Dear President Trump,
Normally this blog is about is the intersection of history with film and television, but occasionally I offer my thoughts about political comments about history. And recently you drew attention by saying “But why was there the Civil War? Why couldn’t that one have been worked out?” A lot of commentators have attacked you for asking the question and arguing that you ought to have known the answer. But as I tell my students occasionally, there is no shame in not knowing something about the past. The whole point of taking history courses is to learn things about the past that you didn’t know (and to learn a set of incredibly useful general skills that can be applied to almost any situation you’re in). So rather than shaming you, I’m going to answer the question for you.
As it happens, the answer to that question is both simple and complex at the same time. I’m not a specialist in American history but I do teach Modern Western Civilization pretty regularly, which requires me to discuss the issue, and here’s my take on the question. The Civil War couldn’t be “worked out” because 1) the Southern states were committed to the principle that black people were not truly humans but merely property that white people could own and use for labor, 2) the Constitution was written in such a way that, short of a massive change of heart across the South, there was no legislative solution to the dispute over slavery, and 3) Southern politicians were committed, not just to maintaining their “peculiar institution” (as they liked to refer to slavery) but also to expanding slavery into areas where it was not currently allowed. (By the way, if you need to practice your writing, that previous sentence is what’s called a “thesis statement.” It summarizes my main point in this essay. You sometimes have trouble expressing your arguments clearly, so you might try using a thesis statement.)
Southern Attitudes toward Slavery
My first point is that the Southern states were deeply committed to the principle of owning black people as property. You can see that in the statements the Southern states made when they were justifying their secession from the United States. For example, the Mississippi Declaration of Secession says in its second paragraph,
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”
Several of the ‘facts’ it cites are explicitly related to slavery and most of the remaining ones are indirect references to slavery or issues related to slavery.
South Carolina’s Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union takes somewhat longer to get to the point, but eventually explains that Northern states were refusing to live up to their Constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves (as expressed in as the Fugitive Slave clause) and that the non-slaveholding states have sought to undermine the ownership of slaves as property.
Texas’ A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union says in its third paragraph “[Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery – the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits – a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.” It goes on to say a few paragraphs later that many of the Northern states have violated the Fugitive Slave clause of the Constitution, and that these states have formed a ‘sectional party’
“…based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.”
Notice how explicit the Texas statement is about the moral value of slavery. It calls it a “beneficent and patriarchal system” supported by “the plainest revelations of Divine Law.” That sort of language is surprisingly common among Southern politicians in the decade before the Civil War. Albert Gallatin Brown, a prominent politician from Mississippi who served in the House of Representatives and the Senate and two terms as governor of Mississippi declared in his 1858 Speech at Hazelhurst, “I think slavery is a good thing per se; I believe it to be a great moral, social, and political blessing—a blessing to the master and a blessing to the slave, and I believe, moreover, that it is of Divine origin.” In the face of pressure from abolitionists, Southerners had developed a justification of slavery that argued that it was not just useful, but actually one of the greatest moral goods in human history. While shockingly racist by modern standards, these sentiments were quite common in the Old South.
The Confederate Constitution, which is largely modeled on the United States Constitution, generally makes explicit references to slavery where the US Constitution was more discreet about the issue. It forbids the important of “negroes of the African race”. It declares that “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” (The italicized text is new.) Should the new Confederacy acquire new territory, “In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government: and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the states or territories of the Confederate states.” Clearly, the Confederate states wanted to ensure that slavery was guaranteed permanetly in their government.
Slavery in the Constitution
The American Constitution is in many ways a wonderful document. You should read it some time; my students are always surprised by the rules it establishes for how we can run our political system. But one of the places where it fails to live up to its promise is in its acceptance of slavery. The Constitution was very much a compromise document, seeking to balance the interest of large states against small states and of Northern non-slaveholding states against Southern slaveholding states. Without that compromise, it wouldn’t have been accepted by different states. It enshrines political compromise as a basic principle in our system. If the House and the Senate can’t agree on a law, that law can’t get passed, and if the President can’t agree with Congress, that law is probably not going to get enacted. One of the places where the authors of the Constitution compromised was by allowing slavery. In fact, slavery is written into the Constitution so deeply that achieving a legislative solution to the dispute over slavery was essentially impossible.
You might be surprised to hear that slavery is entrenched in the Constitution. The words ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ never occur in the document. But that doesn’t mean it’s not in there. The men who wrote the Constitution (James Madison in particular) were aware that Northern states were hostile to slavery, so they sought to disguise the presence of slavery in the document by referring to it obliquely. By my count, the Constitution discusses slavery 3 times, mostly with an eye to protecting it.
For example, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 says “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” Did you catch that reference to slaves? They’re the “all other Persons” who aren’t “free Persons” or “Indians not taxed.” This is the famous 3/5th Compromise, which declared that slaves were to be counted as 3/5 of a person for purposes of apportioning representation in the House.
Maybe you knew about the 3/5 Compromise, but you probably didn’t stop to think about what the practical effect of it is. By treating slaves as a form of property that still counts toward political representation, this clause over-represents the Southern states relative to the Northern states (which didn’t allow slavery). That guaranteed that even if there were an equal number of slaveholding and non-slaveholding states, the slaveholding states would always have a larger voice in the House, thereby ensuring that no law hostile to the interests of slave owners would be able to pass.
Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 states “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.” That sounds innocuous until you realize that the “importation of such persons” is a reference to importing blacks as property. The purpose of this clause is to forbid Congress from forbidding the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade until 1808 and forbidding Congress from trying to stop the trade by imposing steep tariffs on imported slaves.
Then there’s Article 4, Section 1, Clause 3, the aforementioned Fugitive Slave clause. “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” In other words, no runaway slave can escape his slavery by fleeing to a non-slaveholding state. Slave owners could legal require that the authorities in non-slaveholding states had to turn over escaped slaves. One could also argue that Article 4, Section 1, Clause 1, the Full Faith and Credit clause, deals with slavery as well, since it requires non-slaveholding states to acknowledge the purchase and sale of slaves in other states.
But that’s not the end of the ways the Constitution protects slavery. Article 1, Section 7, Clause 1 says that all bills dealing with taxation must begin in the House. That means that Congress would not be able to tax slavery out of existence, because slaveholding states were over-represented in the House. Article 1, Section 9, Clause 5 specifies that “No Tax or Duty shall be laid on Articles exported from any State.” Slaveholding states were perhaps the major exporters in the United States because slaves were primarily used to run plantations that produced export crops like cotton and indigo, so it would not be possible to abolish slavery by taxing the exports that made slave owners wealthy.
The 3/5 Compromise also affected the election of presidents, since the number of electors that a state received was based on the number of Representatives it had plus the number of Senators it had. So the over-representation of slaveholding states skewed the presidency toward slaveholding states. It’s no wonder that 10 of the first 16 presidents were slave owners, although two of them, Van Buren and W.H. Harrison inherited their slaves. (Despite being a Northerner, Harrison was a supporter of slavery.)
Eventually, the higher population growth of the Northern states began to enable the free states to overcome the artificial bonus that slaveholding states had, but at that point, the fact that all states got an equal number of senators began to work in the South’s favor by preventing anti-slavery laws from passing in that chamber. Since ties are broken by the Vice-President and a majority of the Vice-Presidents were supporters of slavery, slavery remained protected.
The cumulative effect of this entrenchment of slavery in the Constitution was that a peaceful, legislative solution to the dispute over slavery was nearly impossible to achieve, because slaveholding states and politicians had a decisive upper hand in the Federal Government. That meant that the only way slavery could be abolished was through violent conflict.
The Expansion of Slavery
Post-Civil War propaganda in the South has sought to depict the Civil War as a “War of Northern Aggression”, but the reality is that it was Southerners who wanted to expand slavery. Southern states insisted on the enactment of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which was designed to overturn Northern states laws intended to make the return of escaped slaves harder by fining government officials who did not arrest alleged slaves; the law provided that government officials had to accept a slave-owners sworn testimony that a particular black man was a runaway slave. This made it quite easy for Southerners to essentially kidnap free blacks into slavery. The 1857 Dred Scot decision declared that blacks could not be citizens and therefore could not easily bring lawsuits alleging that they were free. It also declared that the Federal government had no power to regulate slavery in federal territories acquired after the American Revolution. By suing to force the return of slaves from free states, Southern slave-owners were often seeking to overturn free state laws, thereby undermining the ability of free states to remain free states.
(My own state, Wisconsin, I am proud to say, openly defied the Supreme Court on this issue and refused to hand over the escaped slave Joshua Glover. A mob broke him out of his prison at what is today Cathedral Square in Milwaukee.)
There was also a vehement quarrel over the admission of new states to the Union. Abolitionists hoped that by admitting more free states, they might eventually be able to overcome the lock the slaveholding states had on the Federal government. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 maintained the balance of power by admitting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state.
Southern states, in contrast, wanted to export slavery wherever they could. In Albert Gallatin Brown’s speech, he declares the importance of exporting slavery.
“I want Cuba, and I know that sooner or later we must have it. If the worm-eaten throne of Spain is willing to give it for a fair equivalent, well—if not, we must take it. I want Tamaulipas, Potosi, and one or two other Mexican States; and I want them all for the same reason—for the planting and spreading of slavery… I would spread the blessings of slavery, like the religion of our Divine Master, to the uttermost ends of the earth, and rebellious and wicked as the Yankees have been, I would even extend it to them. I would not force it upon them, as I would not force religion upon them, but I would preach it to them, as I would preach the gospel.”
Apologists for the Confederacy have often claimed that the Civil War was caused by the issue of ‘state’s rights’. But in fact, when you read the various Declarations of Secession, you find the seceding states complaining that the Federal government wasn’t enforcing the Constitution on the Northern states. So they were actually opposing the idea of state’s rights.
Obviously the causes of the Civil War are complex. I’m not a specialist in American history, and I’m sure a good Civil War historian could greatly elaborate on (and perhaps in a few spots correct) my argument. But that’s the basic reason why the problem of slavery couldn’t be “worked out.” All avenues for resolving the dispute peacefully had essentially been foreclosed by the way the Constitution was written and by the insistence of Southerners that their system was inherently good and needed to be expanded.
Most of the confusion about the Civil War’s causes has been due to Confederate apologists seeking to justify their failed secession after the Civil War and by 20th century racists who began to glorify the Confederacy during the Civil Rights era (for example by insisting on raised the so-called Confederate Flag at state-houses in the South). But that’s an issue that can be addressed with more emphasis on history education. I’d encourage you to do some reading about the subject or talk with an historian of the Civil War. Ignorance of the past is nothing to be ashamed of, but committing to ignorance of the past is.
Want to Know More?
One simple place to start is David Waldstreicher’s Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification. It does a good job of showing how slavery was enshrined in the Constitution.