Professor Brion McClanahan

Why Slavery?

According to virtually anyone in the mainstream historical profession, the War was about slavery. 

Don't believe me? Preger U. settled the question. Right. 

But no one ever asks why slavery was important. They can say "why the civil war was about slavery," but that does not explain the meaning of the word. 

Slavery was important as a political not a moral issue for all of antebellum American history. 

When we hear "slavery" in 2017, we immediately think of the moral and humane cost of the institution, the plight of slaves. There mere word is repugnant to our senses. 

But for the vast majority of Americans in 1860 or anytime before that, "slavery" received a much different response. 

Abolitionists in antebellum America were hard to find. They were run out of town anywhere they set up shop. No one liked them. Why? Because they were agitators and most Americans were not agitators and did not like agitators. That holds true even today. We call it the "Silent Majority."


When Americans spoke of "slavery" in the antebellum period, they were more concerned about halting the spread of slavery, not ending the institution itself. 

Lincoln said as much in his first inaugural address. And why did Northerners want to keep slavery out of the West? Because they did not want to be around black people or compete with black people for jobs.

 The Republican Party slogan of "Free soil, free labor, free men," would have been more accurately stated as "Free soil for white people, free white labor, free white men." 

And Northerners knew that western hostility to both black people and slavery could be a powerful political tool. 

They in fact let the cat out of the bag in 1815 at the Hartford Convention. It was during that meeting that New England Federalists proposed a number of interesting amendments to the Constitution. These potential alterations would have eliminated the 3/5 compromise to the Constitution, made it nearly impossible to admit new states, prohibited embargoes (because that hurt Northern shipping), and mandated a state driven rotation in office for the president so that Virginia could not continue to dominate the general government. 

That was the basis of the entire "sectional conflict." These were political proposals aimed at kneecapping the Jeffersonian (Southern) dominated general government and potentially all the new farmers that would support this government from western states. If you can't admit new states, you don't have to worry about who they would vote for. 

Just four years later, now discredited New England Federalists figured out they could use "slavery" as a political weapon when Missouri petitioned for statehood. They didn't care about slavery in South Carolina or Georgia, only that slavery could not expand. New slaves states meant more power for the political economy of the South and less for the merchants of New England. 

And this brewhaha wasn't new. It was openly discussed at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Rufus King of Massachusetts, a man who supported New England secession in 1794, called slavery a "political" issue only at the Convention and most agreed. 

The morality of the institution was discussed but it was decided that the people of the States would best decide the course of the institution. 

That was how most Americans thought, even in 1861. 

The debate over "slavery" masked larger issues in American society, namely who controlled the government and the spoils associated with that control. 

That is why "slavery" was important. It had nothing to do with morality. 

Modern historians who paint a different picture do so for political reasons. No one could honestly say that ending slavery was a war aim in 1861. Lincoln professed to be interested in saving the Union, with or without slavery. The War was about power not some moral crusade by self-righteous do-gooders.

 This narrative doesn't fit nicely with the agenda to make the War part of an "unfinished revolution."


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