The Perpetual Lies of History – Slavery and the Civil War

Having grown up in upstate New York in the heart of all things Yankee, it will come as no surprise when I say that my favorite president growing up was Abraham Lincoln.  I remember learning about this larger than life man who stood up and freed the slaves and began the movement to right all wrongs.  I remember once arguing with a classmate about who was the better president, Abraham Lincoln or George Washington.  At the tender young age of ten, my knowledge of the two consisted of nothing more than whether or not they had owned slaves–there was no contest.  George Washington was an evil man, and anyone who preferred him insulted both me and the little black friend with whom I marched around arm and arm.  Twenty years later I can no longer remember my friend’s name, and have since learned a little bit more about the two presidents in question.

I remember distinctly the feelings of despair and betrayal when, in the course of my studies as an adult, I discovered that not only did the hero of my youth share many of prejudices of his time, but that his actions gave birth to the foundations upon which modern progressivism built it’s great and spacious building.*   My subsequent reading on both sides of the issue have led me to a few conclusions:

  1. Slavery was not the only reason the Civil War** began.
  2. Abraham Lincoln’s presidency was riddled with arguably unconstitutional actions including, but not limited to the barricade of Ft. Sumter, the suspension of Habeas Corpus, and the Emancipation Proclamation.
  3. Slavery in the southern states would not have easily ended without federal involvement.

It is important to point out that the modern proponents and defenders of the Confederacy are in no way sanctioning the institution of slavery nor are they defending the oppression of black Americans in the century following the war.  But, the traditional “North = Good Guys, South = Bad Guys” narrative just doesn’t hold water.  There is no question that the contemporary debate defending the southern position in the war has many valid points.  The South supported free trade and shouldered the vast majority of the financial burden of Tariffs.  The protective tariffs almost exclusively benefitted the industrial North and Lincoln was a strong supporter of them.  His election spelled doom for the union in more than one way.

Lincoln was elected president of the United States in 1860 in a four-way race.  Lincoln won 40 percent of the popular vote.  He carried all but one northern state (New Jersey, which went to Douglass).  In ten slave states there was not one recorded vote cast for Lincoln.  The majority of the South abandoned Douglass (Northern Democrat) in favor of Breckinridge (Southern Democrat).  The fourth candidate (Bell, a Constitutional Unionist) had enough support in the south that his electoral votes exceeded that of Douglass.  But, when all was said and done, Lincoln came out the clear winner.  The idea that a president could be elected without even half of the popular vote shows how incredibly divided the country was.  While slavery was not the only reason for secession, it was the most divisive issue.  The south wasn’t entirely agricultural and the burgeoning industry in the South benefited from the protective tariff policy.  Lincoln lost the South, not because he favored the Tariff, but because he was against expanding the institution of slavery into the territories.

The issue of slavery up until the late 1800’s was extremely complex.  It is true that a relatively small percentage of Southerners owned slaves at all, and an even smaller percentage were part of the wealthy landowner class that owned most of the slaves.  At the drafting of the Constitution, the North and the South compromised on the issue of slavery in order to create a stable union.  Slavery was discussed at length and knowing the northern abolitionist tendencies, it is highly unlikely the South would have capitulated to the compromises if the general consensus in the South didn’t believe that slavery was already on it’s way to extinction.

Given that the Articles of Confederation had no language regarding slavery at all, the inclusion of Article 1.9.1 was widely considered at the time a step towards abolition.  Indeed, the notes on the Constitutional Convention show that this is exactly the case.  The Southerners just needed time to wean their economy off of the institution.

In Federalist #42, James Madison says of Article 1.9.1 (the ability of the federal government to outlaw the international slave trade after 1808), “It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period, it will receive a considerable discouragement from the federal government, and may be totally abolished”.  This article, combined with a passage in the Northwest Ordinance (passed the same year as the Constitution) which prohibited the expansion of slavery into new states added to the Union, shows that slavery was, indeed, on it’s way into extinction.

In 1787 all signs pointed towards slavery dying off in a few decades, and it would have, had “progress” not gotten in the way.  In 1793 Eli Whitney gave new birth to the cotton gin.  Seemingly overnight cotton changed from a costly and time-consuming venture into an immensely profitable one.  All of a sudden a small farmer with a handful of slaves had the potential to be a large plantation owner… if he could expand west.  The Northwest Ordinance quickly became a target for the expansion of slavery.  For the next 60+ years the North and the South would have a tug of war over that issue.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the territories in which the legality of slavery was in dispute were turbulent at best and becoming increasingly violent with every “compromise”.  Kansas alone was home to rigged elections by the pro-slavery contingent and countless attacks on slaveholders by abolitionist ideologues: attacks that can only be described as terrorism.  In Washington it was no better.  The dialogue and civility had deteriorated to a point where Senator Charles Sumner used intense sexual imagery to accuse the southern expansionists of raping the “virgin territory” with slavery.  If that wasn’t bad enough, a Southern congressman promptly beat Senator Sumner nearly to death on the Senate floor.

Given these circumstances it is disingenuous to say that slavery was not the primary motive for the split between the northern and southern states.  Since before the signing of the Constitution individual states had already enacted laws that curtailed the gradual demise of slavery.  Virginia passed several laws that, in essence, regulated all but the extremely wealthy out of emancipating their slaves.  In the territory of Kansas the proslavery legislature federally criminalized even speaking against slavery publicly.  However, nothing could have affected the sentiments of the citizenry regarding slavery as much the combined effects of the fugitive slave law and the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v Sandford.

States’ rights proponents often overlook the fact that strengthening the fugitive slave law in 1850 effectively shifted the burden of slavery from the States to the federal government.  In A Patriot’s History of the United States, Larry Schweikart says:

The law contained several provisions that Southerners saw as reasonable and necessary, but which were guaranteed to turn ambivalent Northerners into full-fledged abolitionists… Special commissions, and not regular civil courts, handled the runaways’ cases.  Commissioners received ten dollars for every runaway delivered to claimants, but only five dollars for cases in which the accused was set free, and the law empowered Federal marshals to summon any free citizen in the enforcement of the act.  Not only did these provisions expose free blacks to outright capture under fraudulent circumstances, but now it also made free whites in the North accessories to their enslavement.  When it came to the personal morality of northerners, purchasing cotton made by slaves was one thing; actually helping to shackle and send a human back to the cotton fields was entirely different.

Free citizens were conscripted into service as runaway slave hunters whether they liked it or not, and Free States were expected to spend their own resources to send runaways back to fields.  Slavery was no longer a state issue but a federal one.

In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled that a freedman was not a citizen of the United States and therefore could not bring suit to the Court.  The lower court’s ruling, that Scott’s move to both a free state and territory with his owner did not automatically emancipate him, held.  In his decision, Chief Justice Taney held that the Missouri Compromise and the Northwest Ordinance prohibiting slavery in territories were unconstitutional.  This provided the slave states the permission they so desired to take their “property” with them wherever they pleased.  By using the Scott case to legislate from the bench, Taney had essentially erased the border between the slave states and the free states and the right of states to declare slavery illegal along with it.  While no one is recorded as trying to move their household north to Massachusetts, the implications of western expansion, particularly in regards to railroad labor, were clear.  The romanticized vision that embodied the Southern lifestyle was built on the backs of slaves, and slaves would be used to expand that vision west.

The combination of these two federal actions (both supported and sanctioned by the South) provided a perfect storm for the Union, and it was in this political climate to which Abraham Lincoln was elected.

Shortly after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.  These states along with Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina eventually formed the Confederate States of America.

Confederacy apologists are absolutely correct in their claim that Lincoln abandoned the constitution in his effort to save the union.  They are correct in claiming that he was not for the emancipation of the slaves when he was first elected.  They are correct in many of their claims in defending the South in the Civil War.  However, given all of this information I have yet to find an argument that answers the following question:  Is it likely that the Southern states would have seceded from the union had slavery no longer existed?

Southern sympathizers paint a picture of a unified south when, like most things in history, the reality is far more complex.  In most of the Confederate states (particularly in the deep south), secession passed by a very narrow margin with far fewer people showing up to vote than had in the presidential election.  The wealthy land-owner class that made up the majority of the Confederate delegates was selected precisely because of their support of secession.  No other conclusion can be drawn from the disproportional ratio of secessionists to “cooperationists” (8 to 1).  The truth is that the wealthy and large plantation owners were the one’s calling the shots while the poor and the enslaved (which made up the majority of the southern population) were left without adequate representation.  As the many accounts of southern soldiers show, the people fought out of loyalty to their state, not because they supported secession.

On the other hand, those from the north hail the Emancipation Proclamation as one of Lincoln’s greatest acts as president.  The speech was hailed by northerners and celebrated by slaves when it was issued.  Yet constitutionally speaking, the Executive cannot issue decrees from on high.  His job is to enforce the laws, not write them (nor, as is the case today, refuse to recognize them).  The power to legislate has forever been the responsibility of Congress.  It was almost three years later with the ratifying of the 13th Amendment that slavery (as it existed up to that point) became illegal.

It is quite clear that examples of unconstitutionality on the parts of both the North and the South are plentiful and undeniable.  Neither side can claim moral authority because neither side had morality as their motive.  The North chose the path of “the ends justify the means” time and time again, and in doing so paved the way for the Progressive movement in America.

The southern ruling class, instead of allowing slavery to fade quietly into the depths history (as it had in every other Western nation), attempted to cling to their power by turning to the federal government to pass countless laws that would prevent the institution from dying off completely (much like brick and mortar stores turn to the federal government to force online stores to charge state sales tax).  Indeed, the south was so embittered by the outcome that many of the southern state laws continued to oppress black Americans for more than a century following the war.

As a society we have chosen to view history through a modern filter: foisting modern values onto cultures of the past.  In doing so we polarize issues that are, in reality very complex and multifaceted.  We do our children and ourselves a disservice by not teaching the truth.   Real history is passionate, emotional and sometimes ugly.  It’s also amazing, inspiring and wonderful.  We don’t need to dress it up or dumb it down, and we certainly don’t need to hide from it.  What makes us think that running from our humanity and historical poor choices would help shape a more perfect future?

We currently live in a world where it is assumed that all rights are given through consent of the government, and not by Nature or Nature’s God.  We live in a country where edicts are given from on high by the president while congress sits back and watches, claiming their hands are tied.  Our citizens have forgotten what it means to be a nation of laws, not of men; because they were not taught that you should always look not just at what is seen, but at that which is not seen.***

The actions of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War in no small part helped knock the checks and balances our Founder’s set up off kilter.  Yet had he not declared the southern states in rebellion, the enslavement of blacks in America would have continued for much longer.  Slavery is and was a moral wrong, and no one has the “right” to institutionalize a wrong.

We need to start teaching our children the real history of the world, warts and all, if for no other reason than to prevent them from strutting around on the playground, taking pride in a moral authority that never existed in the first place.

*In reference to a metaphorical building found in the Book of Mormon that represents pride and vain things of the world and designed to distract us from following God.
**The name “Civil War” for the American war between the years 1861-1865 is in dispute.  For purposes of this article I am using the term “Civil War” because it is the most frequently used label for the war.
***In reference to “That Which Is Seen and That Which is Not Seen” by Frederic Bastiat
The majority of my research comes from The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War by H.W. Crocker III and A Patriot’s History of the United States by Larry Schweikart.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Donna says:

    As I think I’ve said before in a comment, romanticizing or whitewashing history is one of my pet peeves. I think so much of my current interest for history has come only from gradually understanding that history is not just about dates and locations and names, but is a fascinating combination of small details, big picture context, individual actions, group sociology, and complex human nature that absolutely influences peoples and cultures and institutions today. What intrigues me most is the indirect and unintended consequences of events, as well as the way the stories and myths get shaped over time.

    I took a class in college called the History of the American West, taught by and American-Indian/Mexican American female professor, and it was one of the most influential classes I have ever taken. She made sure that we got the history from the perspective off all the different groups of people that were battling for economic, political, and cultural dominance in the West. And imagine my surprise as a Mormon to realize that the Mormon pioneers were just a tiny blip on the American West radar, and did not in fact comprise at least a third of the class’ subject matter like I had honestly expected (that’s how skewed my version of US Western history was). That class irrevocably changed how I viewed US history traditions, Western culture, and Mormon history.

    I agree that history is complex, and can be painful as well as inspiring. Mostly it can just be hard to figure out. One reason is because, as you said, we put our own modern filters on past events and cultures. However, I don’t necessarily think this is something we choose to do. Rather, I think it’s something that happens because of human nature. The sociology of how history is passed down is almost as interesting to me as history itself. In fact, I think that the history of the Mormon church, and the transmission of that history over time, is an absolutely fascinating and painful example of all of this. Owning up to, and teaching our true history, I think, could be one of the most beneficial things the church can do in the long run, although very difficult in the short run.

    I know this is getting long, but the reason I wanted to comment in the first place is that just hours before I read this, I was listening to a podcast about the Dakota War, and events leading up to the largest mass execution in US history. At the end, a historian said (and I’m paraphrasing) “We invent a fake history for ourselves, that doesn’t deal with the complexities… There is a delusion about who we were, and so we have a hard time now with who we are.” I was so struck by this statement, I ran to write it down.

    Anyway, I ‘m out of time, but thanks for the interesting topic, and great points to think about and mull over. Excuse my rambling. :)


    1. The same for me. I find both extremes disturbing. Either people claim that the great men of history were without fault or that they don’t deserve any praise because they weren’t perfect. And you are right, history is SO much more than dates, locations, and names. It’s the stories that are important. We don’t learn from history because dates are all the text books care about anymore. It’s so sad.

      I know what you mean about church history :) It was just big enough to make it into the textbooks but not big enough for anyone to try and get it right.

      You are right, the filters are something that is natural. It takes a lot of self control to try and take them off and look at history in context. Both ideologies are guilty of it.

      I love that quote! And never apologize for rambling… that’s all my posts are anyway :)


  2. Donna says:

    ps- have you heard of the Big History project on the H2 channel? I’ve been reading about it this week and it seems so interesting. However, I don’t want to make too many assumptions, but if you are not so um, convinced about evolution, it might not be for you.

    pps- just want to clarify that I know very little about history, when it comes down to it, and totally acknowledge that I have my own biases and filters that I see the world through. For example, recently I was in London with a friend who is a history teacher, and the main thing she wanted to see was the Churchill War Rooms. I have to admit I had very little interest in going, as I am generally turned off by anything that approaches or resembles the glorification of warfare. So I recognize I have my own blinders, and am fairly ignorant about 99.9% of everything that has ever happened.


    1. I haven’t heard of it but it sounds like I would like it :) We don’t have cable though, so I would have to see if I can watch it online. As far as evolution is concerned… I honestly don’t think about it much. I definitely believe in a Creation and Creator. And I certainly think it’s possible (and likely) that evolution in some way was used in the organization of man. I teach my children both evolution AND the mainstream Christian view of the creation so that they know both views… then I tell them what I think. I also make sure they know that there is no way to know for sure either way because we weren’t there and that what I think is just that, what I *think*. But mostly I don’t think it matters. Whether we evolved from pond scum after some big bang or sprang up from the ground as full grown men and women, it just doesn’t matter in the here and now. It’s fun to speculate and theorize (as I do all the time), it’s necessary to know the different theories and to draw your own conclusions but none of it will have any impact on the problems we have in the world today. This is an entirely different subject or debate but what bothers me the most about the whole thing (and by “thing” I mean debate) is how hostile both sides are to each other. It bothers me when Christians won’t hear or teach their kids the other side and it bothers me when Darwinists think that all christians are anti-science and dangerous (as Richard Dawkins and Bill Nye the Science guy have both recently said). Both sides are wrong by taking such a hard nosed position. I would much rather focus my energy on trying to keep kids from being sold into sex slavery and stopping terrorism and knowing the origins of man will not effect either of those or anything else I think is important.

      I guess that’s my long way of saying, “NEAT! I’ll look into it.” :)

      As far as Churchill is concerned, I think it’s really funny that you mentioned that. I JUST told Matt the other day that what I want most for my birthday was The Last Lion series :) I am not a fan of glorifying war either, but I DO believe in evil and that sometimes evil must be stopped at all costs (up to and including war). I don’t think that honoring a man who stood up to that evil is glorifying war. How many millions of people would have been saved if Neville Chamberlain had stood up to Hitler like Churchill did? No, I don’t think honoring Churchill is glorifying war at all, just as I don’t think honoring Washington, or Lincoln is glorifying war. It can be difficult for us, as Americans, to view him as anything other than a wartime prime minister (just as Bush is viewed as a wartime president), but in reality to the British he is so much more than that. The war was across an ocean for us for SO long. The British feared invasion on a daily basis for years. They saw country after country fall to the 3rd Reich and Churchill stopped them in their tracks and helped push them back to Germany. He is as important to England as Washington and Jefferson are to us.

      Honestly, getting rid of my “American” blinders has been one of the hardest things in my education.


  3. Lisa Nelson says:

    Yeah. For me, it’s less about Slavery, and more about the bias of the time – and the catastrophic and horrendous unjustices that followed. How could Abraham Lincoln not had bias? It was all around him. Even the church couldn’t allow full equality – as it would tear the church from it’s very foundation. Heavenly Father knew it.

    I think the point is – It’s the way people thought about African Americans in the first place. Whether or not they were enslaved. They were not viewed as an entire person. They were killed, beat, raped and so forth – just because the color of their skin. For me, that’s the point.

    All the way through the 60′ and up until the present day – dealing with the same stuff over and over – never ending.

    I think it’s important to know history – and understand it – because (in theory) we are less likely to repeat it.

    Plus, my question – why were they bringing human beings across disease ridden – rat infested boats in the first place? How could you think so low about another human being in the first place. It happens throughout history and even know – to all kinds of people – not just black people. We keep on making the same stupid mistakes. I think that’s the point. We are not learning.


    1. Lisa, yes! And we are STILL doing the same thing, just with different issues. For society has stopped thinking that physical slavery is ok, but economic slavery (debt, living above our means, over taxation) is perfectly acceptable. Political correctness is the religion of choice and anyone who believes anything other than what is politically correct is a second class citizen and not worthy of basic human rights (1st amendment, for example). Back then it was against the law to speak against slavery, today it’s may as well be against the law to speak against same-sex marriage, or against planned parenthood, or FOR chastity. Abortion is the worst though.

      They brought the slaves over in rat infested boats because it was economical. Abortionists like Gosnell (and he is not the exception, there are thousands more just like him or worse) do what they do for the same reason. They invade women’s bodies in disgusting and disease riddled rooms that are no better and many times worse than the back alley’s that people claim we want to keep women out of. He had different rooms for black and white women, white women went to the cleaner rooms while the black women were shuttled to the rooms with blood all over the walls and dirty instruments. He himself was black, so it can’t have been because of racism. It was because the white women generally paid more for their abortion so they got the cleaner rooms.

      Like you said, it repeats itself. Over and over again. Our filters change. The object oppression change. But the people stay the same.

      In my opinion abortion IS the slavery issue of our time. I think fifty years from now people will look back on abortion and scratch their heads and wonder why it was ever a source of debate. They will either say “how could they think it was okay for people to murder their own children” or “why would anyone think that a baby was a person to begin with”.


      1. Lisa Nelson says:

        You know, I have never ever thought about abortion as being a issue of present day Slavery. Slavery – by what I thought the definition to be – is forcing someone else to do something (that’s basically against their will) by using force, threat of force, or abuse.

        Where as abortion is a choice. You make a choice to have sex out of wedlock, you make the choice of not using protection, you make a choice to kill your baby.

        With the exception of cases like rape and incest, it’s a choice that’s made.

        In the case of abortion, there is really no one else to blame. I think that’s the issue. people are always looking to other people for blame. It’s the husband, or the boyfriend, or the mother, or the father, or the wife or the mistress or the girlfriend. The individual person has to be responsible for the choices that they make.

        Heavenly father gives everyone (equal opportunity) to exercise their agency. Abortion isn’t about race anymore. It’s about sound judgement.


      2. You are right about that! For sure! I was saying that I think it will be the issue that our grandchildren will look back and think “what were they THINKING!?” just like we do with slavery and racism today.


  4. Richard says:

    Good post but you are off base on the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation only affected slaves in the rebellious states and as such was a perfectly ordinary confiscation order by the CIC of the armed forces against the nationals of a belligerent nation. Southerners considered slaves to be property, like the horses, guns, houses, and ships that have always been forfeited in war. The south, after all, confiscated such federal property at the beginning of the war and confiscated northerner’s property during their incursions into the North.


    1. Interesting, I hadn’t thought of it in that way, I’ll have to research that. I knew about the north treating fugitive slaves as contraband, but I guess I still don’t see how the president can constitutionally declare “property” that belongs to the opposing side as “non-property” without congress when they weren’t actually on the union side of the line. The south arguably had more authority (though still wrong) to claim Fort Sumter and the post offices located in the confederate states for their own than Lincoln to emancipate the slaves. Is it universally understood that he only emancipated the slaves who had escaped to the north? I know that little changed in the south after the proclamation but was it intended that way?


  5. Richard says:

    It is in the text of the proclamation. (Using new ipad and can’t figure out how to cut and paste, but google the text.). To paraphrase, it says that all persons held as slaves in the rebellious states (which are listed) are now free and that he is doing it under the his authority as cic as “a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing the rebellion…” Obviously, freeing the slaves hurt the south’s industry and thus it’s war fighting capacity. That is the legal justification, although Lincoln’s real motivation probably was in fact to end slavery. He waited until he had a victory (which was a long wait…) before doing it.

    When you read the southern declarations it is quite clear that from their perspective the war was entirely about slavery – almost no mention of tariffs. Remember that they started the war and seceded even before Lincoln was in office. Once the south left a higher tariff was put in place and this fact was used by the south to try to get support from England, which had outlawed slavery and was reluctant to support a war over slavery but might support one over tariffs.

    Another interesting thing is that the south didn’t really seem to fear that slavery would be abolished in the existing states, the complaints were about restrictions in the new territories and even more that the northern states were not living up to their constitutional obligations to support slavery. A different interpretation of states rights than today.


    1. Thank you for this insight! It just goes to show you that history is SO much more complex than the books make it out to be.


  6. Martin says:

    It was a sad day when I realized the lies told in popular history discussions. I was never under the impression Lincoln was the best, but I thought he was among them. Now I say, “How sad it is that people do no recognize his killer as a patriot”. Lincoln was the first American dictator in history. Even John Adams was a tyrant. From my studies I have realized that George Washington was the most noble and ethically moral president we ever had. I look around me today and can only feel sad that truth is not taught to our children, everything is bent to serve political and economic interests.

    The most angering aspect of all this is the American man and woman. They truly believe the lies they have been told, for to think otherwise is to live in despair. There is no waking up those who wish to sleep, sadly, we watch history repeat itself. I have always held truth in high regard, but now I am not so sure of its use. It seems the truth does not set you free, just your mind. The mind of others seems to be governed by whatever emotion rests upon their sleeve. Should we consider Mr. Snowden, it is also apparent that the truth, however ambivalent; may also destroy your life.

    I am however, happy; that their exists a tiny minority who care to know the truth by doing the good work of digging it up themselves, unresolved by the lies they see through. It is my dream, to one day see these lies uncovered on a national level, and to see those who have made themselves rich on these lies, suffer the condemnation of good people.


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