For the last time, the American Civil War was not about states’ rights

This week marks the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to the Union—an occasion for celebration, or mourning, depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line you fall on.

In this way, the historiography of the Civil War is somewhat unique. Rarely in human history has a conflict’s losing side been lent such considerable say in how the textbooks remember it. As such, American social studies curricula have long been hobbled by one of the most pervasive myths in US history: that the Civil War was fought to preserve (or undermine) the spectral concept of “states’ rights.”

It’s a self-delusion some use to justify neo-Confederate pride: stars-and-bars bumper stickers, or remnants of Confederate iconography woven into some of today’s state flags. “It’s about Southern pride,” they insist. “It’s about heritage”—forgetting, intentionally perhaps, that slavery and its decade-spanning echoes are very much a part of the collective American heritage. Confederate denialism, in the form of states’ rights advocacy, permits sentimentalists to keep their questionable imagery without having to address its unsavory associations.

Just how pervasive are these Confederate mythologies? An informal survey conducted in 2011 by James W. Loewen, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, found that 55% to 75% of American teachers—“regardless of region or race”—cite states’ rights as the chief reason for Southern secession. This attitude is also reflected in a Pew Research Center poll from that same year, which found that nearly half (48%) of all Americans agreed: the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. Only 38% of those surveyed attribute the conflict to slavery.

So-called states’ rights

No one seems to be able to agree on which specific Southern rights were in danger, but that’s really beside the point. The fact is, Southern states seceded in spite of states’ rights, and the Confederacy’s founding documents offer plenty of proof.

In its constitution, Confederate leaders explicitly provided for the federal protection of slaveholding:

“In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”

It’s a provision that clashes jarringly with neo-Confederate mythos—how could the South secede to preserve states’ rights if its own constitution mandated legal, federally protected slavery across state borders?

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. On Dec. 24, 1860, its government issued a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” In it, South Carolinian leaders aired objections to laws in Northern states—specifically, those that sprung from the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), in which the US Supreme Court ruled that state authorities could not be forced to help return fugitive slaves to the South. Ensuing individual state legislation in New England would double down on that very ruling, expressly forbidding state officials from enforcing the federal Fugitive Slave Acts, or the use of state jails to detain fugitive slaves.

In effect, South Carolina seceded because the federal government would not overturn abolitionist policies in Northern states. South Carolina seceded because the federal government would not violate a state’s right to abstain from slavery and its concomitant policies.

Taxes and tariffs

Another strain of Confederate apologia asserts secession inspired by high taxes, in the form of heavy tariffs. Once again, the neo-Confederates are wrong, and South Carolinian history proves it. The state first raised the threat of secession in 1831 and 1833, events known collectively as the Nullification Crisis. South Carolina declared the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832 unconstitutional, and therefore null within state borders. No other state government backed the move, president Jackson threatened force, and South Carolina abandoned the idea.

No matter! A Virginian slaveholder wrote a new tariff in 1857, which was passed and generally well-received by Southern members of Congress as it stipulated a record-low rate. Thus, at the time of war, Southerners had no real reason to complain (with regards to tariffs): a plantation owner in Louisiana could export his cotton to Europe at the lowest tariff rate instituted since 1816.

Counting states, taking sides

It isn’t entirely inaccurate, however, to say that the war was fought over money. Most human conflicts are, in some way. In this case, the money issue centered around potential losses Southern titans of agribusiness would experience if slavery was abolished at the federal level. Federally mandated emancipation would require a majority of free states in the US Senate—something Southern lawmakers fought tooth-and-nail to impede.

As a result, the number of free and slave-states was kept equal until 1846, when the count reached 15 and 14, respectively. This imbalance exacerbated tensions between North and South significantly, reducing Southern leaders to a culture of extreme paranoia. Secession, in this sense, was very much a preemptive move.

The Southern aristocracy feared the impending election of Abraham Lincoln would ultimately bring about nationwide emancipation. He and his supporters were known, after all, as “black Republicans,” a term purposefully designed to conjure an image of radical abolitionism. Lincoln’s famous “House Divided” speech of 1858 only aggravated tensions, clarifying the divide between an abolitionist North and a slave-dependent South:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolvedI do not expect the house to fallbut I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as newNorth as well as South.”

Neo-Confederates regard the material of this speech as “proof” of Lincoln’s priority of concerns: preservation of the Union above abolition of slavery. They may be correct. But at the time of its delivery, Southern leaders heard these words and thought one thing: Lincoln aims to abolish slavery at the federal level. Lincoln aims to destroy our way of life.

Declaring a Confederacy

So, as this preemptive secession commenced, Southern state governments issued declarations of secession that placed the preservation of slavery front and center. Mississippi’s is perhaps the most infamous—though also among the most pragmatic. It generally concerns the preservation of the South’s slave-dependent export-economy. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world,” it reads. “Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.”

The declaration of secession for Texas is perhaps the most dogmatic. On Feb. 2, 1861, state leaders published a defense of slavery that amounted to little more than a bizarre, quasi-eugenic treatise for white supremacy. “Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated States to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility [sic] and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people,” it begins, before taking a wildly offensive turn, even by the standards of the day:

“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”

Of all the state governments that published “declarations of the causes of secession” like these (some published shorter “ordinances of secession”), none mentioned the ostensible injustices of America’s tariff system. None complained of high taxes, or even states’ rights in a general sense. All, however, passionately pontificated on the necessity of preserving an institution of slavery; and that no such preservation could be maintained within the Union as it was then organized. Ironically, secession, and the creation of a Confederacy was the only conceivable way of maintaining the status quo.

Northern racists, Southern racists

In a last-ditch effort to deny the integrality of slavery to Southern secession, a contemporary Confederate sympathizer will inevitably raise the issue of the Corwin amendment. Proposed in the US Senate by William H. Seward of New York and in the House by Thomas Corwin of Ohio in 1861, it was intended to lure seceded states back into the Union (and convince border states to remain) by promising to protect slaveholders from federal interference. Its reference is meant to convey a fallacious argument: that the impetus for secession could not have been the preservation of slavery because a few Northern politicians were willing to forgo abolition to keep the Union intact.

The Corwin amendment was never actually implemented. Only three states—Ohio, Illinois, and Maryland—ratified it. But its mere proposal indicates that the North, like the South, was no ideological monolith. There were men who fought for the Union that believed in the institution of slavery, who believed blacks to be inherently inferior to whites. Likewise, there were men who fought for the Confederacy that never owned slaves (the vast majority, in fact), who didn’t wish to, and who believed in the inherent equality of all men.

But while the Civil War was fought, on the ground, by these ordinary men of diverse opinions, it was not a conflict of their own engineering. Southern secession was not a guerrilla insurgency nor a populist rebellion as the neo-Confederate romantics prefer to believe. It was a conflict between two well-heeled establishments: one that depended—economically and spiritually—on the continued enslavement of black people, and another that did not. Extant racism among Northerners does not extinguish this fact.

Ultimately, the debate over motives for Southern secession trivializes the true shame of antebellum America: the existence of an institution of slavery all together. Which is why the effort to debunk Civil War myths must avoid becoming an exercise in elevating the morality of white Northerners. That too is beside the point. As history inarguably demonstrates, life for free African Americans in the postbellum North was subject to just as many miseries and injustices as in the South. And although one region outpaced the other in the formal abolition of slavery, neither was immune to the informal perpetuation of inequities established by slave-trade.

Obscuring Civil War history in hollow romance, refusing to recognize the true heritage of the Confederacy—these are just two of its many manifestations.

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