What  caused the Civil War? Is slavery the primary cause of secession and the Civil War?


At the heart of the Myth of the Lost Cause is the insistence that secession, the Confederacy, and the Civil War were all about states’ rights, not slavery. This myth began almost as soon as the war ended. The newspaperman-turned-historian Edward A. Pollard in his immediate postwar histories described slavery as “an inferior object of the contest.” His flimsy evidence included the rebels’ supposed program of “Negro enlistments and consequent emancipation,” which is discussed in detail below. Robert E. Lee disavowed slavery’s role in the war: “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished.”


More significantly, Confederate President Jefferson Davis explained in his postwar memoirs, “The truth remains intact and incontrovertible, that the existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” He argued that North-South hostility was “not the consequence of any difference on the abstract question of slavery. . . . It would have manifested itself just as certainly if slavery had existed in all the states, or if there had not been a negro in America.”

His vice president, Alexander Stephens, claimed after the war that the strife was between federalism and centralism: “Slavery, so called, was but the question on which these antagonistic principles . . . were finally brought into actual and active collision with each other on the field of battle.” He also asserted that the war “was not a contest between the advocates or opponents of that Particular Institution, but a contest . . . between the supporters of a strictly Federative Government . . . and a thoroughly national one. . . . ”

In the first three postwar decades, Pollard, Davis, Stephens, Jubal Early, William Nelson Pendleton, the Reverend J. William Jones, and others made and developed the proposition that slavery was not the cause for secession or the formation of the Confederacy. Their position became a “cardinal element of the Southern apologia,” and postwar Southerners manifested “a nearly universal denial to escape the ignominy attached to slavery.”

In the North, where white racism and a desire for national reconciliation made slavery an issue no one wanted to discuss, the idea that slavery was not the cause of secession and the war found acceptance. According to Alan Nolan, “This belief was advanced by such prominent twentieth-century historians as Charles and Mary Beard, Avery Craven, and James G. Randall, influenced surely in part by their own racism. Others set slavery aside as the critical concern of the Confederacy and critical issue of the war.”

Non-slavery rationales for the Civil War certainly are not dead. For example, in his 1988 foreword to a republished edition of Pollard’s The Lost Cause, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz writes, “If one were to look for a common denominator that linked all of the many reasons given for the Civil War—the slavery issue, the secession of the southern states and the formation of the Confederacy, the growing disaffection between the North and South as they evolved into separate political entities—the search would end on a difference in interpretation of the United States Constitution.” He proceeds to compare the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian interpretations of the Constitution.

There is, however, much evidence that contradicts the myth that slavery was not the cause of secession and the war.


Because the war resulted from the secession of seven Southern states and their formation of the Confederate States of America after Abraham Lincoln’s election as president on November 6, 1860, and his inauguration on March 4, 1861, whatever caused those states to secede is the primary cause of the Civil War. The distinguishing feature of Lincoln’s and the Republicans’ campaign was opposition to the extension of slavery into the Western territories. That was, in fact, almost the only issue in the four-way presidential race. Did that question or others related to slavery affect those seven states’ decision to secede and form the Confederacy?

But before examining why South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas seceded from the United States and founded the Confederacy, we must distinguish between the motives of the secessionists and the motives of individual soldiers. Even if slavery was the catalyst, it does not follow that all rebel soldiers believed they were fighting for that cause. They may have been fighting for any number of other reasons. The Civil War, however, “was certainly not the first time in history . . . that good people fought valiantly for disgraceful causes. . . . But by joining the Confederate war machine, all of them, irrespective of their personal motivations, advanced their nation’s political agenda—the perpetuation and territorial expansion of human bondage and the misery that it entailed.”


The Founding Fathers generally sidestepped the awkward issue of slavery but did provide it with a constitutional foundation. Despite their declaration in 1776 that “all men are created equal,” they affirmed the continuation of slavery in the U.S. Constitution of 1787. Each slave was to count as three-fifths of a person for purposes of determining a state’s representation in the lower house of Congress, and the importation of slaves was to continue until at least 1808. The Constitution also provided that fugitive slaves who escaped across state lines were to be returned to their masters, a provision that would be a source of controversy for the next seventy-four years.

Slavery became a serious point of contention between the North and South in 1820 with the proposed admission of Missouri to the Union as a slave state. In the face of national turmoil over this issue, Congress reached the Missouri Compromise. Missouri was admitted as a slave state, Maine was admitted as a free state, slavery was prohibited north of Missouri’s southern border except in Missouri itself, and a fugitive slave provision was applied to those slavery-free territories. Thus slavery was prohibited in all new states north of the latitude thirty-six degrees, thirty minutes.

Over the next two decades, a Northern abolitionist movement, the Nat Turner Revolt of 1831, and Southern reaction to both revived the national contention over slavery. The issue was so divisive that it split America’s major religious denominations into Northern and Southern wings. Of course, both sides claimed that God and the Bible were on their sides and had numerous biblical quotations to support their positions.


The interplay between slavery and states’ rights was always complex. David Blight observed, “The relationship of states’ rights to slavery in all discussions of Civil War causation appears to be an eternal riddle in American public memory.”

According to the Myth, Southerners were moved by the principle of states’ rights to secede. As their secession resolutions demonstrated (see below), Southerners were disappointed that some Northern states were exercising state power to obstruct federal enforcement of slave-owners’ rights. Gary Gallagher explains the situation in late 1860 from a contemporary perspective:

The best friend of the slaveholding South in that regard is the federal government. Increasingly the states and slaveholders of the South look to the United States government to ensure their hold on their property. They expect the entire nation to follow through with the legislation that came out of the Compromise of 1850 that said escaping slaves will be returned. State rights have been a problem from the Southern perspective in that many of the Northern states have passed laws that make it difficult to enforce federal law.

Looking back on the growing national controversy over slavery, Lincoln’s secretaries and biographers John Hay and John Nicolay wrote: “It is now universally understood, if not conceded, that the Rebellion of 1861 was begun for the sole purpose of defending and preserving to the seceding States the institution of African slavery and making them the nucleus of a great slave empire. . . .”

Perhaps surprisingly, Edward Pollard of Richmond, who had his finger on the Confederate pulse, explained in 1866 that Lincoln’s 1860 election, with its power shift to the North, caused the South to leave the Union, “which no longer afforded any guaranty for her rights or any permanent sense of security” and which intended to “destroy her institutions, and even involve the lives of her people.” His analysis continued: “Power in the hands of the North affected the safety and happiness of every individual in the South.” The code words for slavery protection were the substance of his conclusions.14 In fact, the seceding states themselves complained that the federal government was not doing enough to protect slavery and that non-slave states were exercising their own rights in a manner disagreeable to the slave states (for example, by passing “liberty laws” to hinder efforts to retrieve runaway slaves). They were upset that the Underground Railroad had helped between one thousand and five thousand slaves to escape each year between 1830 and 1860.

At the root of these anti–states’ rights complaints was the return of fugitive slaves. As the price for their signing the Declaration of Independence and ratifying the U.S. Constitution, the Southern states had demanded that anti-slavery statements in the Declaration be deleted and that certain concessions to slavery be made in the Constitution. In between, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, governing what is now the upper Midwest, forbade slavery there but provided that any slave who escaped to the Northwest Territories “may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service.”

The federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 required state and local governments to return runaway slaves to their owners and penalized those who assisted the runaways. Northern opposition to that law led to conflicts about its enforcement and Southern anger about its non-enforcement in the North. The result was a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, part of the Compromise of 1850, authorizing federal officials to compel the return of runaways slaves, requiring state officials and the public at large to aid in their capture and return, providing a modicum of nonjudicial due process for alleged runaways, and setting magistrate fees of five dollars when an alleged runaway was released and ten dollars when that person was ordered to be transported to the slave state from which he or she allegedly had fled.

This tougher law provoked even more opposition in Northern states—including riots and fatal shootings. Clearly, many in the North disagreed with returning fugitive slaves to their owners and especially to the shipping south of innocent free blacks as alleged runaways under the new procedures. Northern Democrats, led by President Franklin Pierce, aggressively enforced the new Fugitive Slave Act, and the fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery led some fifteen to twenty thousand free Northern blacks to migrate to Canada between 1850 and 1860.

The efforts by congressional Democrats and Presidents Pierce and Buchanan to appease Southerners on the fugitive slave issue failed to satisfy them. The essence of the slave-states’ complaints was not that their rights were being violated but rather that the federal government and the non-slave states were insufficiently helpful in defending slavery. As the New York Times pointed out in 1859, the South had made “the doctrine of state rights, so long slavery’s friend . . . its foe.”

Michael C. C. Adams agrees with this analysis: “Appeals to state sovereignty usually masked other, more pragmatic, interests. Southerners embraced states’ rights when convenient but insisted that national authorities return fugitive slaves, overriding the states’ rights protest of Northern local officials.”

The Democratic conventions of 1860 demonstrate Southerners’ interest in greater federal government protection of slavery. At two conventions (Charleston and Baltimore) in mid-1860 Southern Democrats bolted because of the majority’s unwillingness to approve a platform plank calling for a federal slave code for the territories. Their walkouts, which split the party and led to two separate party candidates for president, demonstrated the Southerners’ concern for greater protection of slavery by the federal government—far from a states’ rights position. Their desire for explicit central government protection of slavery in the territories came in the Confederate Constitution of 1861.

Dwight Pitcaithley sheds light on this ironic twist: “The use of the term ‘states rights’ in modern discussions of the causes of the Civil War almost exclusively connotes a cause separate from that of slavery[;] indeed it is used largely in opposition to the idea of slavery as a cause. Yet, when the South’s political leaders discussed the subject of denied rights during the secession crisis they spoke almost exclusively with reference to federal rights not states’ rights.”

Slavery, in Edward L. Ayers’s formulation, is the “one-word” answer to the question of what caused the Civil War, but slavery per se was not the cause of the war. Ayers identifies slavery as “the key catalytic agent in a volatile new mix of democratic politics and accelerated communication, a process chemical in its complexity and subtlety.” Specifically, “People on both sides were playing out future scenarios even as they responded to immediate threats. They recognized how deeply contingency could run and how quickly things could shift; a Supreme Court decision or a presidential election could change the evolution of vast structures of slavery and economic development.”


Did the extent of slave ownership in a state or the size of its slave population have anything to do with how likely a state was to secede? The demographics of slavery reveal a strong correlation. The higher the percentage of slaves and the higher the percentage of slaveholding families, the likelier a state was to secede.

Each of the first six states to secede had a slave population between 44 and 57 percent of the total population. Each of the last five states to secede had a slave population between 25 and 33 percent of the total, while the non-seceding slave states had slave populations between 2 and 20 percent. The average percentage of families that held slaves in the first seven seceding states was 37. That figure was 25 in the next four seceding states, and it was 16 in the four non-seceding slave states.

Whatever part states’ rights allegedly played in secession, concern for those rights corresponded to a state’s interest in maintaining or protecting the institution of slavery.

One other set of numbers sheds some light on the connection between slavery and secession. Slave-owning soldiers’ higher casualty rates and lower desertion rates suggest that they may have been more enthusiastic about participating in the war. Joseph Glatthaar’s statistical study of the soldiers in Lee’s army finds that soldier slave-owners had a 56.5 percent casualty rate, while that for non-slave-owner soldiers was 48.5 percent. Slave-owning soldiers, moreover, deserted at a “low” rate of 8.4 percent, while 18.1 percent of non-slave-owners deserted. Glatthaar concludes:

As various Confederate states clearly explained in their justification of secession, they left the Union to preserve the institution of slavery. Although attempts by the Northern states to restore the Union required an invasion of those seceding states and Confederates rushed to arms to protect their home and homeland, among the issues central in their thoughts was the mission of safeguarding their right to own bondsmen and bondswomen. Soldiers who owned slaves—or lived with family members who did—turned out in great numbers to fight on behalf of their newly created nation. They incurred higher casualties, deserted less frequently, and suffered more for their slaveholding Confederacy than the troops who did not own slaves and were otherwise unconnected to the peculiar institution.


In summary, contrary to the Myth of the Lost Cause, preservation of slavery was the primary cause of Southern states’ secession and their creation of the Confederacy. Evidence of this connection is found in the slavery-related demographics of the South, the dedication of slave-owners to the war, the official secession resolutions and declarations of the seceding states, prewar settlement efforts, lobbying and diplomatic activities by early-seceding states, contemporaneous pronouncements of the Confederacy’s military and political leaders, the Confederate Constitution, Confederate diplomacy, Confederate refusal to arm and liberate slaves, and Confederate prisoner-of-war exchange policies.

Southern secessionist leaders’ own words made clear their economic dependence upon slavery, the interconnection between slavery and white supremacy, and their violent reactions to perceived threats to the peculiar institution—reactions that led them to secede. As the British historian D. W. Brogan concludes, Southerners “seceded over one thing and fought over one thing: slavery.”

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