The cause of the American Civil War is one of the most misunderstood parts of American history. As someone with a PhD in American history and who specialized in American slavery, I can tell you the answer is simple. It’s slavery. Yet, somehow across this country, veterans organizations, school boards, and all those people who put Confederate flag bumper stickers on their cars disagree with that assessment. If you visit the website of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (not recommended), under the research section you’ll find an essay titled, “Why the War Was Not About Slavery.”  In 2015, The Texas board of education approved new social studies textbooks that, as a Washington Post editorial explains, “will teach students that Moses played a bigger role in inspiring the Constitution than slavery did in starting the Civil War.” This view that slavery was not essential to the Civil War doesn’t hold up under historical scrutiny and it serves a more insidious purpose—trying to minimize America’s shameful history of racial discrimination.


South Carolina still hosts a ball celebrating secession. Photo from NY Times


Let’s start by unpacking the other alternative causes of the Civil War, beginning with state’s rights.  State’s rights over what? Taxes? Tariffs? Infrastructure? Building a wall along the Mason-Dixon line? None of the above. Southern states were concerned about the Federal government interfering in their rights as slave holders. Don’t believe me? Let’s see what the good men from South Carolina had to say about it when they drafted their Ordinance of Secession. In their statement justifying secession, the members of the convention whined that

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

The second bullshit explanation? Economics or that the fundamental differences between the Northern and Southern economies led to the conflict. Well, what was the fundamental difference? The North had an economic system known as free or wage labor, while the South had a system based on slave labor. These differing systems had uneasily co-existed for decades and had, in the North and even parts of the South, even existed alongside one another. With the opening of the American West to settlement, this uneasy peace could no longer hold. As free labor and slave settlers moved into Kansas, Nebraska, and elsewhere, they had to figure out which system would rule the new territories. Southern slave owners wanted to expand slavery and their own influence. Northern free labor advocates did not want to have to compete with slave labor—nor did they want to share the land with African-Americans (the Southerners weren’t the only racists in town).

The third explanation: sectionalism or tensions between the states. Again tensions over what? I’ll let the good gentlemen from South Carolina handle this one:

the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

That’s right the problems between the states existed because Northern states had gotten rid of slavery.

Besides being historically wrong, these arguments are harmful because they attempt to minimize, deny, and obfuscate America’s past racial sins. The supporters of a non-slavery interpretation have had to tie themselves into increasingly intricate knots in order to deny America’s racist past and how the legacy of that past still echoes in the present. They also do it to dress their own racism up in a veneer of intellectual respectability. The author of that piece on the Sons of Confederate Veterans website is a former Emory philosophy professor named David W. Livingston who is a former leader of the white supremacist organization, the League of the South. If we pretend that the Civil War was about something other than race, it becomes a blip, an unfortunate accident, or a debate over constitutional principles that just went too far. Instead of being what it truly is, one of America’s greatest sins and a stain upon this nation’s character that can never be washed out.


“Declaration of Immediate Causes which May Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” 24 December 1860.