The Civil War Wasn’t Just Fought Over Slavery; It Was Fought Because the South Wanted to Expand Slavery

by John Ellis

A little over a year after the Supreme Court handed down the ruling in Dredd Scott v. Sanford, Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous “House Divided” speech. The speech, delivered upon Lincon’s acceptance of the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination for U.S. Senator, contained what was going to become a centerpiece in the future president’s debates with his opponent in the 1858 Senate race, Stephen Douglas. Lincoln prophesied, “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. … It will become all one thing or all the other.” For his part, after Kansas’ Lecompton constitution (nicknamed the Lecompton Fraud) revealed that Douglas had been sorely outplayed (and used) by a coalition of southern senators, the incumbent Senator from Illinois was determined to rescue and demonstrate the validity of his belief that free states and slave states could coexist peacefully. Lincoln knew otherwise, as did the southern states, especially those southern states in the cotton belt. And therein, articulated by Abraham Lincoln in his “House Divided” speech, lies the truth about the cause of the Civil War. It was not fought over states’ rights. In fact, it was fought for the exact opposite reason. In order to protect their own way of life (slavery), the South was determined to spread slavery throughout the entire nation, and Abraham Lincoln was possibly the only politician willing to stand in their way.

Pulling together the threads of necessary and sufficient causes of historical events and history’s story is equal parts fascinating and rewarding and equal parts frustrating. Pull in too many threads, and the story is threatened to be swamped by too much detail. Too few threads, and the historian (which I’m not a historian, to be clear) risks being accused of cherry-picking to prove his or her point. The more controversial the event, the greater the risk. And out of all the important events throughout the United States’ history, possibly none is as hotly debated as the cause of the Civil War. Unfortunately, pulling together various threads from history in order to form a cogent and coherent argument/story doesn’t require nuance, nor does it require honesty. It requires a willingness to overlook whatever may threaten the intended story and interpretation. The Lost Cause myth is a good example of this.

Growing up in the Deep South, it was drilled into me that the South fought for states’ rights, and while slavery was evil and it’s good that it’s gone, the North’s war of aggression unleashed a cavalcade of unintended political consequences that has led us to the present where Christian values are under attack. The South, according to the Lost Cause myth, may not have been perfect but it better embodied what Jesus and the founders of this country intended. I’m not going to spend time unpacking that because, well, there’s a lot to unpack and refute. What’s unarguable, though, is that the Lost Cause myth has permeated Southern culture and narrative for generations. While you can find differing responses and various explanations, one thing remains constant: those who grew up in the South (especially the Deep South) have been largely taught, if not exclusively, that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights.

On the other side, and I used to make this argument, too, many people push back on the Lost Cause myth by saying, “Yeah. Of course, the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. The right to own slaves.” That argument precedes the trotting out of Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech” and the various articles of secession claiming that the state in question is seceding over the cause of slavery, among other documents and portions of speeches. And while those things do bolster the argument that the Civil War was fought over slavery, many of those who make that argument (including myself once upon a time) miss the larger point that I stated in my thesis above: the South was intent on overriding the will of the northern states by forcing them to accept the expansion of slavery across the entire nation. Like Abraham Lincoln, a man the South hated and feared, enslavers knew that slavery couldn’t coexist alongside free states for much longer.

Lincoln’s election was the bellwether moment signaling to the South that their precious way of life (built around slavery) was not long for the union, regardless of Lincoln’s campaign promises otherwise. But how did a one-term congressman from Illinois win the Presidential election of 1860?

Most (if not all) historians agree that one of the necessary conditions that enabled Lincoln to win the White House was the presence of four viable candidates on the ballot. Not necessarily viable to win the election (in hindsight), but viable in the sense that each candidate presented an attractive option to enough people to split the votes allowing Lincoln to win with a measly 39.8% of the popular vote. However, before diving deeper into the election – or really, the events that created a four-way race in that election – it’s important to look at how the threads that led the country to the 1860 presidential election weave the narrative that demonstrates my thesis. For the sake of my argument, the first thread is found in the Supreme Court’s 1842 decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania.

One of the many heart wrenching, tragic, and disgusting tales that arose out of slavery, Prigg v. Pennsylvania is a testament to a few things, three of those things I highlight here: 1. How the politicization of the Supreme Court isn’t new. 2. How despicably contra-Biblical chattel slavery in this country was. 3. The South’s perspective on states’ rights and the South’s felt need to defend slavery at all costs.

I wish I had the space to go into greater detail about the events surrounding Prigg v. Penn. In lieu of providing those details, I encourage you to read Prigg v. Pennsylvania: Slavery, the Supreme Court, and the Ambivalent Constitution by H. Robert Baker. In short, the tragic story centers on Margaret Morgan.

Not long after her birth, and shortly before his death, the enslaver John Ashmore began to manumit his slaves. Among the enslaved people living on Ashmore’s plantation were Margaret’s parents, an elderly couple who were surprised to have a baby daughter at their age. For some reason lost to history, Ashmore had allowed the elderly black couple to live as free blacks in a cottage on his land prior to the birth of their daughter. Their station on the plantation remained unchanged after Margaret arrived. Upon Ashmore’s death in 1824, the state of Maryland inventoried his belongings. Neither of Margaret’s parents nor herself were included in Maryland’s official inventory of the deceased Ashmore’s belongings because they were not included in any inventory Ashmore had left. Since Ashmore didn’t list Margaret’s parents in his inventory, the state assumed he had manumitted them – an assumption that had legal precedent. That assumption extended to the young girl. In 1830, the official US census listed Margaret as a free black. “He [Ashmore] had, simply put, never claimed [Margaret] as a slave.”[1]

Information on Margaret’s intervening years after the death of Ashmore are scarce, but we know that she married a free black man named Jerry Morgan and that the couple had two children together. After her parents died in 1832, the married couple and their children moved to Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, in 1837, the widow of John Ashmore concluded that Margaret was her legal property and sent slavecatchers under the leadership of Edward Prigg into Pennsylvania to kidnap her and her two children.

Since Ashmore didn’t officially manumit Margaret’s parents, the legal issues were a little muddy, but as already mentioned, circumstances and legal precedence were on Margaret’s side. So was the fact that Ashmore’s widow allowed Margaret to move from Maryland to Pennsylvania without attempting to stop her. Under Pennsylvania law, this made Margaret a free woman regardless of the murkier issue of the manumission of her and her parents nearly two decades earlier. These are all things that were brought before the courts and eventually the Supreme Court.

After the Court of Quarter Sessions of York County found Prigg guilty, the Supreme Court reversed the decision. In the decision, Justice Joseph Story declared the Pennsylvania law unconstitutional because it denied slaveholders the right to retrieve their property. State law, Justice Story declared, does not supersede federal law, the Federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 in this instance.

Margaret and her children were sold south into the pits of the hellish cotton belt and all records of them have been lost. While on the way to appeal to the governor for help, Jerry Morgan was tragically killed while trying to prove that he was a freedman to a group of white men intent on making money by returning what they believed was a runaway slave. For their part, the Supreme Court’s decision laid bare that the slave states had zero intention in allowing individual states to operate according to their own conscience and state laws. Possibly worse, and definitely more consequential, the slavery supporting Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Taney (who actually thought Justice Story’s ruling didn’t go far enough in protecting the constitutional rights of enslavers) signaled that they accepted the “omnipotence of slavery,” to use the words of John Quincy Adams.[2] The Supreme Court sided with the slave states in forcing the free states to bow before the wishes and conscience of enslavers. The first blow to the notion that (free) states’ rights extend over slavery was struck.

After King Cotton took over in the early 19th century, slave states eagerly sought to not only protect their “peculiar institution,” but also to expand it. Owing to cotton and slavery, money was flowing into the South. By the 1850s, seven of the eight wealthiest states per population were slave states (the other one was Connecticut, the most industrialized state with industries that depended on cotton). However, one of the many lies of the Lost Cause myth is the entrenched belief that the institution of slavery was slowly dying because the economic inefficiencies of slavery doomed it to failure. Except that’s not true. Not even close.

In his masterful book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, historian Edward Baptist convincingly argues that slavery was a highly efficient labor force and that the sharply rising demand for cotton around the world enriched the South, as well as the United States of America as a whole. Minus the crashes in the late 1830s (‘37 and ‘39) brought about by investors wildly speculating about slavery, “turning human beings into bonds and mortgages”[3] – think the housing bubble of 2008 – the price of cotton skyrocketed and the ability of enslaved people to pick cotton improved to keep pace with the rising demand throughout the 19th century leading up to the Civil War. Drawing on extensive records kept by enslavers, financiers, clearing houses, banks, shipping companies, and factories, Baptist shows that, “Many enslaved cotton pickers in the late 1850s had peaked at well over 200 pounds per day. In the 1930s, after a half-century of massive scientific experimentation, all to make the cotton boll more pickable, the great-grandchildren of the enslaved often picked only 100 to 120 pounds a day.”[4] The stick proved to be a much better incentive than the carrot. And the main stick, as Baptist explains, was the threat of being sold and separated from family. Making yourself indispensable to the financial operation of the plantation was the best means enslaved people had at their disposal to help ensure that they would remain with their spouses, children, parents, and friends. It didn’t always work, of course; even if the enslaver didn’t want to sell his slaves, it was often out of his control[5]. The enslaved people were mortgaged out and the notes held by investors as far away as England, but the stakes of separation were too high to take the risk.

With dollar signs in their eyes, plantation owners looked outside the South and into the expanding country. They saw opportunity. While the Deep South contained vast amounts of highly fertile land (mostly stolen from Indians), the land wasn’t infinite. Continued economic growth, as well as the growth of personal fortunes, required more land (and more slaves). They also realized, as Abraham Lincoln said years later, that unless slavery expanded, slavery would shrink. Free states and slave states could not coexist in the same federation. Eventually, the slave owners realized, the expansion of the country would tilt the balance of power to the abolitionists if slavery wasn’t permitted to grow with the nation’s borders.

Some enslavers focused their efforts on Mexico and Cuba. Others looking west and north, saw an unlikely (and unwitting) ally in Stephen Douglas. Owing to his debates with Lincoln, many people are aware of the pugnacious senator from Illinois. Although lacking many of the traits usually associated with success during that time, Douglas was a dominating firebrand on the Hill. He was undeniably an effective senator. His energy, efforts, and accomplishments, combined with his ill-fated run at the White House, have earned Stephen Douglas a place in the history books. However, fewer people have heard the names David Atchison, Andrew Butler, Robert Hunter, and James Mason[6]. As Senators who were roommates in a rented house on DC’s F Street – Atchison (MO-D), Butler (SC-D), Hunter (VA-D), and Mason (VA-D) – the four saw an opportunity in Douglas’ grand design to see railroad tracks connect the east with the west.[7]

Douglas’ desired railroad needed land. And much of the land needed ran through the northern half of the vast prairies and wilderness that lay between the slave state of Missouri and the Pacific Ocean. The problem for the South was that after the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery was forbidden in all the territories through which the railroad would cross. This was problematic for the South for the reasons already stated above. If the railroad was built through the territories, it stood to reason that it wouldn’t be long before those territories became free states. The South’s feared loss of power in DC was on the horizon. If the balance of power tilted in favor of the free states, slavery would be encroached upon by abolitionists if not outright abolished. The four messmates, as the Southern Senators and roommates nicknamed themselves, saw an opportunity and solution in Stephen Douglas’ ambition.  

Led by Atchison, who was a slaveowner himself, and whose main supporters and financial backers were enslavers who lived in the part of Missouri nicknamed “Little Dixie,” the four approached Douglas with an offer in the early days of 1854. Promising their support of Douglas’ proposed Nebraska Territory Bill, the four made it clear that they could deliver the votes needed but that they would do so only on the condition that Douglas understood that the South would not broach the addition of more free territories into the country. Douglas understood. Or, at least, he thought he understood.

On January 10, Douglas quietly added an amendment to the bill that was the first blow in overturning the Missouri Compromise. The text of the bill, which can be read by clicking here (the relevant section is Sec. 19), gave the authority to decide the issue of slavery to the territory’s constitution agreed upon by the inhabitants. Now, and this is the important part that added the final nail in the Missouri Compromise’s coffin, the South realized that Douglas’ addition was largely toothless regarding their aims. So, on January 16, Kentucky Senator Archibald Dixon proposed an amendment that codified the right of slaveowners to transport and keep their slaves when moving through and into territories of the United States of America. That “and keep” rang the death knell for abolitionists and signaled the South’s coming victory in ensuring that slavery was spread throughout the entire country. Don’t believe me? Then think back to Dredd Scott versus Sandford, which was argued before the Supreme Court in 1856 and decided in 1857. Before that, though, an additional brief bit of narrative about how the Nebraska Act became the Kansas-Nebraska Act is in order.

Stephen Douglas realized he’d been had. But he was too close to his goal to give up. After the supposedly moderate, as it came to slavery’s expansion, President Pierce gave his official approval of the bill, the trick became massaging the bill’s language to make it palatable for nervous senators from free states. On January 23, Senator Douglas reintroduced the bill as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The rewritten bill was designed to allow the northern states to assume that Kansas would be admitted as a slave territory and Nebraska as a free territory based, of course, on the will of each territory’s voters.[8] William Seward (NY) and Charles Sumner (MA) saw through it; they recognized the duplicitous pro-slavery expansion aims of the South. The very contentious floor debates (and salvos fired off via the press and pamphlets) was as vicious as any in this country’s history, if not more so. It was during this time (a little over a year after the bill passed) that Congressman Preston Brooks took it upon himself to beat the elderly Senator Sumner nearly to death on the Senate floor in retaliation to what Brooks took as Sumners slander of his cousin Senator Andrew Butler.

On May 22, 1864, the Kansas-Nebraska Act finally passed the House. Its ramifications were almost immediately felt. Enslavers, seeing an opportunity, as abolitionists feared, began streaming into the newly created territories to take advantage of the rich lands that would continue to create great wealth for themselves on the backs of the enslaved people. The country was immediately thrown into deep turmoil as the violent actions (from both sides – think John Brown) forced people to take sides. The Missouri Compromise was officially dead, and enslavers seized on it. The next thread in this narrative is the Supreme Court’s Dredd Scott decision.

In sum, the Dredd Scott decision stated that the US Constitution did not extend citizenship rights to people of African descent (or African-Caribbean descent or, really, any people of color). If you were opposed to slavery (as I’m assuming all reading this article are), the decision was as terrifying as it was appalling. Removing citizenship rights placed people of color, no matter where they resided in the country, under property rights. The ramifications were made clear when the Supreme Court ruled that the enslaved Dred Scott had no basis to sue for his freedom.

Dred Scott’s enslaver, US Army surgeon John Emerson, had taken Scott with him to Illinois, a free state, and then the free territory of Wisconsin. According to Scott’s lawsuit, first filed in the State of Missouri, since the slave had spent several years in a free state and territory, he was constitutionally a free man. The constitutions of both Illinois and the territory of Wisconsin did not recognize the institution of slavery and did not allow for the enslavement of anyone residing within their borders.

According to Chief Justice Taney, after the suit reached the Supreme Court, since Scott was black, he could not claim freedom because those of African descent, “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.”

Regardless of the reason, much of the way the Dredd Scott decision is taught in this country (especially in those states and schools under the sway of the Lost Cause myth) fails to comprehend the enormity of the consequences.[9] The consequences were not lost on both enslavers in the South and abolitionists in the North (and South) at the time, though. If people of color had zero rights under the US Constitution, then the property rights of enslavers, which were protected by the US Constitution, superseded any rights inferred or laws codified by state constitutions and legislatures. The door was open to enslavers moving their economic engine of slavery into free territories and eventually free states. Knowing that the Supreme Court was on their side the South rubbed their hands in glee at the coming legal battles. In fact, led by Mississippi Senators Jefferson Davis and Albert Brown, bills codifying the right to own slaves in all US territories were being written.[10] And this brings us to our final thread: the Democrat National Convention of 1860 … sorry, I meant the Democrat National Conventions, and don’t miss the plural, because there were more than one that year.

The initial Democrat National Convention of 1860 was held in Charleston, SC. Emboldened by the threads written about above, and other historical threads I left out for the sake of wordcount, southern enslavers went into the Convention assuming that the Presidential Election of 1860 would be the final blow to the abolitionist cause by ensuring that slavery was not only protected in the South but spread throughout the entire nation, overriding the will of the free states.

Before the Presidential Election of 1860 had even warmed up, though, southern states, specifically Mississippi and South Carolina, had already begun maneuverings to create the infrastructure needed in the event of secession. However, the South had one more very important play before pulling the trigger on secession.

On the convention floor in Charleston, Democrats in the slave states colluded together to try and force the national party to submit to their wishes regarding the spread of slavery throughout the nation. Not long after the convention began, southern delegates insisted that the Jefferson Davis’ bill extending the right to own slaves to all US territories be adopted into the official Democrat party’s platform. Northern delegates resisted. Holding the majority, and out of fear of what would happen to their political careers, the northern Democrats successfully stymied the southern delegates efforts. When northern delegates’ intention to nominate Stephen Douglas and his entrenched belief that slave states and free states could coexist peacefully became clear, all the southern delegates minus those from Georgia stormed out. Georgia’s delegates quickly left, too, but only after making the point that their counterparts should’ve also been angry about the Democrat party’s refusal to consider making the reopening of the international slave trade as part of the official party platform.

The exit of the southern delegates created a procedural problem: not enough delegates were left to create the needed majority to nominate anyone for president, much less Stephen Douglas. The solution was to hold a second Democrat National Convention in Baltimore on June 18, two months later. In turn, the southern Democrats met across the street in Baltimore after the northern delegates refused to acknowledge them. This is how (and why) the Democrat party[11] ended up nominating two separate candidates – Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge – to run for president. Throw in the nomination of John Bell by the Constitutional Union Party, made up of old Southern Whigs, and voters in 1860 were given three other choices besides that of the Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln.  

To recap the 1860 Democrat National Convention, the southern states were intent, to the point of the dissolution of the party, on ramrodding into the party platform their goal of spreading slavery. When the northern delegates successfully resisted, the southern delegates withdrew. The expansion of slavery was that important to them. In modern terms, they were single issue voters (two issue voters, in Georgia’s case, I guess). That led to the chain reaction that allowed a largely unknown and previously (mostly) unsuccessful politician from Illinois to win the election.

Because they had been listening to Abraham Lincoln all along, they knew how to decode his brilliant everyman type of approach to politics. I would love to jump into Lincoln’s political genius, but a growing word count forces me to once again point you to a book: The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics by James Oakes. The South knew that Lincoln was serious when he said, “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. … It will become all one thing or all the other.” And so, they seceded.

It’s a myth (lie) that, from the South’s perspective, the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. As demonstrated in this article, at its core, the Civil War was fought because of the South’s desire to undermine and override states’ rights by forcing the expansion of slavery throughout the entire nation. When they realized which way the winds were blowing, they seceded with the expectation that the North would not simply let them go. The South was willing to plunge this nation into war because they realized that they had lost the battle over slavery’s expansion. The next step in preserving slavery was full-on war.  

[1] H. Robert Baker, Prigg v. Pennsylvania: Slavery, the Supreme Court, and the Ambivalent Constitution (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2012), 103.

[2] Baker, Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 152.

[3] Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 426-427.

[4] Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, 410.

[5] This sentence should not be read as an apology for enslavers. Part of the Lost Cause myth is the lie that “good” masters existed. That’s 100% false. Owning slaves automatically places you in the despicable column of humanity. Even if the enslaver didn’t want to sell his slaves, he still owned slaves.

[6] James Mason was the author of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

[7] I encourage you to read noted historian William Freehling’s Road to Disunion, vol. 1 and 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991 and 2008) as well as Alice Malavasic’s The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017) to get a fuller treatment of not only the Kansas-Nebraska Act but the events leading up to the Civil War.

[8] To be fair, it’s likely that Stephen Douglas assumed a good faith on the part of the South. The Lecompton Constitution of Kansas dispelled him of that assumption, though.  

[9] I’m assuming that in the State of Florida now, because of the Stop WOKE Act, teaching the consequences of Dredd Scott (or even teaching Dredd Scott, unless you praise the decision, of course) is now illegal. And people thought pulling down statues erased history.

[10] There was a divide in the South on this point. Many Southerners were skeptical that the legal route was the correct one, and in the final years of the 1850s, many of the Southern states began stockpiling military equipment for what they believed was a coming fight over slavery.

[11] If you want to be technical (and split hairs), the Democrat party nominated Stephen Dougal and the newly formed, quasi party of the Southern Democrats nominated John Breckinridge.

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