Did Slavery Really Cause the Civil War?

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Did Slavery Really Cause the Civil War?

Mark Stoler PhD

A Skeptic’s Look at American History (2012)

Film Review

This lecture is the eighth in the Kanopy American History course The Skeptic’s Guide to American History. My initial reaction is that Stoler probably isn’t nearly skeptical enough. The South, which still refers to the Civil War as the War Between the States, sees states rights as the primary cause of the war.

Unfortunately Stoler doesn’t really resolve this controversy. However he rightly points out that the immediate cause for Lincoln’s declaration of war was not to end slavery, but to “preserve the union.”

However he never addresses why the union needed to be preserved, ie how did preserving the union protect the democratic interests of the American people? I personally suspect that “preserving the union,” mainly protected the interests of the merchants, bankers and early industrialists, just as preserving the European Union protects the interests of merchants, bankers and industrialists. Similar ultra-national unions will always reduce the input ordinary people have into major decisions that  affect their lives.

Stoler begins by talking about the collapse of the Whig Party in the 1850s following the passage of the deeply unpopular Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law, which created the states of Kansas and Nebraska. deferred the decision to the states whether to allow slavery or not. From the 1850s on, the newly created Republican Party, which committed to end slavery everywhere, would be America’s second major party.

Although Lincoln, a Republican, only received 39.8% of the popular vote in 1860, his strong support in northern states mean he won a majority of the electoral college. Lincoln campaigned on a platform of allowing slavery to continue in states where it was legal but preventing its spread to western states as they joined the Union.

Stoler also reminds us that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (freeing slaves in the states that had seceded) didn’t take effect until January 1883 and didn’t free slaves in any of the Union states.*

By early February 1861 (a month before Lincoln’s inauguration), seven states (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina) had seceded.

After Union forces fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina (April 1861), four border states (North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee) also seceded. Four slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky) remained in the Union.

Stoler denies that conflict over states rights caused the war, arguing that various Northern states also lobbied for for states rights at different times (eg when they opposed the war the US launched against Mexico in 1846). I fail to see the logic of this argument. Just because the North agitates strongly for states rights over specific issues doesn’t mean the South can’t do so as well.

He also denies that a profound difference in their respective economies (with the South being primarily agrarian and the North being mainly industrial) was the root cause of the war. He argues this difference had been present since colonial times without leading to war.

He also poo-poos the distinct difference their respective cultures (with the South possessing an aristocratic planter class not present in the North) as the main cause of war. Here he points out that the North was just as racist as the South and hardly more democratic for the average worker.


*In Stoler’s view, Lincoln’s main goal with the Emancipation Proclamation was to buoy up Northern support for the war, despite massive numbers of casualties, and to open the Union army to extremely motivated ex-slaves. In his next lecture he also identifies dissuading the UK (where the population strongly opposed slavery) from entering the Civil War on the Southern side as a primary motivation.

The series can be viewed free on Kanopy.

1 thought on “Did Slavery Really Cause the Civil War?

  1. Pingback: Did Slavery Really Cause the Civil War? — The Most Revolutionary Act | Vermont Folk Troth

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