To say, as John F. Kelly recently did, that the Civil War was not caused by slavery but rather by a failure to compromise is to create a false dichotomy. Although he implied that compromise and slavery were two mutual exclusive categories, saying that the two sides failed to compromise over the issue of slavery means, in effect, that slavery was the cause. (Every civil war is caused by a failure to compromise, but that begs of the question: over what issue?) The different views and goals of the two camps—north and south, those who opposed slavery’s expansion and those who supported it—could not be reconciled within the structures set up by the U.S. Constitution. The result was a deadly and destructive Civil War that ended the institution of slavery. It also poisoned relations between the two regions, the Union and the Confederacy, even as it failed to protect formerly enslaved people from exploitation and violence.
At the time of the American Revolution, many founders hoped that slavery was on its way out. It clearly violated revolutionary principles, and its profitability was in decline. For both those reasons, the ideological and the economic, founders hoped slavery would die away on its own. The Constitution they drafted allowed for an end to U.S. participation in the international slave trade after two decades, and indeed the trade was duly outlawed in 1808. They also saw the rising tide of manumissions as a sign that slave owners would gradually release more and more of their human property. Numerous states did move toward abolition, voting for a gradual process that over time liberated every enslaved person in their state. In this way, the U.S. moved from having only one state that prohibited slavery (Vermont, which was founded without it in the first years after independence) to having many states without slavery.
At the same time as many states moved to fulfill the promise of the revolution’s emphasis on liberty, others became more committed to slavery. The cotton gin made slavery more profitable again, especially in the Deep South, while the closure of the international slave trade gave masters in the upper south a new way to profit from their enslaved property. Rather than respond to declining profits with manumissions and gradual abolition, they began to sell their slaves to states further south, creating a vast internal slave trade that filled the gap left by the end of the transatlantic trade. With northern states rejecting slavery and southern states continuing and increasing their involvement, the two regions polarized over the issue.
Meanwhile, the U.S. was expanding (in part in order to seize more land for cotton cultivation), and a fierce political struggle developed over the status of each new states that entered the Union. Those in states without slavery did not want to see the institution spread, because their residents wanted to move into slave-free lands; whereas those with slavery supported the admission of new slave states so they could sell their bound laborers or take them west should they decide to move.
These opposing positions unexpectedly elevated the importance of the Senate. According to the Constitution, each state elected two senators. As long as the numbers of slave and free states entering the Union remained equal, the Senate could not act decisively on the issue: they could not vote to limit slavery, nor could they vote to protect it permanently. A series of compromises (as in the Compromise of 1850) was to ensure that two states entered together, one slave and the other free. That solution would maintain the stalemate and keep slavery off the national government’s agenda. As anti-slavery sentiment grew, these compromises became a blocking strategy, one that ensured that slavery could not be abolished.
When the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln won the Presidency, southern states left the Union. They did so in reaction to the fact that the platform of Lincoln’s party declared its opposition to further expansion of slavery in the territories. Before the election, southerners declared that should Lincoln win, they would leave the Union. He did, and the southern states seceded, one by one.
To pinpoint failed compromise as the problem is (at best) to mistake the collapse of a political strategy for the reason such a strategy was needed in the first place. As more American voters came to support the containment of slavery within the states that currently allowed it—and some of them worked for its eventual demise—southern slave owners came to feel threatened. The Union they entered when they signed the U.S. Constitution in 1788 included many people unhappy with slavery but also widespread support in law and custom for the institution. The Union they left seventy-two years later included more people who wanted slavery done away with than not, and many states that were inhospitable to the institution. Slave owners left to protect their right to own people and to keep opening new markets for the sale of human beings.
Rewriting history to deny that slavery caused the Civil War supports a popular narrative of the Lost Cause as romantic, tragic, and essentially benign. The war itself, which brought death and suffering on an unprecedented scale, as well as the inability of Americans to reach a nonviolent end to the ownership of people were both certainly tragic. Yet a war fought over whether to continue treating people as property was neither romantic nor benign. The Civil War has become a battleground today because of the resurgence of open racism in the United States, and no surer sign of that fact exists than the push to deny that slavery caused that war.