The HyperTexts

What caused the Civil War? Slavery!

with slavery quotations by Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Victor Hugo, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others ...

There is absolutely no doubt that slavery was the real cause of the Civil War. That slavery was the central issue was made abundantly clear by the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and his Vice President, Alexander Stephens, in the quotes directly below. Also, four of the seceding states issued formal Declarations of Secession in which they made it abundantly clear that they were leaving the Union over the issue of slavery. When the first shots were fired by the Confederacy, and the first American soldiers fell, they were being murdered by their southern brothers over the burning issue of the day, slavery. 

compiled by Michael R. Burch, an editor and publisher of Holocaust, Trail of Tears, and Nakba poetry

"We recognize the fact of the INFERIORITY stamped upon that race of [black] men by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our Government, as a civil institution, marks that INFERIORITY."Confederacy President Jefferson Davis

"Our new government [the Confederacy] is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [to equality]; its FOUNDATIONS are laid, its CORNERSTONE 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."Confederacy Vice President Alexander Stephens

In other words, the Confederacy was established on the "foundations" of white superiority and white supremacy, with black Americans being enslaved because they were considered "inferior" to whites. This is exactly the "brainstorm" of Hitler and the Nazis when they enslaved Jews. The Nazis "knew" that white Germans were "superior" to Jewish Germans and other people with darker skin, such as Gypsies; therefore the "inferior people" could be enslaved, tortured, even murdered. Obviously, one does not enslave one's equals. The Confederacy was not possible without this deep-seated belief that whites were "superior" and thus "destined" to rule over people with darker skin. Before modern revisionists claim that the Civil War was "not really about slavery," they should ask themselves: "How can slavery be possible in the first place, in a decent nation? How was it possible that the Nazis enslaved the Jews and treated them so horribly? How is it possible that the Confederacy enslaved millions of African Americans and treated them so horribly?" The revisionists know that Hitler and the Nazis were terribly wrong, so they should understand and accept that the Confederacy was also terribly wrong. Why do so many people agonize over what they saw the Nazis do to their victims? Well, American abolitionists agonized over what they saw Southern slave owners doing to their slaves, for the same reasons. And well they should have!

Today many revisionists call the Civil War an "act of Northern aggression," making the Confederacy seem like the innocent victim. How absurd! First, Abraham Lincoln did not believe that it was possible to end slavery in the South, and he certainly did not attack the Confederacy in an attempt to end slavery. Rather, he only intended to oppose the expansion of slavery into territories that would eventually become states. Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson explains: "The Civil War started because of uncompromising differences between the free and slave states over the power of the national government to prohibit slavery in the territories that had not yet become states. When Abraham Lincoln won election in 1860 as the first Republican president on a platform pledging to keep slavery out of the territories, seven slave states in the deep South seceded and formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America." The first state to secede, South Carolina, started the first battle of the Civil War when it attacked Fort Sumter. That attack put Lincoln in a terrible Catch-22 position: he would have to fight to preserve the Union, or the United States would no longer be united. He, of course, chose to fight to preserve the Union. But the main reason for the Civil War was truly perverse: the Confederate States not only demanded the "right" to own their brothers and sisters as "property," but to create new slave states and expand the terrible institution of slavery. And, as we will see, the seceding states themselves made it very clear that slavery was the burning issue of the day ...

"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the slaves and freedom to the prisoners."—the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, quoted by Jesus Christ in his first public sermon after being baptized

"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy."—Abraham Lincoln

Please click the hyperlink if it interests you to know that the state militias mentioned in the Second Amendment were actually huge, brutal slave control militias that in some states included nearly every "of age" white man.

What caused the Civil War? Was the main issue slavery, or a clash of cultures, or states' rights?

When John Dickerson of the CBS News program Face the Nation asked Ken Burns whether the Civil War was fought over states’ rights or slavery, the winner of multiple Emmys and Grammies for the TV series The Civil War replied: "If you read South Carolina’s articles of secession, the first state to secede, the birthplace of secession, the home of the original fire-eaters — they do not mention states’ rights, they mention slavery, slavery, slavery."

And, as we will shortly see, the same is true for the other southern states that wrote formal articles of secession. There was only one major states' right in dispute: the right of white men to enslave their black brothers and sisters, and to recover their "property" when slaves escaped and fled north.

As reported in a December 4, 2011 headline article by the Tennessean, a Nashville-based newspaper, the Southern Baptists have finally confessed their churches' original sin: overt racism and support of slavery. According to the Southern Baptist Historical Library Archives, located in downtown Nashville, what the Baptists of the Civil War era thought is crystal-clear: "The cause [of the war] was slavery. They never even mentioned anything else." As the article points out, "most of the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention owned slaves and supported the Confederacy." In fact, slavery was the very basis of the formation of the Southern Baptist denomination, which split from Northern Baptists when a Virginia Baptist was not allowed to become a missionary because he owned slaves. Today, to its credit, the Southern Baptist Convention has finally admitted the truth: slavery was the burning issue of the day, and the real cause of the Civil War.

Southern slavery and Northern opposition to slavery caused the Civil War. We know this unequivocally from the words of the main players themselves. The incoming president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, the departing president, James Buchanan, the new president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and the new vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, all agreed that slavery was the primary and most inflammatory issue of the day. Was there a clash of cultures? Yes, but the cultural clash was over slavery. Was the issue of states' rights raised? Yes, but it was raised over the right to expand slavery into new states like Missouri and Kansas. If the North had caved into this demand, the South would not have seceded from the Union. But Abraham Lincoln had drawn a line in the sand, adamantly declaring that slavery would not be allowed to expand westward. This denial of the right of slavery to expand led to the Civil War. Both sides clearly understood the implications: in a democracy if slavery was not allowed to expand it would eventually wither on the vine and die. The North wanted slavery to wither away and die because it considered slavery to be an abomination. The South wanted slavery to thrive and expand because slavery was the key to its booming economy. Here are quotations by key actors in the unfolding drama:

Slavery was the antithesis of the stated ideal of the American Founding Fathers that all men were created equal. The proposition of the equality of all men was vehemently opposed by the constitution of the Confederacy, as explained by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who in March 1861 said: "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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." So the seceding states rejected the premise of the Founding Fathers that all men are created equal, and made slavery the foundation and cornerstone of the Confederacy.

Before he became the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis had said: "The condition of slavery with us is ... nothing but the form of civil government instituted for a class of people not fit to govern themselves. It is exactly what in every State exists in some form or other. It is just that kind of control which is extended in every northern State over its convicts, its lunatics, its minors, its apprentices. It is but a form of civil government for those who by their nature are not fit to govern themselves. We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our Government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority." (He said this in the Senate on February 29, 1860)

Davis painted a rosy picture of the enslavement of millions of Americans, saying: "... under the mild and genial climate of the Southern States and the increasing care and attention for the well-being and comfort of the laboring class, dictated alike by interest and humanity, the African slaves had augmented in number from about 600,000, at the date of the adoption of the constitutional compact, to upward of 4,000,000. In moral and social condition they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction." [That southern slaveholders considered themselves to be "good Christians" is one of the more interesting ironies of human history; many of the German Nazis who created the Holocaust also considered themselves to be "good Christians."]

Davis again: "African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing."

Davis invoked the Bible to justify slavery, saying, "We recognize the negro as God and God's Book and God's Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him—our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude ...You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be."

Davis also said, "It [slavery] is a common law right to property in the service of man; its origin was Divine decree."

Davis again: "It [slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God ... it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation ... it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts ... Let the gentleman go to Revelation to learn the decree of God—let him go to the Bible ... I said that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible, authorized, regulated, and recognized from Genesis to Revelation ... Slavery existed then in the earliest ages, and among the chosen people of God; and in Revelation we are told that it shall exist till the end of time shall come. You find it in the Old and New Testaments—in the prophecies, psalms, and the epistles of Paul; you find it recognized, sanctioned everywhere." (Unfortunately, Jefferson Davis was correct that the Bible sanctions slavery in a number of passages, but it also sanctions the stoning of boys for being "stubborn" [Deuteronomy 21] and the stoning of girls for being raped [Deuteronomy 22], along with matricide, infanticide, ethnic cleansing and genocide: things even the most devout Bible-believing Christians no longer believe in today.)

"It's a matter of taking the side of the weak against the strong, something the best people have always done."—Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, speaking about the abolition of slavery

Abraham Lincoln certainly believed that slavery was dividing the nation. In one of his most famous campaign speeches of 1858, Lincoln said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." What was dividing the country? Slavery. He continued: "I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free ... It will become all one thing, or all the other."

Slavery was obviously the main national issue of the day, and the Civil War boiled down to a disagreement as to whether slavery was the natural state of black Americans (the Southern position) or an abomination (the Northern position). When states' rights were discussed, the most important rights, according to the South, were the rights to own slaves, to recapture them if they fled to free states, and to allow the expansion of slavery into new territories so that they could later become slave states. When culture was discussed, the South insisted that the North had no right to impose the equality of all men on southerners, because the Bible clearly commanded and condoned slavery. Abolitionists in the North were focusing on verses in the Bible that command love, compassion, and justice for the weak, poor and oppressed. Slaveowners in the South were focusing on verses in the same Bible that say "men of God" can own other people as "property" and pass them down as an inheritance (Leviticus 25:44-46), that "men of God" can kill mothers and keep their virgin daughters as sex slaves (Numbers 31), and that fathers can sell their own daughters as sex slaves (Exodus 21:7-11). The large number of light-skinned blacks in the United States today is compelling evidence that many black girls and women were being used as sex slaves by their white "Christian" masters.

"What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man! Who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment & death itself in vindication of his own liberty, and the next moment ... inflict on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose."—Thomas Jefferson, who fathered children by his black mistress, Sally Hemmings, and raised them as slaves in his own house, after writing so eloquently that all men are created equal

Of course Northern abolitionists knew what was really happening and they were horrified. On April 12, 1861 in his inaugural address Abraham Lincoln declared: "One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute."

The departing president, James Buchanan, also understood the real problem, saying that abolitionists had "inspired [slaves] with vague notions of freedom. Many a matron throughout the South retires at night in dread of what may befall herself and her children before morning," making "disunion ... inevitable." The South lived in fear of what would happen if the slaves were freed. The North lived in fear of what would happen to the nation's soul if slavery continued to expand. There is no doubt today that the North was right and the South was wrong about the "peculiar institution" of slavery.

"I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."—Martin Luther King Jr.

This does not mean that everyone who fought for the South was a racist, or that everyone who fought for the North was an abolitionist. Obviously this was not the case. Once the Civil War began, many Southerners were fighting primarily to protect their homeland and way of life, while many Northerners were fighting primarily to keep the Union intact. Some young men on both sides were fighting simply because they had been drafted, or didn't want to considered cowards. But the root cause of the Civil War was clearly slavery, and the leaders on both sides said so plainly in public. The dispute went back to the ringing cries of the Founding Fathers, who said King George and his minions had no right to enslave them. This raised the question of how a free people could enslave their darker-skinned brothers and sisters.

"Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"—Patrick Henry

The leading authorities on slavery included ex-slaves like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman said, "I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more if they had known they were slaves."

If the four quotations below, Frederick Douglass, a freed slave, clearly and succinctly explained the real causes of the Civil War:

“I expose slavery in this country, because to expose it is to kill it. Slavery is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death.”
“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppose.”
“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”
“When men sow the wind it is rational to expect that they will reap the whirlwind.”

In the last two quotes above, Douglass explained why the Civil War was inevitable. Injustice is the enemy of freedom. When slaveowners chose to practice terrible injustices against defenseless slaves, they created a deep agitation in the breasts of men and women who truly believed in freedom, justice and equality. Those freedom- and justice-loving Americans found it impossible to be silent in the face of such injustices. When the South refused to see its error and correct it, war became inevitable. The South reaped the whirlwind because it refused to see the "monsters of darkness" in its midst.

Sojourner Truth, another ex-slave, was no shrinking violet on the subjects of slavery and women's rights:

"We do as much, we eat as much, we want as much."
"Religion without humanity is very poor human stuff."
"Truth is powerful and it prevails."
"I am glad to see that men are getting their rights, but I want women to get theirs, and while the water is stirring I will step into the pool."
"If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again"
"If women want any rights more than they's got, why don't they just take them, and not be talking about it."

"It is better to perish than to live as slaves."—Winston Churchill

The formal declarations of the seceding states

Four states—Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas—wrote formal Declarations of Secession. Each of these states made it abundantly clear that slavery was the main issue at hand. Here are a few of the "grievances" expressed by disgruntled slavemasters against Northerners who wanted them to treat African-Americans like human beings:

"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world ... a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization."

"In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or colora doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States."

It [hostility against the institution of slavery] has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction. It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it [the institution of slavery] by confining it within its present limits, denying [slavery] the power of expansion.

She [Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery— the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits—a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.

They [the northern states] have for years past encouraged and sustained lawless organizations to steal [i.e., free] our slaves and prevent their recapture …

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.

The writers of these documents even claimed the right to own slaves was the most important reason for the southern states joining the Union in the first place! They were honest enough to admit that they valued enslaving blacks more than freedom for themselves:

Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent [any] longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation [i.e., the "degradation" of treating blacks like human beings], and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this [the right to own other human beings], our fathers separated from the Crown of England. [Thus, owning slaves was far more important than white Southerners being free themselves.]

"A similar provision of the Constitution requires them [the free states] to surrender fugitives from labor [i.e., runaway slaves]. This provision and the one last referred to were our main inducements for confederating with the Northern States. Without them it is historically true that we would have rejected the Constitution. [In other words, white southerners would have preferred to remain feudal serfs of the British monarchy than give blacks their freedom. The first confederation of the Southern and Northern states came in 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In his first draft, Thomas Jefferson spoke strongly against slavery, but the southern states obviously objected, as the anti-slavery wording was deleted. It seems the southern states had refused join the fight for freedom until they were allowed to deny any hope of freedom to their slaves.]

"This stipulation [that escaped slaves must be returned to their masters] was so material to the compact [the Union of the United States], that without it that compact would not have been made." [Thus the slave states would have remained British colonies unless slaveholders were allowed to pursue and recapture escaped slaves.]

"... yet for above twenty years the non-slave-holding States generally have wholly refused to deliver up to us persons charged with crimes affecting slave property. Our confederates, with punic faith, shield and give sanctuary to all criminals who seek to deprive us of this property or who use it to destroy us."

These documents leave absolutely no doubt about the real reason for the Civil War, because the drafters ranted on and on about their right to own slaves, to recover slaves when they escaped, and to leave the Union if slavery was not allowed to expand. These documents are horrors and are clear evidence that the leaders of the Southern states at the time of the Civil War were fervid bigots. Abraham Lincoln was absolutely correct to stop their madness from spreading and inflicting new territories and states.

"For in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery."—Jonathan Swift

More slavery quotations by leading figures of in the American debate over slavery

Abraham Lincoln said, "Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."

Lincoln also said, "Although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it by being a slave himself."

Lincoln again: "I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free."

Lincoln saw slavery as fundamentally unjust: "This is a world of compensations, and he who would be no slave must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, they cannot long retain it."

Lincoln also wrote, "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong."

Lincoln explained the impasse between the North and South as follows: "The Shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as a destroyer of liberty. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of liberty."

In explaining the real root of the Civil War, Lincoln said, "Slavery is founded on the selfishness of man's nature—opposition to it on his love of justice. These principles are in eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely as slavery extension brings them, shocks and throes and convulsions must ceaselessly follow."

Lincoln also said, "This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert, real zeal, for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world, enables the enemies of free institutions with plausibility to taunt us as hypocrites, causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many good men among ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty, criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest."

Mark Twain wrote, " In those old slave-holding days the whole community was agreed as to one thing—the awful sacredness of slave property. To help steal a horse or a cow was a low crime, but to help a hunted slave, or feed him or shelter him, or hide him, or comfort him, in his troubles, his terrors, his despair, or hesitate to promptly to betray him to the slave-catcher when opportunity offered was a much baser crime, & carried with it a stain, a moral smirch which nothing could wipe away. That this sentiment should exist among slave-owners is comprehensible—there were good commercial reasons for it—but that it should exist & did exist among the paupers, the loafers the tag-rag & bobtail of the community, & in a passionate & uncompromising form, is not in our remote day realizable."

Twain also wrote, "...the 'poor whites' of our South who were always despised, and frequently insulted, by the slave lords around them, and who owed their base condition simply to the presence of slavery in their midst, were yet pusillanimously ready to side with the slave lords in all political moves for the upholding and perpetuating of slavery, and did also finally shoulder their muskets and pour out their lives in an effort to prevent the destruction of that very institution which degraded them. And there was only one redeeming feature connected with that pitiful piece of history; and that was, that secretly the 'poor white' did detest the slave lord, and did feel his own shame."
Twain again: "Our Civil War was a blot on our history, but not as great a blot as the buying and selling of Negro souls."

Twain also said, "The blunting effects of slavery upon the slaveholder's moral perceptions are known and conceded the world over; and a privileged class, an aristocracy, is but a band of slaveholders under another name."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote, "I do not see how a barbarous community and a civilized community can constitute a state. I think we must get rid of slavery or we must get rid of freedom."

"I did not write it [Uncle Tom's Cabin]. God wrote it. I merely did his dictation."—Harriet Beecher Stowe

"I would not attack the faith of a heathen without being sure I had a better one to put in its place."—Harriet Beecher Stowe

"Yet the hour of emancipation is advancing ... this enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to it's consummation. It shall have all my prayers, and these are the only weapons of an old man."—Thomas Jefferson, writing about slavery toward the end of his life

William Lloyd Garrison wrote, "Resolved, that the compact which exists between the North and the South is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell; involving both parties in atrocious criminality, and should be immediately annulled."

Hinton Rowan Helper wrote, "Slavery destroys, or vitiates, or pollutes, whatever it touches. No interest of society escapes the influence of its clinging curse. It makes Southern religion a stench in the nostrils of Christendom; it makes Southern politics a libel upon all the principles of republicanism; it makes Southern literature a travesty upon the honorable profession of letters."

People of good conscience like Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain knew that slavery was ripping the United States apart. They wanted to end slavery as a way of preserving the Union. But the South had become addicted to the economic benefits of slavery and lived in fear of what freed slaves might do to their former masters. There is absolutely no doubt slavery was the real cause of the Civil War.

The testimony of historians

Historians also verify that slavery was the real cause of the Civil War ...

"Everything stemmed from the slavery issue," says Princeton professor James McPherson, whose book Battle Cry of Freedom is widely considered to be the authoritative one-volume history of the war.

Professor Bruce Levine: "Many people continue to believe that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery: that the South tried to leave the Union to protect “states’ rights” in general or because it objected to the Republican Party’s stand on tariffs or other unrelated matters. But the record of the North-South conflict during the 40 or so years before the war shows unmistakably that slavery was central to it. And the leaders of the secession movement said as much in 1860-61. They left the Union because they believed that Lincoln’s election imperiled the security of slavery, an institution that they considered essential to their own happiness and prosperity."

Edward Nilges: "Before the Civil War, many Southerners felt that their states' rights were being ignored. Now, this was primarily in the matter of slavery. The main problem was that slaves would head north when escaping their masters. The Constitution had guaranteed that all such slaves would be returned to their masters [but Northerners were increasingly refusing to return escaped slaves] ... Therefore, slavery caused the Civil War."

Why is there so much denial about slavery causing the Civil War today?

David Blight of Yale, a leading authority on the Civil War, says: "No matter what we do or the overwhelming consensus among historians, out in the public mind, there is still this need to deny that slavery was the cause of the war."

David Von Drehle explains: "It's not simply a matter of denial. For most of the first century after the war, historians, novelists and filmmakers worked like hypnotists to soothe the posttraumatic memories of survivors and their descendants. Forgetting was the price of reconciliation, and Americans — those whose families were never bought or sold, anyway — were happy to pay it. But denial plays a part, especially in the South. After the war, former Confederates wondered how to hold on to their due pride after a devastating defeat. They had fought long and courageously; that was beyond question. So they reverse-engineered a cause worthy of those heroics. They also sensed, correctly, that the end of slavery would confer a gloss of nobility, and bragging rights, on the North that it did not deserve. As Lincoln suggested in his second Inaugural Address, the entire nation, North and South, profited from slavery and then paid dearly for it. The process of forgetting, and obscuring, was long and layered. Some of it was benign, but not all. It began with self-justifying memoirs by defeated Confederate leaders and was picked up by war-weary veterans on both sides who wanted to move on. In the devastated South, writers and historians kindled comforting stories of noble cavaliers, brilliant generals and happy slaves, all faithful to a glorious lost cause. In the prosperous North, where cities and factories began filling with freed slaves and their descendants, large audiences were happy to embrace this idea of a time when racial issues were both simple and distant."

The American Founding Fathers on slavery

The American Founding Fathers saw the Civil War on the horizon, from "day one." Even as the Constitution was being written, James Madison had observed, "It seems now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the Northern and Southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line."

Madison also wrote, "Our opinions agree as to the evil, moral, political, and economical, of slavery."

George Washington said, "Not only do I pray for it [the end of slavery], on the score of human dignity, but I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle."

Washington, in his farewell address, wrote: "I never mean, unless some particular circumstances should compel me to do it, to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by law."

Washington also said, "There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery."

"Consenting to slavery is a sacrilegious breach of trust, as offensive in the sight of God as it is derogatory from our own honor or interest of happiness."—John Adams

"The right to freedom being the gift of Almighty God, it is not in the power of man to alienate this gift and voluntarily become a slave."—Samuel Adams

John Quincy Adams wrote in his journal, " The conflict between the principle of liberty and the fact of slavery is coming gradually to an issue. Slavery has now the power, and falls into convulsions at the approach of freedom. That the fall of slavery is predetermined in the counsels of Omnipotence I cannot doubt; it is a part of the great moral improvement in the condition of man, attested by all the records of history. But the conflict will be terrible, and the progress of improvement perhaps retrograde before its final progress to consummation."

Thomas Jefferson wrote, " The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it."

Jefferson, a slaveowner like Washington, also wrote, "But this momentous question [the expansion of slavery], like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror."

Patrick Henry said, "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!"

"Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing."—Thomas Paine

What really happened?

After the American Revolution, slavery kept mushrooming, until slaves became the single largest financial asset in the United States. By 1860 slaves represented more than 3.5 billion dollars (a tremendous amount of money in those distant times): exceeding the value of America's railroads, banks, factories or ships.

As the nation grew by expanding westward the debate became whether or not slavery would be allowed in new territories such as Kansas and Missouri. The resulting furor led to "bleeding Kansas," in effect a war by proxy over slavery in the wild, wild west. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had left the future of slavery up to a few intrepid (or decrepit) settlers. This doctrine became known as "squatter sovereignty." As David Von Drehle put it: "Never in U.S. history had so much depended on so few so far beyond the rule of law. There was a footrace to the distant prairie, and Kansas, where the racers clashed, was where the war started, not Fort Sumter. And everyone involved knew exactly what the killing was about."

Of course many settlers were dirt poor and couldn't afford slaves even if they wanted them. And much of the west was too arid for big cash crops like cotton. So it may have seemed like the decks were stacked against the expansion of slavery. Previously, a rough balance had existed between free and slave states, but each addition of a western state threatened to disrupt the status quo, because in the Senate each state is apportioned two seats. So the admission of Kansas into the Union as a free state may have been the "final straw" for the slave states, along with the election of Abraham Lincoln. But that's getting slightly ahead of the story ...

At one point, Kansas had two separate governments, one slave and one free, each with its own constitution. Then on May 21, 1856 a pro-slavery army commanded by U.S. Senator David Rice Atchison of Missouri, attacked an anti-slavery force at Lawrence, Kansas. "Boys, this is the happiest day of my life," Atchison said as he and his men set about to teach "the damned abolitionists a Southern lesson that they will remember until the day they die."

John Brown was one of those abolitionists, but he arrived too late to rescue Lawrence (or to be taught a lesson). Three days later, when Brown learned that an anti-slavery leader, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, had been nearly killed by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks after Sumner had delivered a fiery speech titled "The Crime Against Kansas," Brown went "crazy — crazy." That night he and four of his sons attacked a pro-slavery settlement on Pottawatomie Creek and hacked five men to death with broadswords. As Brown explained, "In Kansas, the question is never raised of a man, Is he a Democrat? Is he a Republican? The questions there raised are, Is he a Free State man? or is he a proslavery man?"

In 1859 John Brown raided the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to supply weapons to slaves willing to rise up against their masters' injustices. Brown had planned to use the weapons only in self-defense, believing slavery would implode with a minimum of violence if armed slaves were able to resist their captivity. He did not want or envision wholesale slaughter.

After several people were killed, including the mayor of Harpers Ferry, Brown was cornered with several of his followers in a fire engine house. Troops commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee stormed the building, capturing Brown and several of his men. Brown was tried for his crimes, found guilty, and hung in Charlestown. Although John Brown's raid had failed, he became a martyr and a symbol to northern abolitionists. Northern bells tolled for John Brown on the day he was executed. Such displays of sympathy for a man most southerners considered a murderer only widened the rift.

Victor Hugo wrote before the execution of John Brown: "Morally speaking, it seems a part of the human light would put itself out, that the very notion of justice and injustice would hide itself in darkness, on that day where one would see the assassination of Emancipation by Liberty itself ... Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus." [Spartacus was the gladiator who led a slave rebellion against the Roman Empire.]

On the day of his death Brown wrote "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done."

After Brown's death the debate became increasingly bitter. Emotions exploded into armed revolt when Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in 1860. Lincoln's election was the last straw for the South. South Carolina was the first state to officially secede from the United States and was quickly followed by six other states. These states formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis was elected its first president. On April 12, 1861 the Confederate States of America attacked Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The Civil War that resulted would leave more than 625,000 Americans dead: more than in both world wars combined.

After the Civil War, Frederick Douglass wrote of John Brown, "His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him."

Thomas Jefferson on the evils and perils of American slavery

"One fatal stain [slavery] deforms what nature had bestowed on us of her fairest gifts."

1776 June. (Draft of Declaration of Independence). "He [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piractical warfare, the opprobium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against lives of another."

Jefferson worked to ban the importation of slaves into Virginia and emancipate the children of slaves from 1777-1779. In 1781, in his "Notes on the State of Virginia" he wrote, "In the very first session held under the republican government, the assembly passed a law for the perpetual prohibition of the importation of slaves. This will in some measure stop the increase of this great political and moral evil, while the minds of our citizens may be ripening for a complete emancipation of human nature." In his 1783 draft of the Virginia Constitution, anyone born after 1800 was to be born free. In 1785 he wrote of a "total emancipation" with "the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation." In 1786 he called slavery an "abominable crime."

In a 1788 letter to Brissot de Warville, he wrote: "I am very sensible of the honour you propose to me of becoming a member of the society for the abolition of the slave trade. You know that nobody wishes more ardently to see an abolition not only of the trade but of the condition of slavery: and certainly nobody will be more willing to encounter every sacrifice for that object."

In an1809 letter to Henri Gregoire after reading his Literature of Negroes, Jefferson wrote: "Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them therefore with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights ... On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their re-€‘establishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family."

In an 1814 to Thomas Cooper he wrote: "They [slaves] are subject, it is true, to bodily coercion; but are not the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers and seamen subject to the same, without seeing, at the end of their career, when age and accident shall have rendered them unequal to labor, the certainty, which the other has, that he will never want? ... But do not mistake me. I am not advocating slavery. I am not justifying the wrongs we have committed on a foreign people, by the example of another nation committing equal wrongs on their own subjects. On the contrary, there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity."

In an 1820 letter to John Holmes, Jefferson wrote: "But this momentous question [the Missouri question], like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union ... A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected; and gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."

In a November 3, 1820 diary entry, Isaac Briggs recorded a conversation he had with Jefferson: "Among other political points, that which has been called the Missouri question stood prominent. He said that nothing had happened since the revolution, which gave him so much anxiety and so many disquieting fears for the safety and happiness of his country. ‘I fear,’ said he, ‘that much mischief has been done already, but if they carry matters to extremities again at the approaching session of Congress, nothing short of Almighty power can save us. The Union will be broken. All the horrors of civil war, embittered by local jealousies and mutual recriminations, will ensue. Bloodshed, rapine and cruelty will soon roam at large, will desolate our once happy land and turn the fruitful field into a howling wilderness. Out of such a state of things will naturally grow a war of extermination toward the African in our land. Instead of improving the condition of this poor, afflicted, degraded race, terminating, in the ordering of wisdom, in equal liberty and the enjoyment of equal rights (in which direction public opinion is advancing with rapid strides) the course pursued, by those who make high professions of humanity and of friendship for them, would involve them as well as us in certain destruction. I believe there are many, very many, who are quite honest in their humane views and feelings toward this people, lending their efforts, with amiable but misguided zeal, to those leaders those master spirits, who raise the whirlwind and direct the storm who are not honest, who wear humanity as a mask, whose aim is power, and who "would wade through slaughter to a throne and shut the gates of mercy on mankind." I have considered the United States as owing to the world an example, and that this is their solemn duty—a steady, peaceful example of morality and happiness in society at large, of moderation and wisdom in government, and of civil and religious liberty—an example, which, by its mild and steady light, would be far more powerful than the sword in correcting abuses—in teaching mankind that they can, if they will, govern themselves, and of relieving them from the oppressions of kingcraft and priestcraft. But if our Union be broken, this duty will be sacrificed—this bright example will be lost—it will be worse than lost. The predictions of our enemies will be fulfilled, in the estimation of the world, that we were not wise enough for self government. It would be said that the fullest and fairest experiment had been made—and had failed; and the chains of despotism would be riveted more firmly than ever.’ This is the substance; I do not pretend to recollect, exactly, although I believe very nearly, his words, for his manner was impressive."

In an 1824 letter to Lydia Sigourney, Jefferson wrote: "I wish that [plight of Indians] was the only blot in our moral history, and that no other race had higher charges to bring against us. I am not apt to despair; yet I see not how we are to disengage ourselves from that deplorable entanglement, we have the wolf by the ears and feel the danger of either holding or letting him loose. I shall not live to see it but those who come after us will be wiser than we are, for light is spreading and man improving. to that advancement I look, and to the dispensations of an all-wise and all-powerful providence to devise the means of effecting what is right."

In an 1825 letter to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, he said: "One fatal stain [slavery] deforms what nature had bestowed on us of her fairest gifts."

Just a few days before his death, on June 24, 1826, Jefferson wrote to Roger C. Weightman:

"Respected Sir, The kind invitation I receive from you, on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. But acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them. I will ask permission here to express the pleasure with which I should have met my ancient neighbors of the city of Washington and its vicinities, with whom I passed so many years of a pleasing social intercourse; an intercourse which so much relieved the anxieties of the public cares, and left impressions so deeply engraved in my affections, as never to be forgotten. With my regret that ill health forbids me the gratification of an acceptance, be pleased to receive for yourself, and those for whom you write, the assurance of my highest respect and friendly attachments."

Jefferson wrote this shortly before his death on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of Independence Day: "My sentiments have been forty years before the public. Had I repeated them forty times, they would only have become the more stale and threadbare. Although I shall not live to see them consummated, they will not die with me; but living or dying, they will ever be in my most fervent prayer."

Jefferson’s last words remain unknown: they were spoken to his household slaves. Did he tell them, perhaps, that the day would come when they would be free and endowed with equal rights, at long last?

Exactly fifty years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was approved, on July 4, 1826, Jefferson died. John Adams died later the same day. His famous last words were: "Thomas Jefferson survives." While he have been wrong literally, in a broader sense, he was right. Thomas Jefferson still lives in those stirring words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, than all men are created equal." He also lives on in the compromises men and governments make between their ideals and their actions.

It was manifestly always Jefferson’s goal to end slavery sooner rather than later. That he never freed his own slaves during his lifetime, and only his children by Sally Hemmings after his death, meaning that he raised their children as slaves in his own house, is one of the great ironies in human history. And he failed to free their mother; did he believe his precious white blood made them somehow worthier of freedom? Or did his massive debt lead him to put the finances of his white heir above the freedom of his black mistress? Or was he afraid that if he freed his black mistress, people would put two-and-two together and say bad things about him after he was gone? Perhaps he explained his personal dilemma in a letter to Richard Price: "From the mouth to the head of the Chesapeake, the bulk of the people will approve it [emancipation] in theory, and it will find a respectable minority ready to adopt it in practice, a minority which for weight and worth of character preponderates against the greater number, who have not the courage to divest their families of a property which however keeps their consciences inquiet." Perhaps he lacked the necessary character and courage to do the right thing, after all his fine talk.

Jefferson wrote of southern slaveowners: "Nursed and educated in the daily habit of seeing the degraded condition, both bodily & mental, of those unfortunate beings, not reflecting that that degradation was very much the work of themselves & their fathers, few minds had yet doubted but that they were as legitimate subjects of property as their horses or cattle."

Jefferson once asked his neighbors: "Whose ox have I taken, or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed, or of whose hand have received a bribe to blind mine eyes therewith? On your verdict I rest with conscious security." But Jefferson had oppressed hundreds of slaves, including his mistress and their children. His legacy consists of grand words and secret shame.

Perhaps Harriet Beecher Stowe was thinking of Jefferson when she said the following:

"One would like to be grand and heroic, if one could; but if not, why try at all? One wants to be very something, very great, very heroic; or if not that, then at least very stylish and very fashionable. It is this everlasting mediocrity that bores me."

"Perhaps it is impossible for a person who does no good to do no harm."

More slavery quotations

"Better to starve free than be a fat slave."—Aesop

"Any excuse will serve a tyrant."—Aesop

"Life without the courage for death is slavery."—Seneca

"This is slavery, not to speak one’s thought."—Euripides

"Destiny waits alike for the free man as well as for him enslaved by another's might."—Aeschylus

"Liberty is rendered even more precious by the recollection of servitude."—Cicero

"Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you."—Saint Paul, Galatians 5:1

"Better to dwell in freedom's hall,
With a cold damp floor and mouldering wall,
Than bow the head and bend the knee
In the proudest palace of slavery."
– Thomas Moore, the author of Utopia

"Slavery is now no where more patiently endured, than in countries once inhabited by the zealots of liberty."—Samuel Johnson

"It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere."—Voltaire

"Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves."—William Pitt

"I prefer liberty with danger to peace with slavery."—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

"There is no subjugation so perfect as that which keeps the appearance of freedom."—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

"Conformity and obedience, Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth, Makes slaves of men and of the human frame, A mechanized automaton."—Percy Bysshe Shelley

"Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?"—Lord Byron

"Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison ... the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor."—Henry David Thoreau

"The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free."—Henry David Thoreau

"The dearest ambition of a slave is not liberty, but to have a slave of his own."—Sir Richard Francis Burton

"An oppressed people are authorized, whenever they can, to rise and break their fetters."—Henry Clay

"Governments need armies to protect them against their enslaved and oppressed subjects."—Leo Tolstoy

"Any power must be an enemy of mankind which enslaves the individual by power and by force, whether it arises under the Fascist or the Communist flag. All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded to the individual."—Albert Einstein

"I have a dream that one day ... the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."—Martin Luther King Jr.

"If the cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. Because the goal of America is freedom, abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny."—Martin Luther King Jr.

"I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time being ashamed."—Ralph Ellison

"Art is individualism, and individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. There lies its immense value. For what it seeks is to disturb monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine."—Oscar Wilde

"The average man is a conformist, accepting miseries and disasters with the stoicism of a cow standing in the rain."—Colin Wilson

"No nation, ancient or modern, ever lost the liberty of speaking freely, writing, or publishing their sentiments, but forthwith lost their liberty in general and became slaves."—John Peter Zenger

Please click here if it interests you to know that the "state militias" created by the Second Amendment were actually brutal slave control militias.

Related pages: American Fascism, The American Holocausts, Parables of Zion, Let Freedom Sing, The Nakba: The Holocaust of the Palestinians

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