Time and again, as I read through primary source documents surrounding the Civil War–one of my historical interests–or biographies of various persons who lived in the lead up to the Civil War, I find that the refrain that the Civil War was really about states’ rights is nothing but a tired canard. It is a myth, one that is used for any number of reasons, not always nefarious. Nevertheless, it is just that–a myth. The Civil War was certainly about slavery and there’s not really a historical question about that. The evidence for this can be found in two broad streams: first, that if the Civil War was truly about states’ rights, there is massive inconsistency on the part of those who allegedly decided to fight to the death for the same; second, numerous clear statements exist regarding the secession of Southern States being about slavery.
Inconsistency on States’ Rights from the South
Those who champion the notion of the “states’ rights” as the reason the South seceded and fought the Civil War have to contend with the numerous violations of states’ rights the South was perfectly willing to put up with and even wholeheartedly endorse. The most obvious of these is the Fugitive Slave Act, which led, for example, to the federal government sending in soldiers to march an enslaved man from Boston under massive protest to a ship and back to the south. The city of Boston was thunderstruck by the Anthony Burns affair, but it was enforced by the federal government. Indeed, fugitive slave laws were abused to even kidnap truly freed black persons and enslave them, ostensibly as escaped slaves. Where was the outcry from these southern supporters of states’ rights during this time? It was non-existent. The law supported the cause of slavery, and so was perfectly acceptable to those whose primary concern was the perpetuation of the same.
The notion that the southern states seceded due to states’ rights takes another heavy blow when we actually read the Constitution of the Confederate States. Therein we find the following:
In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.
But what about states’ rights in this instance? Their own constitution explicitly makes it clear that slavery is the singular institution that above all others “shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government.” But what if a new state or a part of a territory wishes to be a free state? That is not provided for. What if a state chooses to change away from being a slave state? That is not provided for. Instead, what is provided for in the Constitution of the Confederate States is the use of federal authority to enforce slavery, force states to “recognize” it, and to take their slaves wherever they want, even if those areas do not wish slaves to be brought in. Slavery is enshrined in the very Constitution of these states that allegedly were fighting for states’ rights rather than slavery, and it is enshrined in such a way that it explicitly would violate states’ rights should they come to oppose slavery.
Affirmation that the Secession was about Slavery
The documents of secession of various states are particularly telling when it comes to the question of why states seceded from the union and later fought a war. Georgia’s document of secession states near the beginning that “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” That certainly makes it sound like slavery was a huge part of their reason for seceding. Indeed, the document goes on to issue numerous complaints against those who are anti-slavery; not that they were violating states’ rights, but rather just that they were anti-slavery–that was the issue.
South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” makes it clear that secession was, in part, due to:
The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution.
Unpacking this, South Carolina was upset that several northern states had opted out of making state officials comply with fugitive slave laws. The complaint was that the states were failing to comply with a federal law they opposed. This is literally the exact opposite of supporting states’ rights. If South Carolina supported states’ rights, they’d be all for these other states using their right as an independent state to deny compliance with a federal law they opposed. But no, instead, South Carolina explicitly makes this one of their reasons for seceding. They wanted the federal government to force states to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act. Why? Because this wasn’t about states’ rights; it was about slavery.
Though I’ve only provided a few of the many, many examples that show the southern secession was over slavery, I believe it is enough to have carried the point. The very reasons provided for seceding were centered around slavery. The reasons provided contradict the notion that states’ rights were somehow supreme. These were the reasons for secession and war. Not some high-minded notion of whether the federal government or the state had greater sovereignty. Indeed, the very states that seceded did so explicitly in part because they wanted the federal government to support and enforce slavery.
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[…] interests in mind to argue the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than about slavery. (It manifestly was about slavery, including trumping states’ rights in order to save slavery.) In the film, Tubman notes that […]
[…] One thing noticeable as one reads contemporary debates about the Fugitive Slave Act is how Southerners and those who supported slavery in the North did not go around calling for “states’ rights” at that point. Indeed, they were calling for the federal government to toss aside states’ preferences and laws in order to enforce slavery. It’s demonstrable that many states made this explicit in their articles of secession. This, in turn, shows the Civil War was manifestly about slavery. […]
Also, despite their hew and cry, the Southern “powers that be” knew good and well that Lincoln was no immediate threat to slavery where it existed. Virtually the only issue, as it had been for nearly two decades, was whether Southerners would be allowed to extend the institution of slavery to the western territories.
It’s long been my opinion that this, the question of slavery’s expansion to the west, may have been, in the long run, the best argument for not simply “letting the South go its own way”. How can anyone possibly imagine that, as a separate nation, the Confederacy wouldn’t have waged constant war with the US over the territory to the West? Instead of five years, we would have been at war for decades.
[…]  States’ Rights was manifestly not the cause of the Civil War. Reading the articles of secession of several states reveals this, as they explicitly state that a major or even the reason for secession was they wanted the Federal Government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, itself a major infringement on States’ Rights. I outline some of this, and other reasons to point to slavery as the reason for the Civil War, here. […]