This thread was spun off by my “Winners’ History?” thread ( http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=25236 ). In this thread, I asserted that people have differing opinions on what caused the Civil War, which for some reason inspired Jeff_42 to write,
There are previous threads on the subject of the Civil War:
but neither of them deals precisely with my thesis, so I decided to post it here. Ahem.
It is often asserted that the Civil War was not about slavery; rather, it was about states’ rights. The Southern states seceded to protect those rights from something. What that something is apparently a closely guarded-secret, about which no one is willing to breathe a word. What follows are some of my proposals on what it was which threatened states’ rights in 1860, along with my evaluations. Yes, some of these proposals are going to come off like strawmen; since I am not privy to the top secret information shielded by the defenders of secession, I kind of have to wing it.
A. Attacks on states’ rights. This is the closest most secession-defenders come to detailing threats to states’ rights. It is vague to the point of uselessness.
B. The tarrif. No. The Constitution explicitly give the Federal government the right to set tariffs any way it wants. Northern polticians had successfully imposed high tariffs many times before 1860, and the South never seceded. John Calhoun muttered about nullification; it’s not the same thing, and it never happened.
C. Secret unconstitutional activities by the Lincoln Administration. While Oliver North has shown that you can never assume that unconstitutional activities are not going on in the basement of a Republican-controlled White House, I still see no evidence of this. Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He may have had a few abolitionists in his cabinet but these are a drop in the bucket, compared with a non-abolitionist Congress, the non-abolitionist President, and Taney’s Supreme Court. It is never discussed how anyone could secretly abolish slavery in the first place.
D. Lincoln’s inherent unconstitutionality. This is more or less what the secessionists would have wanted you to believe. Lincoln was a “black Republican” who felt like destroying the Union cause he was bad and that’s what bad people do. I suppose we are supposed to forget that every effort was made by Lincoln and his people to preserve the Union, from peacefully ignoring the early secessions to fighting a bloody four-year war to sew the states back together.
E. Attacks on the right of secession. Simply doesn’t hold water from a temporal standpoint. Many people had asserted that there was no right for states to secede (including the Buchanan administration) but there was no attempt to prevent it until Fort Sumter. It hardly seems worth it to revolt against the opinion that there is no right to secede. I personally feel that there is a right to secede under the 10th Amendment, notwithstanding the “perpetual union” exhortation in the Articles of Confederation, but that is a different thread.
F. The reinforcement of Fort Sumter. Another temporally-challenged proposal. Fort Sumter had been supplied by U.S. ships for years before the war, then the South seceded, then they started shooting.
G. Stuff that Robert E. Lee must have been thinking of. So he was nice guy and a good general. He freed his slaves … such a sweety. He obviously wasn’t much of a political theorist, or he would have outlined exactly which states’ rights he thought were under attack, and by what mechanism.
The real reasons the South seceded had nothing to do with states’ rights per se. Oh sure, you can reinterpret these things in the light of states’ rights if you try hard enough. I could start a cow-mutilating cult next Tuesday, to defend my state’s right to be free from unmutilated cows. Would you call this a states’ rights issue, or a cow hatred issue? I submit the real reasons the South seceded:
They thought they could win. Not a sufficient reason on its own, but an important one. It doesn’t take a ton of brains to see that the section of the country which made cannon, ships, and food would beat the section of the country which made cotton, tobacco, and welts, but then, the fire-eaters who fomented secession had rather less than a ton of brains.
They wanted to extend slavery into the territories. The Federal government has the absolute right to admit states into the union on whatever terms it wants, just as it has general legislative powers (over issues like whether or not slavery is going to be legal) over its territories. This was not a states’ rights issue by any stretch of the imagination. The South was just frustrated that is racist, imperialist plans were being discomfited by the Free Soil movement and the coming Homestead Act.
They were feudal bigots, and feudal bigots like wars. Do I sound a little indignant? I am. Should it really surprise us that a section of the country which owed its prosperity, by its own admission, to beating, raping, and kidnapping people on the basis of their race, should enjoy the prospect of slaughtering Northern kids while screaming like maniacs? Why did Booth shoot Lincoln after Southern defeat was a fait accompli, and Lincoln had declared that he wanted a fairly gentle pease settlement? I don’t know, but my best guess is that he was an angry racist who felt like shooting someone to compensate for being a loser.
Deep down, they knew they were wrong. Having an amazingly eloquent anti-extensionist in the White House made the bankrupcy and immorality of their way of life all the more obvious. When pro-slavery people smashed William Lloyd Garrison’s printing presses, was this a defense of the Bill of Rights? On the contrary, it was a head-on attack on the Bill of Rights, all to the end of silencing anyone who would dare suggest that it was bad to flay black people alive.
The North and South had policy differences and power struggles for decades leading up to the war. Anti-slavery opinion notwithstanding, Lincoln asserted no more presidential powers in 1860-1861 than had previous presidents. States’ rights are in the interest of all states; is it a coincidence that all of the states which seceded were slave states? Sure, some slave states didn’t secede, as well as a rebellious chunk of Virginia … because the power in those areas was not held overwhelmingly by planters (the feudal bigots mentioned in (3), above). States’ rights were neither a necessary nor a sufficent cause of secession. QED