What was the Civil War really about?

Despite the title of this article–which could theoretically be the title of an exhaustive, 1,000-page historical treatise examining in great detail the coming of the American Civil War–this post is going to be fairly short. The Civil War was about slavery. That this is true should be abundantly obvious to anyone who’s done even a bit of perfunctory reading about U.S. history, but sadly, this basic truth seems to be lost on some people.

I was motivated to write this article when I saw a comment on Brooks Simpson’s terrific Crossroads blog, which frequently addresses the distortion of Civil War-era history to advance modern ideological agendas. The comment to an article posted today read, “The war was not over slavery…The war was over taxes that had over burdened the South, while the North paid very little.” Normally I wouldn’t pay an uninformed comment like this much attention, but unfortunately the idea that the Civil War was about something other than slavery is disturbingly common in revisionist circles.

The Civil War was about slavery. The Southern states that attempted to secede from the Union, beginning with South Carolina in December 1860, did so because they feared Lincoln’s interference with the institution of slavery. This is just historical fact.

Just to be certain I’m right, this morning I spent a few moments browsing the text of some of the secession ordinances. While I didn’t find all 11 (I think there were 11?) I found a number of representative examples, and you can see them too: South Carolina’s, Mississippi’s, Georgia’s, and Texas’s. It is interesting that in these four secession ordinances, the word “tax” is mentioned only once–in South Carolina’s, and only then to refer to the three-fifths clause of the U.S. Constitution. Nowhere in any of these four ordinances is there a single grievance regarding taxation.

Slavery, however, is mentioned all the time. South Carolina’s ordinance, the flagship and blueprint for all the Confederate state’s secession manifestos, makes clear:

“We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

This sure sounds like it’s about slavery, doesn’t it?

I don’t understand how people can get history so wrong. Well, actually that’s not true; I do understand, but I still can’t believe it. What happened, happened. You can’t change it. The Civil War was about slavery. Period. You may put your pencils down, class.



  1. You found the Declarations of Causes. Four states published Declarations of Causes detailing why they were attempting to secede. One state, Florida, had an unpublished declaration you can see here: http://www.civilwarcauses.org/florida-dec.htm

    You can find the secession ordinances here:

    The ordinances primarily simply declare that the bond between the state and the Union is severed, with one exception, Alabama, which said why they were taking the action. You can view it here: http://www.civilwarcauses.org/ordnces.htm#Alabama

    The states sent out commissioners to other states as official representatives to persuade those other states to join the secession movement. You can view many of the letters and speeches of these secession commissioners here:

    What we find from all of these is that of the 7 cotton states that were the first to secede, all 7 had official statements in one form or another in which they said the reason they were seceding was to protect the institution of slavery.

  2. The answer you get as a child is that the South seceded for slavery…then, as an adult, with a bit more depth of analysis, you come to realize there were many reasons. Then Sean tells you, “Nope, it’s slavery, dummy!”

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