Was the Civil War a just war?

“Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1848

“The process of disintegration in the old Union may be expected to go on with almost absolute certainty, if we pursue the right course. We are now the nucleus of a growing Power which, if we are true to ourselves, our destiny, and high mission, will become the controlling Power on this Continent.” — Alexander Stephens, March 21, 1861

War is a degrading and inhuman thing. Reading Homer’s exuberant descriptions of hand-to-hand combat today, we shudder at the bone-crunching details, the relish his killers take in killing. We cannot feel what his original listeners must have felt, that this was a glorious and manly and even fun pastime. The wretchedness of war is a relatively recent discovery, but once we discovered it we could not forget it. Any war, regardless of the righteousness of its actual aim, is conducted by the sickening and horrible spectacle of countless people giving their lives — or becoming killers — for reasons that invariably seem remote to their immediate condition. There is a basic injustice inherent to the concept of war that no result can entirely atone for. I can think of only a handful of wars in all of human history that seem justified by their goals, and only barely; the rest is a record of misery, cruelty and hellishness. This is an essential point to make before attempting to defend the righteousness of any war.

In my view, the United States has only fought one completely justified war of choice since its founding: the 1861-65 war against the leaders of the so-called “Confederate States of America.” (1) Although it’s since come to be called “the Civil War,” that name was rarely used during the actual war. (The term “War Between the States” does not seem to have been used at all.) It was most commonly referred to by the same name that the federal government itself still uses to refer to it in its official records: “The War of the Rebellion.” Those who fought against the United States referred to themselves as “rebels.” These terms have fallen into disuse, for reasons that will probably become obvious.

To the degree that they think about it at all, most Americans assume that the Civil War was a just war. If a recent poll that found that one out of five Americans think states should be allowed to secede has any truth to it, however, it’s a safe bet that a considerable number of Americans do not think that. Indeed, when one studies how the war has been framed, it is rather shocking that more Americans do not think the Civil War was unjustified. Everything they have been told about it for a century seems designed to lead them to think that it was an unjust war.

The blatant unfairness of the war as it has been framed has been obvious for more than a century. “It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue” than the Gettysburg Address, scoffed H. L. Mencken in 1920. “The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.” “What the Union was waging, of course, was a war to save the Union by denying self-determination to the majority of Southern whites,” said liberal Richard Hofstadter in 1948. “Put simply,” argued the New Left historian William Appleman Williams in 1976, “the cause of the Civil War was the refusal of Lincoln and other northerners to honor the revolutionary right to self-determination — the touchstone of the American revolution.” One libertarian, one “liberal,” one leftist, one argument.

Do most Americans get their history from Mencken, Hofstadter or Williams? No, but they have not heard anyone explain why this account of events was not the case. Nor did the rise of the “new” history, which placed great emphasis on the role of the slaves themselves in gaining their own freedom, change this. In this version of the war, the Union began by fighting for the feeble goal of “saving the Union,” but redeemed itself by switching horses in midstream and ending the war by fighting to end slavery. Even in this version, the Union hardly comes off well. Their “change of heart” could more easily be attributed to political calculation than by any enlarged compassion for the slaves. And it does not change the basic dishonesty at the heart of the Union’s war effort in this version of the war. If preventing “self-determination” was indeed what the Civil War was about, then it was not only wrong but downright un-American. The entire point of the United States is political self-determination, and if the Civil War was wrong then our entire Republic today is built on a lie.

This is not the minority view of a few disgruntled southern sentimentalists. It is the widely expressed opinion of some of our most respected writers and thinkers. “For all the pleasure I take in the Lincoln persona,” Gore Vidal flatly stated in 1991, “I regard (his) blood-and-iron response to the withdrawal of the Southern states as a very great evil.” “There are moment when one may wonder today,” wrote Edmund Wilson in his 1962 book Patriotic Gore, “whether it may not be true … that the cause of the South is the cause of us all.” Lincoln, he wrote, was little different than those other “centralizing” despots Lenin and Bismarck, and the South’s bid for freedom no different than Hungary’s 1956 rebellion against the Soviet Union. “Lincoln was the American Pol Pot,” recently declared the economist Paul Craig Roberts, a former advisor to President Reagan.

On the other hand, some have found something to admire in this version of the war. Here is the thoughtful interventionist liberal Paul Berman, writing on the eve of the Iraq War:

The United States might well have decided to throw up its hands at the secessionist attack, and might let the slave states go their miserable way, which would have permitted the northern states to evolve, in their time, into a Sweden or Switzerland of North America — a virtuous country, dedicated to the charms and prosperity of its own social system, though with no ability or inclination to defend itself or anyone else. But, instead, the United States took the notion of a liberal society and with a few earnest twists of the screwdriver, rendered the whole concept a little sturdier.

If that last turn of phrase seems hilariously inappropriate when referring to a hideous and bloody four-year war, it’s not an accident: Berman’s argument relies on him making war itself seem almost irrelevant to the question of whether or not to wage war. As a supporter of the imminent war who wished to disassociate himself, as much as possible, from George W. Bush, Berman was in need of some loftier star to hitch his ideological wagon to. So he reached back to Lincoln (not insignificantly, Bush’s favorite president), who now emerged as the original neoconservative. The Gettysburg Address, Berman insisted, expressed Lincoln’s desire to spread liberty and democracy by force to the entire world. Why else would he have so firmly and arbitrarily refused to “honor the revolutionary right to self-determination”? Had Lincoln not said that the Declaration of Independence embodied “a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world”? Is there not a straight line to be drawn from Lincoln to the “humanitarian” wars of the twentieth century?

We cannot escape the necessary conclusion. If the Civil War was indeed as blatantly unjust as this version of history indicates, then our entire current existence as a country is built on a lie. If, however, this version of history is not true, then the implications are equally unsettling. It means that much of the country is in deep denial about what actually happened.

On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina announced that it had severed its ties with the rest of the Union. Mississippi followed suit on January 9, 1861, followed quickly by Florida on January 10, Alabama on January 11, Georgia on January 19, Louisiana on January 26, and Texas on February 1. On February 7, they joined together as a new country, the Confederate States of America. On March 4, upon taking the oath of office, Lincoln declared that he did not consider the “secession” a legitimate one, and that he would continue to treat the states as if they had not left the Union. On April 9, after learning that Lincoln was preparing to resupply Fort Sumter (with provisions, not weapons), an isolated federal fort in South Carolina, the Confederacy opened fire on it.

Behind these familiar facts lurk a good deal of ambiguity. I have to beg the reader’s indulgence before beginning my analysis; I realize that to the average person, this is fairly dry stuff. But I believe that restoring the original political context of the Civil War is essential to understanding why it was fought.

According to historian David M. Potter, whose The Impending Crisis is universally considered the single best book on the lead-up to the Civil War, secessionists in South Carolina had long felt that the majority of Southerners would not back secession. In 1858, Senator James Hammond had complained that “999 in every 1000” southern voters would opt to stay in the Union. In 1860, he advised the South Carolina not to secede because they would be utterly alone in the attempt.

On November 5, immediately after casting its electoral votes and learning the results of the presidential race, South Carolina timidly called for a state convention to meet in January, presumably to decide whether or not to secede. Only five days later, after realizing that no movement was about to stir out of thin air, the secessionists in the state government pushed through another bill calling for a convention to meet on December 17, making secession a much more immediate concern. They did this in part because they had heard that Georgia was preparing to call a convention to consider the issue. But the larger reason was that they realized that secession was not universally supported even among Union-haters, that many southerners supported the so-called “cooperationist” attitude, which called for a “wait and see” attitude in response to the new Republican administration (which had hastened to assure the South that it had no intention of removing their slaves). The entire South had been whipped into a populist frenzy by the election of Lincoln. But it was already showing signs of slowing down, for the obvious reason that most Southern voters had no real stake in expanding slavery to the rest of the continent — the only real point of contention. After all, as Potter notes, “there were very few voters in the South who wanted disunion for its own sake — almost all would have preferred to stay in the Union with satisfactory guarantees.”

South Carolina’s secession gave ammunition to the rest of the Lower South, whose governments all voted to secede within the next month — all without consulting their constituents. Potter:

Theoretically, each southern state was acting independently, but in fact there was already a network of commissioners who maintained liaison between the states, and the southern members of Congress, meeting frequently in caucus, served as a kind of ready-made coordinating body to assure that the disparate action of the several states would converge….

On December 31, before a single state other than South Carolina had seceded, the S.C. convention began drawing up plans for a provisional government to rule the new “Southern Republic.” This seemingly struck at the heart of the South’s arguments for “state sovereignty,” not to mention their diatribes against federal power and centralization. (Indeed, the Southern oligarchs would subsequently invest the one-party government of the Confederacy with far more power than the federal government of the Union had ever enjoyed.)

Elsewhere, Potter summed it up thusly:

“Secession was not basically desired even by a majority in the lower South, and the secessionists succeeded less because of the intrinsic popularity of their program than because of the extreme skill with which they utilized an emergency procedure.”

Here we have a very curious sort of “self-determination.” Few advocates of “states’ rights” today would argue that state governments should have more power than the people they represent — certainly not in the grave issue of secession. Potter calls the secession movement “a program put through in an open and straightforward manner by a decisive minority, at a time when the majority was confused and indecisive.” To put this in blunter terms: a powerful few forced it on a citizenry that had not been given a chance to make up its mind. (Nor could they have reasonably made up their minds, since the new administration had not even taken office yet and hence had not done anything to object to yet.)

An aside here: Why did the proponents of secession call it a “secession,” rather than a revolution? Their argument that they were legally allowed to secede rested on no actual legal foundation. Nor did it rest on the doctrines of the Founders, who had believed that dividing the country would be an open invitation to the European powers to return and destroy the republic. This doesn’t mean, of course, that states have no way to get out of the United States. As Lincoln himself acknowledged, the people themselves had every right to change their government through peaceful means and, if that failed, through revolution. The Thirteen Colonies had claimed the right to revolt against the British. They had not claimed that British law permitted them to rule themselves and expel their British governors. It is most curious, therefore, that the Southern secessionists insisted on a non-existent “right” to secession, rather than appealing to the Southern people’s love of liberty and trying to urge them to a second revolution — an idea which certainly had far more resonance with them.

The reason is that the Southern secessionists did not want a revolution — that is, they did not want more democracy in the South. They wanted to maintain the South as it existed: as a rural, hierarchical society based on slavery. The great mass of poor white nonslaveholders formed a potential threat to the power of the wealthy slaveholders and their Democratic benefactors. A visitor to Georgia in December 1859 noted that “the slaveholder seems to watch more carefully to keep the poor white man in subjection than he does to guard the slaves.” At the beginning of 1861, after the heat of the presidential race had cooled down, Potter notes that of the counties in the Lower South, a majority of those countries with low slave ratios had turned against the idea of secession and in favor of remaining in the Union. This, he writes, threatened to “open a dangerous breach between slaveholding and nonslaveholding whites.” What better way to unite them than a phony war of independence?

Popular feeling remained divided right up until Fort Sumter. A few days before the war began, Edmund Ruffin of Virginia wrote in his diary:

(It has been) communicated privately by members of each delegation (to the Confederate Constitutional Convention) that it was supposed people of every State except S. Ca. was indisposed to the disruption of the Union — and that if the question of reconstruction of the former Union was referred to the popular vote, that there was probability of its being approved [emphasis mine].

It would be tedious to reinforce this point with yet more evidence. The point, I think, is clear, and I have not yet seen any convincing argument against it. A majority of Southerners were not in favor of secession before the war began, and even most of those who supported it were willing to hear out the new administration. The only state in which popular support for secession was overwhelming was South Carolina, a state so tightly controlled by the southern Democratic machine that the Southern historian Eugene Genovese has called it a “Leninist” state unto itself. The real story of the “secession” is that a cabal of Southern politicians deliberately joined together to drag the Lower South out of the United States, caring nothing about what Southerners actually wanted. As A.P. Aldrich of South Carolina wrote in November 1860: “I do not believe the common people understand it. But whoever waited for the common people when a great movement was to be made? We must make the move and force them to follow. That is the way of all great revolutions and great achievements.”

It should be said that at least one major historian of the war, James McPherson, disagrees with my assessment, and thinks that the state governments were fairly representing the desire of their constituents. Even if this were the case, however, it would not mean that the state governments were justified in voting to secede. Whatever decisions a state’s voters choose to leave up to their state government, one decision they assuredly cannot leave up to them is the decision to leave the country. This would amount to handing state officials the power to render the Constitution null and void whenever it suited them. The only conceivable way for a people to decide to leave the Union would be a state referendum. With the exception of the sparsely populated Texas, no southern state held such a referendum.

It can be argued that even if Southerners did not support secession prior to the outbreak of the war, they subsequently fought for “the South” for four years, and thus lent legitimacy to their cause. Leaving aside the fact that Southerners were conscripted to fight, throughout history war has been the easiest and most effective way to whip a peace-loving citizenry into a jingo mob. Faced with a genuinely confusing situation, told by their rabidly anti-North press that their liberties were in danger, and confronted by the spectacle of an apparently “aggressive” North, most Southerners naturally opted to defend the side that seemed to be defending their homes, friends and communities. Was the Vietnam War any more justified by the fact that Americans doubtless fought bravely in it? Any war can be justified this way.

One important question remains. If they were not simply representing public opinion (as historians as allegedly “radical” as William Appleman Williams have not been radical enough to suggest), why did the Southern governments wish to leave the United States? Although the war was most assuredly caused by a quarrel over slavery, the South most certainly did not leave to protect slavery in the South. The new Republican administration could not have ended slavery in 1861, and it repeatedly insisted that it had no intention of doing so. Nor, despite the lies of countless apologists for the so-called “Lost Cause,” did it have anything to do with tariffs. (2) Nor could it have had much to do with the abstract, honorable notion of “states’ rights.” The Southern states had overwhelmingly pushed for, and received, the single most egregious expansion of federal power in American history, the Fugitive Slave Act. Under this law, all free states were effectively forced to participate in slavery, while all free blacks lived in fear of their lives. No, none of these reasons is remotely persuasive. What was the actual reason?

Most schoolchildren know that, in the early 19th century, America began to pursue a doctrine of so-called “Manifest Destiny,” which called for “more, more, more” land for the United States, in the words of the term’s coiner, John L. Sullivan, “till our national destiny is fulfilled” and “the whole boundless continent is ours.” What is less frequently realized is that this doctrine was not the universally supported policy of the United States. It was the foundation of the platform of the Democratic Party. What had begun with Jefferson’s vision of a peaceful, rural “empire of liberty” had evolved, by the 1840s into a policy of outright imperialism. “Cuba must be ours,” said one True Believer in 1848, so that the Gulf of Mexico would become nothing but “a basin of water belonging to the United States.” The speaker was Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, future president of the rebellious states.

This policy lay behind America’s first bid for empire. President James Polk launched a war against Mexico in 1846 in order to secure the Southwest for the expansion of slavery — and, more specifically, for the southern politicians who rested their power on the evil of slavery. The war was so blatantly unjust that Ulysses Grant would write one day that he viewed the Civil War as divine retribution for the crime of invading Mexico. And the imperialists of the Democratic Party did not give up their ambitions after the Mexican War. They grew even more arrogantly convinced of their right to rule the continent — and as they did, they came to see slavery as the means to do it. Slavery had been a presence on the continent for centuries, but in the early years of the Republic, many prominent men had come to be embarrassed by its existence. “Would anyone believe I am the master of slaves of my own purchase!” Thus fretted Patrick Henry, lover of liberty. “I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them. I will not, I cannot, justify it.”

By the 1840s, a number of prominent politicians were defending slavery as, in the words of John C. Calhoun, “instead of an evil, a positive good” and “the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.” What gave slavery its increasing appeal to these men? In part, it was simple self-interest; many Democratic politicians, from Calhoun to Polk, were slave-owners. But the deeper reason was that slavery fostered a deeply undemocratic political culture in the south. It made possible a permanent alliance of the wealthy slave-holders with the corrupt Democratic Party bosses in each state — the so-called “Slave Power” — and it enabled them to keep the majority of nonslaveholding whites separated and politically impotent. The radical democracy inherent in the Constitution and the federal principle was a direct threat to the existence of a permanent political class, and thus the Democrats set out to undermine democracy. In 1828, Calhoun developed the entire political justification for this anti-democracy crusade by inventing the doctrine of “state nullification,” which gave state party machines the right to render acts of Congress null and void.

And expansion, as every Southern politician correctly recognized, was essential to preserving slavery, just as slavery was essential to maintaining their own power. Calling for the United States to expand into Central America, Senator Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi declared: “I want these Countries for the spread of slavery. I would spread the blessings of slavery, like the blessings of our Divine Master, to the uttermost ends of the earth.” Why were they so eager to see slavery expand? The answer was fairly obvious. Abolitionists, angrily declared James Hammond of South Carolina, wished to “reduce us to the condition of Haiti.” In 1791, the slaves of Haiti had violently overthrown their masters and established an independent republic.

This expansion has been depicted as the natural outcome of the hidden forces of capitalism, or some inherent “imperialist” tendency intrinsic to Americans. It was nothing of the sort. Had politics in America been a matter of, say, the Whig Party and the Democrats of Jefferson’s era, there would have been no violent expansion and no Mexican War. The aggressive expansion was entirely the product of an ambitious political faction’s desire to enhance its power, and it was opposed by enough Americans to sway the 1860 presidential election in favor of a virtual unknown candidate from a new political party.

How far the Democrats had come from the beliefs of the Founders and the origins of the Republic can be measured by these words from Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, only a month before war broke out:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea (of the Declaration of Independence); 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.

The 1860-61 “secession” was the last defiant trick of the Slave Power. Seeing the end of its monopoly over the politics of the United States — not so much in the fact of a Republican president as in the confirmation of the rise of a permanent rival to its own power — it moved to tear the country apart in order to seize the rest of the continent for itself. And there was nothing “peaceful” about it, despite the well-meaning claims of countless revisionists that Lincoln should have let the South “go in peace.” In Patriotic Gore, after expressing his admiration for Alexander Stephens, Wilson quotes from a speech Stephens made on March 21, 1861:

“The process of disintegration in the old Union may be expected to go on with almost absolute certainty, if we pursue the right course. We are now the nucleus of a growing Power which, if we are true to ourselves, our destiny, and high mission, will become the controlling Power on this Continent.”

Unbelievably, Wilson attributes this statement to Stephens’ excessive “idealism.” Stephens was so “idealistic” that he looked forward to the day when the Confederacy would consume the old Union itself, leaving the entire continent subjugated to the rule of the Slave Power.

One final point: I have said little about the role of Lincoln and the Republican Party in the war, and the degree to which they might be held responsible for it. It is my view that Lincoln earnestly wished to avoid war, and fought to keep the Union together because he sincerely believed — quite correctly, as we have seen — that a majority of Southerners wanted to stay in the Union, and that those who supported the Confederacy had been bamboozled. This is why he called the war a test to determine whether self-government could endure. It might be argued, quite plausibly, that it wasn’t worth it. But Lincoln had no way of knowing in 1861 that the war would kill 620,000 Americans. His decision to prevent the “secession” was entirely justified both on Constitutional grounds and on moral grounds. (3)

Beyond that, responsibility for the war — and the 620,000 deaths — clearly lies not with the South itself, but with the leaders of the Slave Power, who started the war, lost it, and spent the next few decades insisting on the justness of their cause and the irrationality of those who opposed it. The shame is that so many of us, even today, give credence to their twisted version of history.

Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition.
David Potter, The Impending Crisis: 1846-1860.
Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore.
Herbert Aptheker, The Unfolding Drama: Studies in U.S. History.
Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Freemen.
William Appleman Williams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976.

1.) I omit the War of 1812, which may have been unavoidable, and the Second World War, in which the enemies declared war on the United States. (Whether or not WW2 was a “just war,” all but the most exacting pacifists would admit the right of a country to defend itself against unambiguous outside aggression.) I also omit the American Revolution, which technically began before the United States was a country.

2.) The “tariff” explanation has gained some popularity among Confederate apologists because it makes the South’s cause seem much more justified than a war to protect slavery. (It also appeals to those die-hards for whom no non-economic explanation is ever a real explanation.) But tariffs were not mentioned in any of the declarations of secession issued by any of the states, and the South could have united to block tariffs far more easily than to secede from the United States, and with far less bloodshed. In 1830, during the Nullification Crisis, John C. Calhoun himself wrote: “I consider the tariff act as the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things.” That “real cause,” he said, was slavery.

3) Most attacks on Lincoln rest on a defense of the right to secession (or, in William Appleman Williams’s phrase, “revolutionary self-determination”). My personal view is that the Constitution does not permitt secession, and that a legal right to secession would be ludicrous since secession by definition involves rendering the law itself null and void. (No one in the South ever seems to have wondered why slaves could not “secede” from their masters.) However, the point of this essay is that the right to secession is largely irrelevant to any discussion of the events of 1861 since most Southerners did not want to leave the Union. How well I have made that point is up to the reader to judge.


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3 Responses to “Was the Civil War a just war?”

  1. A. Hill Says:

    The reason is that the Southern secessionists did not want a revolution — that is, they did not want more democracy in the South

    I think you could also say that they simply hoped to avoid a war. If you stage a revoution, then war is inevitable and you are technically the aggressor. If you “secede,” then it forces the entity from which you are seceding to either let you go peacefully or to start a war.

    Also, I was taught in high school that only about 1/3 of the people in the colonies were in favor of a revolution against Britain (1/3 being against it, and 1/3 having no opinion). Is this true? And, if so, what does that say about the justness of that war? I mean, at least in that case they weren’t revolting to preserve slavery, but still.

    Very interesting and convincing. You actually managed to hold my attention about the Civil War for an entire hour.

  2. Justyn Dillingham Says:

    An entirely valid point. Unfortunately, it’s been at least a year since I read much about the Revolutionary War, so I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

  3. Defending the Indefensible: A Reply to Justyn « Evan Lisull Says:

    […] several weeks after the fact, but if you haven’t already you must read Justyn’s take on the Civil War, and why in fact it is a “just war.” It’s a brilliant, […]

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