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The Debunker: Was the Civil War Fought Over States' Rights?

by Ken Jennings

Even though the Civil War hasn’t receded all that far into the past—the Associated Press reported last month that two children-of-Civil-War-vets are still alive and well and receiving government veterans’ benefits!—we may not remember very much about it. This month, Ken “Burns” Jennings will reveal that a lot of what you think you know about the Civil War is a bunch of Bull Run.

Civil War Myth #4: The War Wasn’t Really About Slavery.

A 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War produced this shocking finding: only 38% of respondents said they believed that slavery was the war’s main cause. Nearly half—48%—opined that “states’ rights” was the real issue, while a wishy-washy 9% blamed both equally. Even more remarkably, younger people were more likely to be slavery skeptics than older ones!

Slaves planting sweet potatoes, 1862/63

Not every “states’ rights” advocate is necessarily some kind of virulent neo-Confederate. In the South, impressions of the war are still, 150 years later, bound up with regional pride in complicated ways that Northerners find hard to understand. The justly lauded valor and sacrifices of the boys in gray are obviously easier to appreciate with misty nostalgia if we can convince ourselves that they weren’t made in the name of the most abhorrently cruel practice in American history. Secondly, there’s a modern political angle to polls like this one, with “states’ rights” having again become a much-buzzed watchword for movement conservatives in debates on subjects from Obamacare to gay marriage. It’s also possible that people today have heard so many “big picture” explanations for the Civil War (the industrial North and the agrarian South and so on and so forth) that they feel uncomfortable reducing all that to a one-word answer like “slavery.” You can see the effects of this in, for example, the episode of The Simpsons (not normally a bastion of neo-Confederate thought) in which Apu becomes an American citizen. On his naturalization test, the examiner asks him about the causes of the Civil War. Apu begins a long, nuanced answer about social and economic factors, only to have the weary proctor interrupt him. “Just say slavery,” he prompts. The received wisdom, even for a viewer with no agenda whatsoever, might be that it’s a ridiculous oversimplification to pin the Civil War on slavery.

There’s only one problem with that: an overwhelming consensus by historians today that of course slavery caused the Civil War, you dimwits. “Probably 90 percent, maybe 95 percent of serious historians about the Civil War would agree on the broad questions of what the war was about,” Princeton’s James McPherson, who won a Pulitzer for his Civil War history Battle Cry of Freedom, has said, “which was the increasing polarization of the country between the free states and the slaves states over the issues of slavery, especially the expansion of slavery.” The best evidence for this is found in the states’ actual 1861 secession statements, which are full of rabid pro-slavery rhetoric and thin on high-minded “states’ rights” hand-waving. In fact, many are critical of states’ rights—specifically, the northern states’ refusal to return freed slaves. If the states that formed the Confederacy were so convinced that the defense of slavery was a necessary and sufficient cause for war, who are we to doubt them? “States’ rights” might sound more flattering in hindsight, but it’s mostly a semantic distinction. There was one particular “states’ right” that the nation as a whole deemed worthy of going to war over: the “right” to legalize ownership of another human being.

Quick Quiz: What future senator carried four southern states in 1948 as the presidential candidate of the pro-segregation States’ Rights Democratic Party, or “Dixiecrats”?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Photo: Slaves planting sweet potatoes, 1862 or 1863. Library of Congress.