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AHHS — Chapter 36

Section Six: Discussion Subjects and Concluding Information.

Chapter 36 – “Recapping the Big Puzzle:” Simply Understanding Why the War Between the States was Not “About” Slavery, by Paul C. Graham of S. C., S. I. S. H.


By now, we, the sixteen authors of Understanding the War Between the States, have surely presented sufficient history to justify the conclusion in your mind that the WBTS was not “about” slavery.  But let us look at this again as a special study.  In considering the posed statement, a focus on the operative word “about” is merited.  In the English language, when a man declares that “so-and-so” was “about” “such and such” he is saying that his “such and such” was the cause of the “so and so,” not just some related event we might call a side-line issue.  If Joe stabs John with a butcher knife and kills him, are we talking about murder or improper use of the kitchen butcher knife?  Properly framing a question is so essential to the understanding of the issue that the question presumes to concern.  So, the question concerning the role slavery played in the WBTS must be asked this way:  “Did the North invade the South to emancipate its slaves?”  With that introduction and lesson, and the importance on properly framing one’s question, author Paul C. Graham proceeds to address the subject of this chapter.  As you read his words be sure to distinguish between the passions for Exclusionism, versus Abolitionism, versus Deportationism.

Relevant History

In today’s accepted historical narrative, there is only one acceptable answer to the questions concerning the cause and/or meaning of the WBTS, namely, that it was “about slavery.” This position, more than any other, makes the task of articulating the Southern position difficult, if not impossible, for those who have not carefully studied the historical record. Most often the claim that the war was “about slavery” is tied to the question of why the South seceded. Even if, however, it could be shown that the South seceded over the issue of slavery, it does not follow that this caused the war or that this was the reason the two sides engaged in mortal combat. There is a fundamental difference between why one political body may separate from another and why an armed conflict would ensue. Both must be considered if the claim that the war was “about” slavery is construed to be even a theory worth consideration.

Secession and Slavery – Let us begin by looking at Southern secession, especially as it relates to slavery. Before commencing, however, it is important to understand that “The South” did not secede from the Union, but rather, individual Southern states did. The causes for the secession of these individual Southern states did not occur simultaneously or for the exact same reasons. During the first wave of secession, beginning with South Carolina on December 20, 1860, many of the Deep South states were forthright in stating that their actions were, at least in part, motivated by the perceived threat to the institution of slavery. Other “slave states,” particularly those of the upper regions of the South, remained in the union until Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 state militia to reinforce the suppression of the “rebellion” following the incident he contrived at Fort Sumter.  Still other Southern states did not secede at all, but stayed in the Union – coerced except for Delaware.

Insofar as slavery was linked to any motive for secession, it was specific to one or more of the following related issues:

  1. The preservation of slavery (where it existed)
  2. The extension of slavery (into the territories)
  3. The fugitive slave laws (when/where unenforced)

Of these three, only number 1 can be a legitimate candidate when considering whether or not the war was “about” slavery.

  1. Out of the Union, the Southern states had no influence about how and by whom the territories would be settled.
  2. The U.S. fugitive slave laws became irrelevant for the Southern states.

The Corwin Amendment – Between December 1860 and April 1861, seven states had declared their independence from the United States without a single shot being fired. During this interim, the 36th U.S. Congress set to work to find a compromise to bring the seceded states back into the Union, or at least to avert the exodus of the eight other Southern states that where considering secession at that time (NC, TN, AR, VA, DE, MD, KY, MO)

Among the many proposals put forth, one gained significant bi-partisan support in both houses of Congress.  It was to be an amendment to the Constitution, what would have ironically become the 13th amendment. Named after Representative Thomas Corwin of Ohio, The Corwin Amendment would have unambiguously and permanently protected the institution of slavery from any action taken by the U.S. government:

Art. 13. No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of the said State.

Although largely symbolic, this resolution was put forth to assure the South there would be no effort made by the U.S. government to interfere with slavery in the Southern States; that they were willing to put it in writing and guarantee that the issue would never again be a cause of concern to them, if they would return to the union and/or remain therein.

Senator Stephen Douglas, one of the Senate’s most enthusiastic supporters of the resolution, characterized the Corwin Amendment as evidence that the North was neither hostile to the South nor to its domestic institution of slavery:

[I]f the northern states will by three forth majority come forward and insert this clause in the Constitution, it proves conclusively that there is no such sentiment [in] the North.

The resolution passed the House on February 28, 1861 and the Senate on March 3, 1861. President James Buchanan signed the amendment that same day, his last day in office (but could not be law until ratified by the States).

The very next day, in his inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln said:

I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution… has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service…. [H]olding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.

Thirteen days later Lincoln sent a copy of the amendment to the governors of all the States, including those states that were out of the Union, an action that can only be interpreted as a lobbying effort to affect the passage of the amendment.

His efforts failed. Not one of the states that had left the Union returned.  In fact, four of the eight Southern states contemplating secession during the attempted compromise would eventually leave the Union, bringing the total number of independent Southern states to eleven.

The Emancipation Proclamation – Much has been made of what Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation actually did or did not do, but little has been said of what it intended to do. As a “fit and necessary war measure” to suppress the “rebellion,” its purpose was not to end slavery, but to end the war.

When the preliminary proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862, it provided a 100 day window in which those states or parts of states which were designated as being “in rebellion against the United States” could, through their own actions, preserve slavery in their own territory by returning to the Union. If any or all of the states in the Southern Confederacy would have complied with the conditions enumerated in the proclamation, they would have extricated themselves completely from the threat of abolition, yet no state did.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation has been hailed as a great moral achievement, one wonders how this interpretation came about.  It did not immediately free one single slave where it was intended to have an effect, namely the Confederate States that were not under Union control, and it held in bondage all those slaves residing in MD, KY, MO and those states or parts of states, and Confederate areas under occupation, that were under Union control. In fact, an honest reading of the actual document reveals that it was nothing more than an offer to perpetuate slavery. The moral content attributed to the Emancipation Proclamation results from the Confederacy’s failure to comply with Lincoln’s demands, thus triggering an emancipation that, according to American mythology, freed the slaves, but according to the plain facts of history, did no such thing.

Ask yourself this: How would the Emancipation Proclamation be viewed today if the Southern states had chosen to return to the union?

Slavery in the Territories – Because we have been conditioned to view the extension of slavery into the territories as a great moral crisis, it is appropriate to briefly consider the issue of slavery in the territories in order to better understand the nature of this crisis.

It is an undisputed fact that Lincoln was inflexible and unwavering in his opposition to the expansion of slavery into the territories. His opposition to slavery in the territories, however, had nothing to do with the actual institution of slavery.  Insofar as Lincoln was in favour of keeping the territories free, it was to keep them free for white immigration and free from black immigration.  According to Lincoln,

“The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these territories. We want them for the homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted within them.”

This was not merely a position of political expediency. For Lincoln it was a moral imperative. “Is it not rather our duty,” he rhetorically asked, “to make labor more respectable by preventing all black competition, especially in the territories?”

Lincoln’s position on slavery in the territories had nothing to do with whether slavery was right or wrong, but only his desire to keep the territories “Negro-free” zones.


If we are to intelligently address the question of whether or not the war was about slavery, we need to address the question of how it was about slavery.

  1. Was the war “about” slavery because some of the Southern States seceded because they perceived the election and ascendancy of Republican Governors and President Lincoln as a threat to the institution itself?
  2. Was the war “about” slavery because the South wanted to preserve the institution for themselves, to protect it from the machinations of the Federal Government?
  3. Was the war “about” slavery because of the threat of having slavery excluded from the territories?

If these issues (and many others could be included) are not even considered when appraising the actions and motives of the Southern states, then the characterization that the war was “about” slavery is not only questionable, it is slanderous and morally reprehensible allegation.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

If ”about” slavery, how do we deal with the fact that Congress passed a resolution that would have expressly and permanently removed the perceived threat to slavery by amending the Constitution itself and that Lincoln was in favour of its passage during his first days in office?


If “about” slavery, given the Corwin Amendment that preceded the war and the Emancipation Proclamation that occurred during the war, both of which offered the preservation of slavery in exchange for re-entering the Union, why was there a fight to begin with? Why did the fight continue as long as it did?

If “about” slavery, how do we deal with the fact that the Southern States voluntarily relinquished any claim to the territories they might have accessed if not seceded?

Recommended Reading

  • Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed, vol. 2, The Demagogues, by Howard Ray White, pub. 2003.
  • When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession, by Charles Adams, pub. 2000.