Having grown up in upstate New York in the heart of all things Yankee, it will come as no surprise when I say that my favorite president growing up was Abraham Lincoln. I remember learning about this larger than life man who stood up and freed the slaves and began the movement to right all wrongs. I remember once arguing with a classmate about who was the better president, Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. At the tender young age of ten, my knowledge of the two consisted of nothing more than whether or not they had owned slaves–there was no contest. George Washington was an evil man, and anyone who preferred him insulted both me and the little black friend with whom I marched around arm and arm. Twenty years later I can no longer remember my friend’s name, and have since learned a little bit more about the two presidents in question.
I remember distinctly the feelings of despair and betrayal when, in the course of my studies as an adult, I discovered that not only did the hero of my youth share many of prejudices of his time, but that his actions gave birth to the foundations upon which modern progressivism built it’s great and spacious building.* My subsequent reading on both sides of the issue have led me to a few conclusions:
- Slavery was not the only reason the Civil War** began.
- Abraham Lincoln’s presidency was riddled with arguably unconstitutional actions including, but not limited to the barricade of Ft. Sumter, the suspension of Habeas Corpus, and the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Slavery in the southern states would not have easily ended without federal involvement.
It is important to point out that the modern proponents and defenders of the Confederacy are in no way sanctioning the institution of slavery nor are they defending the oppression of black Americans in the century following the war. But, the traditional “North = Good Guys, South = Bad Guys” narrative just doesn’t hold water. There is no question that the contemporary debate defending the southern position in the war has many valid points. The South supported free trade and shouldered the vast majority of the financial burden of Tariffs. The protective tariffs almost exclusively benefitted the industrial North and Lincoln was a strong supporter of them. His election spelled doom for the union in more than one way.
Lincoln was elected president of the United States in 1860 in a four-way race. Lincoln won 40 percent of the popular vote. He carried all but one northern state (New Jersey, which went to Douglass). In ten slave states there was not one recorded vote cast for Lincoln. The majority of the South abandoned Douglass (Northern Democrat) in favor of Breckinridge (Southern Democrat). The fourth candidate (Bell, a Constitutional Unionist) had enough support in the south that his electoral votes exceeded that of Douglass. But, when all was said and done, Lincoln came out the clear winner. The idea that a president could be elected without even half of the popular vote shows how incredibly divided the country was. While slavery was not the only reason for secession, it was the most divisive issue. The south wasn’t entirely agricultural and the burgeoning industry in the South benefited from the protective tariff policy. Lincoln lost the South, not because he favored the Tariff, but because he was against expanding the institution of slavery into the territories.
The issue of slavery up until the late 1800’s was extremely complex. It is true that a relatively small percentage of Southerners owned slaves at all, and an even smaller percentage were part of the wealthy landowner class that owned most of the slaves. At the drafting of the Constitution, the North and the South compromised on the issue of slavery in order to create a stable union. Slavery was discussed at length and knowing the northern abolitionist tendencies, it is highly unlikely the South would have capitulated to the compromises if the general consensus in the South didn’t believe that slavery was already on it’s way to extinction.
Given that the Articles of Confederation had no language regarding slavery at all, the inclusion of Article 1.9.1 was widely considered at the time a step towards abolition. Indeed, the notes on the Constitutional Convention show that this is exactly the case. The Southerners just needed time to wean their economy off of the institution.
In Federalist #42, James Madison says of Article 1.9.1 (the ability of the federal government to outlaw the international slave trade after 1808), “It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period, it will receive a considerable discouragement from the federal government, and may be totally abolished”. This article, combined with a passage in the Northwest Ordinance (passed the same year as the Constitution) which prohibited the expansion of slavery into new states added to the Union, shows that slavery was, indeed, on it’s way into extinction.
In 1787 all signs pointed towards slavery dying off in a few decades, and it would have, had “progress” not gotten in the way. In 1793 Eli Whitney gave new birth to the cotton gin. Seemingly overnight cotton changed from a costly and time-consuming venture into an immensely profitable one. All of a sudden a small farmer with a handful of slaves had the potential to be a large plantation owner… if he could expand west. The Northwest Ordinance quickly became a target for the expansion of slavery. For the next 60+ years the North and the South would have a tug of war over that issue.
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the territories in which the legality of slavery was in dispute were turbulent at best and becoming increasingly violent with every “compromise”. Kansas alone was home to rigged elections by the pro-slavery contingent and countless attacks on slaveholders by abolitionist ideologues: attacks that can only be described as terrorism. In Washington it was no better. The dialogue and civility had deteriorated to a point where Senator Charles Sumner used intense sexual imagery to accuse the southern expansionists of raping the “virgin territory” with slavery. If that wasn’t bad enough, a Southern congressman promptly beat Senator Sumner nearly to death on the Senate floor.
Given these circumstances it is disingenuous to say that slavery was not the primary motive for the split between the northern and southern states. Since before the signing of the Constitution individual states had already enacted laws that curtailed the gradual demise of slavery. Virginia passed several laws that, in essence, regulated all but the extremely wealthy out of emancipating their slaves. In the territory of Kansas the proslavery legislature federally criminalized even speaking against slavery publicly. However, nothing could have affected the sentiments of the citizenry regarding slavery as much the combined effects of the fugitive slave law and the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v Sandford.
States’ rights proponents often overlook the fact that strengthening the fugitive slave law in 1850 effectively shifted the burden of slavery from the States to the federal government. In A Patriot’s History of the United States, Larry Schweikart says:
The law contained several provisions that Southerners saw as reasonable and necessary, but which were guaranteed to turn ambivalent Northerners into full-fledged abolitionists… Special commissions, and not regular civil courts, handled the runaways’ cases. Commissioners received ten dollars for every runaway delivered to claimants, but only five dollars for cases in which the accused was set free, and the law empowered Federal marshals to summon any free citizen in the enforcement of the act. Not only did these provisions expose free blacks to outright capture under fraudulent circumstances, but now it also made free whites in the North accessories to their enslavement. When it came to the personal morality of northerners, purchasing cotton made by slaves was one thing; actually helping to shackle and send a human back to the cotton fields was entirely different.
Free citizens were conscripted into service as runaway slave hunters whether they liked it or not, and Free States were expected to spend their own resources to send runaways back to fields. Slavery was no longer a state issue but a federal one.
In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled that a freedman was not a citizen of the United States and therefore could not bring suit to the Court. The lower court’s ruling, that Scott’s move to both a free state and territory with his owner did not automatically emancipate him, held. In his decision, Chief Justice Taney held that the Missouri Compromise and the Northwest Ordinance prohibiting slavery in territories were unconstitutional. This provided the slave states the permission they so desired to take their “property” with them wherever they pleased. By using the Scott case to legislate from the bench, Taney had essentially erased the border between the slave states and the free states and the right of states to declare slavery illegal along with it. While no one is recorded as trying to move their household north to Massachusetts, the implications of western expansion, particularly in regards to railroad labor, were clear. The romanticized vision that embodied the Southern lifestyle was built on the backs of slaves, and slaves would be used to expand that vision west.
The combination of these two federal actions (both supported and sanctioned by the South) provided a perfect storm for the Union, and it was in this political climate to which Abraham Lincoln was elected.
Shortly after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. These states along with Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina eventually formed the Confederate States of America.
Confederacy apologists are absolutely correct in their claim that Lincoln abandoned the constitution in his effort to save the union. They are correct in claiming that he was not for the emancipation of the slaves when he was first elected. They are correct in many of their claims in defending the South in the Civil War. However, given all of this information I have yet to find an argument that answers the following question: Is it likely that the Southern states would have seceded from the union had slavery no longer existed?
Southern sympathizers paint a picture of a unified south when, like most things in history, the reality is far more complex. In most of the Confederate states (particularly in the deep south), secession passed by a very narrow margin with far fewer people showing up to vote than had in the presidential election. The wealthy land-owner class that made up the majority of the Confederate delegates was selected precisely because of their support of secession. No other conclusion can be drawn from the disproportional ratio of secessionists to “cooperationists” (8 to 1). The truth is that the wealthy and large plantation owners were the one’s calling the shots while the poor and the enslaved (which made up the majority of the southern population) were left without adequate representation. As the many accounts of southern soldiers show, the people fought out of loyalty to their state, not because they supported secession.
On the other hand, those from the north hail the Emancipation Proclamation as one of Lincoln’s greatest acts as president. The speech was hailed by northerners and celebrated by slaves when it was issued. Yet constitutionally speaking, the Executive cannot issue decrees from on high. His job is to enforce the laws, not write them (nor, as is the case today, refuse to recognize them). The power to legislate has forever been the responsibility of Congress. It was almost three years later with the ratifying of the 13th Amendment that slavery (as it existed up to that point) became illegal.
It is quite clear that examples of unconstitutionality on the parts of both the North and the South are plentiful and undeniable. Neither side can claim moral authority because neither side had morality as their motive. The North chose the path of “the ends justify the means” time and time again, and in doing so paved the way for the Progressive movement in America.
The southern ruling class, instead of allowing slavery to fade quietly into the depths history (as it had in every other Western nation), attempted to cling to their power by turning to the federal government to pass countless laws that would prevent the institution from dying off completely (much like brick and mortar stores turn to the federal government to force online stores to charge state sales tax). Indeed, the south was so embittered by the outcome that many of the southern state laws continued to oppress black Americans for more than a century following the war.
As a society we have chosen to view history through a modern filter: foisting modern values onto cultures of the past. In doing so we polarize issues that are, in reality very complex and multifaceted. We do our children and ourselves a disservice by not teaching the truth. Real history is passionate, emotional and sometimes ugly. It’s also amazing, inspiring and wonderful. We don’t need to dress it up or dumb it down, and we certainly don’t need to hide from it. What makes us think that running from our humanity and historical poor choices would help shape a more perfect future?
We currently live in a world where it is assumed that all rights are given through consent of the government, and not by Nature or Nature’s God. We live in a country where edicts are given from on high by the president while congress sits back and watches, claiming their hands are tied. Our citizens have forgotten what it means to be a nation of laws, not of men; because they were not taught that you should always look not just at what is seen, but at that which is not seen.***
The actions of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War in no small part helped knock the checks and balances our Founder’s set up off kilter. Yet had he not declared the southern states in rebellion, the enslavement of blacks in America would have continued for much longer. Slavery is and was a moral wrong, and no one has the “right” to institutionalize a wrong.
We need to start teaching our children the real history of the world, warts and all, if for no other reason than to prevent them from strutting around on the playground, taking pride in a moral authority that never existed in the first place.