Was the American Civil War About Slavery?

Ted Grimsrud—March 20, 2019

As I continue to read and think about the American Civil War, I find many questions to struggle with. A significant one is on the surface fairly simple: Was slavery the main issue over which the war was fought? Of course, this question turns out to be anything but simple. A lot depends on where one stands in relation to the Civil War itself.

Two different viewpoints

Clearly slavery was a contentious issue during the first half of the 18thcentury. However, a related issue was also central: How much freedom to pursue pro-slavery policies would individual states and regions have? This question led many, especially in the South, to pose the issues as centering on what came to be called “states rights,” or the relation between the self-determination of specific states and the authority exercised over states by the federal government.

So, in the years after the war ended in 1865, the general take in the South (and by many in the North) was that slavery was kind of a peripheral issue and that the war actually had most of all to do with the need the Confederate states felt to defend states rights and the Southern “way of life” in general—even to the point of defending them against invading forces from the North. This came to be known as the “lost cause of the Confederacy”the “lost cause” being the just cause of defending those rights and that way of life that, though defeated, was honorable and worthy. This view intentionally marginalizes slavery itself as a reason for the war.

On the other hand, the view I absorbed growing up in my “Yankee” environment was that indeed the Civil War was fought to free the slaves. After all, the key moment came when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 to order slaves freed. That statement made it clear what the stakes were in the war, and it energized the North to make sure to win the war so freedom for slaves would be attained. Perhaps that hard won freedom was compromised a bit in the decades following the end of the war, but the ending of slavery was a sure achievement, one that in fits and starts the country has tried to sustain and expand. Continue reading “Was the American Civil War About Slavery?”