It is seductively easy to be certain about one’s analysis of controversial issues if you simplify them to the point of distortion. This is what politicians do, and it is often impossible to tell whether they are trying to deceive, just don’t understand the issue at hand, or are deliberately ignoring inconvenient facts to advance an agenda. Sometimes it is all three. The Civil War, as the recent debate over Confederate statues again illustrates, is a classic example of this phenomenon, and has been since the war itself began. Southerners saw their cause as just, because they were fighting for the right to determine the shape of their own culture, a right they felt was embodied in the Constitution itself. Since that culture included slavery, to assert that the South had a measure of law and ethics on its side has routinely dismissed as, and simplifies as, sympathizing with slaveholders. (As an aside, I wonder if the censorious Left will redouble its efforts to get “Gone With The Wind” exiled from television permanently. I’m betting yes.)
Arguments about what the Civil War was fought over have been taking on the tenor of the old Miller Beer commercials: “Less filling!” “More taste,” or perhaps the Certs ads: “Certs is a breath mint!” “Certs is a candy mint!” “STOP you’re both right!” To his great credit, texagg04 accepted the challenge of trying to clarify the complexities of the “root causes of the Civil War” confusion in a concise comment (the topic has filled long scholarly books). He did an excellent job, and as he wrote as he began his explanation, the complexities matter. They usually do.
Here is texaggo4’s Comment of the Day on the post,Yes, Virginia, There Is A White Supremicist Teacher Principle:
…The South seceded to defend against what it believed would be the Republican plan to eradicate slavery via the National level of government.
Slavery is why the South seceded – Slavery could be said to be a type of Final Cause of secession.
But that said, slavery was merely the topic of the question, “Who has final authority to make significant economic decisions within the individual states: The States or the National level of government?” State powers — those not delegated to the Union — was the issue to be answered as it pertained to slavery. So “States Rights” could be said to be a type of Formal Cause of secession.
There was NO war at that point, because secession, prior to the Civil War, was widely regarded as a perfectly legal course for States *voluntarily* part of a Union to do.
Stopping secession, that is preserving the Union status quo, is *why* hostilities began.
Opposing a perceived invasion against their home states’ legal authority to function as a state is *why* Southerners flocked to the Army of the CSA.
There is a wide combination of “causes” or “reasons” for the Civil War, the absence of a single one sufficient to prevent the Civil War – but pared down in a line of causation, the Civil War boils down to TWO causes (or One, depending on how it is worded or whether or not the righteousness of secession can be found in the Constitution): Preservation of the Union status quo and the right of States to Secede.
Secession itself had the Formal cause of “states rights” and the Final cause of the “slave-based economic system.”
So, yes, it is phenomenally more nuanced than “the Civil War was about slavery.” That’s the easy summary because a wide number of un-tested constitutional structures were brought to the surface over the topic of slavery. But easy answers are often incomplete.
43 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Yes, Virginia, There Is A White Supremacist Teacher Principle””
Great summary Tex!
A splendid summary.
One additional comment that I think relates to states rights as they were thought of ante-bellum:
Prior to the Civil War we used “The United States are”, and since we have switched to “The United States is”, signifying I believe that we think of ourselves as one country rather than a collection of states.
I recall hearing this characterization often. I wonder how verifiable it is?
I don’t have time to mess around with it right now, but this is the sort of thing Google Books Ngram program us good for. Google has millions of books scanned in, and it can search for instances of a word or phrase and graph how often it was used in text.
Thanks for this
I hope that comes out right, don’t think I’ve ever posted a link before.
Thanks for this
Great post. Of course it was more nuanced than simply slavery. However, 1). Americans like to keep it short and simple, and 2). the left likes arguments no one can refute. Say it’s all about slavery, no one can argue with you and people are likely to get very angry with anyone who does.
Yes, but the fact remains that but for slavery, secession would have never happened. We still have today people screaming about limited government, states’ rights, etc., but no one actually is seceding.
Or, all it means if it weren’t for slavery, some other reason would manifest in the Republic’s future for which the answer to secession would have to be decided…
We don’t know that, and in fact, I doubt it. South Carolina was threatening to secede under Jackson, who was a Southerner who owned slaves. Until the issue of secession was resolved, some state or states might have left. And now California is making similar noises because the US doesn’t mesh with its culture—you know, extreme left wing, socialist craziness. Hawaii?
The argument I can’t resolve, is, given an ante-bellum attitude towards secssion being *perfectly legitimate* for states who had voluntarily joined the Union…would that not technically ONLY apply to the 13 original colonies? As all other States ultimately derive their geographic territories from land that was OWNED by the National Level of government?
What legal claim could those states make to secede, at least not without some serious negotiation to repay national level of government for the loss of the land it previously owned?
Unless, philosophically, it could be said that in the *instant* of time between a Territory ceasing to be a territory and becoming a State, the Federal government must see that land as having been “granted” independence for a instantaneous moment before the “independent” state voluntarily joined the Union?
But that’s like quantum physics for political philosophy…?
Oh, and Texas…which WAS it’s own State before joining.
Texas was its own Nation before requesting annexation. C’mon Tex, can’t neglect our Texas chauvinism….
OK, I was going to mention the Bear Republic in California that existed before it joined the U.S. But upon further research, the republic only existed for about 3 1/2 weeks north of San Francisco before Fremont absorbed their troops and raised the U.S. flag. Interesting, though, that the current California state flag bears (so to speak) the words ‘California Republic’ upon it.
Also, the Republic of Hawaii was annexed by the United States, but it then became a territory before admission as a state (both of which actions actually seem germane to the current topic).
Surely someone has written a scholarly treatise on this. It’s a fascinating question. I think you’re right: the original 13 and Texas. The rest belonged to the US before they became states—like California.
Quantum physics for political philosophy? You might be interested in the works of the Discworld philosopher Ly Tin Wheedle, who posited that because the inheritance of a monarchy is passed down immediately to the next heir (“The king is dead, long live the king!”), there must be particles (kingons, or possibly queons) which transmit the rulership instantaneously. He further hypothesized that it would be possible to communicate instantaneously with a remote location by carefully torturing a minor king. Unfortunately, his thoughts on the matter were cut short when the pub closed for the night.
We need to induce multiple child pregnancies in the monarchy, whereby the twins, triplets, and so on could be used for instant communication beyond lightspeed…
Of course, banishing all possible heirs to the throne to remote regions of outer space would be a side benefit….
spooky action at a distance!
They were admitted with equal rights and privileges to the original Thirteen Colonies, and thus possess an innate sovereignty distinct from the Federal Government. This sovereignty is not devolved from the national level, but evolves directly from the peoples who settled these lands and petitioned for admission. The sovereignty is limited by the United States constitution, but it is not the constitution that created it.
Thus, by admitting a new state carved out of federal territory, the federal government, by necessity of such action, cedes its exclusive claim of sovereignty over that land. It is analogous to a state consenting to cede its territory to form a new state as written in the constitution. Thus, the right of secession would derive from the innate sovereignty the federal government tacitly recognizes when its cedes a portion of territory to a group of people who incorporate as a state in the union.
I like the analysis. Have you ever seen it elsewhere?
I’ve read about the distinctions between state and federal sovereignty, especially for admitted states, but it is mostly my analysis as to how it might apply to justifying secession by states carved from federal territory.
I think this is a better wording of what I was getting at in the last two paragraphs regarding political philosophy.
…and, in the context of this analysis, the State of West Virginia becomes a unique case that makes the analysis all the more complicated.
Well, I will never take up arms to defend California’s sovereignty should the lunatics in the state legislature decide that secession is a great idea. I’ll sell my place to some knucklehead that wants to live here and off I go, to say Texas.
You would be welcome… just remember (and remind any who you bring with you) that the reason Texas is desirable to move to is because we don’t do things California does. Leave that lunacy behind and learn how we got to be successful!
Or move to Austin, where the lunacy is embraced.
You could leave with the immortal parting shot, “You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.” D. Crockett
Most liberals think the California threats are stupid as well.
And some ask why the Boston-to-Baltimore area doesn’t also secede and become the progressive state of Atlantis.
We definitely need to tear down any statues of Eli Whitney we can find, that’s for certain.
I wonder if I should have italicized “hostilities” in the 5th line of that to emphasize the parallelism with the 2nd line?
I’ll fix that. Good idea.
Great articulation of what I have been trying to say for the past couple of weeks, Tex. I abhor the oversimplification the lefties use to make the causes of the Civil War boil down to slavery, then condemn every. singe. person, living and dead, in the South for having slavery 150 years ago.
As if modern slavery did not exist, or that every country that existed then did not have slavery active, or in the recent past. Somehow, that is let slide, I suspect because it weakens the political smear they hold so dear. (+1 for rhyming)
Thus the distinction you drew, and the valid reasons Southerns fought: protection of home and hearth against invaders.
I abhor the oversimplification the lefties use to make the causes of the Civil War boil down to slavery, then condemn every. singe. person, living and dead, in the South for having slavery 150 years ago.
There’s a John Wayne movie that I’ve thought succinctly laid it out. Wayne’s Yankee Cavalry are fighting the Rebels. They find out Lee has surrendered so Wayne hoists a white flag & rides over to inform the Rebels. They tell him they know about the surrender. Wayne then asks why they are still fighting & the Rebel Commander says “This is our land & you are on it”.
I was under the impression that hostilities started with the bombardment of Federal facilities by state artillery. Ft Sumter. Before then, many of goodwill on both sides were fighting a desperate rearguard action to avoid an open break.
I’m not sure that open war was 100% inevitable. I’m pretty sure it was very, very probable though, just a matter of time. I’m not at all sure that peace would have been worth any price, especially the Southron insistence that the Federal government enforce the Fugitive Slave Act on Free states, regardless of “States Rights”. It was very much a case if “what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is negotiable”.
Yes, but it’s more complicated. Lincoln essentially forced the South to fire first:
Fort Sumter was a Federal installation guarding the approaches to Charleston harbour. As such, it was deemed by the fledgling Confederate government as a priority for occupation in view of the critical role Charleston played as a supply conduit.
As important was the position taken by the states in secession that the federal government should surrender all military installations within those states to Confederate forces. This was considered a political necessity as a statement of Confederate sovereignty. It was also militarily critical given the dearth of arms and munitions available to Confederate forces.
Accordingly, even as the Confederate States were still in the process of forming a national government, their state militias throughout the region moved independently to seize Federal armouries, fortifications and arsenals. A number of facilities were indeed occupied without violence as the Federal forces retired, deciding that discretion was the better part of valour.
However, Major Robert Anderson, Commanding Federal units in Charleston, retired from Fort Moultrie and consolidated his forces at Sumter. Beginning in December, 1860 within days of seceding, the South Carolina government made repeated demands for the fort’s surrender. Anderson proved stubborn and refused to comply.
Things were at an impasse by April. Lincoln may well have decided to draw a line in the sand at Sumter in the hope of provoking the Confederacy into firing the first shot. At any rate, he dispatched a supply convoy that would enable the fort to continue holding out, in effect piling on the pressure.
For his part, Jefferson Davis as the new President of the Confederacy, was quite sensitive of the need to avoid being portrayed as the belligerent and dithered while the Confederates at Charleston champed at the bit. But with the supply convoy en route, he knew the issue needed resolution quickly.
Moreover, Davis considered the importance of proclaiming the Confederacy’s sovereignty before the international community. Consequently, he reluctantly decided to roll the dice on April 12 and gave the order to open fire, playing directly into Lincoln’s hand. Thus, as they say, he “opened the ball” and the rest is history.
Thanks for this.
I can think of only one situation where war might have been avoided — if Lincoln had been assassinated before he took office, and even then it would only be a possibility.
Lincoln’s first goal — and the one he never wavered from — was to preserve the Union. Agree or not, like it or not, legal or not, that was what he was bound to do, and I do not believe there is any way he would have allowed the southern states to just break away.
You know, it occurs to me just now that it is perhaps fortunate that Lee was in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox rather than Lincoln. Lee knew how to give up — I am not sure Lincoln ever did.