Abraham Lincoln and the Cause of the Civil War

by Derrick G. Jeter

On occasion I get questions about what I think of Abraham Lincoln. Usually these questions come from good folks who are not at all too keen on our sixteenth President, sometimes viewing Lincoln as a racist, a warmonger, or a law breaker—or all three. Diplomacy is always my goal when trying to answer these questions because Lincoln, slavery, and the Civil War are subjects which can still set off a powder keg in the South. And speaking as a son of the South I’ve witness my fair share of explosions.
I’m often confronted by my southern brethren with the claim that the Civil War was never about slavery, it was about states’ rights—and if only Lincoln hadn’t violated the rights of the southern states then the war could have been avoided altogether. But this is a claim with little warrant to back it up. When Lincoln arrived in Washington D.C. in the spring of 1861 for his inauguration on March 4, seven states had already seceded from the Union—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The question becomes, how could Lincoln have prevented these states from seceding or prevented the onset of the war before he was even sworn in as president? Once he was sworn in, should Lincoln have simply ignored the fact that these states had left the Union illegally in his estimation? Of course not. If Lincoln believed that secession was illegal, and he did, then to have looked the other way would have been a violation of his oath of office. The question was a political one, not a military one. Lincoln understood that settling this question could lead to arms, though he made it clear that civil war was in the hands of the South.
In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect and defend” it. [1]
(The Confederacy took Lincoln at his word when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, situated in Charleston Harbor, on April 12, 1861.)
Just as Lincoln was powerless to prevent any states from leaving the Union before March 4, 1861, so he was powerless to violate any rights in those states before his inauguration. But even on the day of his inauguration, Lincoln promised that he would not violate the rights of southern states, most particularly the right to own slaves.
Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States, that by the accession of a Republican Administration, their property, and their peace, and personal security, are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed, and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” [2]
Southern leaders may have disbelieved Lincoln at the time, but we cannot. History has proved him true.
Once the war began Lincoln set out tooth and nail to preserve the Union, leading many to conclude that slavery really wasn’t all that important to Lincoln, and therefore not really all that important to the causes of the war. Wrong. Lincoln was always an anti-slavery man, but he was not what we’d call an abolitionist. Early in the war Lincoln’s position was clear: he wanted to save the Union, period. If he could accomplish that goal without touching slavery then he would do so; if he could accomplish that goal by removing slavery he would do that, just as he outlined in his famous letter to the abolitionist and newspaper publisher, Horace Greeley.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. . . . If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. 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 save it by feeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. . . .
I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free. [3]
The point was saving the Union Constitutionally. This says nothing about the reasons of secession or cause of the war. That had been decided a year or two earlier when seven states seceded and the Confederacy fired on Federal forces hold up in Fort Sumter. As the war matured, however, Lincoln’s views on slavery matured to the point that slavery took on a more central role, along side of saving the Union, within the overall war aims. If this were not so he would have never issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Whether we talk about the causes of secession and the war, or the aim of the war, slavery was always present. In fact, slavery had been the one issue that had threatened the Union of our states from the very beginning. Thomas Jefferson wanted to lay the sin of American slavery at the royal feet of King George III in the Declaration of Independence. It was deleted out of fear that the southern colonies would not join the resistance against Great Britain. Ten years later the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery in the Northwest Territories. During the Constitutional debates in the summer of 1787 the question of slavery played a major role in determining the number of representatives each state could have in the House. Fear that this question could prevent passages of the Constitution, and thereby threaten to undue the Union as it stood under the Article of Confederation, a compromise was reached. Southern states could only import additional slaves for twenty years, which would increase their representation in the House, and then after that the slave trade would cease. The hope was that representation would equal itself out over time, as slavery slowly died out. It was a forlorn hope. Other examples could be cited—such as the Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850—but these few examples are enough to prove the centrality of slavery in many of our nations debates before and leading up to the Civil War. And while other factors contributed to southern secession and the war, slavery was the fatal disease rotting away at our national unity. To deny that slavery wasn’t the cause of the Civil War is to spit into the wind of history.
[1] Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural,” March 4, 1861, Washington D.C., in The Collective Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 4:271 (emphasis in original).
[2] Lincoln, “First Inaugural,” in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, 4:262–3.
[3] Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, 5:388–9.