Sorry, But No: The Civil War Was Not About “States’ Rights”

There has been a lot of talk about the Civil War and the Confederacy lately. People everywhere are demanding that Confederate flags be taken down, while others cling to them desperately, demanding that the rest of the country acknowledge what they have decided those flags mean. Texas school officials have decided to teach a false history of the Civil War, telling students that slavery was merely a “side issue” and that the real issue was “states’ rights.”

Look, I get it. You want to be proud of your ancestors. You want your kids to be proud of them too. It’s hard to be proud of them while simultaneously acknowledging that they were fighting for the right to keep human beings as slaves. But I’m sorry, the Civil War was even less about “states’ rights” than it was about making dresses out of curtains. It was 100 percent about one right only — the right to own slaves.

Usually, I end this conversation by simply asking people to name one single right other than slavery that the South was fighting for, but you know what? I’m down to offer a full and detailed explanation right now. Amazingly, all you really need to do to understand what the South was fighting for is to read what the seceding states actually said they were fighting for at the time. Primary sources are your friends!

Before The War

First of all, the South didn’t give a flying fuck about “states’ rights” to begin with, even before the war. Which is possibly why the terms “slave” and “slavery” are mentioned 83 times in the declaration of causes for secession of Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Mississippi, and “states’ rights” is mentioned exactly zero times. Oh, and the word “tax” is mentioned a mere once, and “tariff” zero, so that isn’t an out either.

Prior to Abraham Lincoln being elected, Southerners had a strong grip on the government, and were, in fact, the ones in charge of creating all the federal laws.

It was the South, obviously, that pushed the Fugitive Slave Act, demanding that Northerners, regardless of how opposed to slavery they were, actively assist the Southern states by returning slaves that ran away from plantations or face a massive fine, and were furious at states who did not want to participate. They certainly didn’t believe in states’ rights then! Or when they demanded their right to bring their slaves with them when they traveled to non-slaveholding states that had voted to ban that. Or when they were mad about non-slaveholding states allowing Black men the right to vote.

They were also upset that the Northern states allowed citizens to form abolitionist groups, and were quite angry that they refused to regulate free speech and the right to assembly of those who wished to participate.

So, technically, the South was actually opposed to “states’ rights.”

To boot, the Crittendon Compromise–a last ditch effort to keep the Union together which was supported by the South but not the North–also has nothing to do with anything but slavery.

The Start of The War

Further evidence that the Civil War was about slavery can be found in those slaveholding states’ own words. Specifically, let’s look at what Texas said, since they’re the ones trying to change history:

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

For years past this abolition organization has been actively sowing the seeds of discord through the Union, and has rendered the federal congress the arena for spreading firebrands and hatred between the slave-holding and non-slave-holding States.

That in this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights* [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.

Please note how little these arguments have changed over the years — namely “because Jesus said we’re better” and “By advocating for equality you’re actually being really divisive. What if we just pretended that this is what’s best for all of us? It sure would keep those black people from getting angry at us! If you don’t tell them, maybe they’ll never figure it out!” Also, the South’s arguments were quite clearly all about slavery and whining that the Northern states didn’t support them enough.

The biggest reason for secession, as these declarations made clear — outside of Abraham Lincoln’s election — was the fact that non-slaveholding states were violating a Federal Law, the Fugitive Slave Act, and creating their own laws to nullify it. They hardly felt as though every state should be free to do its own thing regardless of Federal Laws. They were merely afraid, that with the increasing population in the North and the fact that they were letting Black people vote, that the North would, in fact, create a Federal Law banning slavery.

To be honest, I don’t think Abraham Lincoln would have actually done that if given the chance. He didn’t fight the Civil War to end slavery, he did it to keep the Union together. He said himself that if he could have ended the war and kept the country together without ending slavery, he would have done it. I don’t think the South was scared of him as an individual, but with the fact that the North was gaining enough power to elect a Northerner to be president at all.

The Confederacy Itself!

Once the Confederacy was formed, they elected Jefferson Davis as their President and Alexander H. Stevens as their Vice President, and created their own constitution.

To kick it home that the war was definitely, definitely about slavery, let’s take a look at Stevens’ famous “Cornerstone Speech” in which he declared that slavery and inequality were, in fact, the cornerstone of this new nation.

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.

Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.

“Sure! Fine! That dude said that! Whatever, it was still also about states’ rights! And taxes!” is a thing some will continue to sputter. But first of all, the state of federal taxes in the union at the time were the lowest they’d been in nearly 50 years. The Tariff of 1857 had been written by Southerners to benefit Southerners, who had enjoyed control of the government for quite some time.

To boot? The new Confederate Constitution actually allowed for more taxing than the Union did, allowing states to tax ships from other states, which was expressly barred in the U.S. Constitution. Oh, and states actually lost the right to choose to permit immigrants to vote.

The areas in which the states did have more rights? Well, uh, that is actually a very large part of why they lost the war so hard in the first place–because they couldn’t really get it together to agree on anything, including where their state troops ought to be going.


One thing I’d like to point out here? The Confederate states, very clearly, did not view their keeping of slaves as a form of “hate.” They felt that this was just the way things were supposed to be, and that God was definitely backing them up. Like many bigots today, they did not see themselves as explicitly “hateful,” despite the fact that they were upholding discrimination and subjugating people.

That’s why Confederate flag defenders crying, “It’s about heritage, not hate!” is a load of bull. It does not make the flag any less insulting to other people.

To boot, not everything that’s “heritage” is a positive thing. I’m from Massachusetts, and I am not the least bit offended by anyone suggesting the Salem Witch Trials were not a great idea. It doesn’t even occur to me that I would side with the bad guys on that one. You also don’t see too many Northerners going around flying flags with carpet bags on them, and insisting that you respect our great history of entrepreneurship and political enterprise.

The South lost the war. They lost a war they were fighting for the right to keep human beings as slaves. There was nothing noble in that. That’s nothing to be proud of. Southern Pride does not need to be coddled, just as the North didn’t need to be rounding up their fugitive slaves.

I realize it’s probably nicer to pretend that the Civil War was about something less abominable than slavery. But that doesn’t change facts, including when states like Texas try to change them in history books. If conservatives think acknowledging the fact that slavery was the primary factor in the Civil War means giving the books a “liberal bias,” well, that only makes it more clear that they think criticizing slavery and human subjugation is only the province of liberals.

So listen up, Confederate flag defenders: You’re not the ones who get to cry “Learn your history!” when it comes to the Civil War. And, quite honestly, you really, really don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.