Fought to End Slavery?

Wasn’t the War Between the States fought to end slavery? While slavery was a significant issue during the war, the war was not fought in order to keep African Americans enslaved. In fact, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, who provoked the conflict, frequently made this very point, claiming that he would gladly protect the legal institution of slavery if it would preserve the Union.

In a letter written more than a year after the war began, Lincoln told journalist and politician Horace Greeley: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that.”

The popular myth that the war was fought to free the slaves probably found its roots in 1863, when Lincoln sought some way to turn the tide of war in his favor. Despite having far more men and materiel at his disposal than did the fledgling Confederate government, Southern troops had fought to a stalemate and two European powers, England and France, were poised to enter the war on the Confederate side.

Lincoln’s decision was to shift the rationale for the war in midstream, from preserving the Union to freeing the slaves, believing that the new battle cry would convince Europe to remain on the sidelines and rally increasingly skeptical Northerners to his side.

To accomplish this shift, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that carried no legal authority at all, but turned out to be the public relations success he sought.

Avoiding the opportunity to free slaves owned by Northerners, the proclamation stated that “all slaves in areas still in rebellion [against the United States]” were free. The legal problem, of course, was that the U.S. president had no authority over the laws and citizens of the Confederate States of America, just as Canada cannot make laws today that are binding on the United States.

Even those falsely contending that the Confederacy was not a legitimate, separate nation faced a legal problem, because slaves could not be freed by proclamation; an amendment to the U.S. Constitution was required. While his proclamation had the public relations effect he sought, Lincoln actually had done nothing to free anyone; slaves would not be free until the 13th Amendment was passed, more than seven months after his death.

The fact that Lincoln introduced slavery as a rationale for the war long after the conflict underway demonstrated that it was not the prime reason that he started the war. Until that point, as with any significant political issue, there was a complicated web of causes, including: (1) a punitive Northern tariff, which essentially forced Southerners to pay higher prices on goods to support the federal government, which invested funds to subsidize Northern industry; (2) disputes about the constitutional nature of the Union, particularly as federal laws increasingly threatened the state sovereignty guaranteed when the United States was formed; (3) Lincoln’s desire to preserve the Union; (4) the entire issue of slavery, though not all Southerners who wanted to protect slavery called for secession and many Southerners calling for an end to slavery still supported secession; and (5) Lincoln’s call for troops to invade states that had seceded early.

North Carolina entered the war primarily for the latter reason, voting down the first ordinance of secession, but passing essentially the same document just weeks later after Lincoln demanded troops from the Old North State to invade sister South Carolina. Had North Carolina left the Union to protect slavery, the state would surely have passed the ordinance when it was first introduced.