Pew Research Center: Asking the Wrong Questions about the Causes of the Civil War


The Pew Research Center recently released the results of a poll about American attitudes toward the Civil war. The poll results are here, in a piece titled Civil War at 150: Still Relevant, Still Divisive.

One poll question was about the causes of the Civil War. These are the results:

As noted by Pew, “There is no consensus among the public about the primary cause of the Civil War, but more (48%) say that the war was mainly about states’ rights than say it was mainly about slavery (38%). Another 9% volunteer that it was about both equally.”

I have a major problem with this question. As posed, it makes the two suggested reasons for the war – slavery and states’ rights – into separate, mutually exclusive propositions. That is, they’re saying the war was either about slavery or about states’ rights.

Which I think is wrong.

Why not ask if the war was caused by the desire to protect states’ right to maintain slavery?

States’ rights was not some mere or vague abstraction. The Confederates had a particular right in mind when they seceded: the right to protect, as the state of Mississippi put it, “the institution of slavery”… which in their minds, was “the greatest material interest of the world.”

If people are asked the wrong questions, we can’t help but get the wrong answers. If Pew does another poll, I’d like to see them ask this question:

Q: Assuming “states’ rights” was the cause of the war, what states rights were the Confederate States trying to protect?
(a) right to maintain slavery as they saw fit
(b) right to control tariff policy
(c) other

I’d love to see how people respond to that.

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6 thoughts on “Pew Research Center: Asking the Wrong Questions about the Causes of the Civil War

  1. My Lord what a great article! For years I have argued with people who believe the civil war was not about slavery…and this line of thought lessens the impact of the abolishionist movement and lead people to think that slavery was a side issue.

    My ancestry research has led me into areas of study about my ancestors both white and black that I could not have found in a University. Thanks for the good work you are a clear thinker!

  2. My question is with the “Corwin Amendment” why did we fight? “In an unusual move, Democratic President James Buchanan signed the Corwin Amendment on March 3, 1861, his last day in office (the Constitution does not require presidential approval for proposed amendments). It was ratified by only two states—Ohio on May 13, 1861, and by Maryland on January 10, 1862—and therefore fell far short of the necessary three-quarters majority of states in order to become part of the U.S. Constitution. Had it achieved ratification, the Corwin Amendment, which protected slavery, would have become the Thirteenth Amendment”. (In 1861 there were 34 States so it would have only taken 26 states to secure the amendment, now consider the Northern Slave trade, New York large slave population and how blacks were viewed; it is clear they could have secured the right to have had slaves).
    If the war had been over slavery the South could have at any time rejoined the Union passing the amendment securing her slaves, and even though Lincoln repeatedly made that offer (The last time on February 1865 on the ‘River Queen’ outside Fort Monroe, when both Seward and Lincoln again made the offer return pass the amendment and keep your slaves) they refused.
    “The first event was the abortive peace conference at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on Friday, February 3, two months before Lincoln’s death. Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward represented the United States at this conference while Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, Confederate Senator R.M.T. Hunter and Confederate Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell represented the Confederacy.
    The two groups met for four hours on the steamer River Queen, anchored at Hampton Roads near Fortress Monroe.
    According to the ground rules, there was to be “no clerk or secretary-no writing or record of anything that is said,” but the Confederate representatives either wrote on their cuffs or made notes immediately afterward. We are forced, therefore, to see the event largely through their eyes, although Lincoln later corroborated some of their main points.

    The Confederate representatives asked, in effect, if they could make a deal. Seward, flirting with treason, suggested the “if the Confederate States would ….abandon the war, they could of themselves defeat this [Thirteenth] amendment [and keep their slaves], by voting it down as members of the Union”
    Gary.

    • Historian Elizabeth Varon has noted that “there’s emerged in recent years a strong consensus, which scholars call the fundamentalist school, that slavery was the root fundamental cause of the civil war and that the political antagonisms between the North and South flowed from the fact that the North was a free labor society while the South was a slave labor society which remained committed to slavery and indeed to extending its domain.” I think that puts it well.

      The immediate causes of the war itself were the actions of Southern secessionists, and the reactions of the federal government. The Southern secessionists went to war to preserve and protect slavery against the threat posed by what they believed were the abolitionist “Black Republicans.” The federal government went to war to preserve the Union against the military threat posed to the territorial integrity of the nation by the traitors to the south. But there would have been no need to preserve the Union, if it hadn’t been dissolved in the first place; and dissolution came from the need to defend slavery.

      With preservation of the Union as the goal, the USA was willing to protect slavery where it stood, although Lincoln and others would not compromise on the non-extension of slavery into the territories. They were willing to do this to avert war, save lives, and save the Union. But these measures went nowhere.

      So, to preserve the Union, the federal government was willing to allow slavery in the slave states. But they were not wedded to this. Indeed, it was eventually seen that a vital strategy in defeating the Confederacy was the emancipation of the slaves; and so it was done.

      In the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union said that slaves in the rebelling states would be forever free. That promise was kept. The 13th Amendment did pass Congress, and was ratified by the states. Slavery was ended in the entirety of the United States.

      The freedom enjoyed by millions of African Americans; and the furtherance of the revolutionary recognition that all men are created equal; is one of the lasting legacies of the Civil War. Let freedom ring.

  3. Slavery was a national issue. The entire totality of the states were just as guilty at the time of the War Between the States. Tarrifs and combatting a tyrrinacal federal government were the major issues that led to the war. Trying to narrow the cause for the war down to a single issue is rediculious. It was a complex maze of issues. Lincoln himself stated in his first Innagural Address that slavery WAS NOT the issue. The Corwin Amendment, which would have become the 13th Amendment had but a handful of the seceded states only rejoined the Union and ratified it, gaurenteed slavery – and it had already been approved of by a majority of the northern states in order or this to be the case. Trying to pin the evil that slavery was solely on the south and attempt to wipe the conciousness of the nation clear by deeming the cause of the war on it is rediculious!

    Let me ask you, was the cause of WWII to dee who would develope the atomic bomb? Absolutely not! It was a by-product of WWII. The abolition of slavery was just as much a by-product of the War Between the States. Unfair taxation upon ports that conducted trade with foreign governments (primarily the Morrell Tarriff) was the straw that broke the camel’s back that led to the WBTS. The overwhelming majority of these ports – Norfolk, VA; Wilmington, NC; Charleston, SC; Savannah, GA; Jacksonville, FL; Mobile, AL; New Orleanes, LA; and Galveston, TX – were in the south and thus would have sufered the brunt of the tarriff. New York City came within a hair’s bredth of seceding for this same reason.

    The facts are there for anyone willing to do the research and not simply accept as gospel what teachers have taught them. It simply takes alittle bit of effort, but truth is always more than worth it!

    • You were right to say slavery was a national issue. It all went downhill after that.

      The consensus of historians today is that the conflict over slavery was the root cause of the war. A serious review of the scholarship would establish this. As historian Elizabeth Varon has noted that “there’s emerged in recent years a strong consensus, which scholars call the fundamentalist school, that slavery was the root fundamental cause of the civil war and that the political antagonisms between the North and South flowed from the fact that the North was a free labor society while the South was a slave labor society which remained committed to slavery and indeed to extending its domain.” I think that puts it well.

      Saying that slavery was the root cause of the war is NOT the same thing as saying the war was about the morality of slavery. Rather, historians recognize that a number of economic, political, cultural, religious, and legal issues concerning proved divisive and decisive in creating an environment that led to war.

      Saying that slavery was the root cause of the war is NOT the same thing as saying that the North or the South was “to blame.” Rather, historians recognize that eventually, the differences between the sections concerning slave labor and free labor could not be reconciled through compromise. The Civil War, then, represents the military resolution of a conflict that could not be resolved through political or other means.

      It is beyond questioning that the Southern secessionist were motivated by the need to protect slavery. In its secession declaration, the state of Mississippi said:

      In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

      Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.

      These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

      The state of Texas put it this way in its secession declaration:

      We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable…

      That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.

      Texas and Mississippi stated themes that were repeated in the Georgia and South Carolina secession declarations: the institution of slavery, vital as a domestic institution to the slave states, faced an existential threat in the abolitionist sectional Republican Party. And secession was the only remedy.

      Secession would lead to the start of the shooting war in Charleston harbor. And then the war came.

      There is no doubt that there were other sectional issues that divided the sections. But the threat to slavery was the decisive issue for the Southern secessionists. Certainly tariffs weren’t the decisive issue; when the slave states left the Union, US tariffs were at historical lows, and international lows. No, it was the threat to $3 billion of slave property, and the threat of black equality, that led the secessionist slave states to dissolve the Union.

      You mention the Corwin amendment. It was precisely because slavery was seen as the issue causing secession that the Corwin Amendment was put forward! (Note it did not address tariff rates.) The Congress and Lincoln tried to assure the secessionists that slavery would be safe in the Union, thus eliminating the need to dissolve the Union, and avoiding civil war. But the horse had left the barn, and it wasn’t going back.

      In his 2nd Inauguration speech, Lincoln reflected somberly on the war:

      On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it…

      One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.

      Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.

      It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.

      The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

      Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

      Lincoln touches on a number of points:
      • It was known that slavery was the cause of the war.
      • No one expected that the cause of the war – slavery – would be ended by the war.
      • Slavery was an offense against God.
      • The Civil War – a terrible war – was given to both North and South, a result of God’s will that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

      Those are essential lessons, for those of 150 years ago, and for those of us today.

  4. Pingback: Another Gaff From the Gift That Keeps On Giving « Crossroads

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