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Yes, It Was About Slavery

Yes, it was about slavery. In a nutshell, to Southerners slaves were property. Southerners feared Lincoln and the Republican Party would abolish slavery, which would in effect deprive the slaveholding states of millions of dollars in property, the fact that that property consisted of living human beings notwithstanding. Each of these States makes the constitutional argument that since the national government is destructive of the property rights of the States, they are no longer bound by the covenant of union. That is why later, after the war was over and the slaves were freed, Southerners claimed the war was about States’ Rights: the States’ right to maintain humans as property. In truth, most Southerners were not slave owners, and most Southern Soldiers were convinced that they were fighting against the same tyranny as the revolutionaries of 1776. But these documents show incontrovertibly that the States seceded to maintain the institution of slavery.

Further, people in the North by and large did not support the war for the purpose of freeing slaves, rather they fought to preserve the Union, as Lincoln made clear. When accused by journalist Horace Greeley of lacking resolve on the issue of slavery Lincoln replied,

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution…. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.[1]

The armies that invaded the South and sought to subdue those States were not doing so to free slaves. It is telling that when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (which had the practical effect of keeping the British out of the war and at the same time freeing exactly zero slaves), a number of Union officers quit the cause, disdaining to fight for the freedom of “colored” people.

The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States

[1] Abraham Lincoln, “Letter to Horace Greeley,” Abraham Lincoln Online, August 22, 1862, accessed June 21, 2015, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/greeley.htm.

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