With flags being banned, statues removed, and buildings renamed, the Civil War is more current now than at any time in the past 50 years. The Confederacy and everything associated with it is increasingly considered indefensible. People from both sides of the political spectrum often label Confederate commanders such as Robert E. Lee "traitors" and assert that no one who fought against the United States should be honoured with a statue. When confronted with the awkward fact that the United States itself was founded by a number of traitors who dared to fight against their lawful government, these Unionists fall back on the issue of slavery: what might have been right for George Washington and compatriots was wrong for Lee and his compatriots because the latter were fighting to preserve the institution of slavery. Slavery is evil, and anything done in the name of slavery is inherently tainted, Q.E.D.
This line of reasoning is problematic, and it is time to reconsider the arguments for and against secession and the need for an aggressive response to it. This is not inherently an argument about statues or other memorabilia, although it would, of course, influence those arguments as well. The question is far more pertinent than that in our increasingly divided nation; after all, some of the leading voices in California dared to call for the state to secede after Trump's election last November. It did not come to that -- this time; but who feels confident that we will not be faced with a possible secession attempt in the next half century? (A substantial minority of Californians still support independence, according to polls.1) If so, we would do well to consider in advance whether to treat the secessionists as traitors and begin a new civil war.
In a debate about justice, the Confederacy starts with two strikes against it, since it was based on the morally repugnant foundation of slavery. While there were people, even in the North, who argued in support of slavery in 1861, today there is not one rational person who will defend the institution. Recognizing that the preservation of slavery was not likely to be a popular cause, historians sympathetic to the South developed, almost as soon as the war ended, an interpretation of the conflict that minimized the South's "peculiar institution" in the origin of the war. They argued that slavery was only one of a number of sectional issues that divided the country in 1861. This, and some related arguments favourable to the Confederacy, was later labelled the "Lost Cause" narrative by pro-Union historians. They noted, correctly, that the rhetoric of secessionists in 1861 was almost exclusively about preserving slavery, and that states' declarations of secession invariably listed the threat to the institution of slavery as their primary justification.
There is no doubt that opponents of the "Lost Cause" narrative were correct on this point: South Carolina and the other Deep South states seceded because they wanted to protect slavery. That being said, however, does not end the issue. The justice of the secession may be on dubious grounds because it was in promotion of something that we all now denounce as evil, but it is possible (and reasonable) to distinguish between the reasons motivating secession and the legality or justice of secession itself. We are confident now that slavery was a bad cause, but we are not in a position to judge from the perspective of 1861; and we can assume that any future issue that gives rise to secessionist sentiment will have equally divided opinion. After all, when has a government acknowledged that a subordinate unit has just cause for seceding? If they could agree on that much, they could avoid the secession by making the necessary legal compromises. We must assume that any issue that brings one part of the country to the point of wanting to separate from the rest will be one about which there is the sharpest disagreement, and therefore we cannot adjudicate secession based solely on the justice of its motivation. If abortion, for example, became a divisive sectional issue in our country, which of the two sides would recognize the legitimacy of the other as a cause for secession?
Focussing on the reasons behind secession also creates a false perspective. The "Lost Cause" narrative distorted reality by acting as though slavery were not the cause of the differences between the North and the South. However, the reaction against the "Lost Cause" has created its own distortions. It has produced what I call the "Just Cause" narrative and consists chiefly of this: slavery was bad, the Confederacy existed to defend slavery, therefore everything associated with the Confederacy was bad. This is not the most nuanced expression of the "Just Cause" narrative, but it is surprising how often arguments against the South (and in favour of renaming buildings, removing statues, etc.) comes down to little more than this.
The problem is that the "Just Cause" narrative treats the Civil War as a crusade against slavery from beginning to end, when it was in fact no such thing. From the start, Lincoln made clear that he was concerned to "preserve the Union," and that slavery was of comparatively negligible concern. The fact that the war ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in force and the 13th amendment already passed by Congress (though not yet ratified) makes it appear in retrospect as though the war was about slavery and its abolition. But this was not the case, and it should not be assumed that it was anyone's goal in April 1861. In fact, had the Union won the war in the first year, before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the South would almost certainly have been re-incorporated into the United States with slavery intact, with little chance for an amendment abolishing it. One wonders what Lincoln's reputation would have been if that had happened.
Abraham Lincoln's unambiguous goal in initiating the war was to preserve the Union – that is, to prevent any states from withdrawing from the Constitution. His well-known quotation on the matter states his motives succinctly:
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 some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.
If we are to give credence to the motives of the seceding states as enunciated by their own statesmen, we own the same to Lincoln. Therefore, we can confidently say that slavery was the cause of secession, but that union was the cause of the war. Lincoln could have chosen to allow the Confederate states to secede peacefully, but he did not. And he certainly did not attack them to put down slavery, as he himself admitted. In fact, there were four slave states still in the Union throughout the war, and the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to them.
The arguments thus far apply only to the seven states that had formed the Confederate government as of February 1861. The remaining slave states (Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Missouri) stayed loyal to the Union in spite of their concerns for the institution of slavery. It was not until Lincoln called for volunteers and insisted on a quota from these border states that four of them joined the Confederacy. When Secretary of War Simon Cameron issued a command to governor John Letcher to provide Virginia militia for the invasion of the Confederate states, Letcher replied:
I have only to say that the militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington for any such use or purpose as they have in view. Your object is to subjugate the Southern States, and a requisition made upon me for such an object - an object, in my judgment, not within the purview of the Constitution or the act of 1795 - will not be complied with. You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and, having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the administration has exhibited toward the South.2
Virginia did not secede until it was forced to make a choice between invading the Confederate states or becoming one of them. Although slavery was at the top of Virginians' minds, therefore, it cannot be said that slavery was the cause of the secession; instead, Virginia seceded in response to a Constitutional question of the legitimacy of secession and the use of force by the Federal government.
So it is not at all reasonable to reduce Confederate motivation to the preservation of slavery, as "Just Cause" partisans do. Some states did secede almost exclusively because of slavery; others seceded primarily over the use of force to attack other states. Still others slave states remained in the Union with no intention of giving up slavery. It is only partially true to say that the Confederacy "fought to preserve slavery." It did, but it fought for other reasons as well. In fact, while many of the officers had a direct interest in slavery, the rank and file by and large owned no slaves. They may have benefitted in some way from the existence of slavery, but, as James McPherson's book What They Fought For shows, protection of this institution played very little if any role in their motivation to fight. Instead, for them it was a "Second War of Independence," with the same basic justifications as the original; second and more basic, it was a war to defend their homes, families, and property. An Illinois officer recognized these goals and how they gave strength to the Southern cause: "We are fighting for the Union...a high and noble sentiment, but after all a sentiment. They are fighting for independence and are animated by passion and hatred against invaders" (What They Fought For, p.19). Somehow, this nuance is lost on those who see every statue of a Confederate soldier as a representation of slavery, pure and simple.
It is ironic to hear our contemporaries, many of whom express the gravest suspicions of the federal government and its motives, argue that there is no peaceful path to secession from the United States. Surely everyone can imagine some contingency in which withdrawal from the federal government would be the only alternative to an intolerable regime. Lincoln himself had said, on the floor of Congress not 15 years prior to his invasion, that "any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right..."3 Ironically, Lincoln seemed not to think that this right applied to those within the United States. He said that he wanted to preserve government "of the people, by the people, and for the people," but it is hard to see how that sort of government would need to be enforced by military invasion. If California were to secede, would the rest of the nation feel honour-bound to invade it in order to preserve our democratic form of government?
There were alternatives, in 1861 as there are today. Some of the most ardent abolitionists, including Senator Charles Sumner, supported allowing the Confederate states to exit the Union peacefully, as did many others. Lincoln chose to enforce the Union in the name of free government, and he did it explicitly without reference to ending slavery. To put the onus of "defending slavery" on all those who died defending against this attempt is reductionist and misleading.
This is not to say that the debate over Confederate statues and flags should necessarily be resolved in favour of those who want to preserve them; after all, this iconography, and race relations in general, have a long history after the war ended. But it is important to consider the issues of secession and civil war from the perspective of 1861 rather than through the distorting lens of how we know things turned out. The United States was founded by an act of secession, and, much as we might lament the possible breakup of our own country, it is impossible to stay consistent with the principles of the Declaration of Independence and yet insist that any attempt to separate from our federal government is a matter of treason.
Moreover, while we all recognize that slavery was the worst possible cause for secession, it is important not to replace the false narrative of the "Lost Cause" with the equally false one of the "Just Cause". If the Civil War had been initiated to end slavery, our discussion of it would be very different. The invasion of the Confederate states can be applauded because it led to the end of slavery, but the decision to invade cannot be justified on that basis since abolition was not its aim. This is an important distinction because people caught up in the justice of ending slavery often end up extending the moral high ground to the federal government against any attempt at resistance or secession. People on both sides of the political spectrum have reasons to be sceptical of federal power and would be wise to recognize that the right of resistance in general is important to maintain, and that a peaceful secession by sovereign states is by far the best way to end a political association that has reached the point where resistance is necessary.
2Cited in the Wikipedia article "Virginia in the American Civil War," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Virginia_in_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=793071110 (accessed August 2, 2017).
3Cong. Globe, 30th Cong., 1st Sess. 94 (1848).