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.