The memo has gone out. Since 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the start of the War to Prevent Southern Independence the Lincoln Cult, aided and abetted by the many worshippers of the centralized, bureaucratic, Leviathan state that he founded, has been hard at work since the first week of January endlessly repeating the politically-correct version of the one sole cause theory of the “Civil War.”
Unlike all other wars in human history, the “Civil War” is said to have one and only one cause. This was not always the case; university courses on the war during the 1960s and ’70s frequently used as a text Kenneth Stampp’s The Causes of the Civil War. Stampp was a former president of the American Historical Association. His scholarship has been replaced with a-historical political correctness on today’s college campuses.
Supposed “proof” of the “one sole cause” theory is that when the Southern states seceded in 1860-61, some Southern politicians defended the institution of slavery. Therefore, the story goes, slavery was the sole cause of the war. The not-so-implicit assumptions behind this assertion are the following: 1) Lincoln was about to abolish slavery “with the stroke of a pen” as soon as he took the oath of office; 2) Southerners understood this; therefore, Southern secession amounted to kidnapping of the slaves; and 3) Lincoln launched an invasion of the South to free the kidnapped slaves. This is the only way in which Southern secession could have necessitated war. Ready any of Harry Jaffa’s books if you want “verification” of this “official view.”
Everything about this politically-correct fantasy is patently false, regardless of how many times it is repeated in the New York Times and Washington Post. Some Southern politicians did indeed defend slavery, but not as strongly as Abraham Lincoln did in his first inaugural address, where he supported the enshrinement of Southern slavery explicitly in the U.S. Constitution (the “Corwin Amendment”) for the first time ever. Coming from the president of the United States, this was the strongest defense of slavery ever made by an American politician.
Some Southern politicians did say that their society was based on white supremacy, but so did Abraham Lincoln and most other Northern politicians. “I as much as any man want the superior position to belong to the white race,” Lincoln said in a debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858. When Lincoln opposed the extension of slavery into the new territories (but not Southern slavery), he gave the standard Northern white supremacist reason: We want the territories to be reserved “for free white labor,” he said. The Lincoln cultists can quote Alexander Stephens’ “cornerstone” speech all they want, but the truth is that Abraham Lincoln, and most of the leaders of the Republican Party, were in total agreement with Stephens. White supremacy was as much (if not more of) a “cornerstone” of Northern society as it was of Southern society in the 1860s.
The abolition societies of the North never claimed more than two percent of the Northern adult population as members. Lincoln was never an abolitionist, distanced himself from them politically, and even boasted in a speech in New York City that “we have abolitionists in Illinois; we shot one the other day.” All of this makes it extremely unlikely that anyone who voted for Lincoln in the 1860 election did so because they thought he would end Southern slavery (which of course the Republican Party Platform of 1860 did not promise).
More importantly, secession in no way necessitates war, regardless of what the reasons for secession are. The reasons for secession, and the reasons why there was a war, are two entirely separate issues. When New Englanders openly and publicly plotted to secede for fourteen years after Thomas Jefferson’s election, culminating in the 1814 secession convention in Hartford, Connecticut, neither President Jefferson nor President Madison (or anyone else) said one word about the appropriate response to a Northern-state secession being “invasion,” “force,” and “bloodshed.” These are the words Lincoln used in his first inaugural address to describe what would happen in any Southern state that seceded.
It is unlikely that anyone even dreamed of invading Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island and bombing and burning Boston, Hartford and Providence into a smoldering ruin while murdering thousands of New Englanders, women and children included, if New England were to secede. Indeed, when Jefferson was asked what would happen if New England seceded, he said in a letter that New Englanders, like all other Americans “would all be our children” and he would wish them all well. More recently, all of the Soviet republics, and all of Eastern and Central Europe peacefully seceded from the Soviet Union. Secession does not necessitate war.
No American president had the power in the nineteenth century to abolish slavery “with the stroke of a pen.” The slaves were slaves before Southern secession, and they were slaves after secession. Indeed, as Alexander Stephens once correctly remarked, slavery was more secure in the union than out of it because of the Fugitive Slave Clause, which Lincoln strongly supported, and because of the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision.
No respectable historian would argue that Lincoln invaded the South to free the slaves. Even his Emancipation Proclamation was only a “war measure” that would have become defunct if the war ended the next day – and it was written so as to avoid freeing any slaves since it only applied to “rebel territory.” Both Lincoln and Congress announced publicly that their purpose was not to disturb slavery but to “save the union,” a union that they actually destroyed philosophically by destroying its voluntary nature, as established by the founders. All states, North and South, became wards or appendages of the central government in the post-1865 era.
What Lincoln did say very clearly about war in his first inaugural address was that it was his duty “to collect the duties and imposts,” but “beyond that there will no be any invasion of any state . . .” That is, if Southern secession made it impossible for Washington, D.C. to “collect the duties and imposts” (i.e., tariffs on imports, which had just been more than doubled two days earlier), then there will be an invasion. He followed through with this threat, and that is why there was a war that ended up killing 670,000 Americans, including some 50,000 Southern civilians, while maiming for life more than a million.
Secession does not necessitate war; nor was war necessary to end slavery. The rest of the world (including all of the Northern states ended slavery peacefully in the nineteenth century, as James Powell documents and describes in his outstanding book, Greatest Emancipations: How the West Ended Slavery.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe and How Capitalism Saved America. His latest book is Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution – And What It Means for America Today.
Copyright © 2011 by LewRockwell.com.