I had hoped to save articles such as this for the release of my upcoming book on the subject, but the currency of the issues of Southern secession, right, slavery, the Civil War, etc. has generated articles of interest that demand attention.
Tom Dilorenzo’s recent and characteristic shellacking of Abraham Lincoln demonstrates that man’s racism and economic agenda. This sparked Paul Craig Roberts to ask himself, “How come the South is said to have fought for slavery when the North wasn’t fighting against slavery?” What followed was a diatribe from Roberts on how anyone who believes otherwise must be a complete moron or a “court historian.”
Name-calling is a poor substitute for proving points, and Roberts succeeds only in the former.
To begin with, Tom Mullen has more than ably answered Roberts indirectly. Mullen’s position is much closer to my own, suffering the extremes of neither a one-track focus on Clay’s American system or the whitewashing of the South so common in these discussions in differing aspects of the libertarian movement. Mullen’s position is that both Lincoln and the Confederacy were awful, and those interested in liberty ought to move on from both.
I concur with this assessment in a particularly biblical, Christian way, only adding for now that no understanding of these issues can ever escape the truth of Lincoln’s second inaugural address. When we consider what the abolitionists (and many southerners, only for a different reason) had been saying all along about the North’s deep complicity, and when we consider more than half of the 600,000 dead fell of the North, we must understand “those by whom the offense came” to include the whole nation. With this understanding, every single word of that address is true and inescapable for the whole nation. It also implicates all of us today in her continued healing and the restoration of liberty.
Nevertheless, Roberts is concerned to show that the South did not secede over slavery. He offers two major pieces of information: the Corwin Amendment and, oddly, South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes of her secession.
Since I have had several people point to the Corwin Amendment as proof the War was not “about slavery,” it is certainly worth addressing. It does cause some confusion, mainly because it is so little discussed at all.
First, let’s simply acknowledge what American history textbooks for decades have acknowledged: The North did not go to War to stop slavery. Lincoln went to war to save the Union. We can speak more on this later, but for now it is enough simply to state it as a fact, which it is, and inform many of those most commonly exercised by the lack of recognition of that fact that it is actually a well-known fact, and one well attested among the “court historians” themselves, believe it or not. Let’s quit fooling ourselves here.
More importantly, however, here’s Roberts’s version of the Corwin Amendment argument:
Two days before Lincoln’s inauguration as the 16th President, Congress, consisting only of the Northern states, passed overwhelmingly on March 2, 1861, the Corwin Amendment that gave constitutional protection to slavery. Lincoln endorsed the amendment in his inaugural address, saying “I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”
Quite clearly, the North was not prepared to go to war in order to end slavery when on the very eve of war the US Congress and incoming president were in the process of making it unconstitutional to abolish slavery.
Here we have absolute total proof that the North wanted the South kept in the Union far more than the North wanted to abolish slavery.
If the South’s real concern was maintaining slavery, the South would not have turned down the constitutional protection of slavery offered them on a silver platter by Congress and the President. Clearly, for the South also the issue was not slavery.
The real issue between North and South could not be reconciled on the basis of accommodating slavery.
Again, none of this is a shock even to the most ardent Lincoln-worshipping court historian. The reason for this is that the political battle for a decade (really several decades) up to this point had never been merely about the South’s right to keep its slaves, but about the expansion of slavery into the territories (as well as the effects of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which were huge).
This may seem like a fine distinction to us today, but a whole world of millions of souls and billions of dollars hung upon it, and the whole society was energized and willing to fight battles, build empires, and die defending it. Indeed, every southerner with any knowledge knew that the whole southern slave system depended upon the expansion of slavery, and would eventually wither and die without it.
In short, the North knew that by prohibiting expansion of slavery, the institution would slowly die. While certainly under pressure from immediate abolitionists, the majority of the North were not so radical. The majority were content with gradual emancipation. They were content to let it die slowly in the Union. Southern slaveholders understood this paradigm even more keenly, and thus fought for expansion in every way and to the utmost degree possible—many prominent ones even desiring to reopen the African slave trade, start an international slave colony in Cuba, or expand a slave empire throughout Mexico and central America. They failed, but not for want of trying.
When Lincoln was elected, the South, beginning with South Carolina, assumed the worst in regard to their dreams of expansion and of the enforcement of the Act of 1850. They assumed this would spell the end of their slave system in the long term, and so they seceded to protect it. Yes, they could cite American secession from Britain, states rights, and the Constitution all day long, but all of these arguments were subservient to the one main goal of continuing their slave system and power, which meant perpetually expanding it.
But wait, this is supposed to be about the Corwin Amendment? Right. This all puts that Congressional ballyhoo, which came to nothing, into perspective. By the time that Amendment came to any real discussion, eight of the Southern states had already left on their own accord, because Lincoln was elected, and thus to protect their slave power against their assumptions about him. For the issue of the South and secession, it was moot.
So why an Amendment to make slavery a perpetual constitutional right? Lincoln was a consummate politician, and knew any hope to keep the Union together (his casus belli, remember?) demanded grasping for everything he could keep, including keeping the border states—Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, etc.—in the Union. Lincoln already believed that the Constitution protected the institution of slavery within the states, so he had no problem with giving any and all assurance to such a fact if it would help retain some of these states within the Union.
But doesn’t that prove it wasn’t about slavery? Listen, again: it was never about the Constitutional protection of the institution of slavery within the states. Never. It was about the Constitution’s protection of expansion of the slavery. The states had fought and compromised over this in 1820. They did so again in 1850. Again in 1854. Then the Dred Scott (1857) decision one-sidedly tilted this argument in favor of the South’s slavery-expansionist belief. Lincoln and the Republicans, and the North, did not and would not concede this, but the Deep South states would secede if they thought the North would not abide by it.
Again, as fine a point as it may seem today, just listen to Abe himself in his first inaugural: “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute” [my emphases].
The Corwin Amendment did not touch this dispute at all. It only dealt with what both sides agreed was not at issue: the Constitution’s protection of the institution within the States where it existed already. This is the real reason it had no effect whatsoever on the South’s already-seceded position.
Among the few academic treatments of the Corwin Amendment, law professor A. Christopher Bryant’s paper, “Stopping Time: The Pro-Slavery and ‘Irrevocable’ Thirteenth Amendment,”1 drives these points home. He writes,
Some today might be surprised to learn that the South would not have been satisfied with an express constitutional guarantee for slavery where it already existed. As noted above, however, for at least the preceding decade, political agitation over slavery had been channeled into the debate about Congress’ power over the territories. Lincoln had attacked Dred Scott and had insisted that Congress could and should prohibit slavery in the territories. His election meant that the South had finally suffered defeat with respect to that issue. Largely to save face, and partially out of habit, southern leaders wanted the North to renounce part of that victory by agreeing to constitutional guarantees for slavery in the territories. The Republicans strongly resisted such a proposal, perhaps out of fear of southern expansion. Because the Corwin Resolution did not address the issue of slavery in the territories, however, it perhaps appeared to be too painless a concession by the northern Republicans to win the South’s enthusiastic support.2
At least one southern Senator—a Virginia Democrat—opposed the Amendment specifically on these grounds. He saw it as a pointless concession of nothing designed to distract attention from the real issue: the North’s refusal “to deny to Congress the right of interference with slavery in the territories.”3 He added that Virginia would “not be influenced one hair’s breadth by the passage of this joint resolution.”4
Other southern Senators rightly picked up on the Republicans’ intention of using the Amendment to divide the South. Little if any hope remained of bringing back the Deep South states, but the border states were in the balance. Lincoln and the Republicans supported the Amendment as a hopeful attempt to keep them in the union while the others seceded.5 Doing so would not only strengthen the North’s stance, but would divide southern Democrats and hopefully have a leavening influence among southerners in general when they saw that some valued union over secession.
The Corwin Amendment was nothing more than a particularly transparent, clumsy, desperate, and pitiful political stunt to help keep, or at least delay, the remaining southern states from leaving the Union. It was never anything more. It was certainly not proof positive that the South did not secede over slavery, because the Deep South states had all seceded already—over slavery. And no one entertained any delusions at the time that the Corwin Amendment would actually win them back, for that was not its very limited and weak political purpose.
Now, this does not get to Mr. Roberts’ second piece of information: the South Carolina secession declaration. I’ll address that tomorrow, but suffice it to say that far from helping his view, it does just the opposite, even when we consider the particular spin he attempts to put upon it.
While I would disagree also with Mullen on some points, in the end, he is right: “21st century Americans shouldn’t pick a side in the Civil War.” I will go further: no Christian or libertarian who reads all the facts and understands the history can in conscience pick a side. We must accept the outcome in God’s providence, but we should go beyond that, too. With God’s Word, we should be willing openly to criticize the failures of the past, to repent of our own biases and prejudices where necessary, and to use God’s Law to chart the course forward in society, law, economics, criminal justice reform—in short, in the liberty of Christian people and society.