Yes, The Civil War Was About Slavery

Original seal of the Quaker-led Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, founded in Philadelphia, 1787. Inscription: "Am I Not A Man And Brother?" 

Original seal of the Quaker-led Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, founded in Philadelphia, 1787. Inscription: "Am I Not A Man And Brother?" 

This Thursday, April 12, marks the 157th Anniversary of the Civil War’s beginning. What follows is hardly comprehensive, but a mirrored version of the “Causes” unit my 8th graders get. As is often paraphrased in my room, “Misremember the past and you jack up the future.”

1819: Missouri wants statehood as a SLAVE state, which will upset the free/SLAVE state balance in Congress. Rep. Livermore’s (NH) argues, “An opportunity is now prevent the growth of a sin [SLAVERY] which sits heavy on the souls of every one of us.”[1]

1820: Congress is deadlocked over Missouri. Rep. Cobb (GA) says, “If you persist, the Union will be dissolved. You have kindled a fire which a sea of blood can only extinguish.” Congress eventually lets in Missouri as a SLAVE state but adds Maine as a free state to retain Congressional balance.[2]

1831: Nat Turner’s SLAVE rebellion causes Southerners to crack down on anti-SLAVERY pamphlets. Mississippi offers $5,000 bounties for capturing abolitionists who share such info—or even speak against SLAVERY.[3]

1832: South Carolina threatens armed resistance to the collection of a federal tariff during the Nullification Crisis. President Andrew Jackson writes, “the tariff was only a pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the negro, or SLAVERY question.”[4]

1836: Flooded by anti-SLAVERY petitions, Congress puts a gag order on SLAVERY debates. (For an exhaustive and epic account of John Quincy Adams’s heroic war against the gag, see James Traub’s MILITANT SPIRIT.)[5]

1849: California applies for (free) statehood; Southerners balk at the potential balance upset. Sen. Calhoun (SC) asks Congress, “What is it that has endangered the Union? To this question there can be but one answer,[6]

--that the immediate cause is the almost universal discontent which pervades all the States composing the Southern section of the Union...It commenced with the agitation of the SLAVERY question and has been increasing ever since.”[7]

1850: Congress compromises: California admitted as a free state; Utah/New Mexico vote on SLAVERY themselves; the SLAVE trade is banned in D.C.; a strict fugitive SLAVE law with fines and prison sentences for Northerners who aide runaway SLAVES or obstruct their recapture.[8]

1851: Tension over the fugitive SLAVE act grows as Northerners feel it makes “SLAVE catchers of us all” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). Only a fraction of fugitive SLAVES residing North are returned, stoking Southern resentment.[9]

1852: Ohian Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes the novel UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, exposing the brutality of slavery. Virginian Martha Haines Butt publishes a rebuttal novel, ANTIFANATICISM: A TALE OF THE SOUTH that portrays SLAVE HOLDERS as benevolent and SLAVES as grateful, loyal subjects.[10]

1854: Congress passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing citizens of Kansas and Nebraska to vote on SLAVERY in those territories. Northerners are outraged, as the law abolishes the Missouri Compromise provision that banned SLAVERY above the 36 30’ line.[11]

1856: AntiSLAVERY and proSLAVERY forces flock to Kansas and clash during fraudulent elections. Abolition extremist John Brown brutally executes five proSLAVERY leaders at Pottawatomie Creek. Rep. Brooks (SC) beats Sen. Sumner (MA) nearly to death on the Senate floor as punishment for his anti-SLAVERY speech “The Crime Against Kansas.”[12]

1857: Chief Justice Taney makes historic ruling against Missouri SLAVE Dred Scott: 1) SLAVES are not, were not, and cannot become citizens; 2) SLAVES brought into free states are still SLAVES because the Missouri Compromise is unconstitutional. “A wicked and false judgement” writes the New York Tribune. Slaveholders delighted.[13]

1858: Rep. Lincoln (IL) challenges Sen. Douglas (IL) for the Illinois Senate seat via public debates, widely reprinted. Lincoln argues: SLAVERY is morally wrong; SLAVERY must not spread; SLAVERY should be left alone in Southern states; a SLAVE power conspiracy of Southern elites is controlling Congress.[14]

1859: John Brown raids the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, VA to ignite slave rebellion; plan fails. At his execution Brown says, “The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” Many Northerners hail Brown a martyr, increasing Southern animosity.[15]

Nov. 1860: Lincoln wins a divided election without carrying a single Southern state. Promises not to “make any attack...on the domestic institutions of any state.”[16]

Dec. 1860: South Carolina secedes from the Union, declaring Lincoln “hostile to SLAVERY” and ready to wage war “against SLAVERY.” Accused North of “denouncing as sinful the institution of SLAVERY” and refusing to follow federal law regarding SLAVERY. Thus, South Carolina feels “released from it’s obligation” to the Union.[17]

Feb. 1861: Six other states secede (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas). SLAVERY features heavily in these declarations.[18]

March 1861: In inaugural speech, Lincoln says, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of SLAVERY in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Other incendiary comments regarding SLAVERY abound.[19]

April 12 1861: Confederate forces fire on the federal-occupied Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The war begins.[20]


[1] Diane Hart and Bert Bower, History Alive! : The United States Through Industrialism (Palo Alto, CA: Teacher's Curriculum Institute, 2011), 403.

[2] Ibid, 404.

[3] Ibid, 405.

[4] Scott Bomboy, "Andrew Jackson’s conflicted history on North-South relations," The National Constitution Center, last modified May 2, 2017, accessed April 9, 2018,

[5] Hart and Bower, History Alive!, 405. Seriously read Traub’s MILITANT SPIRIT. That book will give you a new-found appreciation for the often forgotten John Quincy Adams.

[6] John C. Calhoun, "The Compromise," The Congressional Globe (Washington, DC), Senate, 31st Congress, 1st Session, [Page #], accessed April 9, 2018,

[7]  John C. Calhoun, "The Compromise," The Congressional Globe (Washington, DC), Senate, 31st Congress, 1st Session, [Page #], accessed April 9, 2018,

[8] Hart and Bower, History Alive!, 406-408.

[9] Ibid, 408.

[10] Ibid, 408-409. Butts jaw-droppingly racist novel can be read in entirety here -

[11] Hart and Bower, History Alive!, 409-410.

[12] Ibid, 411.

[13] Ibid, 412-413.

[14] Hart and Bower, History Alive!, 414. For the full text of these seven debates, see Northern Illinois Univeristy, "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates," Lincoln Library, last modified 2014, accessed April 10, 2018,

[15] Hart and Bower, History Alive!, 414-415.

[16] Ibid, 415. See Lincoln’s attempt to appease the South see Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 163.

[17] Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library, "Confederate States of America - Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union," The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, last modified December 24, 1860, accessed April 10, 2018,

[18] The Civil War Trust, "Primary Source: The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States," Civil War Trust, accessed April 10, 2018,

[19] Abraham Lincoln, "First Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln," The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, last modified March 4, 1861, accessed April 10, 2018, For other incendiary speech points, and Southern response, see Foner, The Fiery, 157-159.

[20] Hart and Bower, History Alive!, 416-417. For northern reaction on slave vs. free societies see Foner The Fiery, 163.

Matthew Landis