The Question of Slavery

By Hummel, Jeffrey Rogers | Freeman, April 2011 | Go to article overview

The Question of Slavery


Hummel, Jeffrey Rogers, Freeman


Slavery can neither fully explain nor ultimately justify the American Civil War. This realization is unfortunately obscured because most scholars and buffs alike have usually sought a single cause for those four years of soul-wrenching conflict. The early nationalist interpretation, put forward by historian James Ford Rhodes, blamed one factor and one factor only: slavery. Slavery induced the southern states to secede, and Rhodes unreflectively assumed that the national government had no option but to suppress them. Later revisionist historians, such as Avery O. Craven and James G. Randall, contended that slavery was dying of its own accord and attributed the war instead to a "blundering generation" of politicians, manipulated by irresponsible extremists and fanatics on both sides. The Progressive perspective of Charles Beard also denied slavery's role and replaced it with economic considerations. Then, beginning in the 1950s, a neo-abolitionist school, which today dominates Civil War scholarship, reaffirmed the centrality of slavery.

Yet while these competing interpretations have waxed and waned, the underlying quest for the one overriding cause continues unabated. What southerners called their "peculiar institution" was indeed the fundamental cause of secession. That proposition no longer admits of any doubt. Historians would be hard pressed to find any causal claim in all human history for which the empirical support is more overwhelming.

But when historians go on to claim that secession made war inevitable, they embrace a common but logically indefensible leap. Only a few prominent neoabolitionist historians, such as Eric Foner and Kenneth Stampp, have recognized that Civil War causation breaks down into at least two questions. Why did the southern states want to leave the Union? And why did the northern states refuse to let them go? Just because slavery is the answer to the first, it does not necessarily follow that it answers the second. These two questions are often conflated because so many Americans approach the Civil War with an implicit and unchallenged prejudice in favor of national unity.

Yet secession and war are distinct issues. For secession to lead to war, northerners had to be determined to hold the Union together with violence. And scholarly research has demonstrated that slavery had very little, if anything, to do with that determination, either on the part of President Abraham Lincoln or of the northern public generally.

The sole northern group that had always made opposition to slavery their primary goal was the abolitionists. They burst on the national landscape in the 1830s, demanding the immediate emancipation of all slaves, without any compensation to slaveholders, and full political rights for all blacks. Less well known is that they were also often advocates of disunion. The most prominent and vitriolic of these abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison, went so far as to denounce the Constitution for its proslavery clauses as "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell." During one Fourth of July celebration he publicly burned a copy, proclaiming: "So perish all compromises with tyranny!" He believed that, if anything, the North should secede.That way it would get out from under the Constitution's fugitive -slave clause and become a haven for runaway slaves. The slogan, "No Union with Slave-Holders" appeared on the masthead of Garrison's weekly paper, The Liberator, for years.

Thus passionately opposing slavery and simultaneously favoring secession are quite consistent. And Garrison's strategic vision was hardly unique to him. Nearly all of slavery's most radical opponents initially shared it, including Frederick Douglass, the free black leader who in 1838 had escaped from slavery in Maryland, and Wendell Philips, a wealthy lawyer and Boston Brahmin. Needless to say, this disrespect for the Union did not go over well in the free states. Abolitionist lecturers, presses, and property were frequent targets of hostile mobs throughout the 1830s. …

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