History Shows That the Civil War Was about Slavery

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 21, 1998 | Go to article overview

History Shows That the Civil War Was about Slavery


In his zeal to attack "big, intrusive government," Walter Williams harms the cause of freedom ("Updated footnotes to the Civil War," Commentary, Dec. 8). His diatribe contains a multitude of half-truths and embarrassing mistakes - an example being that Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas held "presidential debates."

Mr. Williams' assertion that the Civil War was not about slavery contradicts both sides. Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, observed that "African slavery was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution." Lincoln said in his second inaugural address: "These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war."

Mr. Williams' central problem, though, is not his historical errors. Along with left-wing libertarians, such as that other John C. Calhoun enthusiast Lani Guinier, Mr. Williams shares the view that our Constitution is separated from the basic moral principles of the Declaration of Independence.

When the Declaration of Independence says "all men are created equal" in their natural rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, it teaches us that our right to personal freedom compels us to recognize the equal right of all other persons to the same freedom. Consequently, within a few years after the declaration was published, half of the states abolished black slavery as inconsistent with its Jeffersonian principles. Mr. Williams denigrates Lincoln, "the great emancipator," but Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson both saw the essential connection between the moral equality and the economic freedom of all human beings.

Imagine a critic of big government praising the old Confederate Constitution. In many clauses, the United States and Rebel constitutions were "nearly identical," Mr. Williams writes. Indeed, despite his pretense that states' rights imply secession, neither constitution allowed it. But there was one gigantic difference: The Confederate version guaranteed race-based slavery forever: "No . …

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