Debate on Civil War Secession


I’m of the opinion that the South seceded primarily because of slavery. Insofar as slavery was one of the driving factors of the southern economy (if not the primary one). The Civil War was fought primarily because of state’s rights, with the emancipation proclamation being a tactical ploy to give the north the moral high ground and to cause further turmoil in the south in the middle of the war, which it did due to those black slaves leaving for the north. Considering there was already some discord between the north and south prior to the 1860s (as far back as the 1830s, if not further than that), and also considering the hypocritical nature of the north’s position on slavery and black rights (ie freedom), I’m still skeptical of the whole, “It was primarily about slavery,” position. Because slavery is to the Civil War as terrorism is to the Iraq War. Sure that’s part of it, but there’s the ulterior motives which were the real driving factors behind those wars, at least in the position of those in power.


The civil war was fought for slavery, because the South started the war to preserve it. Their motivation to wage a war to carryout secession was the same as their motivation for starting secession in the first place: Preserving slavery. The South made the war about slavery, not the North. The North had no need to wage a war against slavery, because they already acquired the means to deal with it by getting Lincoln elected president, which is why the South seceded and started the war. The problem is a lot of people look for the cause of the war by looking at the North and not the South. You’re looking in the wrong direction.

“South starting the war,” is rather disingenuous. Sure they fired the first shot, but the events leading up to that first shot are a result of the North pressuring the South through measures that add up to glorified economic sanctions, via tariffs/taxes/laws, and lack of political representation. Something decades in the making up to that point. “The North didn’t need to wage a war against slavery because of Lincoln,” is also being disingenuous. The North was further along than the South when it came to technology for mass-production, which made slavery obsolete to them, at least in terms of farming material goods (the North still had slaves, both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation, let alone after the war itself).

But yes, we can both agree that the South carried out secession to preserve slavery, there’s no denying that. The controversy comes in “why” they wanted to preserve slavery. Because “why” they wanted to preserve slavery more significant to the reasons war was fought than the ethics of slavery itself. And the reason had to do with the economic independence of a state separate from that of the federal government. It just so happened to be that slavery was the economic driving factor; substitute that with anything else that’s far more moral, and you’ll still have the same issue between the North and South: state’s rights. But because slavery was as linked to the South’s working economy as the poor Chinese working conditions are to worldwide smartphones, the North was going to look good in hindsight regardless of the South’s legitimate grievances. When looking for the cause of a war, any war, you need to look in several directions, not just one. Saying it was because of slavery is just one direction, or at the very least overgeneralizing the issue.

Yes the South started the war, and not merely by firing the first shots at Fort Sumter. Before then, they had spent the last several months looting and pillaging federal property. They had also fired on an unarmed civilian ship trying to resupply Fort Sumter months before their attack on it. Fort Sumter wasn’t the South’s first act of war, it was just the final straw.

The other things you brought up, in addition to not being acts of war, are just pure nonsense. Tariffs? Tariffs were at historically low rates at the time of secession.

Lack of representation? The South had full representation and had dominated the federal government for a long time. Nearly every federal court ruling and law passed in the 1850s went in their favor. The man they overwhelmingly voted for was elected President in 1852 and in 1856.

The North didn’t have slave states. The only slave states in the Union other than the Confederates were the border states, which had not voted for Lincoln. Lincoln was elected entirely by free states. Citing certainly reasons for why the North wanted to end slavery is beside the point. The point is they wanted to get rid of it. That’s why they elected Lincoln, and why the South seceded in response to them electing Lincoln.

The South wanted to preserve slavery because they felt it was necessary for their economy and they believed ending it would lead to a wave of rape and murder by vengeful former slaves. Plus free whites didn’t want to complete with millions of blacks for jobs and votes. Any attempt to sanitize their desire to preserve slavery is doomed for failure, because the truth is it was for reasons that are every bit as backward and immoral as one would think. And you don’t have to take my word for it. All you have to do is read theirs:

“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable. That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.” –Texas Declaration of Secession.

Really though the reasons the South wanted to preserve slavery are beside the point. The point is they did want to preserve it, and that’s what they seceded and fought the war for. But if you want to go into detail as to why they wanted to preserve it, go right ahead. Those details are not favorable to the South.

Well, I must admit, you’ve thrown in some stuff I’m uneducated about. I do recall some bits about some Southern forces looting/pillaging federal property, and that civilian ship thing. All of which more or less reinforces what I said earlier about the South responding to pressures put upon them from the North. In particular, Federal pressure (hence the looting/pillaging). And a so-called civilian ship (got evidence for that?) carrying supplies to a Federal Union fort in the secessionist state of South Carolina, the first state to secede; after the Confederates offered to allow the federal forces to safely evacuate the fort. Don’t be disingenuous.

As for tariffs being historically low, we mustn’t forget that Morill Tariff. The highest tariff in U.S. history up to that point. A tariff that Congress passed first thing after Lincoln was elected (more on him later). True, it wasn’t enacted into law officially until after the Fort Sumter incident. However, it was generally known that this law was coming, and the South knew exactly what this meant (given the tariff stuff of roughly 30 years prior). Low rates or not, they weren’t going to stay at levels the Southern cotton exporters found acceptable, and this significantly added to the tension between the North and South. This is not pure nonsense.

As for the South getting favorable political treatment during the 1950s, I’d have to get a refresher course to have context on that. However, regardless of how favorable or not things were for the South prior to 1960 (you say things went in their favor, for all I know that’s another way of saying they were treated fairly), the double whammy of Lincoln getting elected with only 39% of the popular vote and no electoral votes from the South, plus the Morill tariff, could be viewed as anything but fair and favorable for the South. If nothing else, this further sowed division and emphasized that there was a big difference between the North and South. Hardly support for the notion of a “United” States.

“The North didn’t have slave states.” What does that mean exactly? That they were states that didn’t have slavery? Well that can’t be, since they did have people who owned slaves in the North, including Lincoln himself. That being said, I agree they were going in the direction of getting rid of slavery, but I’ve already addressed the economic reasons for doing so earlier.

That also being said, what evidence is there that Lincoln was primarily elected to eliminate slavery? Because from what I recall, he wanted his elected to be without controversy. To quote Britannica: [i]”His “main object,” he had written, was to “hedge against divisions in the Republican ranks,” and he counseled party workers to “say nothing on points where it is probable we shall disagree.””[/i] Basically, to take advantage of the division in the South over their potential presidential candidates. And it worked.

Much of everything else you typed I have no disagreement with. Except the last point: “Really though the reasons the South wanted to preserve slavery are beside the point.”

Well then, I guess I can say the reasons the North wanted to eliminate slavery are also beside the point. It didn’t matter if they wanted to do it for moral or immoral reasons so long as it got done, am I right? Thus the topic of slavery means nothing when it comes to the ethics of it all.

The South did secede because of slavery. But no, the war was fought for State’s Rights and the economy. Slavery was just so happened to be one of the major driving factors of State Rights and the economy. Perhaps if the South acquired their cotton and tobacco through means other than slavery, this would be a different sort of conversation where it would be more obvious what the war was actually about.

How is the South’s theft of federal property “responding to pressures put upon them by the North?” The North hadn’t done anything yet when the South started taking federal property. They just took it because they wanted it. It had nothing to do with any pressure. As for the civilian ship incident, that was the “Star of the West”. On Jan 9, 1861, the Star of the West, an unarmed civilian ship, attempted to deliver supplies to Fort Sumter. Confederate coastal artillery opened fire and forced it to turn back. This was a blatant act of war: Firing on an unarmed civilian ship delivering supplies to federal troops in a federal fort, without first issuing any formal declaration of war against the United States. The Union could have gone to war right then and there, but they wisely did not. But the point is the South was taking aggressive action and measures of war long before their attack on Fort Sumter.

I figured you might bring up the Morill Tariff, which did not pass until after 7 of the 11 Confederate states had seceded, and only passed because their secession removed the senate votes that would have defeated it. The Morrill Act did not cause secession. Secession caused the Morrill Act. As I said, at the time of secession tariffs were at historical rates. All the South had to do to maintain that was stay in the Union and vote the Morrill Act down. None of the Confederate states mentioned it in their declarations of secession. Even the 4 Confederate states that seceded after it passed had nothing to say about it in theirs. However, every one that mentioned their motivation in their declarations cited slavery.

It’s pretty easy to see how the South was being treated favorably in the 1850s. They got their fugitive slave act, they got their Kansas/Nebraska Act. They got their Dredd Scott Verdict. You could argue the federal government was doing more to appease the South in the 1850s than Chamberlain did to appease Germany in the 1930s. And again, they clearly did not lack representation. They had the same voting rights as anyone else, and their preferred candidate won the Presidential election in 1852 and 1856.

Why does it matter that Lincoln won the 1860 election with 39% of the vote in a 4-way race? In 1856, the South overwhelmingly voted for James Buchanan, who won with 45% of the vote in a 3-way race. No one complained about that! Why is 39% any less legitimate than 45%? Does that 6% difference really matter?

The North not having slave states is exactly what I said. Slavery was banned in the Northern states. The only states that had slavery were the border states that didn’t vote for Lincoln (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri) and the Confederate states. And no, Lincoln never owned slaves. Don’t know where you heard that myth, but it’s not true.

Lincoln was nominated by an anti-slavery political party for a specific anti-slavery purpose: To place slavery “in course of ultimate extinction” by banning it in the federal territories. That’s the only reason he was elected and the only reason the South seceded in response to his election. Every other issue was secondary. If slavery did not exist, neither of us would ever know who Abraham Lincoln was. He’d be just some lawyer who served one term in Congress. He’d never have come close to being president.

Again you don’t have to take my word on this. Just listen to the Confederate leades on the matter:

“Such, gentlemen, are the parties to the contest (The 1860 election) The issue between them should be clearly understood, especially here at the South. I assert, and shall maintain it with the proofs, that this issue is, whether African slavery shall be abolished here in the States, where it now exists? Let us not be deceived upon this point. Men may talk about our rights in the territories, but depend upon it they are not the questions now in issue. The abolition of slavery here at home is the design of our opponents. This is the bond that cements all the anti-slavery elements in one solid column against us.” -North Carolina governor John Ellis

The reasons the South wanted to preserve slavery are irrelevant to the topic at hand: Did the South secede and fight the war to preserve slavery. The answer to both questions is yes. The South fought the war to carry out secession for the same reasons they chose to vote for it: Preserving and expanding slavery. They didn’t forget all their reasons for secession and come up with new ones to fight a war for it. They didn’t need to. It’s modern people today who try to defend the CSA that feel the need to come up with new reasons for them fighting the war. The actual Confederates at the time were not ashamed to say they were doing it for slavery.

Slavery was the overriding concern of the South. They used arguments for states rights and the economy in furtherance of that goal.

Again, all you have to do is read their own words to understand

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.” –Mississippi Declaration of Secession.

If the Southern economy and society wasn’t based around slavery, then there wouldn’t have been any secession in response to Lincoln being elected president.

“The North hadn’t done anything yet when the South started taking federal property. They just took it because they wanted it. It had nothing to do with any pressure.”

Alright then. Give me an example. Something specific, with a date and location. Feel free to give background on it. I’d like to see the specifics for myself. Details matter.

You’re being disingenuous again with that whole bit about the Star of the West. It may have been a civilian ship, but it had been chartered; it had troops and ammunition supplies hidden below the deck. Bruce Catton discusses it in his book The Coming Fury (p.177-182). The ship’s journey was meant to be a secret, but the secret was leaked to the press, printed in the papers, and the Confederates got a hold of the papers prior to the steamer arriving at its intended destination. Not exactly a good look for the North that you’re trying to justify too much.

Morill Tariff, I figured you would respond in a manner like this. Blah blah blah. Everything you mentioned changes nothing that I’ve stated earlier, not even my acknowledgement about the timing of its passage.

Alright, so the South had some laws and decisions go in their favor between 1830-1860. Guess what else was happening during that time? The Market Revolution, the Antebellum Period. Invention of the cotton gin and the mechanical mower-reaper. A manufacturing system that spawned wage labor (which would make slave labor obsolete). How the nation began to change from a nation of farmers to having urban societies, causing millions to immigrate to the cities. The birth of the middle class (exclusive to the North). During those decades, the North and South became very different places on a cultural, social, and economic level.

The North was prospering while the South’s economy was stalling. Any laws the North passed that favored the South were compromises at best. The South viewed the majority of these compromises as things that favored the Northern economy while slowly stifling the South into nothing. Now, this isn’t to say that the South was heading in the right direction (if anything the North was the side actually making progress that would eventually better everyone), quite the opposite. But neither will I dismiss the validity of their concerns and criticisms of state rights vs federal rights in the interpretation of the Constitution, which had been a heated subject since the 1820s, and was anything but new by 1860. Nor will I dismiss the South’s concerns about the North implementing a subtle form of economic warfare against them to bring them to heel, forcing them to adhere to the northern ways.

The whole thing could’ve been handled better by both sides in order to avoid a war. But there were problems with leaders, elites, and radicals on both sides that made conflict inevitable. And I’ll not have disingenuous viewpoints ignoring that. You know, like you bringing up stuff about the South raiding/pillaging the North prior to the war, allegedly without any form of provocation on the part of the North (which I believe is nonsense), while not bringing up something like, oh say, Northern abolitionist John Brown raiding Harpers Ferry (a raid that failed, but still makes my point that both sides had their aggressors). An incident that fed into the South’s paranoid view on the North wishing their demise.

As for Lincoln not owning slaves, well… ok, turns out I was the one being unintentionally disingenuous with that one. I should’ve researched that more. Technically he did own slaves, but not in the manner initially implied. Lincoln married Mary Todd, daughter of Robert Todd, Kentucky’s largest slaveholder. She eventually inherited Robert’s slaves, thus Lincoln inherited Robert’s slaves. However, he sold them after he inherited them. Perhaps he could’ve had them emancipated instead, but he didn’t. This is covered in the book “Lincolns in the White House” by Kevin Orlin Johnson.

Anyway, as for Lincoln being elected, it matters because no one in the South wanted him elected (save for maybe 1% of the population in Virginia, if I remember correctly). Regardless, he was the president of the United States now, and would be making decisions that the South must adhere to, regardless of how they felt, regardless that he represented absolutely none of their interests, and wasn’t interested in compromising with them. Much on how he was and how he could’ve handled things better is discussed in this trilogy of books by Thomas J. Dilorenzo. It makes another point about state rights vs federal rights, and points to flaws in the American political system. You can argue that the South was in the wrong (and honestly, they were, on some significant subjects), but it’s an example of making the right argument (state rights and economic independence) for the wrong reason (slavery). The long-term repercussions of this are disastrous if another situation like this were to come up where it becomes the right argument for the right reason, but the federal response is the same and carried out similarly.

And slavery being the only reason he was elected, bah humbug. He was elected to keep the Union together. But in all fairness, he did achieve his goal of bringing it back together by force, and by utilizing methods and means that are both controversial and hypocritical.

I don’t think there’s much more to be said on this. The rest of the stuff you spouted is just repetition of points already stated.

Edit (5-4-2023): Someone added to this conversation in an interesting way, via Gab.

Indeed, plantations comprised a large part of the economy, just as factory farms do here in America today, and like today you see agriculture corporations with the largest voices in policy decisions allowing all manner of anti-farming economic policies because they can bear the burden of them whilst the small family farm cannot.
It’s like Walmart supporting raising minimum wage politically so as to put small businesses out of business.
Much of what the plantations supported politically was detrimental only to the small freeholder farmer and not really to them.
Many freeholder farmers opposed slavery themselves, because it gave an unfair advantage to the large plantations they were competing with economically.
But again, please understand and fact check this, the abolition of slavery was for the new States in the West, there was no movement politically to end slavery in the South, or the North.
There were abolitionists that wanted to free slaves in the South, and North, but there was no political will to do that. In the North for that matter there was quite a bit of slavery as well.
The Iroquois nation were some of the largest slave holders outside of the South.
And again (and you can fact check this) the emancipation proclamation only freed Southern slaves. Slavery persisted long after the proclamation in the North.

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