Disunion, Slavery, and the Causes of the Civil War

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Abraham Lincoln pledged in his First Inaugural Address to keep the union together but to allow slavery in the States that had it already

Steven Calabresi |

Nikki Haley recently downplayed the role of slavery in the actual starting of the Civil War.  Technically, she is absolutely right.  President Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address said that he would fight to keep the Union together, and that he would ban slavery in the western territories, but he pledged to forever protect slavery in the southern States that had it, and Lincoln even endorsed the infamous Corwin Amendment that would have forbade by constitutional amendments that would outlaw slavery altogether.  It is Chris Christie and Ron DeSantis who have gotten the history wrong in this particular campaign food fight.

Consider what Lincoln said when he took the oath of office on March 4, 1861:

“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that–

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:

Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

I now reiterate these sentiments, and in doing so I only press upon the public attention the most conclusive evidence of which the case is susceptible that the property, peace, and security of no section are to be in any wise endangered by the now incoming Administration. I add, too, that all the protection which, consistently with the Constitution and the laws, can be given will be cheerfully given to all the States when lawfully demanded, for whatever cause–as cheerfully to one section as to another.”

For Lincoln, his first priority even ahead of abolishing slavery was avoiding disunion.  As a man from Illinois, he was acutely aware of the fact that all the Midwest’s farm produce floated by barge down the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi River to New Orleans. If Louisiana seceded, the economy of the Union would be at her disposal. It was essential to prevent this result.

In pledging to outlaw slavery in the Western territories, Lincoln was girdling the tree of slavery in the southern states where it existed in 1861.  Such a strategy would end slavery in 100 years but not sooner.

In September 1862, the United Kingdom considered recognizing the independence of the Confederacy, exchanging ambassadors, and resuming trade and commerce with the South.  But, Lincoln knew that anti-slavery opinion was very strong in the U.K., so he announced in September 1862 that all three million slaves in areas still in rebellion against the Union as of January 1, 1863 would be emancipated by presidential executive order thus turning the Civil War from being a war about keeping the Union together into a war to free the enslaved people.  And, all four millions enslaved people were freed when Lincoln helped steer the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery to passage in Congress and after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865.  The U.K. DID, as Lincoln predicted it would, stay out of the Civil War once it became a war to free the slaves, which is undoubtedly what Lincoln hoped would happen.

Slavery was the root cause of the Civil War, but Nikki Haley is right that from March 4, 1861 to January 1, 1863, the Civil War was about keeping the Union together. Only after Emancipation did the Civil War became a fight to end enslavement in the United States.  And, at that point the U.S. was on the North’s side of the fight.

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