Things seem awfully quiet these days, so perhaps it’s time for a nice academic discussion about a topic that will generate little passion on either side. Naaaaaah. Dennis Prager’s Prager University has a new lesson out today that follows up on the controversy surrounding the display of the Confederate flag on the grounds of South Carolina’s government, a display that began in 1962 and only ended last month. Did the Confederacy fight primarily to preserve slavery, or did they fight for a version of state’s rights that was independent of their attachment to the “peculiar institution”?
Defenders of the flag display claim the latter, but West Point historian Col. Ty Seidule begs to differ. The Confederacy itself framed secession and the war as a way to preserve slavery, Seidule argues, despite revisionist efforts over the last 150 years:
Some argue that the South only wanted to protect states’ rights. But this raises an obvious question: the states’ rights to what? Wasn’t it to maintain and spread slavery? Moreover, states’ rights was not an exclusive Southern issue. All the states — North and South — sought to protect their rights — sometimes they petitioned the federal government, sometimes they quarreled with each other. In fact, Mississippians complained that New York had too strong a concept of states’ rights because it would not allow Delta planters to bring their slaves to Manhattan. The South was preoccupied with states’ rights because it was preoccupied first and foremost with retaining slavery.
Some argue that the cause of the war was economic. The North was industrial and the South agrarian, and so, the two lived in such economically different societies that they could no longer stay together. Not true.
In the middle of the 19th century, both North and South were agrarian societies. In fact, the North produced far more food crops than did the South. But Northern farmers had to pay their farmhands who were free to come and go as they pleased, while Southern plantation owners exploited slaves over whom they had total control.
And it wasn’t just plantation owners who supported slavery. The slave society was embraced by all classes in the South. The rich had multiple motivations for wanting to maintain slavery, but so did the poor, non-slave holding whites. The “peculiar institution” ensured that they did not fall to the bottom rung of the social ladder. That’s why another argument — that the Civil War couldn’t have been about slavery because so few people owned slaves — has little merit.
Seidule never gets around to mentioning the Compromise of 1850, in which the South vehemently opposed an attempt to prevent newly acquired territory from the Mexican War from allowing slavery. Their interest was clearly not just protecting their own rights, but to allow for an expanded market for slavery within the US — a market that would benefit the slave-holding states. The slaveholding states also demanded, and got, a tougher Fugitive Slave Law as part of the compromise. That law compelled the federal government to force non-slaveholding states and territories (and even its ordinary citizens) to treat escaped slaves as property to be returned, whether those states and citizens wanted to do so or not — not exactly a “state’s rights” position.
The compromise also insisted on popular sovereignty in the new territories for decisions on slavery. Both slaveholders and abolitionists rushed into these territories to plant the flag for their positions, which created a small civil war of its own in Kansas (“Bleeding Kansas,” “Bloody Kansas”). The violence started in 1855 and continued fitfully to 1859, all on the basis of expanding slavery. The presidential election of 1860 had the issue front and center, and Seidule picks up the narrative at that point.
This argument will continue regardless, but that’s what makes history so compelling — and important.