No, The Civil War Wasn’t About “States’ Rights” — Just Slavery

Published September 26, 2017
Updated March 25, 2020
Published September 26, 2017
Updated March 25, 2020

The Civil War was about just one states' right: the right to own slaves.

Statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee

Wikimedia CommonsA statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is removed from its perch in New Orleans on May 19, 2017.

As Confederate monuments come down across the South, the Civil War has once again become a lightning rod throughout the United States.

Many of the monuments’ defenders have claimed that the Civil War was not about slavery but instead about states’ rights.

And while it’s true that the North did not go to war to free the slaves — they fought to preserve the union — the South went to war to preserve one states’ right: the right to own slaves. Make no mistake, slavery was behind everything that led to the American Civil War.

Slaves In The South

Henry P. Moore/Library of Congress via Wikimedia CommonsSlaves work in the sweet potato fields on James Hopkinson’s plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina. Circa 1862-1863.

In 1850, California sought to enter the Union as a free state. This threatened to disrupt the balance of slave states vs. free states.

As part of the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted to the Union as a free state and the slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia (though slavery was still permitted there). In return, the pro-slavery side got a new, tougher, Fugitive Slave Act, which required citizens to aid in the recovery of escaped slaves.

Following this compromise, the slavery debate in the 1850s largely centered on whether or not slavery would be allowed in the territories. Four years after the Compromise of 1850, Senator Stephen A. Douglas introduced a bill to organize the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, which the United States had acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The bill resulted in a repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which set a line through the Louisiana Purchase territory above which, with the exception of Missouri, slavery was not to be allowed.

Under the new proposal, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the territories would decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. Despite being a compromise that left both sides dissatisfied, it passed.

The result of the act was that both those for and against slavery moved to the territories to have a vote. The coming together of these two sides led to considerable bloodshed. Kansas, which borders Missouri, became the center of the conflict. Almost 60 people, for example, were killed in what became known as the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict.

One veteran of Bleeding Kansas later took a drastic step to fight slavery. On October 16, 1859, ardent abolitionist John Brown led a raid in Harpers Ferry, Virginia [now West Virginia]. The purpose of the attack was to seize a federal armory and start a slave insurrection.

John Brown

Library of CongressJohn Brown. 1859.

While Brown’s raid failed in its intended purpose, what it did accomplish was to add to the fear and distrust that Southerners had for Northerners and abolitionists. John Brown was found guilty of treason and sentenced to hang.

On December 2, 1859, the morning of his execution, Brown wrote:

“I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.”

In much of the South, it was looked upon as a warning of what was to come if the slaveholding states stayed with the Union. The threat of armed abolitionists invading seemed more real than ever.

It was in this atmosphere, and after almost four years of the ineffective presidency of James Buchanan, that the election of 1860 took place.

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