South Carolina might take down the Stars & Bars. It’s about time. It’s so easy as a Yankee to judge the South. But the North is just as guilty, just more passive-aggressive.
Defenders of the South claim that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery. They do have a point that slavery as the sole cause of Southern secession from the United States is simplistic, but they’re also engaging in historical revisionism. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that slavery was the primary catalyst of the Civil War, though there were secondary issues as well.
There’s no defense for slavery or the war that would have preserved it (had the Confederacy won). But there’s a huge myth about the Civil War that the North promotes even today.
The South would be better off exposing this myth rather than trying to revise history.
The myth is that Abraham Lincoln and the morally superior North courageously opposed slavery. The truth is that the North profited from slavery just as much – and perhaps more – than the South did; and the North fought the Civil War to preserve the Union and not to abolish slavery.
Alexander Stephens, vice president of the nascent Confederate States of America, gave his Cornerstone Speech three months after Fort Sumter (the shots that began the Civil War).
What was this cornerstone?
The “moral truth,” that for African-Americans “slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Stephens prefaced this statement with a reference to the Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson declared that “all men are created equal.” In contrast, Stephens states unequivocally that, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea.”
Jefferson, however, was a Southern slave owner himself, and his sentiment of equality cannot be understood in its modern, more expansive, sense.
Lest you think that Stephens was unclear, he clarified that, “The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” (Emphasis mine.)
One defense of Stephens is that he was speaking extemporaneously, which is to say, off the cuff. In other words, he said what he really thought because he didn’t have time to come up with some bullshit.
Well, at least Abraham Lincoln will save the day. In a letter to the New York Tribune, Lincoln explained his rationale for fighting the Civil War: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it.”
In the end, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (in part due to the fear that Britain would join the war to defend the South, which supplied much of Britain’s cotton), and supported the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery. But reread Lincoln’s words above to understand why.
In 1848, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner railed against “an unhallowed union…between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.” Northern textiles were profiting greatly from cheap Southern cotton. The North profited as much as the South – and more so when you consider that the Civil War didn’t destroy the Northern economy.
What’s more, the North could plausibly say that its hands weren’t bloody. Northerners held no whips. Southerns did Northerner’s dirty work for them, only to have the North self-righteously condemn the South.
The situation today is not much different. Racism is not unique to the South.