Mike Kueber's Blog

April 11, 2011

Revisiting the Civil War

Filed under: History,Issues,Media,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 5:58 am

On Saturday, I received my latest issue of Time magazine and the cover said, “Why We’re Still Fighting the Civil War – The endless battle over the war’s true cause would make Lincoln weep.”  Then on Sunday, the cover of my Parade magazine said, “The Civil War – The real lessons of our bloodiest struggles.”  Both magazines were commemorating the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War – i.e., the shelling of Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861.

Both articles take the position that the Civil War was about slavery and disparaged any contrary sentiment.  The Time article quotes from Lincoln’s first inaugural address:

  • “One section of the country believes that slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not be extended.  This is the only substantial dispute.”

Both articles take the position that other alleged causes of the Civil War, such as states’ rights and economic differences, are false. 

The Time article ridicules a Harris Interactive poll that found a majority of Americans believes that believes that the South “was mainly motivated by states’ rights rather than the future of slavery.”  Because I was surprised with the results of the Harris poll, I checked the internet for other polls, and confirmed that the Harris results were not consistent with other polls.  According to a recent Washington Post survey, most Americans believe that slavery was the principle cause of the Civil War, followed by states’ rights and economic differences. 

The Post survey question was as follows:

  • Thinking about the reasons why the American Civil War was fought, to what extent, if at all, do you think the Civil War was about:

Cause                   U.S.     Union  Confederates

Slavery                 61           66          53

States’ rights        54           55          52

Econ. diff.            52           48          54

Inexplicably, the poll results also indicate that African-Americans are more inclined to believe that the Civil War was about States’ Rights.

                  Slavery           States’ rights  Economics

U.S.                 61                    54                    52

Whites             64                    55                    53

Af-Am              52                    54                    48

N. Whites        68                    55                    48

S. Whites         57                    55                    59

SOURCE: | The Washington Post – Nov. 11, 2010; national sample of 1,006 adults

I absolutely agree with Lincoln’s statement that the Civil War occurred because one part of the country want to extend slavery while the other part of the country wanted slavery to be limited to where is already existed.  But accepting that statement is not inconsistent with thinking that economic differences were a root cause of the Civil War or that states’ rights was an important factor in understanding why Confederate troops were willing to fight and die for their cause. 

Furthermore, I don’t understand why Time and Parade are so upset that Americans tend to gloss over the extent that America sponsored slavery.  Do they think that we are overly proud of our heritage?  Does our tendency to sanitize our racial history keep us from recognizing the extent that racism continues to exist in America?  Perhaps.


  1. Mike,

    It is instructive to read what was written immediately before the war as to the cause of secession. The South had, because of the 3/5th clause in the Constitution, a disproportionate power over national politics in the US. Over time, that power became one that the South got used to wielding and would not accept the results of a fair election when the new president disagreed with them over slavery. If you read what was written before the war, including the States’ articles of secession as well as private letters of influential leaders, it is clear that slavery is at the core of secession.

    If a person wants to argue that States’ Rights was a major factor in why the South fought the Civil War, then you are forced to confront the fact that legislators from the South had no problem interfering with the rights of citizens in the North to legislate for themselves. Take for instance, the Fugitive Slave Act. That was, obviously, heavily supported by Southern legislators. What did it require? It required that citizens of Northern States cooperate with the tracking, capturing and returning of fugitive slaves. Can you think of a single instance where the North sought to impose such an onerous requirement on the citizens of any Southern State?

    The States’ Rights argument, while in some ways logically supported by the South’s view that the North intended to end slavery where it existed already, was really put forward in the aftermath of the Civil War. It came from such people as Jefferson Davis and E. Pollard (who wrote The Lost Cause) in an effort to give a different twist to the secession of the states.

    Comment by Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez — April 11, 2011 @ 1:30 pm | Reply

    • I agree that States’ Rights is an after-the-fact rationalization – a principle of convenience. It reminds me of people who rail against an activist court, when actually they have no problem with an activist court that is active in their favor. I wonder, though, if the principle of States’ Rights might have motivated Southern soldiers.

      I finished drafting my Civil War entry last night after a long night at the apt. pool and a few drinks. This morning, I started making significant revisions to the draft when I suddenly realized that I had already published it. I’m going to complete those edits, which primarily concern why Time magazine is troubled by the tendency of many Americans to sanitize our history.

      Comment by Mike Kueber — April 11, 2011 @ 3:56 pm | Reply

  2. […] a previous blog, I mentioned a recent survey that found white Americans thought the principal cause of the Civil […]

    Pingback by African-Americans and the Civil War « Mike Kueber's Blog — April 17, 2011 @ 6:54 pm | Reply

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