Why the Civil War Happened


Thomas Fleming is the author of “The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee,” in which Lee, on trial for treason, defends his decision to refuse Lincoln’s offer to give him command of the Union army and instead joined the Confederacy.

As we approach the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Civil War, various people are rushing into print to declare that the real cause of the war was slavery.  Their triumphant tone indicates they think they are scoring points against Southerners who maintain the real reason was states rights.  They are both wrong.  “Slavery” is a gross oversimplification of a fundamental truth.  To understand how slavery became the reason why 620,000 young Americans died requires a sense of history, and a readiness to see slavery through the eyes of the people who were dealing with it.

There are key events that explain the catastrophe.  The first occurred in 1800, when Virginians discovered at the last moment a carefully planned revolt led by an intelligent literate slave named Gabriel Prosser.  He planned to seize the state arsenal in Richmond, arm his followers, and kill any and all whites who resisted them.  Governor James Monroe arrested Prosser and he was swiftly sentenced to death, along with his two brothers and about twenty of his followers.

Monroe sent a report of the crisis to Thomas Jefferson, who was running for president against incumbent John Adams.  Jefferson responded:  “We are truly to be pitied.”

Those words are enormously significant.  They reveal the anguish of the author of the Declaration of Independence.  He detested slavery but he did not see how blacks and whites could live together in freedom without the eruption of a race war.

The reason for this fear emanated from the French island of Haiti, known in those days as St. Domingue.  There a race war had erupted between whites and enslaved blacks with horrendous slaughters on both sides.  In the last months of 1803, the French withdrew their troops and the commander of the black forces, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, marched across Haiti and killed every white man, woman and child in his path.

When the news of this final slaughter reached America, President Jefferson ordered his son-in-law, Congressman John Eppes, to introduce a resolution banning all American trade with Haiti.  It passed with huge majorities in the House and Senate and Haiti remained in almost total isolation for the next fifty years.

In 1831, a black slave named Nat Turner led another revolt in Virginia.  They hacked, shot and bludgeoned to death sixty white men, women and children before they were suppressed by local militia.  A witness of the appalling slaughter was Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, who was stationed in nearby Fortress Monroe with his bride, Mary Custis Lee, daughter of George Washington’s step-grandson. The Lees never forgot the raw terror that lapped around the walls of the fort during those nightmarish days.

In 1832, Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was elected to the Virginia legislature.  He introduced a bill for the gradual abolition of slavery in the state.  He based it on a letter his grandfather had written in 1814.  Under its terms, each black child born after a certain date would be freed at the age of twenty-one.  The proposal caused a huge uproar in the legislature and in the newspapers.  Over the next few years, Randolph was reelected and pressed the issue.  But it never won a majority.  The reason, Randolph later wrote, was the emergence in the North of the abolitionist movement, which demanded immediate freedom for all the slaves.  The abolitionists’ chief tactic was vitriolic abuse of Southerners as moral degenerates of the lowest grade.  How or why the abolitionists thought this tactic would persuade Southerners to free their slaves remains a mystery.  Instead, it had an opposite effect.  It infuriated slave owners and destroyed the gradual abolition movement in Virginia and other states.

The next event brought the Civil War to the moment of explosion.  In 1859, a deeply disturbed man named John Brown led some twenty followers in a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  His plan was to arm slaves and start a race war.  After killing a number of people, including the mayor of the town, he retreated to an armory.  Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee led a detachment of U.S. Marines to Harper’s Ferry and they stormed the armory, capturing Brown and killing a number of his followers.

At Brown’s headquarters in nearby Maryland, Lee’s men found letters that revealed that Brown had been backed by six rich Northern abolitionists.  A jury convicted Brown of murder and sentenced him to death.  The abolitionists, including famous New England writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, declared him a heroic martyr.  The realization that wealthy Northern men would knowingly send a man like Brown into the South made secession a necessity in the minds of tens of thousands of Southerners.

In 1861, former President John Tyler accepted the chairmanship of a peace convention in Washington D.C. to work out a compromise between the seven states that had already seceded and the incoming president, Abraham Lincoln.  Virginia, the South’s largest and most influential state, had not yet seceded.  In a private meeting, Tyler told Lincoln there was only one hope for peace.  The new president would have to agree to a law that would permit Southerners to take slaves into the free states and territories, to reduce their numbers in the South.  He told Lincoln that in his home county of Virginia, blacks outnumbered whites 7-1.

Lincoln refused to consider this proposal.  Tyler immediately rode to Richmond, where for several months a convention had been debating secession.  The ex-president’s message consisted of only one word:  “Secede.”  In a few months the Civil War became a terrible reality.

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Tom Billings - 1/15/2011

When I spoke to a friend of mine about my comment above, he asked why I did not include Lincoln's Cooper's Union Speech, in rebuttal to the overhyped belief that it was Republicans causing slave revolts and assaults like John Brown's.

I should have, and here is a reference to it:


Given the thorough nature of Lincoln's rebuttal, I do wonder why someone like Fleming would not at least mention it in an article on the history he mentions.

Tom Billings - 1/14/2011

Slavery is close to the root, but not quite there. They are, to quote more recent tyrants, "As close as lips and teeth."

The true root of it was the desire of the large plantation owner class to be an aristocracy, in the coarsest meaning of that word. That, and their shaping of social convention in slave states, so that, "to really be someone", you had to own slaves. You had to depend on the slave cangue and the whip to make you "someone."

That way, their position in their agrarian culture satisfied them, by emplacing a distinct social hierarchy which *they* were at the top of, with small-time slaveowners next, "mud farmers"(non-slavers) below them, with slaves barely below those, at the bottom. This gave "planters" great social privilege in their society, and political control. This violent domination of others as the basis of social hierarchy was the key to their assumption of coarse arrogance towards non-slaveowners.

Any threats to slavery were a threat to the plantation owner's social position and his valuation of himself. Even the small-time slave owner would not only lose most of his capital, but would be demoted in their minds to the position of those "mud farmers", barely above slaves themselves. Indeed, socially, it would put both those on the same level as slaves.

The smaller a social differentiation in social hierarchy, the more tightly it is gripped by those near the bottom of society. That demotion was simply intolerable.

Thus, the contrast with those Founding Fathers who were also slave-holders is even greater. Washington and others were men who would be themselves had they no slaves, or many. By the time we see the slave states truly threatening secession, such men are no longer dominant in slave state society.

IMHO, the difference was that the debate *within* the slave states was crushed by 1835. In that year, not only had slave states banned abolitionist periodicals and books, but they got the US Post Office to censor the US Mails. That sealed their society off from ideas that threatened the social position of the elite large landowners.

Did abolitionists scotch a single state's attempt at emancipation? I doubt it. The aristocrats were not about to give up their positions. Indeed after reconstruction failed, they mostly recovered them, to the detriment of southern economic and intellectual advance for 100 years.

Thomas Holloway - 1/11/2011

The devil is in the details, yes. But is not "slavery," however generically or broadly defined as a theme, at the root of all the specifics mentioned in this piece?

Scott Stabler - 1/10/2011

Talk about simplifying the cause of the Civil War. What about slavery itself? It seems to be the missing element in this piece.