Many Americans are confused by the causes of the Civil War. While the slaves were freed in territory captured by Union armies by the Emancipation Proclamation during the war, and all forms of slavery ended by the 13th Amendment after the war, recent films such as Gods and Generals have portrayed Southern generals as hoping for an end to slavery, and as fighting first for their state and its rights under the Constitution.
The Constitution had given all rights not specifically "enumerated" (specified) as belonging to the President, Congress or Federal judges to the states. If a right to do something could not be found in the Constitution, this the right of the state. For example, the Constitution doesn't give the Federal government the right to run a nationwide school system, therefore each state operates its own.
Before the Civil War, many Southerners felt that their states' rights were being ignored. Now, this was primarily in the matter of slavery. The main problem was that slaves would head north when escaping their masters. The Constitution had guaranteed that all such slaves would be returned to their masters.
But as a worldwide sentiment grew that slavery was wrong, more and more Northerners believed that to return slaves was to participate in an immoral practice. They felt like anti-abortionists today often feel when working in hospitals that permit abortionists. Starting in 1806, many of the original Northern states banned slavery. New states, especially those north of modern New Mexico and Arizona, banned slavery in their founding constitutions.
But the South, which had grown more and not less dependent on slavery owing to Eli Whitney's 1810 invention, the cotton gin, wanted fugitive slaves returned, and new states at least allowed to choose slavery.
Slavery was considered a state's right by Southerners, but it was not the only right to be so considered. Northern factory owners got taxes known as tariffs imposed on imports to build their own firms. Congress spent money on physical infrastructure that primarily benefited the Northern economy.
So, was the cause slavery or Northern abuse of states' rights? To determine this, we should take one or the other factor out of consideration.
If there had been no slavery, most historians agree that tariffs and infrastructure would NOT have caused war between the states. Both of these required Congressional authorization, and Southern senators and representatives had full say about these issues and a vote. Two things that all Americans agreed upon were majority rule and the rule of law.
Southern insistence on expanding slavery to territories and even conquests in wars in Latin America, along with the Fugitive Slave acts, caused the North to fear it was being forced to become equally slave-committed and to put pressure on the South. Despite more than one attempt to compromise, the two sides finally broke up when the most famous compromise, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, was ruled unconstitutional by Chief Justice Taney in 1857.
Therefore, slavery caused the Civil War. Northern abuse of states' rights did not.
The South's best men (as portrayed in the Turner films Gettysburg and Gods and Generals) disliked slavery and thought it an evil like tobacco and alcohol: in both films, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are shown to be nondrinkers and non-smokers who hope that after the Civil War, slavery will be ended.
Like Brutus in Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar (which was very popular among ordinary Americans of that distant era), they were "the noblest Romans of them all". But just as Brutus was forced to associate with the ignoble conspirators, the Southerners found themselves fighting for the South's right to keep a legion of evils alive: not only whiskey and cigars, but also slavery, secret miscegenation between white masters and black women, children of those unions with no place in society, and constant physical and emotional violence.
Slavery, and deep misgivings, caused the Civil War, and it caused the greatest Southerner of them all to go to the Appomattox Courthouse to offer his sword to Ulysses S. Grant.
And, it would have continued. "What if the South won" has been a popular theme since the centennial of the Civil War in 1960. The fact that technical developments seem to make it even more convenient and profitable means that the enormous changes of the twentieth century may have made slavery a more monstrous thing on the scale of Hitler's Holocaust or the Gulag. We are fortunate, in my opinion, that slavery caused the Civil War and was ended by that tragic conflict.