My previous blog post dealt with Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, with the North and South on the verge of civil war. At that moment, our great experiment of a modern democratic republic appeared doomed to failure, after less than a century of existence. What had gone wrong?
The cause of the Civil War has been one of the most controversial questions of US history ever since. Most notably, some have held that it ultimately had more to do with the issue of States’ rights than with slavery. While it is true that States’ rights was sharply debated in the early decades of our history, it was nearly always discussed in the context of some other issue, and the most common of these was unquestionably slavery (the most notable exception being South Carolina’s attempt to nullify Federal tariffs in 1832-33).
In fact, for the first 85 years of our country’s existence, it was the issue of slavery which repeatedly and forcefully threatened to break us apart. This was especially true in the decade immediately preceding the Civil War as political and social tensions escalated. From the Compromise of 1850 to the Presidential Election of 1860, slavery’s place in our nation was the predominant political and social issue. It even resulted in the break-up and realignment of great national institutions such as political parties and religious denominations, the last time this has happened on such a large scale in our history.
But what about the fact that the authors of the Confederacy’s Constitution, adopted just one week after President Lincoln’s inauguration, inserted pro-States’-rights language in the very first line?: “We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, …” (note also that there’s no forming of a “more perfect Union” here!). This certainly suggests a greater emphasis on States’ rights, but this is just the preamble, an introductory statement of purposes and principles. An examination of the rest of the document as compared to the US Constitution reveals mixed results: in certain aspects it granted greater rights to the individual States, while in others it actually took rights away from them. The most notable difference between the two constitutions is not States’ rights but the treatment of slavery: while the US Constitution grudgingly protected slavery where it already existed, not even mentioning it by name, the Confederate Constitution explicitly protected it (no “law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed”).
The intentions of the Confederate leaders become all the more clear when one considers a fascinating speech given by their Vice President ten days later. Speaking extemporaneously in Savannah, Georgia, Alexander Stephens explained the fundamental differences between the two constitutions, as well as the ideologies and beliefs behind them. He did talk about States’ rights – explaining the Confederacy’s elimination of the tariff and the prohibition on the national government funding large public works – but it is his last “change for the better” which is especially revealing: the final settlement of “all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution – African slavery as it exists amongst us – the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization”. Stephens acknowledged that “this was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution” (not States’ rights), and noted quite correctly that when the US Constitution was adopted back in 1787, some of the Founding Fathers from southern States struggled in their minds over the place of slavery. There may have been a few outright apologists, i.e., defenders of slavery, but many others, including Thomas Jefferson, instead almost apologized for slavery. Stephens summed up the founders’ views as follows:
“The prevailing ideas entertained by him [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away.”
Then Stephens dropped the bombshell: on this point, the founders were fundamentally wrong; the enslavement of the African race was not an evil, but a good, ordained by God Himself. And it was the founders of the Confederacy, the present generation (himself included), who were the first people to be truly enlightened to this fact!:
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
According to Stephens, those who disagreed with this startling assessment were illogical and insane, and they would ultimately be defeated because they were fighting against a principle of nature, against truth, and against God. Someday, Stephens prophesied, this would be acknowledged “throughout the civilized and enlightened world”.
Lest you think that this was the rambling of a crazed man, keep in mind that Alexander Stephens was a well-respected politician and a self-made man known for his wisdom and generosity. He was a former ally of Lincoln’s, generally held moderate views, and initially opposed secession and extremist elements in the South. Thus his frank words that day likely reflect the views of the majority of white Southerners toward slavery at that time. It is also revealing that those who recorded his speech noted that Stephens was often interrupted by the applause of his listeners. [For the full text and more information about Stephens’ speech, see this Wikipedia article.]
All this is not to say that all white Northerners at the time believed in the equality of the races. The majority, in fact, Lincoln included, did not think that the races could or would ever be equal in all respects, especially socially and politically. But they generally did believe – and Lincoln most certainly did – in equal treatment in terms of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) and the basic protections of the Constitution. It would appear that white Southerners were heading in just the opposite direction, becoming more radicalized and entrenched in their views.
Living as we do today in a world greatly affected by extremist elements, it would behoove us to consider how the South arrived at this point. I would submit that all of the following played a part: inward-focused attitudes and policies; racial prejudices based on misunderstandings and arrogance; resentment over perceived northern aggression and domination; fear of future effects of losing political influence on the national level (losing their way of life, and the economic uncertainty of transitioning from a slave labor system to a free labor system); and a willingness to blindly use religion to justify actions and beliefs. It is easy to allow fear, prejudice, resentment, a feeling of powerlessness, etc. to be one’s guide – whether as a person or as a nation –, but these generally do not ultimately lead to truth, justice, or goodness.
Kevin J. Wood
April 1, 2015