Civil War 101

Question: What was the cause of the United States Civil War?



Select one:

1. The anchovies were running strong that year

2. Donald Trump

3. Slavery

4. Climate change

5. Donald Trump

6. Intersectionality

7. None of the above or other

For extra credit, write 800 words defending your choice.

Last week, presidential contender Nikki Haley was asked the same question. Her word-salad answer got her into a peck of trouble. She said first that it was not an “easy question,” which didn’t make a lot of sense since the questioner hadn’t seemed to struggle a bit asking it. What Haley meant was that producing the right answer would not be easy. That turned out to be an understatement.

Haley’s answer was “basically how government was gonna run—the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do.” Having to listen to sentences like that could easily persuade people to vote for another candidate.

Then she added, “We need to make sure that we do all things so that individuals have the liberties so that they can have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to do or be anything they want without government getting in the way.”

OMG! We digress for just a moment: “so that individuals . . . can . . . do . . . anything they want. . . .” Anything? Anything? Please.

The questioner then said that it was astonishing that Haley had said nothing about slavery, to which Haley replied: “What do you want me to say about slavery? Next question.”

Who says, “Next question” to, well, to anyone? What a brushoff, and not the typical response to someone whose vote is being solicited.

Predictably, all the usual suspects jumped on Haley and instructed her that the cause of the Civil War was slavery. President Biden posted an online video stating, “It was about slavery.” Whether that was an original Biden answer or whether he copied it from someone else’s paper, we don’t know—yet. President Trump may appoint a special prosecutor to find out.

The liberal intelligentsia has been nodding, knowingly, at Haley’s gaffe, some predicting (gleefully) the end of the Haley campaign, some predicting it was only a one-day story.

Which leaves the rest of the public to wonder—and ask—What was the cause of the United States Civil War?

And, though no one seems to have asked this yet, is it possible there was more than one cause?

What is interesting, and a bit puzzling and troubling, is that the Civil War, whatever caused it, began in South Carolina, Nikki Haley’s home state, indeed the state of which she was governor.

Charleston, South Carolina, was the center of secessionist sentiment. Fort Sumter was a federal facility located on a small island in the harbor of Charleston. The secessionists in South Carolina had demanded that the fort be evacuated—something Lincoln’s predecessor, President Buchanan, refused to do.

As Wilfred McClay writes in his excellent Land of Hope, “Lincoln made the decision to attempt again to resupply . . . the fort. Unwilling to permit this, the Confederates opened fire on the fort and, after more than thirty hours of shelling,

forced its surrender in advance of the arrival of the resupply effort.” The fighting had begun.

That, ladies and gentlemen, was the beginning of the Civil War.

And now we come to the heart of the matter. Per McClay:

For Lincoln, the restoration and preservation of the Union was the chief goal of the war. All other objectives were subordinated to that one. It is important to stress this. It was not until well into the war that the overthrow of slavery became an important part of the Northern agenda. There could be no doubt that the existence of slavery was a central cause of the war; but there also can be no doubt that, as the war began, opposition to slavery was not the central reason why the North embraced a war against secession.

Events can have, for the sake of simplicity, what we will call proximate and ultimate causes. If a ball is hanging from a string and you cut the string, the ball will fall. What caused the ball to fall? The proximate cause was the cutting of the string. The ultimate cause was gravity.

Which cause did Haley’s interrogator have in mind? Almost certainly the ultimate cause. But anyone who knows anything about Lincoln knows that for him, at least initially, preserving the union was key.

In Lincoln’s second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, he did say the “slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” But he said that long after the war had begun and only three months before it ended.

One of Lincoln’s most famous quotes has to bother people who think the Civil War was only or primarily about slavery. In a letter to Horace Greeley dated almost three years earlier, on August 22, 1862, Lincoln wrote:

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 freeing 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.

So we can ask again, What was the cause of the United States Civil War?

In the spirit of Kwanza, students who answered “Donald Trump” get partial credit.

Daniel Oliver is Chairman of the Board of the Education and Research Institute and a Director of Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in San Francisco. In addition to serving as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Reagan, he was Executive Editor and subsequently Chairman of the Board of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review.

Email Daniel Oliver at Daniel.Oliver@TheCandidAmerican.com.

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About Daniel Oliver

Daniel Oliver is chairman of the board of the Education and Research Institute and a director of the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in San Francisco. In addition to serving as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Reagan, he was executive editor and subsequently chairman of the board of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review. Email him at Daniel.Oliver@TheCandidAmerican.com.

Notable Replies

  1. Mr. Oliver,

    Why was there a secession movement in the first place? Fort Sumter did not happen in a vacuum.

  2. I have read that a big part of the secession was tariffs. The South’s entire economy was based on agriculture and they sold a lot to Britain. At the end of the Buchanan presidency, congress passed a bill raising tariffs 30% - a significant increase for any state. The legislation was signed by Lincoln when he entered office.

    The state also felt DC was taking all the tariff monies and using it on industrialization in the north - which was true. The South was hit harder with the tariffs - they had three great ports; Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans - they wanted free trade.

    BTW - only 10% of the South owned slaves. You have to wonder why so many would fight - if it was just about slavery. It wasn’t it was about the South’s economy and the right to free trade.

    Most wars are based on economics. I read a great book on this by Thomas DiLorenzo, The Real Abraham Lincoln.

  3. Avatar for task task says:

    The attempt to succede was because Lincoln had plans to fundamentally change the culture in the South. He was an abolitionist and made no attempt to vacillate for political purposes. The Republican Party was created in 1854 as the Party of abolition.

    Donald Trump represents the Party of free market capitalism and plans to impede the socialists from destroying the US Constitution that gets in their way. The Democrats were once the Party of Slavery and Segregation. What are they now? They are the Party of socialism and divisiveness. Have they really changed? They went from slavery to segregation and now to socialism (SSS). Never forget that socialism is only a short step from communism which is another form of forced compliance. They are already very similar. If anyone believes otherwise ask them to explain the differences?

  4. Then, how do you square your opinion with the words of Alexander Stephens in his famous cornerstone speech of March 1861, before Fort Sumter? After going through the litany about tariffs and State responsibilities, he transitioned to the following cornerstone:

    Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

  5. Avatar for task task says:

    The divisive foundations have been installed and like hardened cement they need to be toppled because they cannot just be removed. Culture is like arterial sclerosis. It is something you live with, change slowly, or risk personal humiliation and desecration attempting to do so quickly. That is unless you have the power. A lot of generations that make up near a majority operate via emotion rather that using intelligence. I would say both sides represent very strong and powerful players and they are both ready to maximize their efforts. 2024 is, therefore, going to be a doozie!

Continue the discussion at community.amgreatness.com

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