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Civil War: short answer, long discussion

March 22, 2007

Why was the Civil War fought?  The usual short answer is “slavery”. But the discussion that follows the short answer is never short, thanks to people who want it to be about anything else besides slavery. Ed Brayton cuts the crap in Dispatches from the culture wars: Slavery and the Civil War.  It’s well worth the read, even though it’s up to 20 minutes worth by now.

Categories: Politics
  1. March 22, 2007 at 18:44 | #1

    I’ve been reading (well, listening to) a great book on Lincoln and Taney, which makes it abundently clear that the South seceded because of slavery, but the North (Lincoln especially) initially fought for the Union (with a vocal minority driving the slavery issue).

    That said, now I need to go read that article.

  2. Ted
    March 22, 2007 at 20:08 | #2

    But the discussion that follows the short answer is never short, thanks to people who want it to be about anything else besides slavery.

    Like property rights enshrined in the constitution?

  3. March 22, 2007 at 21:33 | #3

    But property rights and takings weren’t the arguments at hand.  Nobody but the most radical abolitionist was arguing prior to the war that slave states had to emancipate their slaves, only about where slavery could be spread to in the federal territories and the states created out of them.

  4. Ted
    March 23, 2007 at 10:42 | #4

    But property rights and takings weren’t the arguments at hand.


    From Ed’s original post—right between two excruciatingly long passages that beg the reader to fall into TLDR:

    He likewise complains that the Northern states had passed laws refusing to return escaped slaves to their “rightful owners”. That is the key fact in all of this. To those who fought, slaves were their property, period, and anything that denied them the “right” to own their fellow human beings was an unjust denial of their property rights. We now know that this is an absolutely unconscionable position, but it is the one they took nonetheless.

    [my emphasis above]

    My main objection in that discussion is the vagueness of the they in that paragraph—where Ed does not acknowledge the property that is enshrined in the constitution but tosses the theyness in the general direction of the south. Rather than recognize the clearly imperfect nature of the original document, he punts toward the south’s motivations.

    It is not my contention that slavery is right. (I come from a country that never had slaves but were slaves to others). Only that a legalistic reading of the constitution would lead people to the conclusion that slaves are considered property through article one and four, and since that was ratified the theyness should include the northern states.

    If anything, my issue is with the notion that the constitution is some sort of dogmatic document that should be worshiped and parsed religiously—it was wrong on slavery, and by gum, I give it credit that it may just evolve in other areas as well. But hey, revisionism is a noble undertaking when it absolves us of evil.

    Admin Note to DOF: The comment preview page doesn’t cache the authentication word.

  5. danindenver
    April 7, 2007 at 16:43 | #5

    I’m a big fan of looking at both sides of the issue, which is hard when you know that the victor writes history the way they want it. That way they can leave out embarrassing details, such as the fact that ALL of the Northern states had slaves. New Jersey only ended slavery in 1865!

    The truth, as always, is that the war was about a power struggle. And America lost. Try and think logically, for a moment. When a state has an irreconcilable disagreement with the federal government, the only recourse is secession. For the US Army to invade Virginia was an unconscionable act of war.

    Try and read an alternate view from a Northerner: http://www.etymonline.com/cw/apologia.htm

  6. April 7, 2007 at 17:50 | #6

    Well, danindenver, you didn’t leave an email address so you won’t get this reply, but the short answer is that neither the North or the South were homogenous in their opinion of slavery.  There were people who favored slavery in the North and who opposed it in the South – and in fact only a small minority of Southerners ever owned slaves.  But the war was fought over a perceived violation of state rights and “property” rights that boiled down to owning slaves. 

    Naturally, that wasn’t the only reason; for example the North had gone industrial while the economy of the South had atrophied as labor prices were depressed by slavery.  It was bad for everyone and it was long past time for it to end, even if one could grant that there was ever a time when it was moral.  The averages in the North were running against slavery (though not for anything like we’d recognize today as equality), and on average in the South in favor of slavery. 

    Whatever you think of the war, it was good for the country to stay together.  The South, if secession had succeeded, would never have developed economically. 

    Oh, and even the author of the contrarian piece you linked admitted that Northern slavery was “a drop in the bucket” compared to Southern slavery, and that in any case was numerically insignificant after colonial times.  The author’s contention about other slave-holding regions of the Americas are simply irrelevant to the question of secession.

    As I said, some people want it to be about anything but slavery.

  7. April 7, 2007 at 23:55 | #7

    While all the Northern states had held slaves at some point (as did pretty much the entire world), by the 19th Century it had largely died out in the North. 

    New Jersey was the last, banning slavery in 1804—though slaves over a certain age were grandfathered in as “apprentices for life” until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865.

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