows that "The Civil War was about slavery" is a fair and accurate locution.

3. I've already acknowledged that even Lincoln was acquiescent to slaveholding, at least in the short term. It's certainly true that many in the North were reluctant to declare war over the issue. But this doesn't refute the larger point that the war was about slavery.

My understanding is that the Northern consensus was basically this: Slavery is bad, and our country must and inevitably will be rid of it. The only questions are how and when.

We don't want to start shooting our Southern cousins over it (at least not yet). But if the South secedes over slavery, we're not going to stand for it.

So you've got one side seceding over slavery, and the other side reluctantly but certainly taking up arms to prevent that. The energizing principle in the Yankee ranks wasn't their interpretation of constitutional secession theory. It was that slavery was an evil that had to end.

The Yankees obviously would have preferred a peaceful, incremental, bloodless solution, but in the end they fought selflessly to liberate millions of black people they had never seen.

4. Yes, there were other motivations for war in the North as well, but they all paled in comparison to quashing the South's attempt to rend the Union to protect slavery.

5. I've always felt pity for the barefoot Rebs who died in a war started by, and prosecuted for, the benefit of rich slaveholders. I've always felt contempt for the so-called Southern gentlemen who should have known better than to kill for such an evil cause. And I've felt gratitude to the Yanks in the trenches who died for a purpose larger and, yes, sometimes more noble, than themselves.

A century and a half later, many good Southerners still have trouble facing up to the ugly realities of their heritage. But face it we must. There's no getting around the simple fact that had there been no slavery, there would have been no Civil War. Our Southern forefathers were on the wrong side of history and of human decency.

We should take a lesson from the Germans, most of whom have come to terms with their ugly past and freely denounced it. Truth and honor demand nothing less of them -- and of us.

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( In reply to Joe McQuade's latest ) The very sad thing is that once slavery was found to be profitable, it was so very hard to end.

The banks, of course, were lending money based on the plantations' ability to produce a certain tonnage of cotton. Land values increased, so it became even more imperative to produce the tonnage of cotton required to repay the loans.

Modern equipment had not yet been invented to harvest, plant etc. So the only way to make your loan payments was to buy more and more slaves and intensify the cultivation of cotton.

Many of these lending institutions were based in the South, but not all. I wonder if anyone has done any research into the money lending practices and which countries purchased the cotton.

Indebtedness and land ownership is a very strong emotional issue. Many of the small farmers in the Midwest are now going through very low prices for the crop they produce and the price of machinery is skyrocketing.

Talk about being a slave to the bank.

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( In reply to Joe McQuade's latest ) 1. The spin you are trying to put on this Civil War thing is that the North thought slavery was evil and that they were therefore the God-fearing, upstanding good guys, and the South was thus the opposite.

There were good people on both sides, and there may well have been more Southerners who hated the evils of slavery than Northerners who really didn't know jack about what was going on in the South.

2. The South, instead of being on the wrong side of the evil issue, was caught in an economic trap. There was only one industry down there and the abolitionists were advocating immediate bankruptcy for the entire South, not just the rich farmers whose demise would have shut down virtually every business.

There were a few feeble attempts in Washington to work out some kind of payment plan or other compromise, but the Northern abolitionist saw the issue as black and white, or good vs. evil - and, what the hell, bankrupting the South wasn't a big issue to them.

It's too bad that a strong negotiator didn't come along and get the two sides to at least begin a dialogue.

3. By the way, your line about all those young Northern boys laying their lives down for black people they didn't even know was real cute.

All in all, that happened to more white boys than the total number of blacks in the South.

4. When I was a young boy there were still a lot of Southern Civil War veterans, most with missing limbs, who would spend their days sitting around the town square. They would talk for hours at a time, and I could sit and listen. I heard a lot of war stories, but I don't think any of those guys knew they had fought "for" slavery, and nobody in our part of the South had ever seen a slave or a slave owner.

But they understood damn Yankees, and they understood starvation. My grandmother gave me a box of Confederate money which I intend to hold on to because:


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( In reply to all ) 1. Certainly I never said all Yankees had pristine souls and all Rebs were devils. I expressed sympathy for the clueless Johnny Rebs and said many Yanks died for a cause more noble than themselves.

But the bottom line is that the war was first and foremost about slavery. The North was right, and the South was wrong.

2. It's fair to say the South was on the wrong side of evil AND was caught in an economic trap.

It was, alas, a trap of the South's own making. And it was a trap that subjected millions of Africans to rape, murder, bullwhips, and chains. It's hard for me to gin up much sympathy for the white Southern "victims" of this trap.

By the way, a strong negotiator did come along to get the two sides to begin a dialogue. His name was Abraham Lincoln, a man who was reviled by many abolitionists as a compromising moderate. The South showed how interested it was in dialogue by filing the first articles of secession the day after his election.

3. By my moral reckoning, it was a fair price to pay.

4. The fact that someone makes a sacrifice for a cause does not mean his cause was just. No doubt many German soldiers grew to be old men who resented us for killing their buddies. But they still fought for an evil cause.

To be blunt about it, I reserve my pity only for the Rebel hillbillies and teenagers and others who were too ignorant to see the evil in the Southern cause. Certainly the genteel class knew better, and I despise them for it. Certainly much of the middle class should have known better, and some of them did have the moral strength to defect to the Union.

Thanks to air-conditioning and the post-war migration to the Sun Belt, the South has already risen again. Thanks to the North, it's no longer the egregiously evil place it used to be.

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(Editor's note: Joe McQuade and Steven Conant went on to have this exchange.)


1. The Civil War was about slavery as an economic issue, not a moral one. Prior to the abolition of slavery, a third of all U.S. millionaires lived along the Mississippi River on lovely plantations full of cheap labor in Louisiana (now one of the poorest states in the union). Certainly other parts of the South enjoyed this situation as well and saw an end to a way of life with Lincoln and abolition.

2. Northerners were not (are not) any more moral. They had a different economic structure which had its own form of slavery. Early factory workers were no more than slaves who drew a paycheck to live in unbearable conditions which applied equally to " Wops and Jews and Sigma Nus."


Of course the slaveholders owners wanted to keep their economic system and way of life in place. How does that make them any less evil?

I'm sorry you don't see the difference between oppressed factory workers and slaves. Here's a hint. Tired factory workers went home every night to their spouses and children. Slaves saw their spouses and children sold to other plantations, on the whim of owners who pocketed all the proceeds. Do I really have to go an to establish a profound moral distinction here?


I do understand that important difference. I'm sorry you don't see the similarities.

I am not trying to justify slavery or vindicate the South. You know me better than that. I will not, however, accept the implication that the North was more moral or just than the South. The North practiced a different form of slavery. To argue the brutality of one form over the other misses the point.


I haven't said that every individual Yankee was morally superior to every individual Southerner. But I will say this: A society that outlaws slavery is morally superior to an otherwise roughly equivalent one that condones it -- much less one that goes to war to protect it.


The war itself was a war of economics and political power. To believe that this war was based on an outraged public and the immorality of one side is too simplistic. It does, however, help justify participation in such a war and the killing that takes place.


Secession was not coincident with the passage of any tariff or homestead act or interstate trade regulation. It was triggered by the election of a president who said it was wrong for one man to own another.

So the threat of abolition was merely the thin straw that broke the camel's back of Southern patience on trade? Come on. That defies credulity and common sense.

Again, that the North was reluctant to start a war over slavery doesn't mean the South was reluctant to do so.


Slavery was certainly an issue and we are fortunate today that the course of slavery in the U.S. was profoundly altered, even at the cost of over 600,000 lives (an unbelievable amount of carnage when you consider the weapons of the day). Slavery was not the only issue and I don't believe it was the greatest issue to the people of that time.


All right. Show me which issue was more important to the secessionists, and show me why they saw the election of Lincoln as the appropriate time to secede over it.


I see clearly the difference (between slavery and oppressed industrial labor). I am not trying to defend slavery in the South (or anywhere else). Had the factories been able to employ slave labor would the Civil War have occurred?


Certainly not, and that proves my point. What really separated the North from the South was not tariffs or homesteading or any other economic policy. It was slavery. That was the only essential difference. The North prohibited it; the South promoted it. If slavery were legal in the North, the South would not have seceded. That shows me the Civil War was about slavery.

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This whole debate has been an excellent civics lesson which unfortunately isn't taught in any school anywhere in the country.

It amazes me how the Civil War is still being re-fought in many parts of the South. (For example, see the Stars and Bars flying over South Carolina.) This isn't an issue up North, where we are taught we were right, the South was wrong and it was all about slavery.

Without being present at that point in history, I would have to assume the average draftee for the North was told it was about slavery and that the cause was noble (unless you has $300 gold to buy a pass from the draft).

If one reads history (or watches the History Channel), one can learn there was a lot more to the war. There was a POW camp in Elmira (not too far from Buffalo) where many rebel soldiers (few of them slaveowners I'm sure) were treated horribly. Yet up here, we only learn about Andersonville.

It was without a doubt the worst page of our country's history. The fact that people still debate the war has much to do with why we can't move forward faster on race relations within this country. You can't heal if you're still trying to justify your ancestor's actions. We as a county need to move on.

My sister was a middle school teacher in Virginia Beach a few years ago. She was told that what she had learned about the War Between the States was all wrong. Driving to work on the Robert E. Lee Highway should have been a tip-off. We really need a national curriculum on this subject that incorporates all views for critical study.

Finally, my daughter's high school is named Williamsville South. An athlete, she's earned a varsity jacket which has a patch with the Stars and Bars on the sleeve. No one makes a big deal about it. Even black athletes appear to wear the patch. Go figure...

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( In reply to Joe McQuade on 5/9/00, 8:04AM ) First of all, I tip my hat to one of the finest debaters and wordsmiths I've ever known. You could join either side of a discussion and be a terrible force with which to deal. On the Civil War question, I want to make a few points of fact, not to change your mind, which seems to be made up, but to salve my bruised ego.

1. Your statement -- "It was, alas, a trap of the South's own making." Slavery began in North America about 300 years before the Civil War and way before the South even existed. The earliest settlers bought slaves to help with the raising of cotton, tobacco, and sugarcane, and for other purposes -- if they could afford them. The first states to enact laws dealing with slave ownership were Connecticut and Massachusetts in 1641. If I remember right, they are North of the Mason-Dixon Line.

2. The Southern states were generally better suited for farming and as those farms developed the slaves were brought in. During the same period the North was becoming more industrialized with a lessening need for agricultural labor. I guess you could say that industry seemed to improve the moral fiber of the Yankees.

3. Your next statement about Abraham Lincoln, the strong negotiator. Lincoln was a good man. He wasn't the negotiator that was needed at the time to prevent war. He was nominated by the Republicans on a platform of, "No further expansion of slavery into free states." This meant a forthcoming majority of anti-slavery states would eliminate the South's ability to fend off the abolitionists.

4. 'Protective Tariffs." This would be a big boost for Northern industry and extremely costly for the South. "Manufacturing Subsidies." Again, a financial advantage for the North and a liability for the South. "Homestead Act." This meant giving free land to settlers which could be costly in the South.

5. The abolitionists were a very small element in the North and considered to be nut cases by the North and the South alike. At their strongest point they numbered about 160,000 middle class churchmen and Quakers, out of a Northern population of 13 million. But like some of our present day weirdos, they made a lot of noise.

6. It is generally conceded that there would be very little support in the North for going to war over the slave issue from the working class and upper class. Numbered among those who would not go to war over the slave issue was Abraham Lincoln. Secession, the splitting of the Union, was a different matter.

7. Some Southern states did file articles of secession the day after his election. But none of them seceded until his inauguration, when seven states seceded. The other four didn't secede until Lincoln sent troops into the South.

8. The great misconception directly leading to war was the overestimation, by the North, of its fighting ability. They thought that they would go down and spank some Southern butt and have the whole thing under control in 90 days. If the North had even a glimmer of the real cost, I think they would have agreed to go to the negotiating table.

9. Incidentally, the great Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation" only freed slaves in the rebel states (a move to weaken productivity in the South). Tennessee and other border states were excluded as were portions of Louisiana, Virginia, and West Virginia. It was OK to own slaves if you were Republican.

10. You state "By my moral reckoning, it was a fair price to pay." My goodness, 620,000 young men dead and maybe three times that many wounded, most involving amputations. What, in your moral reckoning would a steep price have been? The English successfully ended slavery with a compensation plan and an apprenticeship arrangement, with no lives lost at all.

11. Your statement, 'I reserve my pity only for the Rebel hillbillies and teenagers and others who were too ignorant to see the evil in the Southern cause." Wow! I was almost sure there were several people in the South who weren't ignorant and who could even read.

I had one great grandfather who was a battlefield surgeon who could cut injured limbs off, even if he couldn't read, and another who was a Baptist preacher who either had the bible memorized or could read a little. The preacher great grandfather claimed to be a second cousin to Jeff Davis. I found out latter that everyone in the South named Davis was also his second cousin.

12. In conclusion, your statement, "'But the bottom line is that the war was first and foremost about slavery. The North was right and the South was wrong." The North was right about what? The death of 620,000 men? The confiscation of four billion in Southern assets? The chaotic mess in race relations that resulted from the war? Carpetbaggers?

Heaven help us if they are ever wrong.

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( In reply to Jack Davis' latest ) Thanks for your thoughtful response, Jack. Here's mine.

1. Certainly, American slavery as an institution began in the North. It was also outlawed first in the North. The North was culpable in the first case, praiseworthy in the second. Neither fact justifies slavery in the South at any time, much less in the mid-19th century.

2. I don't know the figures, but it's fair to say the North was still an overwhelmingly agrarian society, too, in 1860. While the "need" for slaves was arguably less pressing in the North than it was on the cotton plantations, no doubt there were more than a few Yankees who would have purchased slaves for farming, manufacturing, or domestic services, had their governments not seen fit to prohibit the practice. Once again, praise goes to the Northern governments.

3. Lincoln's negotiating prowess was never put to the test, because to the South the mere prospect of negotiating slavery was cause for war.

It is not as if the Southern millionaires were trapped in an archaic system they despised. They sent their sons (and their blacksmiths' sons) to their deaths so they could continue to own human beings. Yes, the looming proliferation of free states inevitably would have pressured the South to abolish slavery.

Had the South done the right thing and defended its interests peacefully under the Constitution, there probably would have been an eventual negotiated settlement, perhaps even with compensation packages. But the gentlemen of the South decided they would rather kill than negotiate, and so it became the North's moral duty to crush them.

4. This is Southern apologist hooey. Not one bayonet was fixed on either side over tariffs or homestead policies.

5. Some abolitionists resorted to indefensible extremist tactics, but the movement was overwhelmingly responsible and heroic. Had I lived then, I hope I would have been enough of a "weirdo nut case" to oppose slavery with heart, mind, and body.

For a small cabal of nut cases, the abolitionists sure spooked the hell out of the slaveowners, who seceded and started a war rather than deal with them or their more moderate allies.

6. I've said precisely this from the outset, and this exposes the key fallacy in the argument that the Civil War wasn't about slavery. The fact that the North didn't start the war over slavery doesn't mean the South didn't start the war over slavery, which is precisely what happened. Without slavery there is no secession. Without secession there is no war. The Civil War was about slavery.

7. These are distinctions without a difference. The Southern states had a beef with Lincoln because of his positions on slavery, which prompted them to secede upon his arrival on the scene.

8. And what would they have negotiated? The future of slavery. Further evidence that this is what the war was all about.

9. One of the many facets of Lincoln's genius was his willingness to employ incomplete measures to achieve complete results. While abolitionist firebrands advocated declaring war on the South to free slaves, Lincoln knew that slavery would end and the Union would be stronger if the institution were eliminated incrementally, via the proliferation of free states in a democratic republic.

The Proclamation was another such measured approach. Rather than alienate wavering allies with a frontal assault on their sensibilities, Lincoln compromised and accommodated them in the short term, fully aware that slavery would end everywhere once the war was won.

This is a far cry from saying it was OK in his mind to own slaves if you were a Republican.

10. Unfortunately, we never got to see whether we could have implemented a peaceful transition similar to England's. That's because the South seceded and started shooting at American soldiers upon the election of Lincoln, a moderate on slavery.

I don't know the precise numbers, but certainly millions of slaves died in bondage in, and on the way to, America. So no, 600,000 American dead to end the barbarity does not seem too steep a price, particularly since the blood of slavery was in a sense on all of their hands.

11. Sorry to besmirch the memory of your ancestors, but fairness and accuracy demand it. To me it seems fair to fault those who should have known better than fight for the Southern cause, while having pity for those who didn't know any better.

I reserve the highest contempt for the beloved gentleman, Robert E. Lee. Here was an educated, contemplative man who opposed slavery and secession, and was offered by Lincoln a chance to lead the Union army in a just war that would inevitably end both.

But Lee set aside his moral convictions to indulge his blind loyalty to the state of Virginia. You want inflammatory? I've got inflammatory. If there is a hell, there should be a special place in it for bums like Robert E. Lee.

12. The South said, "We're going to secede to protect slavery." The North said, 'Oh, no you're not." The North defeated the South and freed the slaves. Maybe I'm stoopit, but the relative moral standing of the two sides seems clear to me.

Reconstruction is another debate, and there's enough blame to go around for what happened then. But the wrongs of Reconstruction do not mitigate the evil of the Southern cause.

Were the Yankees saints? No, they were racists and white supremacists, too. But they outlawed slavery where they lived, and when provoked they finally liberated the slaves in the South at great cost to themselves. One of the ironies of the Civil War is that the Northerners brought honor to themselves not so much for what they stood for, but for what they stood against.

I've lived all but three years of my life in the South, and I love it here. Wouldn't live in the cold, cold North if you paid me. But I try not to let my love for the South blind me to the ugliness in its history -- and to the huge debt the South owes the North for doing the right thing 140 years ago.

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Joe's right. For all the rhetorical gymnastics that the South (and today's Southerners) often engage in, "The Late Unpleasantness" was, in the end, about slavery.

Ken Burns makes this point mightily in his unequaled documentary on the Civil War, in the chapter titled, "The Higher Calling." When Lincoln issued the Proclamation after Antietam, all hope of European intervention on behalf of the South ended, and as a practical matter the Union was saved at that point.

Speaking of rhetorical gymnastics, Lincoln engaged all of the South's arguments in his titanic (and successful) attempt to preserve the Union. According to Shelby Foote, Lincoln taught himself Euclidean geometry in his period of private practice before seeking the Presidency. It served him well in terms of argument, but not, ultimately, in terms of result.

In the end, in the words of John Brown, the nation's scourge could be cleansed "but with blood." (Remember, Jack, the English had already had their Civil War, and thus were under no illusions about such a war's likely ferocity.)

Speaking of tipping one's hat, this debate, on both sides, has been phenomenal.

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1. The Civil War was about a lot of things. The motivation of the soldiers was vastly different from the military leaders, political Leaders, and the citizens. Why something like that gets started tends to loose significance when the participants start concentrating on how to end it.

2. My father's side of the family (non-slaveholders) fought on the side of the rebellion while my mother's side fought on the side of the Union. Some of the family research I have come across indicates my father's side felt the North was encroaching on their freedoms, while my Mother's side were Irish immigrants who were glad to have a job. (One shoveled coal on an Ironclad.)

3. I don't think there was ever a doubt that the North would win that war. The Civil War gave us a final resolution to a lot of issues which caused division in this country. What is more important is where has the Civil War brought us as a nation? I'm an American by birth, a Texan by grace of God.

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First, I certainly agree that the soldiers' thinking is always different from that of their leaders. Soldiers concern themselves mainly with food, warmth and dodging bullets. Leaders worry about the ideology of war.

Second, of course Southern soldiers told themselves they were fighting for their freedom. So did the Nazis. That's something a soldier does to be able to face himself at the shaving mirror. (Come to think of it, is that why so many Southern generals had beards?)

Imagine the morale problems if Southern generals had told the truth. "Come on, boys, march into those canons so the Southern plutocrats can keep their slaves and ignore your miserable standards of living!"

Third, the outcome clearly was wonderful, and we enjoy the fruits even to this day. It's too bad so many Southerners can't face the simple truth about what happened more than a century ago.

Just last weekend another Southerner told me the Civil War was caused, not by slavery, but by the desire of some Southern plantation owners to have their cotton milled in France instead of the North.

Boy, the slaves sure were lucky beneficiaries. Their liberation was mere kismet, you see, because 600,000 men died over whether there would be French labels on our underwear.

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My own view is slavery was the inciting cause of the war.

The fact that most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves and that most Northerners were not abolitionists does not address the issue of cause, as many revolutions (e.g. the American and the French) are the product of passionate/influential minorities.

If you take slavery out of the question, the remaining disagreements do not provoke secession and war, while slavery alone without the other disagreements still causes the war, imo.

Some Southerners obviously fought for reasons other than preserving (as opposed to in addition to preserving) slavery, but this again says nothing about cause.

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One of the original charges against King George III in Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence had to do with the King allowing slavery to develop in the American Colonies. That charge, with a number of other charges, was left out of the final document.

In composing the Constitution the delegates danced around how to count the slaves for representation and ended up with the compromise phrase "3/5 of Other People". The existence of slavery was an issue which was avoided during the creation of our nation to ensure cohesion among the new states. After all, they had more pressing and immediate problems to address.

There were a number of conflicting views between North and South. I don't see how anyone can doubt that the existence of slavery in The United States is contrary to our founding principles. The War of The Rebellion was fought to correct the compromises made on slavery at our nation's founding.

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I feel compelled to weigh in on this matter of war, "Civil" or otherwise.

Several interesting points have been made, and conclusions drawn, concerning the reason that the Civil War started. It seems to me that there is truth in most of these perspectives, yet the conclusion that any one of these factors was the principle catalyst for this war ignores the truth that there is only one factor common in all wars.

Those who choose to believe that the Civil War was about slavery must also believe that the Gulf War was about oil, and that the invasion of Panama and abduction of Noriega was about stopping the flow of illegal drugs.

It is like so many people, all dining on the same buffet, trying to define the experience in terms of what is most significant to them personally. While the seating arrangement is the most important thing for some, and the extravagance of the presentation is key for others, the event is still about eating.

Men and nations begin battles for one purpose only -- power. The power to control others is what all human conflict is about. All else is merely garnish on the platters at the buffet of history.

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( In reply to Eric Cravey's latest ) Sorry, gotta disagree. Men and nations sometimes begin battles for another purpose only -- freedom. The Civil War was about slavery, the Gulf War was about keeping a third of the world's available oil out of a madman's hands, and the Panama invasion was about keeping the canal out of the hands of a tinpot dictator. All three wars advanced the cause of freedom. All else is merely marshmallows in the orange-flavored jello.

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Here are some excerpts from a recent George Will column, which I didn't have the heart to circulate before some of my Southern friends had finished their egg nog.

"Germany's unending self-examination was further agitated by the 1996 publication of Daniel Goldhagen's 'Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust...

"(A widely attended and discussed photo) exhibit has catalyzed the cleaning out of some dark recesses of Germany's mental attic...The exhibit has been cathartic, revealing something still boiling beneath the crust of Germany's normality...which is proof of Germany's healthy fact-facing vigor, even 54 years on.

"In America, where approximately 1,000 World War II veterans die each day, a different kind of catharsis is occurring. The cultural mechanisms of mass memory -- movies (e.g. Saving Private Ryan), books (e.g. Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation), the drive to build a World War II memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. -- attest that the attic of our national memory is an inspiring place to pass some time."

Several things occurred to me upon reading this.

1. Not everything in the attic of our national memory is as inspiring as our role in WW II. Some of those dusty trunks contain slavery, segregation, Red-baiting, Vietnam.

2. While the average German was far more guilty of far worse offenses than the average Confederate sympathizer, it's ironic that the former has been more willing to face up to his moral lapses than has the latter.

3. Many Southerners were and are stubbornly immune to the moral provocations contained in the civil rights movement, the Roots miniseries and Burns' Civil War documentary.

4. Just as only Nixon could go to China and only a Democratic president could balance the federal budget, perhaps it's also true that only a conservative Republican has sufficient political standing these days to make all Americans confront our racial legacy honestly. Goodness knows that Clinton's tepid initiative on race is ignored most resolutely by those who need to listen most.

5. Colin Powell didn't have the guts to take the presidency in 1996 when it was his for the asking. Perhaps he'll be brave enough to serve his country by assenting to the VP slot on the Republican ticket.

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Much applause on numbers one through three, particularly the last. I'm always surprised and dismayed when even very literate, thoughtful Southerners turn a blind eye to things like the Civil Rights Movement. I don't know of any greater civic courage than that displayed by the activists who, for example, sat still and silently at "white only" lunch counters in the South while brutal gangs of young whites kicked, slapped, and punched them from behind, and poured food and drinks over their heads.

As Eisenhower made "ordinary" Germans march through the concentration camps, so perhaps all "ordinary" Americans should have to watch the documentary Eyes on the Prize, frame by lurid and horrifying frame. (The example given here is very much on the 'light' side.)

You know more about number five than I do. Powell is an enigma to me. I can't help but wonder, though, if America would feel as warm and fuzzy about him if he looked like Kevin Garnett.

On number four, however, again you castigate Clinton for doing all he can. I guarantee you that Bob Dole, if he had been elected, would not have championed ANY initiative on race. If Clinton's initiative is "tepid," maybe its because it's the first of its kind since the Civil Rights Movement, and because he doesn't want to give rise to another electoral catastrophe like November, 1994.

If there's any electoral lesson to be learned from that date (which will live in infamy), it's to never piss off the hillbillies (Waco) and big business (nationalized health care) at the same time.

Any less "tepid" race initiative would certainly piss off the hillbillies, at least. As W.J. Cash illustrated in his book, The Mind of the South, rich and poor white Southerners were (and still are?) bound together, despite sometimes vast economic disparity, by a unifying notion: Even the poorest white man stands above any black man.

With electoral power still shifting to the Sun Belt, you can't blame Clinton for being nervous about that despicable but nevertheless very real dynamic.

(Editor's note: This discussion about Clinton's performance on race is taken up at "Clinton on Race" Please place any response to this Clinton discussion there, as this thread is dedicated to the Civil War debate.)

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(Following are New York Times excerpts of Sen. John McCain's recent remarks on the Dixie Flag controversy. I have set apart, in parentheses, the two passages that touch on our long debate about the "honor" of the Southern cause in the Civil War. I'm proud to be in McCain's company on both points.)

"I made several mistakes in my campaign. I regret them, but I can live with their consequences because I believe them to have been simple errors in judgment and not an unprincipled act. Only once, I believe, did I act in an unprincipled way. But once is enough, and I want to tell the people of South Carolina and all Americans that I sincerely regret breaking my promise to always tell you the truth. . . .

"{My ancestors fought for the Confederacy, and I am sure that many, maybe all of them, fought with courage and with faith that they were serving a cause greater than themselves.}

"But I don't believe their service, however distinguished, needs to be commemorated in a way that offends, that deeply hurts, people whose ancestors were once denied their freedom by my ancestors.

"{Those ancestors of mine might have fought honorably, they might have fought to uphold a principle they believed was just. But they fought to sever the union of our great nation, a cause that would have terribly harmed America, perhaps irreparably, and, for a time at least, perpetuated the grave injustice of slavery. They fought on the wrong side of American history.}

"That, my friends, is how I personally feel about the Confederate battle flag. That is the honest answer I never gave to a fair question. . . .

"As I admitted, I should have done this earlier, when an honest answer could have affected me personally. I did not do so for one reason alone. I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary. So, I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth. . . .

"I do not intend for this apology to help me evade criticism for my failure. I will be criticized by all sides for my late act of contrition. I accept it, all of it. I deserve it. Honesty is easy after the fact, when my own interests are no longer involved.

"I don't seek absolution. Like anyone else, I can only try to resist future temptations to abandon principle for expediency and hope that, in the end, my character is judged from the totality of my life, and not by its flaws alone."

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Here's an excerpt from Houston Chronicle columnist Cragg Hines' "It is worth repeating: Slavery was evil" on July 16, 2000:

Reconstruction, it seems after more than a century and a quarter, was not nearly radical enough.

The latest rancid eruptions of Confederate fervor point to a culture that was dealt with too leniently...

Spare me your moss-draped cards and letters. I am the descendant of slave owners, and a great-grandfather was captured at Vicksburg. I know veneration of family as almost a religion, a sort of Southern Shinto, and I revel in it.

But I have no hesitation in saying that slavery was evil and a despicable cause for rending the republic. I am saddened (not to mention appalled)that a number of Southerners still cannot seem to join in this simple statement..."

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Tricky Dixie

The mainstreaming of the Confederate ideology.

(Editor's note: This essay was originally published on Slate.Com on January 23.)

As much as we want to believe that the moral questions about the Civil War were settled long ago, the Confederacy's legacy remains contested ground-as the 2000 campaign reminded us. Last March, George W. Bush and John McCain both shrank from calling for the Confederate flag's retirement during the South Carolina primary for fear of offending GOP voters. And in November, the nation's electoral map showed us to be as divided along North-South lines as at any time since the Civil War.

Now Bush has populated his administration with proponents of decidedly Southern values-fundamentalist Christianity, states' rights ideology, conservative views on race-and two of his Cabinet nominees, aspiring Attorney General John Ashcroft and would-be Interior Secretary Gale Norton, have expressed a measure of sympathy for the ideals of the Old South. How did defending Dixie suddenly become fashionable? Is this the onset of reactionary chic?

Romantic views of the Confederacy have a long history. After their defeat in the Civil War, white Southerners faced bleak prospects: They were devastated economically, stripped of their pride, and forced to accept leadership from Northerners and even African-Americans. Naturally, many looked to extract dignity from their loss. "They nurtured a public memory of the Confederacy," historian Gary Gallagher has written, through holidays, monuments, veterans' reunions, and other rituals. Artists and writers celebrated the goals for which Southerners fought, and extolled the rebels' bravery. They founded groups devoted to cavalier heritage, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The "Lost Cause" was born.

For a time, Lost Cause advocates secured their rose-colored interpretations of slavery (a benign, paternalistic institution) and their dim view of Reconstruction (the exploitation of Dixie by predatory carpetbaggers) in American history books. The vanquished Robert E. Lee became canonized as a great general, while the man who bested him, Ulysses S. Grant, drew scorn as a plodding butcher. The Civil War was rewritten not as a fight over the expansion of slavery into the West (as most historians view it again today) but as a tug of war over the principle of states' rights or, in some versions, over federal tariffs. Popular culture too-notably the films The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939)-etched Lost Cause history into many minds.

But much as Confederate sympathizers downplayed the role of racial strife in Southern history, it could not be kept off center stage. After all, if you believed the war was about a clash of cultures, or of economic systems, you still had to note the key difference between those systems-slavery. And if you argued that the war was about states' rights, you still had to identify those rights the Confederates were defending-the right to enslave African-Americans. The notion that one could separate the goals of states' rights and of racial equality might make sense in the abstract (as Gale Norton apparently was trying to say), but in practice and in history it has had no real meaning. The position of blacks remained, as the political scientist V.O. Key noted, the South's overriding issue.

With the rise of racial liberalism in the mid-20th century, historians revised their assessments of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and support for the Lost Cause mythology waned. But, paradoxically, the advance of civil rights also contributed to the revival of symbols and language of the Confederacy, as white Southerners saw their system of legalized segregation endangered. During Strom Thurmond's 1948 campaign for the presidency, his Dixiecrat supporters brandished Confederate flags and photos of Robert E. Lee. Within a couple of years, the rebel banner became, in one historian's words, "a nationwide fad, foreshadowing coonskin caps and hula hoops."

The Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, striking down segregated schools, fueled the backlash. Confederate lore and imagery accompanied a widespread Southern campaign of "massive resistance" to federal desegregation orders. Dozens of U.S. congressmen signed the "Southern Manifesto" pledging to fight federal intervention, and federal troops and Southern whites faced off at schools in Little Rock in 1957, Montgomery in 1961, and the University of Mississippi in 1962. The star-studded X of the Confederate battle flag began appearing on redesigned Southern state banners, and demonstrators waved the Dixie standard at anti-integration protests.

In response to civil rights advances, new Southern heritage groups also sprang up, devoted to such efforts as schooling children in their own version of Civil War history. One 1954 "catechism" discovered by author Tony Horwitz taught kids that slaves "were always ready and willing to serve" their masters and that the "War Between the States" was caused by "the disregard by those in power for the rights of Southern states." That language was telling: for although many Southern whites openly espoused white supremacism, they nonetheless insisted-again like their Lost Cause predecessors-that they were really championing the cause of states' rights. The new Southern resistance was most famously epitomized by Alabama Gov. George Wallace, whose defiant defense of segregation shocked liberals but found unexpected legions of followers in Maryland, Wisconsin, and elsewhere outside Dixie.

Wallace's popularity highlighted an unusual divergence in American values in the '60s. On the one hand, the civil rights movement succeeded smashingly-not just in dismantling segregation but also in making the belief in equal rights and the tolerance of differences a broadly accepted national creed. Racism had been routed, discredited. Yet at the same time, as Wallace realized, resentment toward Washington and the welfare state was burgeoning around America, and the ancient call of "states' rights" now resonated with those whose complaints had little to do with forced desegregation. In particular, Westerners such as Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan realized they could tap into the anti-Washington ardor of the once solidly Democratic South to build a new Republican coalition. Goldwater's inroads in the South came at the expense of his popularity elsewhere (his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, for example, hurt him), but Nixon and Reagan-and later Bush père and fils-brought the South decisively into the GOP tent.

The simultaneous, rival triumphs of civil rights and states' rights sparked new political battles in the late-20th-century South. Groups like the NAACP now felt emboldened to challenge state governments that continued to wave the Confederate flag, build monuments, or devote holidays to rebel leaders. As they saw it, they now had the power and the moral high ground to demand the elimination of these badges of slavery and Jim Crow. But the new round of activism also provoked a new neo-Confederate backlash, as whites organized to oppose reparations for slavery or the removal of flags, as well as policies such as affirmative action and busing.

Although this latest neo-Confederate revival had its share of white supremacist groups, overtly bigoted appeals were largely jettisoned. The once proudly racist White Citizens Councils reinvented themselves as Conservative Citizens Councils and espoused mainstream Republican philosophy alongside their Southern heritage activities. The new tack, moreover, went so far as to appropriate the now-dominant liberal principles and language. Just like other ethnic groups, the new neo-Confederates claimed, they too deserved to celebrate their heritage and honor their ancestors. A spokesman for the Heritage Preservation Association has claimed, "We're chosen people, surviving many atrocities"-sounding (in Tony Horwitz's comparison) like an Anti-Defamation League representative. The HPA also borrowed a page from the NAACP, establishing a legal defense fund to help people such as a worker who lost his job after pasting a battle flag to his toolbox. This line of argument even cropped up among John Ashcroft's defenders: They said he was being attacked for his religion-throwing down the victimization card as surely as any left-wing multiculturalist.

The South has become the most critical part of the Republican Party's base. No Southern state voted for Gore, unless you count Florida. It got that way because, for the last few decades, it responded most avidly to the Republicans' anti-Washington messages. And now that it has done so, it dictates not only the leadership of the party, from Tom DeLay and Trent Lott to George W. Bush and John Ashcroft, but also its message. Is it any wonder that the message contains a dose of affection for the Lost Cause?

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