Was the American Civil War more about slavery or states' rights?

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Answered by: Kalie, An Expert in the Civil War Category
Historical revisionism has led many school systems across America to present the American Civil War as a conflict between an over-reaching federal government and southern states that wanted to govern themselves. It has become a common misconception that the Confederacy was fighting for their right to govern at the state level more so than their right to own slaves. While the idea of states' rights was present and important, it is not what the Antebellum South was wholly concerned with. What they wanted was their right to maintain the barbaric institution of slavery.

Slavery was eventually going to divide the United States. The seeds of discord were sewn the minute that the Constitution was made law without banning its practice. The founding fathers knew this, but decided to turn their heads anyway. Prominent figures, like Washington and Jefferson, ironically owned many slaves while fighting to free themselves from the confinement of the British. As the newfound country expanded, a rift began to grow between the northern and southern regions due to different economical paths. Industrialization in the North nearly made slave labor obsolete.

On the other hand, the South was still heavily dependent on agriculture, as "King Cotton" was the most valuable export at that time. Without the industrialization of their economy, they still relied on slave labor to work their fields. In fact, the invention of the cotton gin sped up the process of picking seeds from cotton, so the demand for slaves increased in the South alongside the demand for cotton. As this divide grew between the regions, the question of slavery became the biggest issue dividing the country.

The ideology of many Americans at the time becomes clear when one learns that the institution of slavery in the United States was made up of Africans. Black men, women, and children were specifically sought out for slavery because white Americans thought of them as subhuman. Many justifications were made for turning black people into slaves, having origins that range from pseudo-science to the Bible. Slave labor, in and of itself, was not the full issue. Using black people as their slaves was bad enough, but when coupled with the brutal whippings, beatings, raping, and killing, the total hatred that white Americans had for their fellow humans was completely unfathomable.

So, when slavery became outlawed in certain states, the South wasn't just concerned with losing their labor. They were concerned with black people being seen as equal in the eyes of the law. Even members of the Confederacy's government declared the defense of slavery as their driving force behind secession, as Vice President Alexander Stephens stated in his Cornerstone Speech that the black man's "natural and normal" condition was slavery and "subordination to the superior race." Even as soldiers and supplies were getting low, the Confederacy hesitated greatly on the issue of allowing slaves to be soldiers because it was "against their own cause."

In order to make our history seem less violent, oppressive, and genocidal, the American Civil War is taught through a revisionist lens and the Confederacy's defense of slavery is often rewritten as "the South's lost cause." When taught in this manner, it romanticizes the South and all of its ugly aspects. The impression given is that the Confederacy simply wanted their right to govern at the state level without federal encroachment. Even the variations in the name of the war point to this, as it is sometimes referred to as "The War of Northern Aggression," insinuating that the North and the federal government overstepped their boundaries. This couldn't be further from the truth. The South wanted to keep black people as slaves not just for their labor, but also because they considered them an inferior race and feared their freedom. Slavery was the entire reason behind the Civil War and saying it was about anything else is denying our imperfect history.

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