Slavery: Did it cause secession and the War Between the States?

By Bill Ward

"What were the causes of the Southern independence movement in 1860? . . . Northern commercial and manufacturing interests had forced through Congress taxes that oppressed Southern planters and made Northern manufacturers rich . . . the South paid about three-quarters of all federal taxes, most of which were spent in the North."

Charles Adams writing in, “For Good and Evil: The impact of taxes on the course of civilization," 1993, Madison Books.

Ask several persons why the American Civil War or the War Between the States (WBTS) was fought, and you’ll likely get answers ranging from, “to free the slaves” and “states rights,” to a few blank stares. Many will have trouble identifying the difference between the Confederate battle flag, the “Stars and Bars,” and the “Stars and Stripes.” Let’s face it, the history education and knowledge of most U.S. citizens leaves much to be desired.

During a discussion several years ago with the late Shelby Foote, one of the great researchers and writers of WBTS history of our time, I asked a common question of this very knowledgeable man. Was the Civil War (my term at the time) fought about states rights or freeing the slaves? I had been taught as an elementary school child in the 1940s that it was all about the latter: freeing the slaves.

Shelby’s answer was quick and well thought out, as if he had pondered the question many times: “A lot of people would like to know the answer to that. If you want to make a million dollars, do a lot of research, determine exactly why that war was fought, and then write a book about it.” He went on to say that a long list of social, political and economic differences existed between the people of the north and the south.

Popular history has demonized the Confederacy on the issues of slavery and secession, conveniently overlooking that neither originated in the South. A simple fact understood by all serious students of history is, the North no more fought a war to free any slaves than the South fought a war to keep the institution of slavery intact. To say, as some do, that the Civil War was all about slavery is as foolish as those who say slavery had absolutely nothing to do with the war. Slavery was far down the list of regional differences mentioned by Shelby Foote, while the economic state of affairs ranked very high.

Consider this startling statistic of present-day society: the top 50 percent of income earners pay 96.5 percent of the federal income taxes, while the lowest 44 percent pay no federal income taxes at all.

Now, suppose you lived in a region of the country that paid 70 to 80 percent to support the federal government, while another region received most of that money to benefit its citizens and businesses?

That was the financial situation in the United States in 1861 when the Southern states were paying, through excessively high import tariffs, most of the support for the federal government in Washington. And most of that money was funneled to northern industrial interests for expansion. In the mid-1800s, that was called “internal improvements.” Today, it’s “business incentives.”

As to the slavery issue, the stripes in the U.S. flag represent the 13 original colonies, the northern-most of which, in their infancy, legalized and profited from slavery. Massachusetts, then including Maine, became the first colony to legalize slavery in 1641, pressing most of that state’s Native American population into bondage. From 1755 to 1766, an estimated 23,000 Africans were sold or traded through Massachusetts alone. And other northern states shared in the human bounty.

A colonist quoted in Pennsylvania Packet, a Philadelphia newspaper, on February 7, 1774 said, “I beheld a middle aged African raised and exposed on one of the stalls in the shambles of Philadelphia market at Public Sale, as a Slave for life. And this is the capital of Pennsylvania, a land high in the profession of Liberty and Christianity.”

The shipping colonies of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire chose financial gain from slave trading over moral considerations. New England seaports thrived on a profitable business of slave importing, clearly marking the pathway of the slave trade from north to south.

During the framing of the Constitution, in a third compromise, the abolition of the slave-trade was introduced. South Carolina opposed immediate abolition. Since the New England ship-owners made great profits by the trade, the New England states joined South Carolina and Georgia in voting that Congress should be powerless to stop the importing of slaves before 1808, extending the slave trade by Constitutional edict for twenty years. Virginia and three northern states voted against the provision. Later, in 1832, the Virginia legislature narrowly defeated a bill for emancipating all slaves in the state. Part of the reason for the defeat was a perception of interference in state business by Northern abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison.

By the mid-1800s, the slave trade had drastically declined, and many states had adopted laws permitting gradual emancipation. Then smuggling became an alternative industry during attempts to outlaw the Northern slave trade. In 1858, just three years before the WBTS, Yankee sea captains smuggled more than 15,000 slaves into New York alone. The following year, 85 vessels sailed from N.Y. to bring in more human cargo. By then, the slave trade had thrived on U.S. soil and under U.S. colors, in some form, for some 200 years before the Confederacy existed.

But perhaps the most surprising event that might have affected slavery in this country is one that is seldom, if ever, mentioned in most history textbooks, and is probably not known by most history teachers. It was the introduction of the Corwin Amendment, or the proposed 13th Amendment to the Constitution, in March of 1861, which we’ll discuss in a later column.

©April 2006