Monday, August 30, 2010

SCV Member Speaks Out

No, Slavery Did Not Cause the Civil War
Published: August 29, 2010

The problem with Charles Bryan's Op/Ed column, "Yes, Slavery Caused the Civil War," is that nearly every point he raises to make his argument against the short-lived Southern Republic could also be made directly against the United States, its Constitution, and the Founding Fathers. For example, the statement that "the Confederacy was a nation based on laws and constitutional authority protecting slavery and the right of its citizens to own other human beings." The implication is that the United States and its Constitution were not. But this is false.

It may be useful to point out a few uncomfortable realities:

•The United States Constitution clearly provided in the second section of Article IV for the return of fugitive slaves to their masters.

•The United States Constitution in the second section of Article I clearly provided that three-fifths of all other persons (meaning slaves) were to be counted for the purposes of representation in the U.S. House.

•The United States Constitution, in fact, extended the slave trade a full decade until 1808. This was a rejection of the proposal by George Mason, a slaveholder, and other Virginians, for an immediate end to this inhumane practice. The extension benefited New England -- the center of American slave trading.

The U.S. Constitution was designed chiefly to protect liberty and property, including slaves. The Framers knew that property rights were indispensable to liberty and that for the time being bonded labor was a unique species of property. Such statesmen as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Patrick Henry, George Mason, John Marshall, and a host of others, were slaveholders who also opposed slavery. Yet they had to deal with the day-to-day reality of an inherited institution, while striving to make it as humane as possible and looking forward to its final abolition by peaceful and orderly means. This is not a contradiction, but rather a paradox.

In 1831, Virginia attempted to enact a bill for gradual emancipation of the slaves --it lost by one vote in the General Assembly. Virginia, all counted, made a total of 23 attempts to legislate the freeing of the slaves and the abolition of the slave trade prior to 1861.

The United States Congress, in a resolution unanimously approved by both houses on July 23, 1861, declared: "The war is waged by the Government of the United States, not in the spirit of conquest or subjugation, nor for the purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or institutions of the states, but to defend and protect the Union." There is not a word about abolishing slavery.

President Abraham Lincoln said in his first Inaugural Address: "I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."

In 1861, Lincoln supported passage of the Corwin Amendment to the Constitution, which would have formally and explicitly enshrined slavery in the U.S. Constitution by prohibiting the government from ever interfering with Southern slavery. This amendment passed the Senate and the House just days before Lincoln was inaugurated (but the advent of war prevented its ratification by the states). In his first Inaugural Address he said he believed slavery was constitutional and then, alluding to the Corwin Amendment, said: "I have no objection to it [slavery protection] being made express irrevocable" in the Constitution. This was by far the strongest defense of slavery ever made by an American politician.

Not one single slave in any non-seceding Union slave state (Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky, and the District of Columbia) was freed by Lincoln's famous 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. It had no effect on any Southern state, as it obviously could not be enforced there. Lincoln himself said (in a widely distributed communication, Aug. 22, 1862, to New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley): "If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it."

Arguments that slavery caused the war and that the South was the culprit are already bearing fruit in the City of Richmond. The city's commission on the sesquicentennial, The Future of Richmond's Past, is already showing a distorted emphasis on slavery versus the heroism, suffering, and sacrifice of the soldiers whose leaders' statues grace Monument Avenue. This approach seems more calculated to drive visitors away than to attract them to the capital city of the Confederacy.

Virginia's secession convention stood firmly pro-Union until the April 12, 1861, firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call of troops from Virginia to help bring the seceding states back into the Union. Slavery played no role in Virginia's decision and Virginia left the Union only upon Lincoln's call up to invade the lower South.

Slavery began in Virginia in 1619, not 1861. It is an injustice to pile the sins of 250 years of the "peculiar institution" on the brave men who went forth against the invaders between 1861 and 1865. As we commemorate their heroism and sacrifice, we do not forget the peculiar institution, but at the same time we must not let political correctness corrupt our judgment and our historical understanding. As noted historian James McPherson wrote in What They Fought For, 1861-1865, the vast majority of Southern soldiers believed they were fighting to defend their state, their homes, and their families -- not slavery.


Richard T. Hines serves as commander of the Jefferson Davis Camp #305 Sons of Confederate Veterans, Virginia Division. Contact him at