I have suggested that one of the reasons that the issue of Civil War causation ignites such heated discussions in some quarters is because people take it personally. At least some descendants of Confederates do not like to hear that secessionists seceded to protect slavery (regardless of what advocates of secession said); all too often you hear that since someone’s ancestors did not own slaves, the war was not about slavery (which confuses the issues of the reasons for secession and the reasons for fighting, and well as muddling the concepts of why nations fight with why people fight).
Another favorite arguing tactic is to argue that since most white northerners held racist prejudices to a greater or lesser degree, neither secession nor the war could have been about slavery. Sometimes you hear that Ulysses S. Grant owned a slave (he did, although he freed the slave prior to the events of 1860-61) or that he owned slaves during the war (he did not) who were not freed until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (factually wrong on several levels, but mistakenly given credence in a piece of sloppy scholarship by the editor of Julia Dent Grant’s memoirs), while Robert E. Lee hated slavery (he did not) and he freed his slaves (Lee was the executor of a will that called upon him to set several slaves freed, and he missed the five-year deadline for doing so). Besides, whether Grant or Lee owned slaves and their connection with slavery is besides the point, because neither one of them played a prominent role in the debates over secession. I’ll deal with some of the usual canards about Grant and Lee later, but it is frankly bizarre that some people need to distort the historical record so badly in support of the illogical argument that says that because the circumstances of Grant and Lee explain why the war came and what it was about.
And then, of course, there is Abraham Lincoln. I’m going to address the Lincoln case separately in more detail in a future post, but the present indictment of Lincoln rests primarily on four counts: his remarks during the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate at Charleston, Illinois; his support for the proposed Corwin Amendment; his advocacy of colonization; and his August 22, 1862 letter to Horace Greeley.
Folks who pursue these arguments simply miss the point. Of course Lincoln harbored racial prejudices. Of course he saw his primary goal as preserving the Union. However, one could rather easily oppose slavery as immoral while continuing to embrace the notion of black inferiority. Moreover, white southerners saw Lincoln as antislavery and his election as a direct threat to the survival of the peculiar institution. Are you going to tell me that they were stupid or deluded? Is that any way for white southerners to honor their ancestors, by ridiculing their intelligence? Indeed, Stephen Douglas’s decision to accuse Lincoln of embracing racial equality tells us that playing the race (or racism) card in the 1850s was alive and well, because Douglas believed that he would gain political traction among racist Illinois voters (who were white, after all) by associating Lincoln with the cause of black equality. Lincoln’s response was thus also an issue of political survival. So was his decision not to publicize his support for limited black suffrage in Louisiana in 1864. He advanced the idea in a private letter, but waited thirteen months until he made his sentiment public … and three days after he made that sentiment public, he fell victim to an assassin’s bullet because that assassin could not bear the thought of black equality. Lincoln knew he lived in a racist America, North and South.
Responsible scholars recognize the persistence and depth of racism among white northerners during the Civil War period. It’s a key component in constructing the narrative of the sectional crisis, the war, and Reconstruction. One of the reasons Lincoln hesitated in issuing a proclamation of emancipation was because he knew it would arouse opposition in the free North among Democrats. None of that, however, has anything to do with the centrality of slavery in southern society or the reasons why secessionists advocated separation and independence: to protect slavery from the threat posed by Lincoln’s election and the long term implications of the Republican triumph in 1860. Moreover, pointing to the existence of northern racism does not make it disappear from southern society. Nor does it necessarily follow that because in 1861 most white northerners did not support going to war to destroy slavery (let alone to secure black equality) that white southerners did not go to war to protect a society and a way of life that was ultimately grounded upon and supported by the enslavement of several million human beings. To deny that is to deny historical reality.
It’s time to move past the “you, too” and “I know you are, but what am I?” modes of discussion about these issues. Indicting the North does not absolve the South, if one must insist upon viewing this debate in terms of a morality play. To say that secession was not at heart somehow about slavery is to say that millions of Americans in 1860-61 were simply stupid and didn’t know what was going on, including those ancestors white southerners want to honor and celebrate. I doubt they want to do that.