The Washington Examiner’s error on the Civil War

This is an edited version of an e-mail I sent on May 26 to the Washington Examiner:

Today’s editorial, “Slaves to the government dole,” has a historical error so serious that I would like to ask you to forward this e-mail directly to the editors so that they might fix it.

They write:

Throughout our history, politicians and pundits have often said “America is at a crossroads.” Sometimes it was true, as in the final convulsive years leading up to the Civil War when we decided to end slavery.

There was no “decision to end slavery” in the “years leading up to the Civil War.” Before the war, no one but a few abolitionists thought of ending slavery, and they were not in a position to decide to do so. The decision to end slavery was made during and after the war, in two stages: first, by President Lincoln when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, in which he used his war powers to declare that in all slave holding territory still in rebellion, the slaves would be free when the Union Army took control of that territory (thus the Proclamation would free the slaves in the Confederacy when and as the Confederacy was beaten, but not free the slaves in the slave-holding border states which had remained in the Union); and second, by the 13th Amendment which abolished the institution of slavery in the United States. The 13th Amendment was passed by the Congress on January 31, 1865, two and half months before the end of the war, and its ratification by the states was completed in December 1865, eight months after the end of the war.

For a person to think that the decision to end slavery was made BEFORE the Civil War means that he doesn’t understand the most basic facts about the Civil War. It means he probably thinks that the Civil War began because the North decided and declared that slavery shall end, and the South resisted this decision, and war then broke out between North and South to decide if slavery should exist or not. I know an Ivy League graduate who thinks this. Because the war did result in the end of slavery, it is understandable that people have this very simplified view of it, but it’s completely wrong.

The great issue that led to the split between North and South was not the existence of slavery itself, but the Democratic Party’s program, adopted by the Congress in 1854, to allow for the expansion of slavery beyond the Old South, where it had previously been confined, into the new territories in the West, and even (as per the Dred Scott decision) into the older states of the North as well. The Republican Party came into existence in 1854 to oppose the expansion of slavery. The Republican Party, while it may have contained some abolitionists, was not an abolitionist party; it did not stand for the ending of slavery where it already existed; it stood for keeping slavery out of the new territories and out of the North generally. The Civil War took place because a Republican, Lincoln, was elected president in November 1860, and in response seven Deep South states—where people had the crazed notion that Lincoln intended to invade the South and end slavery as soon as he took office—seceded and formed the Confederacy. When Lincoln became president in March 1861 he tried to reconcile the South and told them that he had no designs on their peculiar institution, nor did he have any power to end their institution even if he wanted to. In a desperate move to persuade the seceding states to return to the Union, he even floated the offer of a constitutional amendment that would protect slavery in the South forever. Lincoln’s outreach failed, and in April 1861 the Confederate army bombarded a United States military installation, Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, and forced it to surrender. The attack on Fort Sumter led Virginia, the principal state of the upper South, to join the lower South in secession, and led Lincoln to call up 75,000 volunteers to form an army to quell the rebellion, which in turn led the rest of the upper South to secede.

So that’s how the Civil War began. While it was the slavery controversy that led the Deep South to secede and form the Confederacy (in November and December 1860), it was the firing on Fort Sumter (in April 1861) that led the Union to form an army to defeat the Confederacy. The purpose of the war, from the North’s point of view, was to subdue the rebellion and restore the Union, not to end slavery. The initial decision to end slavery partially, via the Emancipation Proclamation, was still years in the future, and only took shape in Lincoln’s mind as a result of the long terrible years of the war and his realization that the freeing of the slaves was a necessary weapon of war to be used to defeat the South. There was also the feeling that to justify a war of such scale and such losses it had to have a larger result than merely a return to the status quo ante, though Lincoln always insisted that his decisive reason for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation was to help win the war and restore the Union, not to end slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation set off a huge controversy in the North, as there were many northern Democrats who supported war to restore the Union, but not war to end slavery and to revolutionize the South. The decision by Congress to end slavery entirely via constitutional amendment, which was strongly pushed by Lincoln, was only made at the very end of the war, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lawrence Auster

- end of initial entry -

James P. writes:

My experience in writing letters to the editor is that they are much more likely to be published if they are very short. This is particularly true of the Examiner, which usually devotes about a quarter of an already-small page to printing letters.

LA replies:

Of course it’s way too long to be a letter to the editor. But I wasn’t seeking to get it published. That’s why I sent my e-mail to an individual at the Examiner and asked him to forward it to the editors.

Paul Nachman writes:

There’s a lot you wrote that I didn’t know, most notably Lincoln’s proposal for a slavery-preserving constitutional amendment.

LA writes:

I initially said that the Examiner had not replied to my e-mail. I’ve since learned that they never received the e-mail. I’ve adjusted the entry accordingly.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 01, 2010 12:25 PM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):