Was the American Civil War Fought Over States’ Rights?

Posted: July 22, 2010 in Politics
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What was the difference between the Confederate and U.S. Constitutions?

Don’t Know Much about History (2003), by Kenneth C. Davis

One week after Lincoln’s inaugural address, on March 11, the Confederacy adopted a constitution. Given the long-held arguments that the crisis was over such issues as federal power and states’ rights, and not slavery, it might be assumed that the new Confederate nation adopted some very different form of government, perhaps more like the Articles of Confederation, under which the states operated before the Constitution was adopted.

Original Stars-n-Bars flag of the Confederacy

The first "Stars and Bars" flag of the CSA (flown 4 Mar 1861 – 21 May 1861)

In fact, the Constitution of the Confederate States of America was based almost verbatim on the U.S. Constitution. There were, however, several significant but relatively minor differences, as well as one big difference:

  • The preamble added the words, “each State acting in its sovereign and independent character,” and instead of forming “a more perfect Union,” it was forming “a permanent federal government.” It also added an invocation to “Almighty God” absent from the original.
  • It permitted a tariff for revenue but not for protection of domestic industries, though the distinction between the two was unclear.
  • It altered the executive branch by creating a presidency with a single six-year term, instead of (then) unlimited four-year terms. However, the presidency was strengthened with a line item veto* with which certain parts of a budget can be removed by the president. (Many U.S. Presidents of both parties have argued for the line item veto as a means to control congressional spending. A line item veto was finally passed in 1996 and used first by President Bill Clinton. However, in 1998 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the line item veto was unconstitutional.)
  • The major difference between the two constitutions regarded slavery. First, the Confederate version didn’t bother with neat euphemisms (“persons held in service”) but simply and honestly called it slavery. While it upheld the ban on the importation of slaves from abroad, the Confederate constitution removed any restrictions on slavery. Slavery was going to be protected and extended into any new territory the Confederacy might acquire.

In other words, while “states’ rights” is a powerful abstraction, and the back-and-forth between federal power and the power of the states has been a theme throughout American history, there was really only one right that the southern states cared about. Examining the speeches by southern leaders [e.g., Calhoun] and the Confederate constitution itself underscores the fact that the only right in question was the right to continue slavery without restriction, both where it already existed and in the new territories being opened up in the West.

* For more info on line item veto, go here.

  1. wken says:

    “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.”

    – Alexander H. Stephens, CSA Vice-President


    I’ve always seen that speech as kind of the end of this discussion. According to the VP of the CSA himself, slavery is the cornerstone upon which the CSA was built. He acknowledged it right then and there.

    Revisionists might clean it up, but they do so dishonestly.

  2. pastorjeffcma says:

    That is the “lost cause.” There really was no way to organize against the federal government without forming a federal government. Regarding slavery–the other side of the issue is whether the Union was fighting to abolish slavery or to preserve the Union. Historical comment points that out pretty clearly. See the following letter from President Lincoln to Horace Greeley.

    Executive Mansion,
    Washington, August 22, 1862.

    Hon. Horace Greeley:
    Dear Sir.

    I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

    As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

    I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. 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. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

    I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

    A. Lincoln.

  3. sirrahc says:

    Pastor Jeff and Ken,

    Great quotes, gentleman! They definitely clarify what the leaders of both sides had as their respective, main priorities. I was also glad that Lincoln ended by reminding Greeley that his personal desire was freedom for all men (though not radically abolitionist), even if his chief goal (of the war) as President was to preserve the Union.

  4. misterbill says:

    This should help in the states rights vs slavery issue. I beg to differ–it was states rights, the specific for most was slavery. The issue was the sovereign right of each state even though it was for bad purposes.

    Sadly, as in almost all issues of life , the following emphasizes, “follow the money.”


  5. LD Jackson says:

    I would respectfully disagree that the Civil War was mostly about slavery. It did play a part, but I believe it was just a contributing factor, albeit a large one, that brought the states rights issue to the forefront. For instance, even though Robert E. Lee owned slaves, he believed it to be a moral evil. It was states rights, rather than slavery, that drove him to turn down the offer to lead the Union Army and join the Confederacy.

  6. pastorjeffcma says:

    Let’s face it–getting into a historical debate on states rights vs. slavery when it comes to the Civil War is about as futile as having a theological debate on God’s sovereignty vs. human free will. We will not come to any consensus, but the argument is enjoyable.

    Let’s take LD’s statement on Lee just a little further. Grant married into a slave holding family, Sherman was an obvious racist and they were both champion drinkers and cussers. Lee and Jackson were both committed religious men who were against slavery–go figure!

    Even though the line is a little blurry I would have to say for Lee and Jackson the driving force to engage was duty to Virginia as opposed to a more philosophical “states right.” Even though I have argued the point that the war was a states rights issue, to separate that from slavery as a cause is to walk a very thin line.

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  8. sirrahc says:

    I’m beginning to think that the question, as stated in the title of my post, is not quite right. It implies that 1) there was consensus by the participants on why to fight and 2) it was an either/or decision and could not be a both/and (with other possible factors involved).

    Perhaps it is better to distinguish between the official reasons & goals for the conflict as given by the leaders, executive & legislative, of both sides (e.g., see above) VERSUS the reasons that various individuals decided to fight or support one side or the other. As has been pointed out, there were often conflicting factors — and, thus, emotions & drives — in people’s lives. For example, the North benefitted from the productivity of the South. There were also concerns of personal finances, personal safety, pragmatism, timing, anger over tariff legislation, regional pride, etc. The same can be said about our Founding Fathers and others caught up in the American Revolution.

    So, I think it’s safe to say that, for some, the slavery issue was just the spark, but the overriding concern was one of states’ rights vs. preserving the Union. For others, the latter may have been important, but the right to own & exploit slaves (perhaps fueled by anger and/or pride) was, indeed, the priority. Some may have thought through their reasons; for others, it was probably much more an emotional reaction. Regardless, to quote a former co-worker, “It’s not that simple….”

  9. Steve Dennis says:

    I think that it is safe to generalize the Civil War as being about states rights, but there was one specific state right that they were most interested in keeping– slavery. Slavery being kept as an issue for the states to decide was the main focus of fighting the war. However the south probably felt that if the federal government was able to over-rule the states on slavery than the federal government could over-rule the states on ever expanding issues also.

    • sirrahc says:

      I think the tariff wars added a lot of fuel to the fire, too, in the preceding years. But, it was the slavery issue that was the final straw and “focus point” in the end.

  10. Preston Cornett says:

    There’s a little thing called cotton that you all seem to be overlooking. In the years immediately preceeding the Civil War, on a global market, cotton was more valuable than gold. “Cotton is King’ was the buzz back then. During thee decade or so prior to the civil war, the southern states (which eventually formed the Confederate States of America) had there own franchise going. Collectively, they were the world’s largest producer of cotton; billions of dollars worth.

    During that same time frame the Union was for all intentes and purposes, was bankrupt. The industrial north, wasn’t doing so well. The United States Government needed cash pretty bad.

    Well, those Southern states were trading and exporting directly with foreign countries. They were not paying any taxes, tarriffs, or revenue to the United States Government on the money they were raking in on the Cotton industry.

    The United States government saw what was happpening, and started to demand a cut oof that pie (remember, they were broke). The Southern states told the US Government to pack sand, the revenue and profits all belonged the the cotton industry and the States.

    The US government made several attempts to get the money they thought the Southern states owed them; through the legal system, political system, etc. however, the general public, throughout the country, backed the Southern States, and didn’t like the way the US government was acting. The South, created their battle cry which was State Sovereignty. This is the bannner they flew in public arena as well as the political arena. The US government had no immediate defense or re-tort to this. Many other states, not just the ones that ended up seceding, all stood behind the Southern States.

    Well, low and behold, their came mention of slavery. If you took away slavery, the cotton industry would surely collapse, causing the money to dry up for the Southern states. The cotton industry relied on the “cheap labor costs” of slaves. It’s basic economics; the lower your overhead, the more profit you make. If your overhead is more than your profit, you go under. If slavery were to be abolished, the south would have to pay people to pick the cotton, increasing their costs by more than 100 fold, causing the destruction of the cotton industry.

    The North threatened the South with this. The South, realizing the impact of such of thing, had to up the ante. They created the Federation of Southern States, and began the rhetoric of secession. The North, hit the public with all the Moral duties that America had to abolish the evil called slavery. Even though, slaves were owned as far north as Connecticut, Vermont, New York, Maryland, and on and on… But, keep in mind, the Northern states didn’t have a cotton industry; cotton doesn’t grow in snow apparently. The slaves in the North were basically butlers, cooks, maids and farm hands. They weren’t forced to work the fields as those in the South. They weren’t punished as the slaves in the South were either. But, I digress…

    Once the public got behind the Abolish slavery movement (oh, you need to look at how religion affected this whole thing as well. Basically, the push to abolish slavery was faught in the public arena through churches; can’t argue with God aparently) the states that origianlly agreed with the Southern states, got all high and mighty and morally (not a word, but it works here) and flip-flopped to backing the North.

    The South had painted themselves into a corner and did what they said they were gonna do, they seceded from the Union and created their own CSA. Ta daaaa, Civil war. The act of secession is illegal and unconstitutional, now the North had their legitimate legal reason to take over the Cotton industry, I mean punish those evil law-breakers!

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