What Caused the Civil War in Less Than Two Minutes

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

57 comments… add one
  • Al Mackey Apr 8, 2012 @ 18:18

    Those who point to Thomas Jefferson (not a framer of the Constitution) as an authority for unilateral secession of a state have not reckoned with his actual views.

    “After plunging us in all the broils of the European nations, there would remain but one act to close our tragedy, that is, to break up our Union; and even this they have ventured seriously & solemnly to propose & maintain by arguments in a Connecticut paper. I have been happy, however, in believing, from the stifling of this effort, that that dose was found too strong, & excited as much repugnance there as it did horror in other parts of our country, & that whatever follies we may be led into as to foreign nations, we shall never give up our Union, the last anchor of our hope, & that alone which is to prevent this heavenly country from becoming an arena of gladiators. Much as I abhor war, and view it as the greatest scourge of mankind, and anxiously as I wish to keep out of the broils of Europe, I would yet go with my brethren into these, rather than separate from them.” [Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 13 May 1797]

    “Be this as it may, in every free & deliberating society there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties & violent dissensions & discords; and one of these, for the most part, must prevail over the other for a longer or shorter time. Perhaps this party division is necessary to induce each to watch & delate to the people the proceedings of the other. But if on a temporary superiority of the one party, the other is to resort to a scission of the Union, no federal government can ever exist. If to rid ourselves of the present rule of Massachusets & Connecticut we break the Union, will the evil stop there? Suppose the N. England States alone cut off, will our natures be changed? are we not men still to the south of that, & with all the passions of men? Immediately we shall see a Pennsylvania & a Virginia party arise in the residuary confederacy, and the public mind will be distracted with the same party spirit. What a game, too, will the one party have in their hands by eternally threatening the other that unless they do so & so, they will join their Northern neighbors. If we reduce our Union to Virginia & N. Carolina, immediately the conflict will be established between the representatives of these two States, and they will end by breaking into their simple units. Seeing, therefore, that an association of men who will not quarrel with one another is a thing which never yet existed, from the greatest confederacy of nations down to a town meeting or a vestry, seeing that we must have somebody to quarrel with, I had rather keep our New England associates for that purpose than to see our bickerings transferred to others.” [Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 4 Jun 1798]

    “I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away, against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world. To yourself, as the faithful advocate of the Union, I tender the offering of my high esteem and respect.” [Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, 22 Apr 1820]

    Jefferson, in fact, believed secession to be an “error of opinion:” “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” [Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural, 4 Mar 1801]

  • Al Mackey Apr 8, 2012 @ 16:43

    The Toyota Production System, which focuses on quality and waste elimination approaches problems by finding the root cause. There are many peripheral causes of problems that could be addressed, but the problem cannot be solved unless the root cause is addressed. The methodolopgy used involves asking the question “Why?” until we get to the root cause. We can apply this methodology to historical questions as well. The immediate cause of the war was the determination of the Lincoln administration to resist secession and the determination of the confederates to enforce secession. Why did this happen? We get to the event of secession. Why did this happen? We get to the root cause, the desire to expand the institution of slavery and to protect it from the perceived threat of an antislavery administration in the White House. The TPS allows for more than one root cause, and we can find another root cause for the war in the development of the extreme state rights philosphy that made the false claim that it was legal under the US Constitution for a state to unilaterally secede from the Union.

  • Mark Pollard Apr 4, 2012 @ 13:37

    I have never read a letter from a Confederate soldier that he was fighting to protect slavery. On the opposite side of the coin, why would a Federal soldier from New Jersey fight and die for his country in the War Between the States when slavery was legal in his own state?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 13:43

      Why men went off to war is a separate issue. There is a rich literature on Civil War soldiers that you can consult. As for Confederate soldiers and slavery, I highly recommend Chandra Manning’s book as well as James McPherson’s For Cause and Country. We should also not loose sight of the fact that many soldiers on both sides were drafted. Let’s stay focused as much as possible. Thanks for the comment.

  • Forester Apr 4, 2012 @ 12:29

    Hey Kevin. I know I’ve been influenced by a glut of pro-Southern arguments throughout my life, so my interpretation may be misinformed. But wasn’t the “slavery” issue primarily economic? I’ve always understood money to be the root of the war, with slavery and its opposition just the means of making money for some and hindering it for others.

    (In my head, I kind of have a blurring of “The South was Right” and “People’s History of the United States” going on. Which aren’t scholarly sources, I know). I’m really asking a question, not trying argue at all. I totally don’t mind if I’m wrong or ignorant here. 🙂

    • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 12:34

      Of course it was about money. Ayers even references when he cites the value of slaves and the wealth generated. I don’t know a single historian who would disagree. Like I said, slavery was at the very center of the national debate over the future of the nation.

      • Forester Apr 4, 2012 @ 12:40

        Okay … so money and slavery are not exclusive? Because I hear SCV types say “it was abotu ecomonics, not slavery” as if there was a serious contention between the two.

        (I can’t watch the video right now because I’m in a school lab with no headphones, so I’m just reading the thread). Kind of makes me a troll, I know …

        • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 12:47

          I tend not to worry about what the SCV says. 🙂

      • J H Taylor Apr 4, 2012 @ 13:08

        “Of course it was about money. Ayers even references when he cites the value of slaves and the wealth generated. I don’t know a single historian who would disagree. Like I said, slavery was at the very center of the national debate over the future of the nation.”
        Slavery was an economic issue, but slavery was not entirely about economics. Most White Americans were not interested in dealing with Blacks, in any way, based on equity. As White Southerners tended to be closer to comcentrations of Blaks, mostly slave, the issue of slavery was one of security.
        And, the economic issue was not exclusively about slavery. Despite traditional Southern Whig support for some Protection in the tariffs, in addition to revenue, it is a fact that that Southern support for any tariff beyond revenue was gone by the Civil War.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 13:11

          Slavery was an economic issue, but slavery was not entirely about economics.

          I didn’t say it was. Yes, white Southerners were clearly worried about their security, especially in the wake of Brown’s Raid and the in response to Lincoln’s election.

  • J H Taylor Apr 4, 2012 @ 9:37

    The fundamental cause of the Civil war was a fundamental flaw in the US Consitution. The Founders had hoped no great dispute would arise within the Union, but, had not provided a remedy should it happen. By the reckoning of all sides, the Civil War was fought over secession. Secession was not provided for, in, nor prohibited, by, the US Consitution. One might point at Slavery, Merchantilism, Mechanical Industrialism, or other factors in sectional disharmony leading to secession. But it must be front and center that Mechantilism and Slavery existed at the beginning of the US, and for many decades afterwards, with no secession or Civil War..

    • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 9:39

      Your explanation doesn’t help us to understand why secession took place when it did. Who do you think best expresses this particular interpretation? Where does this particular interpretation fit into the historiography?

      • J H Taylor Apr 4, 2012 @ 10:18

        I believe I was pointing out the obvious, something perhaps incompatible with Historiography as a profession. Is there some doubt that secession was the proximate cause of the Civil War? Or, that unilateral secession is neither endorsed nor comdemned by the US Constitution? “What Caused the Civil War in Less Than Two Minutes” is the exercise here.

        • Brad Apr 4, 2012 @ 10:24

          Just because a document does not prohibit something does not automatically mean it is permitted.

          • J H Taylor Apr 4, 2012 @ 10:43

            I do not believe I stated that it did.

        • Marc Ferguson Apr 4, 2012 @ 10:41

          JH, As I’m sure you know, Historiography is not a profession, but the set of interpretive tools, and the history of the practice of writing history, the profession is historian. What is “obvious” is certainly not incompatible with the practice of history. However, you would probably, at least I hope, that “obvious” is in the eye of the beholder. I disagree with your comment that “unilateral secession is neither endorsed nor comdemned by the US Constitution.” I would assert that the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution rules out any act of unilateral secession by any state, or other territory of the U.S. (Article VI, clause 2: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”) Surely secession is an attempt to avoid obeying the laws of the United States. What else could its effect be?

          • J H Taylor Apr 4, 2012 @ 11:03

            “Surely secession is an attempt to avoid obeying the laws of the United States. What else could its effect be?”
            Certainly avoiding obedience to Federal Law is an effect of secession. However, that is not in question as to the legality of secession. A state within the Union under the US Constitution certainly would be in violation of the Supremacy Clause should it act contrary to Federal Law. Clearly secession, and therefore any question of insubordination to Federal Law, today is not possible. However that clarity did not exist in 1860.
            Historiography does seem a profession to some. I fear I know of some instructors of history that cannot raise a finger except to describe procedures and the work of others. But, as Iagree it should not be so, I concede the point.
            To the main issue, did not secession cause the Civil War ?

            • Brooks Simpson Apr 5, 2012 @ 16:23

              The decision not to accept secession led to armed conflict.

        • Jimmy Dick Apr 4, 2012 @ 10:48

          Some of the differences between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution lay in the nature of the state’s relationship to the new federal government. Under the Articles the states were considered to be in a compact relationship which was stated at several points in the document. However, this union was also considered to be a perpetual relationship, but this was a contradiction. The Constitution made no reference to a compact and instead stated in its preamble that its power was derived from the people, not the states which was the exact opposite of the Articles. The Constitution itself made no reference to how states could leave this new perpetual union. An argument by the Anti-Federalists addressed this issue.

          Patrick Henry of Virginia had originally declined participating in the Constitutional Convention and made his opposition to the convention painfully and publicly clear. During the argument over ratification he steadfastly opposed ratification. The argument advanced by many in the antebellum years consistently revolved around the issue of whether the United States under the Constitution was a compact or not. Henry’s argument against ratification made it clear that he as well as many Anti-Federalists knew the nation would not be a compact between the states.

          “The fate….of America may depend on this….Have they made a proposal of a compact between eh states? If they had, this would be a confederation. It is otherwise most clearly a consolidated government. The question turns, sir, on that poor little thing¬—the expression, We, the people, instead of the states, of America.”

          The response to Henry’s challenge by the Federalists was expressed by expounding the many rights the states would possess under the Constitution. However, the issue of secession was never addressed by the Federalists. Rather, it was a deafening silence. Instead, the language used dwelled upon the strengthening of the bonds between the states and the indissoluble union it would create. It is often stated by proponents of secession today and most certainly was advanced by proponents of Southern secession in the antebellum years that three states placed conditions upon their ratification of the Constitution. No state did any such thing. New York attempted to do so during its convention, but Alexander Hamilton and John Jay steadfastly opposed any such condition being made and even went so far to say that any conditional ratification would be null and void. The condition was withdrawn.

          There are often definitive statements made by those who say secession is legal that the people in 1788 thought they could secede from the Union if they so desired. This is not borne out by the enormous volume of correspondence and the newspaper articles as well as the letters published in those papers by the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. If anything exact opposite is true. Many people, especially the Anti-Federalists, thought secession would not be possible if the Constitution was ratified.

          • Joshua Horn Apr 4, 2012 @ 11:08

            However it is clear that many people in America thought that secession was allowed. Basically every section of the country at one point debated secession, from New England, to the middle states, to the South. The abolitionsts were very forceful in their urging for secession, saying the Constitution was a covenant with death and an agreement with hell. Whether they were right or wrong, it was hypocritical for the very same people to try to rally the North around preserving the Union.

            I think whether or not someone thinks that secession was allowed, it should be clear that the state’s power was greatly restrained by the Civil War. Even the name of the nation reflects this. The “United States” was referred to as plural in the founding documents. Now it is the united states. The nation went from being founded by the people through the states, to the states being subordinate to the federal government, whether for good or ill.

            • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 11:14

              Exactly how many abolitionists called publicly for secession?

              • Joshua Horn Apr 4, 2012 @ 12:14

                I am not sure the exact numbers, however, here are a few quotes:

                “The Union is a lie. The American Union is an imposture, a covenant with death and an agreement with hell. We are for its overthrow! Up with the flag of disunion, that we may have a free and glorious republic of our own.” William Lloyd Garrison in a speech in 1855

                1842 resolutions of the America Anti-Slavery Society:
                “1. Resolved, That the consequences of doing right must ever be more safe and beneficial than those of doing wrong; and that the worst thing liberty can do is to unite with slavery, and the best thing is to withdraw from the embraces of the monster.
                2. Resolved, That the American Union is, and ever has been since the adoption of the Constitution, a rope of sand (so far as the North is concerned), and a concentration of the physical force of the nation to destroy liberty and to uphold slavery.
                3. Resolved, That the safety, prosperity, and perpetuity of the non-slave holding States require that their connection be immediately dissolved with the slave States in form, as it is now in fact.”

                Even many supported letting the South depart in peace when they first seceded, like Horace Greeley and Garrison.

                “An attempt to subjugate the seceded States, even if successful could produce nothing but evil — evil unmitigated in character and appalling in content.” Detroit Free Press 19 February 1861

                • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 12:24

                  I am familiar with both Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society. My only concern is in using these to characterize the movement as a whole.

                  • Joshua Horn Apr 4, 2012 @ 12:36

                    Of course it wasn’t all abolitionists, it would be more accurate to ascribe it to radical abolitionists like Garrison

                    • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 12:37

                      I am simply responding to your statement. Thanks for the clarification.

            • Andy Hall Apr 4, 2012 @ 11:34

              “The “United States” was referred to as plural in the founding documents. Now it is the united states.”

              I don’t if your lack of capitalization there at the end is meant as a statement or not. But if you’re hinting at that old saw made famous by Shelby Foote in the Ken Burns documentary (United States are vs. United States is, it’s more “truthy” than true. Even in 1860 the phrase “United States is” was more commonly used than “United States are,” and the latter variant is still relatively common today. It’s a hoary old tale.

              I can’t wait til my seventies. I’ll speak with a drawl, smoke a pipe, and everyone will believe every fool thing I say.

              • Marc Ferguson Apr 4, 2012 @ 13:28

                my understanding is that rendering United States as plural is a British convention, whereas Americans were attempting to assert the uniqueness of American English by mid-century, and the appearance of THE United States, begins to widely appear, Since it was clear that the U.S. was a single nation, not a federation of states. It was a cultural/linguistic shift. I don’t recall the source for this, but when/if I come across it, I’ll pass it along to you.

                • Andy Hall Apr 4, 2012 @ 13:32

                  That actually makes more sense than the Foote story.

                • Chad Black Apr 24, 2012 @ 23:34

                  We can plot it in the American English books corpus with the google ngram viewer. Doesn’t include newspapers, but nonetheless, ‘United States is’ vs. ‘United States are’.

                  If we add in ‘the United States’, if immediately obvious that this phrase far outpaced either of the other two in fiction and non-fiction books.

                  • Chad Black Apr 24, 2012 @ 23:42

                    Given that ‘US is’ and ‘US are’ both are almost preceded by ‘the’, ‘the United States’ as a noun phrase much more commonly than as an agent.

          • J H Taylor Apr 4, 2012 @ 11:14

            I believe that the principle concern was Nullification, not Secession. The Supremacy Clause seemed the protection some wanted against violation of Basic Law (the Consitution). Clearly, as 9 states seceded from the Articles of Confederation to put the Constitution into effect, secession may not have been a major issue. Fears were focused on Nullification, and the possible chaos that might result. When Lincoln declared that secession equalled chaos, it was not actual secession to which he refered, but his theory that the 7, then 11, states were practicing Nullification.

          • Marc Ferguson Apr 4, 2012 @ 11:28

            I have never seen a single statement by one of the Founders that they believed they had the right to withdraw from the Union, nor have I seen a comment by supporters of ratification use the idea of unilateral withdrawal as an argument for ratification, which would have been a powerful argument. We also have a letter from James Madison to Alexander Hamilton denying such an option:

            To Alexander Hamilton

            [July 20, 1788]

            N. York Sunday Evening

            Yours of yesterday is this instant come to hand & I have but a few minutes to answer it. I am sorry that your situation obliges you to listen to propositions of the nature you describe. My opinion is that a reservation of a right to withdraw if amendments be not decided on under the form of the Constitution within a certain time, is a conditional ratification, that it does not make N. York a member of the New Union, and consequently that she could not be received on that plan. Compacts must be reciprocal, this principle would not in such a case be preserved. The Constitution requires an adoption in toto, and for ever. It has been so adopted by the other States. An adoption for a limited time would be as defective as an adoption of some of the articles only. In short any condition whatever must viciate the ratification. What the New Congress by virtue of the power to admit new States, may be able & disposed to do in such case, I do not enquire as I suppose that is not the material point at present. I have not a moment to add more than my fervent wishes for your success & happiness.

            This idea of reserving right to withdraw was started at Richmd. & considered as a conditional ratification which was itself considered as worse than a rejection.


            • Joshua Horn Apr 4, 2012 @ 12:18

              Thomas Jefferson

              “In your letter to Fisk, you have fairly stated the alternatives between which we are to choose : 1, licentious commerce and gambling speculations for a few, with eternal war for the many ; or, 2, restricted commerce, peace, and steady occupations for all. If any State in the Union will declare that it prefers separation with the first alternative, to a continuance in union without it, I have no hesitation in saying, ‘let us separate’. I would rather the States should withdraw, which are for unlimited commerce and war, and confederate with those alone which are for peace and agriculture.”

              “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left to combat it.”

              Timothy Pinckering, a Secretary of State under George Washington:
              “[T]he principles of our Revolution point to the remedy – a separation. That this can be accomplished, and without spilling one drop of blood, I have little doubt.”

              Virginia specifically reserved the right to secession when they joined the union. Many say this was not binding, but it is clear that they thought they had the right to secede at the time of the founding.
              “We the Delegates of the People of Virginia … Do in the name and in behalf of the People of Virginia declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression and that every power not granted thereby remains with them and at their will…”

              • Jimmy Dick Apr 4, 2012 @ 13:08

                Why bring up a letter written by Jefferson in 1816? Better yet, why bring up Jefferson at all? He did not participate in the writing of the Constitution as he was in Paris. He did not return until after the Constitution was ratified. TJ’s views on the Constitution are somewhat mixed because I don’t think he liked it that much because he felt it removed power from the states which he most certainly opposed, yet it was not his decision to make. It was in the hands of the people who did make it.

                Interestingly while TJ claimed he would adhere strictly to the letter of the Constitution while President as all should do, he promptly discard the idea whenever it was convenient such as in the case of the Louisiana Purchase.

                Virginia did not make any stipulation that they retained the right of secession nor did any state do so. Virginia drew up a list of suggestions, but they most specifically did not reserve the right of secession. They retained the right of rebellion as laid out under the Declaration of Independence. There’s a fundamental difference between secession and rebellion.

                Please note that there has been a Supreme Court case where the issue of secession was dealt with. It is Texas v. White. The only way a state can secede is if the citizens vote to do so AND the Congress of the United States allows it to leave the Union.

                In any case, Virginia was not being oppressed or injured by the North in 1861. The opposite could be laid on the South’s doorstep as it was the section that had been using the power of the federal government to force the issue of slavery’s expansion.

                • Joshua Horn Apr 4, 2012 @ 13:58

                  The question was whether any of the founders recognized the right of secession. I think Jefferson qualifiers as a founder, though that does not mean all, agreed with him.

                  If you read the text of Virginia’s ratification here it is clear that the right of secession/rebellion was a declaration of their impression/interpretation of the Constitution. They made recommendations for a bill of rights, but that was separate and stated differently.

                  The right to revolution vs right to secession is a fine line. In what I have read secession is the right to withdraw peacefully from an organization, normally through a lesser government. The right to revolution would be the right to fight a war to declare independence.

                  Texas v. White occurred after the Civil War, after the issue of secession had already been decided for the moment with blows.

                  As for Virginia, I would consider it oppressive if I was ordered to attack brethren who I saw as exercising their legal right.

                  • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 14:01

                    Please state which passage you believe qualifies Jefferson as a secession advocate and please do not cite the Declaration of Independence.

                    As for Virginia, I would consider it oppressive if I was ordered to attack brethren who I saw as exercising their legal right.

                    Not all Virginians would have agreed with this in 1861.

                    • Joshua Horn Apr 4, 2012 @ 14:15

                      Sure. I would add this one, about the era of the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, to the ones I noted above:

                      “[We were determined] to server ourselves from the union we so much value, rather than give up the rights of self government which we have reserved, & in which alone we see liberty, safety & happiness.”

                      It might be argued that he is advocating peaceful revolution through the states not secession, but I don’t really see a substantial difference there.

                    • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 14:19

                      I don’t think it gets you there.

                      My problem is that we are bouncing back and forth with brief references that include very little context. What I would like to know is which historians are you reading that interpret Jefferson as a secessionist?

                    • Jimmy Dick Apr 4, 2012 @ 14:42

                      The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions are useless. They were rejected by the other states and force was suggested if a state attempted to enforce them. Later in 1833 Congress passed what is known as the Force bill authorizing President Jackson to use force to carry out the laws of the United States in any state or territory that tried to prevent collection of duties as stipulated by the US government.
                      Jefferson’s original draft of the Kentucky Resolution was pretty radical and he did advocate secession and nullification in it. Those who were writing it up did some rewriting to present a resolution that would draw less ire. It still caused an uproar.

                    • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 14:46

                      Keep in mind that these were written during the Alien and Sedition crisis. Jefferson’s presidency does not reflect someone committed to secession given the steps he took to maintain the power of the federal government and even, in the eyes of some, expand it with the Louisiana Purchase.

                    • J H Taylor Apr 4, 2012 @ 15:44

                      “Keep in mind that these were written during the Alien and Sedition crisis. Jefferson’s presidency does not reflect someone committed to secession given the steps he took to maintain the power of the federal government and even, in the eyes of some, expand it with the Louisiana Purchase.”

                      I’m not sure what this post was in referense to, but I’ve got to look that things a little differently. Concerning Jefferson as president, what is operative is “president”. Tom Jefferson as president looked to different things than a governor would. That is a characteristic of the job.
                      Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederacy. His principle job prior to that was trying to get a US Transcontinental RR constructed, seemingly. I think the whole thing about “state’s rights” is sometng of a post Civil War rationalization. The idea of “State’s Interest” seems more honest to me. What Jefferson might really have thought about secession can’t be known, as he did not face it. If he had faced it as president of the US, I doubt he would have looked kindly on it. But, he might have had he felt Virginia put upon, and he was serving outside the Federal government.
                      Bob Lee clearly saw Virginia’s interests as having precedence over the US government interests when in conflict. But, he also was not shy about advocating for Confederate national power. Arguments over national power rarely are based on philosopjy, but on specific interests.

                    • Jimmy Dick Apr 4, 2012 @ 15:52

                      I wouldn’t say he was a secessionist in the form that we saw in the 1850’s. What he did was promote the state governments over the federal government and he used the word “compact” an awful lot on purpose. It was clear in the ratification arguments that the nation under the Constitution was not a compact at all. From what I’ve read of Jefferson, he utterly hated the idea that the federal government would have more power than that of Virginia.

                      When we look at the Kentucky Resolution of which he was the secret author, his original draft which can be found here http://www.princeton.edu/~tjpapers/kyres/kydraft.html used the word compact a lot. It also mentions nullification in section eight. That’s where John Calhoun of South Carolina devised his nullification theory from.

                      To me TJ would not have pushed for secession as much as the right of the state government to reject federal laws which superseded state laws. Note also how he goes on a bit about powers in the Bill of Rights which govern the federal government but not the state governments at that time. There was a 14th amendment proposed at the same time as the other amendments by James Madison which would have incorporated the Bill of Rights as to applying to the states as well. Madison thought this amendment was the most important of all of them.

                      What is interesting is that Jefferson is advocating state’s rights before he became president. This is often what I see with state’s rights in our history. The party not in power uses the cry of state’s rights against the party in power. It’s a very populist political ploy. Once they get into power they use the federal government’s power in ways that cause the other party to cry foul.

                      Jefferson wasn’t in power while Adams was. Once Jefferson was in power he used the federal government’s power to do what he wanted. Madison followed along behind him and found that he had to make changes as well because things had changed and that some things like the Bank of the United States were necessary after all.

                    • Neil Hamilton Apr 6, 2012 @ 14:39

                      As a famous American once said, “We cannot escape history.”

                      We have an enormous paper trail left by the men who led the attempt at secession from the United States of the time. They have made it very clear what the main, most important reason, as to why they felt they had to secede from the Union.

                      We see that reason discussed and debated with more frequency and more volume, from the Wilmont Proviso and beyond. It never went away, it never faded from public view or memory, but was always there, from the farms in the countryside, to the towns and cities throughout the nation, to the Congress, the White House, and in the halls of the Supreme Court.

                      Attempts to deny this historical fact will always remain that, an attempt, as history, real history, cannot be hidden, twisted, or denied. The men who led the effort of secession were plain in their speech and their beliefs. Why any of us wish to deny them their words is beyond me. One simply has to read and comprehend, not form a case for the defense, because the trial has been decided and the results are plain for all to see.

                      Slavery brought on secession.

              • Marc Ferguson Apr 4, 2012 @ 13:16

                ” the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same,” note that the Virginia ratification references the ‘People of the United States,” not the people of Virginia. The implication, for me at least, is that the U.S. was created, and therefore could be dismantled only, by the people of the new nation, not the individual states. Madison in a later letter to N. Trist, I believe, stated clearly and explicitly that no state reserved a right to withdraw, and that if any had, it would have not been valid. I hold to my point that no member of the founding generation ever asserted the right of unilateral withdrawal from the Union. There is also a history of Supreme Court decisions that argues against the right of nullification and/or secession.

            • J H Taylor Apr 4, 2012 @ 12:23

              Yes, Hamilton would go on, wouldn’t he? In this case he was going on about conditional radification.
              On 20 June , 1788, he went on thus:
              “Sir, if we have national objects to pursue, we must have national revenues. If you make requisitions and they are not complied with, what is to be done? It has been well observed, that to coerce the States is one of the maddest projects that was ever devised. A failure of compliance will never be confined to a single State; this being the case, can we suppose it wise to hazard a civil war? Suppose Massachusetts or any large State should refuse, and Congress should attempt to compel them, would they not have influence to procure assistance, especially from those States who are in the same situation as themselves? What a picture does this idea present to our view! A complying State at war with a non-complying State; Congress marching the troops of one State into the bosom of another; this State collecting auxiliaries and forming perhaps a majority against its federal head. Here is a nation at war with itself! A government that can exist only by the sword! Every such war must involve the innocent with the guilty. This single consideration should be sufficient to dispose every peaceable citizen against such a government.

              But can we believe that one State will ever suffer itself to be used as an instrument of coercion? It is a dream. It is impossible. We are brought to this dilemma: Either a federal standing army is to enforce the requisitions, or the federal treasury is left without supplies, and the government without support. What is the cure for this great evil? Nothing but to enable the national laws to operate on individuals, in the same manner as those of the States do. ”
              In both examples, my quote and the quote from the previous post, Hamilton would write, or say, what he thought would carry his side to success. His side was the radification of the Constitution. I am of the opinion, as are many, that any de Jure wording in the Consitution forbiding secession would have doomed ratification.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 6:12

    I think if we are going to proceed with this thread we should confine our discussion to the historiography rather than trying to convince one another with quotes from our favorite source and other vague references. What books have influenced our understanding on the coming of the war?

    • Marc Ferguson Apr 4, 2012 @ 8:44

      I would name, off the top of my head, two books, the first, and more important would be David Potter’s _The Impending Crisis_, and more peripherally William Lee Miller’s _Arguing About Slavery_. Of course, James McPherson’s _Battle Cry of Freedom_ also had a huge impact on my understanding of the coming of the War.

      I’ll be interested in what others have to say about the books have influenced their understanding of the coming of the war.

      • Jimmy Dick Apr 4, 2012 @ 9:30

        I would add Charles B. Dew’s Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War to the list. He explored what the commissioners said at those conventions. Knowing what they said in 1860/61 is crucial to understanding what happened and why.
        I also would add William W. Freehling’s two volume set, The Road to Disunion for a very good exploration of the causes of the war. His explanation of the cultural and social differences and how slavery impacted them or caused them in some cases is illuminating.

  • Joshua Horn Apr 4, 2012 @ 4:50

    I really don’t understand how the majority of historians have decided that slavery is the only cause of the Civil War. While of course it was extremely important, I think it is simplifying a complex situation. I think it can be said that clearly the major reason why the cotton states seceded because of slavery. But at that point the question was what was America to do about it. Would America be peacefully split into two nations, or would it one section launch a war to retain a unified nation. It was not until the war began that the rest of the states seceded. They were for slavery, but thought they could remain in the Union until they were told they had to attack the cotton states.

    So I can see that it can be said that half the states seceded over slavery. But how can the other issues be left out, when they caused the nation to move to war and the other half of the South to secede? Without slavery there would probably have been no secession, but if both agreed on the right to secede, would there have been a war?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 5:09

      I don’t think Ayers would disagree with you. The distinction between the cause of secession and the cause of the war is important. I don’t think that historians are suggesting that slavery was the “only” cause of the Civil War as much as they are pointing out that it caused an increasingly growing rift between the two sections. It framed the debates about westward expansion, the economy, the reach of the federal government, and what it meant to be free in the United States. Even in a state like Virginia, which did not secede in that first round, slavery was at the center of their secession debate in early 1861. Check out William Freehling’s book, Showdown in Virginia, which includes selections from the proceedings.

  • Barbara A. Gannon Apr 4, 2012 @ 4:24

    I have decided to tell my students that slavery is the cause of the Civil War. I say that there is no controversy among anyone who looked at what the people of the time said and did. I say it is just about as sure as the fact that the Japanese bombed Peal Harbor. We need to STOP acknowledging that this is controversial in our efforts to explain the complexities.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 4:28

      As responsible teachers we ought not to dance around the fact that our courses are built around the latest scholarship. Perhaps in 50 years the historiography will have taken us to a different conclusion (unlikely) but right now (apart from the ‘how’ of slavery) there is no debate among historians.

      • Richard Apr 4, 2012 @ 5:17

        Fayetteville, NC 1982, AP history class. I was taught the civil war was fought over the expansion of slavery into the new territories. There is no controversy.

    • Brad Apr 4, 2012 @ 8:17

      I don’t think it’s a question as to what historians agree or don’t agree as the cause or causes. It’s what the facts are and in my opinion slavery or rather the economic interests of the South, which was based upon slavery (and which formed a large basis of the South’s wealth in 1860), is the cause of the War. Some states decided that their economic interests could be better protected within the Union than outside of it and some felt vice versa.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2012 @ 8:38


        I assume you won’t disagree when I suggest that facts need to be interpreted as part of any historical study. What I am suggesting is that over the past few decades historians have looked at a continually growing body of evidence and arrived at a general consensus that slavery is central to their proper interpretation.

        • Brad Apr 4, 2012 @ 8:42


          I fully agree with you. Although I am a non-professional, the evidence (in my humble opinion) is inescapable as to the centrality of slavery and its all pervasive nature.


    • Joe Ryan Jun 2, 2013 @ 8:30

      When the question of what exactly caused the war, is examined in the manner in which truth is found in an American trial court, most reasonable persons can easily see that white racism, not slavery, was the human cause of the war. But for white racism the question of emancipation would have been resolved by 1861, by congressional legislation compensating slaveowners for the lost value of their property, making the freed Africans citizens of the United States, and effecting their dispersal across the breadth of the land. But the white men of the North lacked the moral courage to meet this question as they ought, and the white men of the South, left alone by the Federal Government with an insoluble dilemma, chose secession. Not an unreasonable decision, given the circumstances of the case.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *