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The Civil War: An Issue of Slavery or States Rights?

Devin Hughes
Hist. 333
Dr. April Holm

The Civil War has long been thought by many to be a war between the morally
upright Union army, fighting to eliminate slavery, and the barbaric, slave owning
southerners. Sadly, this is the perception that many hold even today; however, the idea
that the war was fought entirely over slavery is a misconception. The Civil War was an
unavoidable conflict that was based on sectionalized differing interpretations of the
constitution. Regardless of the prominence of the idea that slavery was the cause of this
war, the truth is that the Civil War would have occurred anyway slavery was just the
spark that ignited the fire.
I contend that this war was fought over the issue of the
encroachment by the federal government on the sovereignty of the individual states.
Proponents on either side of the debate used two methods to argue their point.
Firstly there were those who used stirring speeches and roused the emotions of their
intended audience to draw sympathy and support to their cause. Then there were those
proponents who used logical, straightforward arguments that typically centered on an
interpretation of the constitution that furthered their agenda. In the two particular
documents that will be discussed in this essay, Lincolns Address at the Cooper Institute
and the South Carolina Declaration of Secession, Lincoln seems to be the one relying on

Bruce Levine, Half slave Half Free: The roots of the civil war, rev. ed. (New York: Hill & Wang, 2005)

emotion, but the Carolinian committee on secession uses cold logic to defend the legality
of their actions.
I personally feel that the South had legitimacy on her side in regards to secession.
The writers of the South Carolina Declaration of Secession quotes the founding fathers
saying They declared that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of
the ends for which it was established, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and
to institute a new government. The South Carolinians stated that the frequent
violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its
encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then
withdrawing from the Federal Union.
The document claims that the constitution is a
compact formed between the federal government and each individual state, and since
there is no arbitrator in this compact it is up to each party to determine whether the other
complies with the agreement struck in the compact. It states that if one party does not
adhere to its obligations then it completely releases the other party from their obligations.
The members of this committee are of the opinion that the federal government has
attempted to encroach on the sovereignty of the state and therefore has dissolved the
compact, allowing South Carolina the freedom to secede from the union and act as a
sovereign nation.
The views expressed in South Carolinas declaration of secession seem to match
the opinions of most southerners of the time, as would become evident as other southern

Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the
Federal Union, 1860


states began to secede one by one. I personally find the argument of southern states to be
legitimate, and a worthy cause to fight for. The logic used in this declaration of
secession, strengthened by direct quotes from the Declaration of Independence, is well
written and is hard to factually refute.
Despite the strength of their argument, the vast majority of Northerners disagreed
with the claims of the South, President Abraham Lincoln among them. Lincoln
addressed the accusations made against the North at the Cooper Institute, refuting the
ideas that the federal government was unfairly sympathetic towards the North and her
economic and social interests. With the line and now, if they would listen - as I suppose
they will not I would now address the people of the south...
Lincoln begins his
repudiation of Southern claims that the North has acted in a way that is not in the best
interest of the entire nation. Lincoln claims that the South has failed to provide
significant evidence of sectionalized wrongdoing. The president skirts around the issue
and indirectly denies the legality of secession. Like the writers of the Carolinian
secession document, Lincoln references the founding fathers claiming that they would
argue against the continuation of slavery as well as its expansion into the territories.
President Lincolns vague language and lack of real evidence to support his
claims in regards to the founding fathers, in my opinion, hinder his argument. Any
evidence that he offers to support his stance, I believe, is slightly stretched to tug at the
heartstrings of his audience; whereas the South Carolina Declaration of Secession

Abraham Lincoln, Address at Cooper Institute, 1860


directly quotes the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln also makes the mistake that
many Northerners of the time were making in regards to slavery, warping the constitution
to back their personal moral code. Although it is impossible today to argue with the
morals that were so emphasized in the North, they still attempted to force these beliefs on
the southern states when they had no legal right to do so.
Its clear at this point that slavery was not the main point of contention that
caused the Southern secession and subsequently the Civil War. The South felt that their
economic and social interests were placed on hold in favor of Northern interests by the
federal government. The issue that forced the hand of the South was the increasing
attempt by the North to encroach on the sovereignty of the Southern states.
Emancipation was simply the largest factor that Northerners attempted to force on the
South, resulting in the feeling of encroachment upon the rights of the individual states. If
further proof is needed to dispel the misconceptions of the cause of the Civil war consider
two more factors. President Lincoln approved an amendment to uphold slavery in the
states where it already existed until he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863,
midway through the war. Another fact to consider is that Lincolns opponent in the
election of 1864, General George B. McClellan, as part of his platform contended that
ending slavery should not be a reason for continuing the war with the South, a notion that
garnered large support in the North. If the war was fought purely to end slavery, why
would Lincoln wait so long to forcibly emancipate slaves, and why would General
McClellan argue against emancipation as a cause for war?

The Civil war was fought over principles that still resound in this nation today.
On one hand there was the belief in a strong centralized federal government, and on the
other was the belief in the autonomy of the states as individuals. The sectional planes for
the differing beliefs are clear; Northerners believed that the Union was a democracy and
that if a majority of states shared an ideal it could be forced onto the states who opposed
the idea, the South believed that each state and the constituents therein should decide
what should be allowed to take place within the states borders.
The Northern victory
had far reaching consequences that forever changed this nation by strengthening the
powers of the federal government to a degree that can never be changed or diminished.
The results of the war are undeniable, so too is the cause. If the issue of slavery were
replaced by another factor that was being forced upon the South would the secession of
the South and the Civil War that followed still have taken place? Yes, I believe that it
would. The South did not go to war simply over slavery; instead they fought for the ideal
of states rights to look after their own interests.

Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the
Federal Union, 1860