Grant Explains the Cause of the Crisis

Here’s how Ulysses S. Grant opened the final chapter of his Memoirs:

THE CAUSE of the great War of the Rebellion against the United Status will have to be attributed to slavery. For some years before the war began it was a trite saying among some politicians that “A state half slave and half free cannot exist.” All must become slave or all free, or the state will go down. I took no part myself in any such view of the case at the time, but since the war is over, reviewing the whole question, I have come to the conclusion that the saying is quite true.

Slavery was an institution that required unusual guarantees for its security wherever it existed; and in a country like ours where the larger portion of it was free territory inhabited by an intelligent and well-to-do population, the people would naturally have but little sympathy with demands upon them for its protection. Hence the people of the South were dependent upon keeping control of the general government to secure the perpetuation of their favorite restitution. They were enabled to maintain this control long after the States where slavery existed had ceased to have the controlling power, through the assistance they received from odd men here and there throughout the Northern States. They saw their power waning, and this led them to encroach upon the prerogatives and independence of the Northern States by enacting such laws as the Fugitive Slave Law. By this law every Northern man was obliged, when properly summoned, to turn out and help apprehend the runaway slave of a Southern man. Northern marshals became slave-catchers, and Northern courts had to contribute to the support and protection of the institution.

This was a degradation which the North would not permit any longer than until they could get the power to expunge such laws from the statute books. Prior to the time of these encroachments the great majority of the people of the North had no particular quarrel with slavery, so long as they were not forced to have it themselves. But they were not willing to play the role of police for the South in the protection of this particular institution.

In the early days of the country, before we had railroads, telegraphs and steamboats—in a word, rapid transit of any sort—the States were each almost a separate nationality. At that time the subject of slavery caused but little or no disturbance to the public mind. But the country grew, rapid transit was established, and trade and commerce between the States got to be so much greater than before, that the power of the National government became more felt and recognized and, therefore, had to be enlisted in the cause of this institution.

What do you think of this explanation?

29 thoughts on “Grant Explains the Cause of the Crisis

  1. Barky August 4, 2011 / 4:55 pm

    Wow, nice. I think it’s spot on, and makes me want to reconsider the notion that Grant wasn’t very bright.

    • Roger E Watson August 5, 2011 / 2:22 pm

      Just out of curiosity, where did you get that notion in the first place ?


  2. Jeff Davis August 4, 2011 / 5:02 pm

    I think that is one of the most honest, succinct, and accurate statement of the cause of the Civil War that I’ve ever read. Having read it years ago, it had gone missing from my mind.

    The only thing Grant leaves out is the abolition/emancipation movement. While not a major factor, it was still a “squeaky wheel”.

    Thank you for posting this.

  3. Jeffry Burden August 4, 2011 / 6:14 pm

    I’ve always thought this was as fine a three-paragraph explanation as existed anywhere.

  4. MarkD August 4, 2011 / 6:24 pm

    I think he is right. I suspect that the idea that two states can’t remain slave and free applies even more generally to neighboring sovereign states in this day and age. As others have suggested, I suspect North Korea would collapse overnight if China and/or South Korea announced they would no longer repatriate escaped NK citizens.

    • Lyle Smith August 5, 2011 / 7:51 pm

      Yep, the more immoral that the PRC and the Republic of Korea don’t do such a thing.

      • MarkD August 6, 2011 / 9:16 pm


  5. Ray O'Hara August 4, 2011 / 6:58 pm

    works for me. succinct and to the point.

  6. James F. Epperson August 4, 2011 / 7:57 pm

    I think it is very perceptive, and reinforces the notion of USG as a man of extraordinary common sense.

  7. Al Mackey August 4, 2011 / 8:56 pm


    “Prior to the time of these encroachments the great majority of the people of the North had no particular quarrel with slavery, so long as they were not forced to have it themselves. But they were not willing to play the role of police for the South in the protection of this particular institution.”

    I agree with completely. And, of course, Grant’s statement does not contradict the thesis that the majority of the free states didn’t support a fight to end slavery but rather supported a fight to preserve the Union, at least during the first half of the war.

  8. Jim Bales August 4, 2011 / 9:59 pm

    It is interesting to compare Grants post-war account to that presented in 1861 by the secessionists of Georgia in their declaration of the causes of their secession.

    [With the rejection of protectionist tariffs, factions in the North and South] cast about for new allies. The anti-slavery sentiment of the North offered the best chance for success. An anti-slavery party must necessarily look to the North alone for support, but a united North was now strong enough to control the Government in all of its departments, and a sectional party was therefore determined upon. Time and issues upon slavery were necessary to its completion and final triumph. The feeling of anti-slavery, which it was well known was very general among the people of the North, had been long dormant or passive; it needed only a question to arouse it into aggressive activity. This question was before us. We had acquired a large territory by successful war with Mexico; Congress had to govern it; how, in relation to slavery, was the question then demanding solution. This state of facts gave form and shape to the anti-slavery sentiment throughout the North and the conflict began. Northern anti-slavery men of all parties asserted the right to exclude slavery from the territory by Congressional legislation and demanded the prompt and efficient exercise of this power to that end. This insulting and unconstitutional demand was met with great moderation and firmness by the South. We had shed our blood and paid our money for its acquisition; we demanded a division of it on the line of the Missouri restriction or an equal participation in the whole of it. These propositions were refused, the agitation became general, and the public danger was great. The case of the South was impregnable. The price of the acquisition was the blood and treasure of both sections– of all, and, therefore, it belonged to all upon the principles of equity and justice.

    Where Grant saw the political conflict as driven by the South’s losing control over the federal gov’t (thanks to the demographic and geographic changes of the antebellum period), the Georgians saw it as driven by the North’s seizing slavery as what we would now call a “wedge issue” to solidify Northern and Western sentiment against the South.

    I will admit that, given my reading of the history, I find Grant’s story more plausible. However, I note that neither gives much supporting evidence for their case.

    What neither comments on is what strikes me as the most striking feature of the pre-war discussion of the slavery issue: the extraordinary petulance and all-but-paranoid tone of much of the southern rhetoric. Look at the paragraph above, as well as the language of the other declarations of secession for examples. (Which include: “We had shed our blood and paid our money for its acquisition; we demanded … [Our case] was impregnable.”)

    Compare that language to that Lincoln’s speech at Peoria, in which he said (in part):
    “When southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery, than we; I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution.

    Lincoln tries to recognize the position of the southern slaveholders — to understand it and to engage them. This tone is present in the 1st inaugural as well. This tone of trying to see the situation through the eyes of the other party is (as far as I have seen) absent from the writings of the secessionists. They know what they want, and what they deserve –so by God they will take what they desire, and to hell with any who would oppose them in their self-righteous crusade.

    Jim Bales

  9. Neil Hamilton August 5, 2011 / 12:19 am

    Grant called it, pure and simple.

    • Ray O'Hara August 5, 2011 / 8:54 am

      ” a united North was now strong enough to control the Government in all of its departments”
      That quote shows the Georgia deceleration backs up Grant’s PoV but in a much wordier way.

  10. John Foskett August 5, 2011 / 6:49 am

    Grant was a remarkable and underappreciated man – possibly because of the idiotic “Grant the Butcher School”. A terrific writer, an artist, an accomplished equestrian, and (as this shows) a guy who could peer through the fog to boil an issue down to its essence. Of course, our Lost Cause Brethren will point out that this is more Yankee propaganda to obscure the real causes of state’s rights and the Tariff .

    • Andy Hall August 5, 2011 / 7:51 am

      Grant was a remarkable and underappreciated man – possibly because of the idiotic “Grant the Butcher School”.

      I’d argue that the “Grant the Drunk School” plays an even bigger role. But yes, absolutely unappreciated. I’ve seen it suggested that his autobiography should be taught as literature, it’s so clear and vivid in places.

  11. Carl Schenker August 5, 2011 / 10:14 am

    Brooks —

    In view of your post about Helga Ross and the search for a scholar who says slavery was the sole cause of the war, etc., I was amused to see that USG says that “the cause” of the war “will have to be attributed to slavery.”

    Your post (above) all caps the words “THE CAUSE,” but I see that probably came from your linked source rather than your own editorial choice. Anyway, perhaps USG had some honorary degrees and is the “scholar” you have been searching for.

    Carl Schenker

  12. Charles Lovejoy August 5, 2011 / 5:12 pm

    I guess I fall into the category of a Grant apologist, being also some what of a southern romantic (I think that is what some call me) It gets a little complicated at times. I have always felt Grant was an honorable
    man. I have longed believed Grant put this nation ahead of his on personal or political interests. I think Grant was a good mixture of intellect and common sense. I also think both Grant and Sherman showed how honorable they both were by the respect shown to the surrendering Confederate armies by them . I had several direct ancestors that surrendered to both Grant and Sherman, and I think if alive today they all would tell you the same as I . I think Grant’s synopsis is as good of explanation of secession and the war that followed as any.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 5, 2011 / 5:22 pm

      My take is that you are a southern romantic, but not a Confederate romantic, but you’re also mischievous. You are far less mean than many of your compatriots at cwh2, which is a good thing (and it seems to me a sensible one: mean folks seem so angry, and that’s not good for you).

      • Charles Lovejoy August 5, 2011 / 6:52 pm

        I’m sure if I was alive in 1860 my geographic location and culture that I was raised would have been a major factor in my views of slavery, secession , the Union and the war. All my direct ancestors were Confederates , I don’t portray them as perfect in every way nor do I villainize them. I portray them as products of their region and times.
        I lay most of the blame of secession on the fire eaters and political opportunist particularly those in South Carolina . I have always felt they worked many in the south into a frenzy after Lincoln’s election that led to a capricious secession of South Carolina. Keep in mind there were those in the south that were strong supporters of slavery but did not support secession. There were also those that were slave owners and supporters of slavery that did not support secession or the Confederacy. I have always seen varying thought and opinions on most of these issues in both the North and South. When I look at the period I do not see ‘a Northern’ view or a ‘Southern view’, I see many differing views. When it all came to a climax, in the south the secessionist tipped the scales in their direction and in the North the Unionist tipped the scales in the Unions.

        scales in theirs.

  13. Charles Lovejoy August 5, 2011 / 6:57 pm

    “mischievous” I do admit to having a little Robin Goodlfellow in me, it just rolls out at times 🙂

  14. Margaret Blough August 6, 2011 / 5:02 pm

    I think one of the primary roles the abolitionists played was fueling the insecurities and paranoia of the white elites in the slave states. Any questioning of the utility of slavery, much less its morality, had been so long suppressed in the slave states (the farther South one went, the more thorough the suppression) that they could not comprehend that free state governments would not officially suppress abolitionists within their borders even when they did not agree with them (the occasional mob action was another matter entirely). When one reads the various secessionist declarations of causes, among the biggest complaints was about the actions of the Federal government but the failure of the free state governments to silence abolitionists.

    Southern white paranoia led to increasingly strident demands for protection of slavery, that, even if met, were never enough. When the only rights at stake were the rights of blacks, most free state whites were not particularly stirred up. But when the demands got to the point that whites in the free states believed that THEIR rights were being placed at risk to appease what came to be called the Slave Power, that was another matter entirely. The Lecompton constitution and the attempt to admit Kansas as a slave state based on it, seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for many Northern Democrats, especially Stephen Douglas. For decades, they’d supported & placated the Southern Democrats, but the blatancy of the fraud in Kansas seems to have been too much to swallow.

    • Charles Lovejoy August 7, 2011 / 10:39 am

      Margaret, I think that first sentence sums it up very well and I agree. I also feel the abolitionists was the boogie man the fire eaters and political opportunist needed to fuel this “insecurities and paranoia”.

  15. Rob in CT August 9, 2011 / 11:23 am

    I absolutely love Grant’s memoirs, and here (as in many other places) I think he absolutely nails it.

  16. Noma August 9, 2011 / 2:15 pm

    Regardless of a number of profound disappointments a person can have with Grant’s overall career, nevertheless, sometimes it is hard to imagine a leader in modern times who is as perceptive, honest, humble and wise as Ulysses S. Grant. Who would it be?

    Although the quote given above is obviously the most important one, I believe that Grant’s portrayal of the the Civil war as something like a karmic reaction to our instigation of the Mexican war provides an additional important perspective:


    There was no intimation given that the removal of the 3d and 4th regiments of infantry to the western border of Louisiana was occasioned in any way by the prospective annexation of Texas, but it was generally understood that such was the case. Ostensibly we were intended to prevent filibustering into Texas, but really as a menace to Mexico in case she appeared to contemplate war. Generally the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. **For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.** It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.

    Texas was originally a state belonging to the republic of Mexico. It extended from the Sabine River on the east to the Rio Grande on the west, and from the Gulf of Mexico on the south and east to the territory of the United States and New Mexico—another Mexican state at that time—on the north and west. An empire in territory, it had but a very sparse population, until settled by Americans who had received authority from Mexico to colonize. These colonists paid very little attention to the supreme government, and introduced slavery into the state almost from the start, though the constitution of Mexico did not, nor does it now, sanction that institution. Soon they set up an independent government of their own, and war existed, between Texas and Mexico, in name from that time until 1836, when active hostilities very nearly ceased upon the capture of Santa Anna, the Mexican President. Before long, however, the same people—who with permission of Mexico had colonized Texas, and afterwards set up slavery there, and then seceded as soon as they felt strong enough to do so—offered themselves and the State to the United States, and in 1845 their offer was accepted. **The occupation, separation and annexation were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.**

    Even if the annexation itself could be justified, the manner in which the subsequent war was forced upon Mexico cannot. The fact is, annexationists wanted more territory than they could possibly lay any claim to, as part of the new acquisition. Texas, as an independent State, never had exercised jurisdiction over the territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. Mexico had never recognized the independence of Texas, and maintained that, even if independent, the State had no claim south of the Nueces. I am aware that a treaty, made by the Texans with Santa Anna while he was under duress, ceded all the territory between the Nueces and the Rio Grande—, but he was a prisoner of war when the treaty was made, and his life was in jeopardy. He knew, too, that he deserved execution at the hands of the Texans, if they should ever capture him. The Texans, if they had taken his life, would have only followed the example set by Santa Anna himself a few years before, when he executed the entire garrison of the Alamo and the villagers of Goliad.

    In taking military possession of Texas after annexation, the army of occupation, under General Taylor, was directed to occupy the disputed territory. The army did not stop at the Nueces and offer to negotiate for a settlement of the boundary question, but went beyond, apparently in order to force Mexico to initiate war. It is to the credit of the American nation, however, that after conquering Mexico, and while practically holding the country in our possession, so that we could have retained the whole of it, or made any terms we chose, we paid a round sum for the additional territory taken; more than it was worth, or was likely to be, to Mexico. To us it was an empire and of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means. **The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.**

    Ulysses S. Grant “Memoirs” Chapter 3

    • MarkD August 10, 2011 / 11:47 am

      I think Brook’s book “The Political Education of Henry Adams” is crucial to understanding certain things about common views on Grant. I don’t think the obligatory statements about failure before one can say anything (good or otherwise) about Grant show a real understanding of him or the times. In my opinion much of the negativism generally on the whole era (robber-barons, gilded age, etc.) is Adams’ type unwarranted condemnation, and I think gets transferred to Grant so that he becomes a symbol for that suppose reality. But is any of it true?

      Here’s a quote from “The Genteel Tradition and the Sacred Rage” by Robert Dawidoff:

      “The more educated Americans become, the more they read Henry Adams; the more educated they become, the more they see things as he told them they would. The more readers Henry Adams has, the more things become like they seemed to him.”

      Whether the Adams’ view on “corruption,” which I think is essentially an anti-bourgeois pose is justified or not is the central question of American intellectual life. I’ve judged this view and found it wanting, and I think just knowing the question is necessary to know many important things about American history. Much turns on this question. That Brooks dealt with this question in the process (I presume) of preparing the ground for future publications was extremely impressive in my view. In my mind that shows a tremendous amount of wisdom at the least, but I wonder how many really grasp the point.

      • MarkD August 10, 2011 / 11:49 am

        I neglected to say I was referring to Noma’s comment: “Regardless of a number of profound disappointments a person can have with Grant’s overall career . . .”

      • Noma August 13, 2011 / 7:03 pm

        Hmm… I keep thinking about this response. I guess I did not make myself clear. The fact is that I am such a hopeless Ulysses S. Grant apologist that I mention my profound disappointments as a way of counterbalancing my overwhelming prejudice in favor of Grant.

        Henry Adams is exactly the type of arrogant and mindless critic of Grant that I hold in contempt.

        I think that Grant did many great things as president (and later) that he rarely gets credit for.

        My disappointment with him is not that he was incompetent — I think he was farsighted and innovative. My disappointment is not that he was corrupt. But I am disappointed at the way that he hung out with and accepted gifts from various fat cats, who in turn gained personal credibility and caused drastic crises for the country. I’m disappointed that he stood by Belnap but dropped his Native American appointee and friend of long standing, Colonel Ely S. Parker, like a hot potato, when he was unjustly accused of corruption.

        And, as a fan of the populist movement of the late 1800’s, I’m disappointed that he sided with the business fat cats in his strict fiscal dealings. This hurt thousands of small farmers.

        But I still think Grant was one of our greatest and most progressive presidents, by displaying many of the same qualities he manifested in the Civil War.

        He was unquestionably the greatest Civil Rights president between Lincoln and LBJ, and possibly even greater in some ways. In addition to constitutional amendments to protect the civil rights of African Americans, he founded the department of justice, and arrested hundreds of Ku Klux KIan terrorists. Because of his work, many talented African Americans were able to rise to leadership positions in Congress and elsewhere — however briefly. In addition, Native Americans, the Chinese and Jews all benefited from his leadership. Grant stood firm on the issue of separation of church and state.

        Although Grant made some bad appointments, he also exhibited his war-time gift for finding the best men and giving them the authority to develop innovative policy. His appointment of Ely Parker at the head of Indian Affairs was revolutionary. His Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, was allowed to set up a peace process in Geneva which still has a profound beneficial effect, even in the modern day.

        In terms of conservation, the very first national park in the world, Yellowstone Park, was set up on his watch.

        He also worked very hard to bring the former Confederates back into the fold. I think he was right to give James Longstreet an influential position soon after he came into office.

        I’m disappointed that in 1977 he withdrew troops from the South which were protecting the Freedmen, but I can’t blame him for that. I think he had simply exhausted all public support for helping the former slaves.

        So, overall, especially considering the great challenges he faced, I think Grant was a remarkable president. I also think Grant was a wise and humble man, truly interested in and in love with the American people. I do not agree at all with Charles Adams’s perception of Grant.

        • Mark August 15, 2011 / 12:40 am

          I understand. But what you’re expressing is nothing other than the heartbreak of politics; the disappointment of anyone that is honest about those they supported after their time in office. And declarations about Grant like this have a history, so I think it is reasonable to expect that such expressions mean what they typically do.

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