The American Civil War and Its Relationship to Slavery

    Students often argue that slavery was not a cause of the Civil War.  This is a list of Documentary sources that speak for themselves. The South Carolina Declaration of Causes of Secession and the 1861 remarks of Confederate Alexander H. Stephens clearly give the southern position during the time of the war.
               TheWilmot Proviso, 1846
              Hinton Helper, The Impending Crisis, 1850
              Resolutions of the Nashville Convention, 1850
              George Fitzhugh, "Southern Thought," 1856
              Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1857
              Abraham Lincoln's Opening Speech from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debate
              South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond, 1858
              Proposed Crittenden Compromise, 1860
              South Carolina Declaration of Causes of Secession, 24 December 1860
              ConfederateVice-President Alexander H. Stephens, 1861


The Sectional Crisis and Slavery

The Wilmot Proviso, 1846

Provided, territory from That, as an express and fundamental condition to the acquisition of any the Republic of Mexico by the United States, by virtue of any treaty which may be negotiated between them, and the use by the Executive of the moneys herein appropriated, neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime, whereof the party shall be first duly convicted.

[Passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, 1846 and 1847, never passed by the U.S. Senate]

Hinton Rowan Helper, The Impending Crisis, 1850

And now that we have come to the very heart and soul of our subject, we feel no disposition to mince matters, but mean to speak plainly, and to the point, without any equivocation, mental reservation, or secret evasion whatever. . . . In our opinion. . . the causes which have impeded the progress and prosperity of the South, have dwindled our commerce. . . into the most contemptible insignificance; sunk a large majority of our people in galling poverty and ignorance, rendered a small minority conceited and tyrannical, and driven the rest away from their homes; entailed upon us a humiliating dependence on the Free States; disgraced us in the recesses of our own souls, and brought us under reproach in the eyes of all civilized and enlightened nations—may all be traced to one common source, and there find solution in the most hateful and horrible word that was ever incorporated into the vocabulary of human economy—Slavery! . . .

The questions now arise, How can the evil be averted?  What are the most prudent and practical mean that can be devised for the abolition of slavery?  In the solution of these problems it becomes necessary to deal with a multiplicity of stubborn realities.  And yet, we can see no reason why North Carolina, in her sovereign capacity, may not, with equal ease and success do what forty-five other states of the world have done within the last forty-five years.  Nor do we believe any good reason exists why Virginia should not perform as great a deed in 1859 as did New York in 1799.  Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1780; would it not be a masterly stroke of policy in Tennessee, and every other slave State, to abolish it in or before 1860? . . . 

[Hinton Rowan Helper was a white from the yeomen class in western North Carolina.  His book was popular in the North but condemned in the Southern States.  Helper was not an abolitionist.]

Resolutions of the Nashville Convention, 1850

1. Resolved, That the territories of the United States belong to the people of the several states of this Union as their common property.  That the citizens of the several states have equal rights to migrate with their property to these territories, and are equally entitled to the protection of the federal government in the enjoyment of that property so long as the territories remain under the charge of that government.
2. Resolved, That Congress has no power to exclude from the territory of the United States any property lawfully held in the States of the Union, and any act which my be passed by Congress to effect this result is a plain violation of the Constitution of the United States. . . .
4. Resolved, That to protect property existing in the several States of the Union the people of these States invested the federal government with the powers of war and negotiation and of sustaining armies and navies, and prohibited to State authorities to exercise of the same powers.  They made no discrimination in the protection to be afforded or the description of the property to be defended, nor was it allowed to the federal government to determine what should be held as property.  Whatever the States deal with as property the federal government is bound to recognize and defend as such.  Therefore it is the sense of the Convention that all acts of the federal government which tend to denationalize property of any description recognized in the Constitution and laws of the States, or that discriminate in the degree and efficiency of the protection to be afforded to it, or which weaken or destroy the title of any citizen upon American territories, are plain and palpable violations of the fundamental law under which it exists.
5. Resolved, That the slaveholding States cannot and will not submit to the enactment by Congress of any law imposing onerous conditions or restraints upon the rights of masters to remove with their property into the territories of the United States, or to any law making discrimination in favor of the proprietors of other property against them. . . .
11. Resolved, That in the event a dominant majority shall refuse to recognize the great constitutional rights we assert, and shall continue to deny the obligations of the Federal Government to maintain them, it is the sense of this convention that the territories should be treated as property, and divided between the sections of the Union, so that the rights of both sections be adequately secured in their respective shares.  That we are aware this course is open to grave objections, but we are ready to acquiesce in the adoption of the line of 36 deg. 30 min. north latitude, extending to the Pacific ocean, as an extreme concession, upon consideration of what is due to the stability of our institution.
12. Resolved, That it is the opinion of this Convention that his controversy should be ended, either by a recognition of the constitutional rights of the Southern people, or by an equitable partition of the territories.  That the spectacle of a confederacy of States, involved in quarrels over the fruits of a war in which the American arms were crowned with glory, is humiliating.  That the incorporation of the Wilmot Proviso in the offer of settlement, a proposition which fourteen States regard as disparaging and dishonorable, is degrading to the country.  A termination to this controversy by the disruption of the confederacy or by the abandonment of the territories to prevent such a result, would be a climax to the shame which attaches to the controversy which is the paramount duty of Congress to avoid.

George Fitzhugh, “Southern Thought,” 1856

Twenty years ago the South had no thought—no opinion of her own.  Then she stood behind all christendom, admitted her social structure, her habits, her economy, and her industrial pursuits to be wrong, deplored them as a necessity, and begged pardon for their existence.  Now she is about to lead the thought and direct the practices of christendom; for christendom sees and admits that she has acted a silly and suicidal part in abolishing African slavery—the South a wise and prudent one in retaining it.  France and England, who fairly represent the whole of so-called free society, are actively engaged in the slave-trade under more odious and cruel forms than were ever known before.  They must justify their practices; and, to do so, must adopt and follow Southern thought.  This, of itself, would put the South at the lead of modern civilization.

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1857

Chief Justice Taney: The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen?  One of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution. . . .
 The words “people of the United States” and “citizens” are synonymous terms, and mean the same thing.  They both describe the political body who, according to our republican institutions, form the sovereignty, and who hold the power and conduct the government through their representatives.  They are where we familiarly call the “sovereign people,” and every citizen is one of this people, and a constituent member of this sovereignty.  The question before us is, whether the class of persons described in the plea in abatement compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty?  We think they are not, and that they 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.  On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the government might choose to grant them. . . .
 The Act of Congress, upon which the plaintiff relies, declares that slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime, shall be forever prohibited in all that part of the territory ceded by France, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of thirty-six degrees thirty minutes north latitude, and not included within the limits of Missouri.  And the difficulty which meets us at the threshold of this part of the inquiry is, whether Congress was authorize to pass this law under any of the powers granted it by the Constitution; for if the authority is not given by that instrument, it is the duty of this court to declare it void and inoperative, and incapable of conferring freedom upon any one who is held as a slave under the laws of any one of the States.
 If the Constitution recognizes the right of property of the master in a slave, and makes no distinction between that description of property and other property owned by a citizen, no tribunal, acting under the authority of the United States, whether it be legislative, executive, or judicial has a right to draw such a distinction, or deny to it the benefit of the provisions and guarantees which have been provided for the protection of private property against the encroachments of the Government.
 Now. . . the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.  The right to traffic in it, like an ordinary article of merchandise and property, was guaranteed to the citizens of the United States, in every State that might desire it, for twenty years.  And the Government in express terms is pledged to protect it in all future time, if the slave escapes from his owner. . .  And no word can be found in the Constitution which gives Congress a greater power over slave property, or which entitles property of that kind to less protection than property of any other description.  The only power conferred is the power coupled with the duty of guarding and protecting the owner in his rights.
 Upon these considerations, it is the opinior of the court that the Act of Congress which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind in the territory of the United States north of the line therein mentioned, is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore void; and that neither Dred Scott himself, nor any of his family, were made free by being carried into this territory; even if they had been carried there by the owner, with the intention of becoming a permanent resident. . . .

Abraham Lincoln’s Opening Speech from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debate

As to the first one, in regard to the fugitive slave law, I have not hesitated to say, and I do not now hesitate to say, that I think, under the Constitution of the United States, the people of the southern states are entitled to a congressional fugitive slave law.  Having said that, I have had nothing to say in regard to the existing fugitive slave law further than that I think it should have been framed so as to be free from some of the objections that pertain to it, without lessening its efficiency.  And inasmuch as we are not now in an agitation in regard to an alteration or modification of that law, I would not be the man to introduce it as a new subject of agitation upon the general question of slavery.
 In regard to the other question of whether I am pledged to the admission of any more slave states into the Union, I state to you very frankly that I would be exceedingly sorry ever to be put in a position of having to pass upon that question.  I should be exceedingly glad to know that there would never be another slave state admitted to the Union; . . . but I must add, that if slavery shall be kept out of the territories during the territorial existence of any one given territory, and then the people shall, having a fair chance and a clear field, when they come to adopt the constitution, do such an extraordinary thing as to adopt a slave constitution, uninfluenced by the actual presence of the institution among them, I see no alternative, if we own the country, but to admit them to the Union. . . .
 The fourth one is in regard to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.  In relation to that, I have my mind very distinctly made up.  I should be exceedingly glad to see slavery abolished in the District of Columbia. . . . I believe that Congress possessed the constitutional power to abolish it.  Yet as a member of Congress, I should not with my present views, be in favor of endeavoring to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, unless it would be upon these conditions.  First, that the abolition should be gradual.  Second, that it should be on a vote of the majority of qualified voters in the District, and third, that compensation should be made to unwilling owners.  With these three conditions, I confess I would be exceedingly glad to see Congress abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, and, in the language of Henry Clay, “sweep from our Capital that foul blot upon our nation.” . . . 
 My answer as to whether I desire that slavery should be prohibited in all the territories of the United States is full and explicit within itself, and cannot be made clearer by any comments of mine.  So I suppose in regard to the question of whether I am opposed to the acquisition of any more territory unless slavery is first prohibited therein, my answer is such that I could add nothing by way of illustration, or making myself better understood, than the answer which I have placed in writing. . . .

South Carolina Senator James Henry Hamond, 1858

 Excerpt from a speech Praising King Cotton in which he extols the South because the world depends on its Cotton.

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life.  That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill.  Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity.  Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads to progress, civilization, and refinement.  It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill.  Fortunately, for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand.  A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes.  We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.  We found them slaves by the common “consent of mankind,” which, according to Cicero, “lex naturae est.” The highest proof of what is Nature’s law.  We are old-fashioned at the South yet; slave is a word discarded now by “ears polite;” I will not characterize that class at the North by that term; but you have it; it is there; it is everywhere; it is eternal.
 The Senator from New York [William H. Seward} said yesterday that the whole world had abolished slavery.  Aye, the name, but not the thing; all the powers of the earth cannot abolish that.  God only can do it when he repeals the fiat, “the poor ye always have with you;” for the man who lives by daily labor, and scarcely lives at that, and who has to put out his labor in the market, and take the best he can get for it; in short, your whole hireling class of manual laborers and “operatives,” as you call them, are essentially slaves.  The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either.  Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street in any of your large towns.  Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South.  We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity.  Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race.

The Proposed Crittenden Compromise, 1860

Whereas, serious and alarming dissensions have arisen between the Northern and Southern States, concerning the rights and security of the rights of the slave-holding States, and especially their rights in the common territory of the United States; and whereas it is eminently desirable and proper that these dissensions which now threaten the very existence of this Union, should be permanently quieted and settled, by constitutional provision, which shall do equal justice to all sections, and thereby restore to the people that peace and good will which ought to prevail between all the citizens of the United States: Therefore:
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress Assembled, That the following articles be and are hereby, proposed and submitted as amendments to the Constitution of the United States, . . . .
 Article 1.  In all the territory of the United States now held, or hereafter acquired, situate North of Latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes, slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime is prohibited while such territory shall remain under territorial government.  In all territory south of said line of latitude, slavery of the African race is hereby recognized as existing, and shall not be interfered with by Congress, but shall be protected as property by all the departments of the territorial government during its continuance.  And when any Territory, north or south of said line, within such boundaries as Congress may prescribe, shall contain the population requisite for a member of Congress according to the then Federal ratio, of representation of the people of the United States, it shall, if its form of government be republican, be admitted into the Union, on an equal footing with the original States, with or without slavery, as the constitution of such a new State may provide.
 Article 2.  Congress shall have no power to abolish slavery in places under its exclusive jurisdiction, and situate within the limits of States that permit the holding of slaves.
 Article 3.  Congress shall have no power to abolish slavery within the district of Columbia so long as it exists in the adjoining States of Virginia and Maryland, or either, not without the consent of the inhabitants, nor without just compensation first made to such owners of slaves as do not consent to such abolishment.  Nor shall Congress at any time prohibit officers of the Federal Government, or members of Congress, whose duties require them to be in said District, from bringing with them their slaves, and holding them as such during the time their duties may require them to remain there, and afterwards taking them from the District.
 Article 4.  Congress shall have no power to prohibit or hinder the transportation of slaves from one State to another, or to a Territory in which slaves are by law permitted to be held, whether that transportation be by land, navigable rivers, or by the sea. . . .
 Article 6.  No future amendment of the Constitution shall affect the five preceding articles. . . and no amendment shall be made to the Constitution which shall authorize or give to Congress any power to abolish or interfere with slavery in any State by whose laws it is, or may be allowed or permitted.
 And whereas, also, besides theses causes and dissension embraced in the forgoing amendments proposed to the Constitution of the United States, there are others which come within the jurisdiction of Congress, and may be remedied by its legislative power. . . .

South Carolina Declaration of Causes of Secession, 24 December 1860

The people of the State of South Carolina in Convention assembled, on the 2d day of April, A. D. 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in their withdrawal from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other Slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right.  Since that time these encroachments have continued to increase and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.
     And now the State of South Carolina having resumed her separate and equal place among nations, deems it due to herself, to the remaining United States of America, and to the nations of the world, that she should declare the immediate causes which have led to this act.
     In 1787, Deputies were appointed by the States to revise the articles of Confederation; and on 17th September, 1787, these Deputies recommended, for the adoption of the States, the Articles of Union, known as the Constitution of the United States.
     Thus was established by compact between the States, a Government with define objects and powers, limited to the express words of the grant. . . . We hold that the Government thus established is subject to the two great principles asserted in the Declaration of Independence; and we hold further, that the mode of its formation subjects it to a third fundamental principle, namely, the law of compact.  We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that, where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.
     In the present case, the fact is established with certainty.  We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused for years past to fulfil their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own statues for the proof.
     The Constitution of the United States in its fourth Article, provides as follows:
      “No person held to service or labor [slaves] in one State under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”
     This stipulation was so material to the compact that without it that compact would not have been made.  The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which obligations, and the laws of the General Government, have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.  The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the acts of Congress, or render useless any attempt to execute them.  In many of the States the fugitive [slave] is discharged from the service of labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution.  The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current Anti-Slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own laws and the laws of Congress.  In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrections in the State of Virginia.  Thus the constitutional compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States; and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation. . . .
     We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States.  Those States have assumed 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 the open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace of and eloin 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.
      For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government.  Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself.  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 intrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared 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.
     This sectional combination for the subversion of the Constitution has been aided, in some of the States by elevating to citizenship persons who, by the supreme law of the land are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its peace and safety.
      On the 4th of March next this party will take possession of the Government.  It has announce that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the Judicial tribunal shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against Slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.
      The guarantees of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost.  The Slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.
      Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation; and all hope of remedy is rendered vain by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanctions of a more erroneous religious belief.
      We, therefore, the people of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world as a separate and independent state, with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.

Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens, CSA, 1861

 The new constitution [Confederate States of America] has put at rest, forever, all agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists amongst us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.  This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.  Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.”  He was right.  What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact.  But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted.  The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.  It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away.  This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time.  The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day.  Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong.  They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.  This was an error.  It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

[Alexander Stephens of Georgia served as Vice President of the Confederacy]