Fighting Back Against Civil War Myths

Jesse Kelly tweeted this out the other day:*

1. Slavery is a repulsive thing and a stain on the history of our country. 2. Did you know in the beginning Lincoln would have stopped the war and let the South keep their slaves? See? Complicated.

*This was either before or after he was suspended, which is another matter in and of itself.

This is a fairly standard talking point about the civil war. The longer form of it goes something like this: “The civil war wasn’t really about slavery, and as proof, look at Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was perfectly willing to go back to the status quo ante had the confederates laid down their arms early on in the war. So see – the civil war wasn’t really about slavery because Lincoln himself was willing to allow slavery to continue.”

This is one of several arguments about the war that I come across with some regularity, so I’ve decided to post about it and a few of the other common myths I’ve heard repeated.

Before I begin, let me note that I use “myth” with some reservation, because many of these arguments have a grain of truth. Therefore they are not complete myths or fabrications. Rather, they are arguments that either distort the context or leave off important bits of information. For simplicity’s sake, though, that’s the title I’ve gone with.

Myth #1: Lincoln’s aim was to preserve the union, not to end slavery.

I’ll start with the above-stated one first. As I said, there is a grain of truth to it. Lincoln’s primary aim truly was to restore the union, and he was willing at first to retain slavery if it meant an early end to the war. What’s more, Lincoln was anti-slavery, but he was not an abolitionist, meaning he desired the eventual eradication of slavery, but did not advocate immediate measures for its end. (Of course this is a point against another myth, which I’ll get to later.)

That being said, there are several reasons this argument is misleading. First of all, it leaves the impression that Lincoln wasn’t concerned about slavery at all, or that his passion for emancipation was lacking. While he may not have favored immediate abolition, he nonetheless spent almost the entirety of his public career forcefully and unequivocally condemning slavery, expressing a desire for its eventual abolition.

Also, one has to consider his House Divided speech. Only in the context of a united country could we arrive at a nation that was totally free. If the slave states removed themselves from the union, then abolition no longer is a possibility. So whole Lincoln was primarily interested in maintaining the union at all costs, it was to preserve a union which would eventually pave the way for the total eradication of slavery.

What’s more, as the war progressed, it became a war for emancipation. The Emancipation Proclamation is often dismissed as a cynical prop for perpetuating the war, but the proclamation changed the moral arc of the war. That most of Lincoln’s cabinet urged Lincoln not to issue the proclamation would seem to be a point of proof in how passionately Lincoln felt about this measure.

Myth #2: Lincoln wanted to send all freed slaves to an African colony.

This is another half-truth that is spread with the intent of harming Lincoln’s reputation. Again, there is an element of truth to it, but it’s not the whole truth. Lincoln did initially advocate and develop colonization plans – both before he was president, and then during the early days of his presidency. He did not have much hope that freed slaves would be treated well by their former captors, so thought it would be best for them to remove them to another location.

However, Lincoln’s views changed as the war progressed. He had regular audiences with Frederick Douglass and other freed slaves. During these conversations they made him aware of how much they desired to be part of the American experience. When he realized they didn’t want to be shipped off to a colony and instead wanted to make a life in this country, he shifted course. In his final public address, he specifically addressed reconstruction efforts and his hope that the franchise would be given to freed slaves (if tempered by the qualifications that they be deemed to be intelligent and/or to have fought in the war). These very words only fueled the fire in the heart of one audience member: John Wilkes Booth. So Lincoln may have initially favored colonization, but had clearly and definitively abandoned those plans by the close of the war.

Myth 3: The war had other major causes than slavery, especially tariffs.

This would have had more merit had the civil was been fought thirty years earlier (or maybe now), but there’s very little to support the notion that what drove southern voters to declare their independence was fury over tariff rates. One could spend several posts (or an entire book) just discussing this one point, so I will have to simplify this tremendously.

Kansas didn’t bleed over tariffs. John Brown didn’t raid Harper’s Ferry to protect federal agents collecting tariffs. Dred Scott wasn’t a Supreme Court case declaring tariffs unconstitutional. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas didn’t travel around the state of Illinois in 1858 participating in a series of debates about tariffs.

I’m fairly confident that northern politicians, newspapermen, record keepers, etc. did not go through pre-war records, deleting all references to tariffs. Read history books. Read primary sources. They can tell you more than some “yankee” behind a computer screen in 2018 what animated decision makers in 1860 and 1861. And they’ll tell you that there was one primary animating issue, and it sure as hell wasn’t freaking tariffs.

Myth #4: Regardless of the specific cause, the confederate states had a right to secede.

Now we’re getting into trickier and more subjective territory. As a blogger who is using the pseudonym also used by two writers who had very liberal views on revolution, I couldn’t possibly argue that the confederate states didn’t have a right to secede, could I? I could, and I do.

The Declaration of Independence talks about a “long train of abuses” suffered by the colonists before they rebelled against the king. No one has ever adequately explained the long train of abuses suffered by the confederate states which justified their rebellion. If anything, as Lincoln alluded to in the House Divided speech, the abuses were in the other direction. The repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Lecompton constitution, the Dred Scott decision – all these major events were decided in favor of  slave-holder interests. One could even go back to the Mexican-American war as an event where the outcome favored the slave states. Every major American political decision and event for the better part of the decade showed southern, not northern domination of American politics. The election of 1860 merely promised to halt this trend.

Besides, the argument laid out in myth #1 would seem to contradict this point. Conceding that Lincoln had no plans to immediately abolish slavery or even fight for legislation in that direction, what justification was there for secession? You basically have an administration and Congress that was no longer willing to lay down and play dead for the slave interest, and you consider that sufficient justification for revolution?

Myth #5: Lincoln proved himself a tyrant, particularly with regards to his suspension of habeas corpus.

Let’s look at Article I, section 9, of the Constitution:

The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

I honestly don’t know how much more black and white the text could be. In cases of rebellion – and this was a pretty clear-cut case of rebellion – the writ of habeas corpus can be suspended. The only case that can be made against Lincoln is that this language is placed in Article 1, and thus is implicitly a legislative act. While there’s some merit to that argument, Congress did retroactively approve Lincoln’s decision once they came into session.

Lincoln himself justified his actions more succinctly than I ever could in this letter to Erastus Corning. Lincoln gets to the heart of the matter:

Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wiley agitator who induces him to desert?

Anyone trying to compare Lincoln’s actions with, say, Woodrow Wilson during World War I, would be conflating two drastically different situations. A war being fought on one’s own soil presents a much different challenge, and the constitution very clearly provides for an exception in the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.

It should be noted that Lincoln’s treatment of individuals like Vallindingham was much softer than would have been expected in almost any other time in history up until that point. Vallandingham didn’t exactly have to survive the Tower of London.

That’s it for now. If you have other oft-repeated civil war myths, please share.



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