The History of American (White) Exceptionalism: Chapter Six
There are many purported reasons, typically advanced by white Southerners as to why the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. When you examine any of them, it comes down to slavery directly or the economic advantages possessed in the South because of guess what??? Slavery!
One of the primary causes clung to is State’s Rights. In an argument initially made by South Carolina, every state had the right to secede from the Union. It seems only southern states had any interest in breaking away and many of them were on the record saying what their reasons were. It came down to their right to keep slaves to keep ahead of the North whose industrialization had not yet caught up to the South’s cheap labor. The South wanted the ability to sell its cotton-based goods directly to Europe whereas the North imposed tariffs to make up for their more expensive production costs. The other item which concerned southern states was the expansion west and the ability for new states to have slaves. They saw a future where Congress would be controlled by non-slave states and the Presidency as well. In their eyes, they would always be under the thumb of the North (and West) and unable to reap the benefits of their low-cost goods, a direct result of slave labor.
In addition to State’s Rights, there was Sectionalism referring to the different economies of the North and South but the basis of the South’s economic system was slavery so no discussion of Sectionalism can discount it. Protectionism has its fans, the claim is that the South bristled under tariff’s which protected the fledgling northern industries, unable to compete favorably yet against primarily the more established European nations. This theory cannot stand exclusive of slavery because again slavery is the entire basis for the South’s economic advantage. There can be no question that the final blow was the election of Abraham Lincoln as President. He was a Northerner who was elected with no Southern support and was the proof some Southern leaders needed that they would be part of a Union that would forever control them. On Dec 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede. In the next two months, they were followed by Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana. On Feb 4, 1861, they formed the Confederate States of America while lame duck President Buchanan did nothing. President Lincoln assumed office on March 4, 1861, inheriting a divided Union. By 1863, there were 11 Confederate states and they also claimed Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma which were Union states permitting slavery.
Lincoln did everything he could to avoid war. He had no intention of invading the South, nor did he intend to end slavery where it existed. He ignored the fact that the South had confiscated gold bullion from mints in Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana. His one sticking point was that the Union would cede no further Federal lands to the South and would fight to defend them (except when they didn’t). On April 12, 1861, the Union garrison holding Fort Sumter was attacked by Confederate forces and the war was on in earnest.
Both sides started recruiting for war. Each initially raised hundreds of thousands of troops. The North highly underestimated the capacity of the South to wage war and initially told recruits that their term of service would be about 90 days. The South had perhaps more enthusiastic recruits, many who believed they were fighting for honor and their “way of life”. Southern leaders felt they would soon be able to complete negotiations to sell their goods directly to Europe, avoiding the tariff’s that had previously plagued them. In this instance, they were outsmarted by the North.
On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued an executive order called The Emancipation Proclamation. It is important to note what that proclamation was not as much as what it was. It freed some slaves, those in ten of the eleven Confederate States (excluding Tennessee). It did not free the slaves in the Union states permitting slavery and in all provisionally freed about 75% of slaves, provided they could reach Union safe haven. It served another purpose as it allowed the North to tell Europe that is was fighting to eliminate slavery, making it hard for them politically to reach trade agreements with the Confederate States of America. It created a good vs. evil narrative which eventually kept any European nation from ever reaching an agreement with the South. The Emancipation Proclamation was never challenged in court and ultimately most of its provisions were contained in the 13th Amendment which Lincoln pushed for and was ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, just after the war’s end. This included ratification by some of the former slave states, more or less as a condition of rejoining the Union. This technically freed all the nations slaves although the majority of slaves continued to work for the same plantations under the same owners with no real protections or rights under the law. The slave codes had now been replaced by the Black Codes and one could make the case that while the name had changed. Conditions for many were exactly the same. One thing that did change under the 13th Amendment was the elimination of the three-fifth’s of a person definition of slaves in the Constitution which ironically gave the South more congressional seats and theoretically more political power than they had before the war once black people were counted as whole persons.
After the Civil War, blacks had been freed and now had the right to vote. Steps were immediately taken then, much in the same way as current redistricting plans, gerrymandering and voter suppression laws are now intended to restrict minority voting. Although over 1,000,000 Americans died in the war. The thing they fought about and in some cases even for, has never been resolved. The one thing not in dispute is that the needs of white people superseded those of black at every turn. Slavery was only abolished as a means to prevent the intervention of England and France. Even then it was initially only in the slave states that left the Union. Once the war was over, substitute slavery was implemented and much of what went on before still remained. The Civil War was not fought to free the slaves but to manage the South and its economy, freeing the slaves was a late arrived at means to an end.