Well, no, actually, it wasn’t

Many people are going to attack the logic of the statement itself, and there’s much to attack it on. Negotiations require, to some degree, an acceptance of the legitimacy of the viewpoints on the other side. Given that the civil war was fought to maintain chattel slavery as the dominant mode of economic production in the south, it is puzzling that Trump conceives of a negotiation that legitimizes the concept of owning other human beings.

And everywhere else that had chattel slavery – which was most places across time and geography – managed to get rid of it without a civil war.

So Trump’s question isn’t in fact that stupid, is it?

Negotiations are possible. The Empire got rid of it in 1833, compensation being deployed. Brazil took until the 1880s, still no civil war. Mauretania, legally at least, had it until 1984, no civil war.

It is actually an interesting question therefore, why did the US have the civil war? Even if we accept that it was just about chattel slavery, which it wasn’t, why was the American case so different?

What this actually is is an example of that American exceptionalism the left so often decries. Because the US had a civil war over slavery therefore the only way to deal with slavery is a civil war. Entirely missing the manner in which the rest of the world didn’t.

16 thoughts on “Well, no, actually, it wasn’t”

  1. Negotiations require, to some degree, an acceptance of the legitimacy of the viewpoints on the other side.

    But not the legitimacy of your own, which is why the Guardian is cheering on the EU on Brexit.

  2. “It is actually an interesting question therefore, why did the US have the civil war?”

    That’s actually an easy question to answer and one that people keep (deliberately, I think, getting wrong). We had a civil war to prevent the country from being broken up and to solidify the ‘once in, you’re in for life’ paradigm that the US government rules with.

    Slavery was the *initiating* event to be sure. But if the South had eliminated slavery while still insisting on their own emancipation, Lincoln would still have gone to war to prevent their secession.

    Lincoln was pretty clear in his writings that slavery, while repugnant to him, was a secondary issue to unity.

    But people like clean hero/villain stories and that sort of thing muddies the water by, at least, making the hero less ‘good’ and showing the villains might have had a (minor) point.

  3. Agammamon is correct. The war was fought because the CSA seceded.

    And it seceded in order to keep slavery.

    So you can argue that it wasn’t about slavery. But you’d be wrong.

    (The “it was about State’s rights” crowd like to ignore that there was only one right that was at issue — the right to have slavery. It always comes back to slavery.)

    However, I’m totally unconvinced it was about maintaining slavery “as the dominant mode of economic production in the south”. That’s assuming that the CSA were as statically minded as the modern Left. Many there must have seen that industrialisation was coming.

    If the North had been prepared to accept slavery, I have no doubt that it would have been slowly made uneconomic, just as it was elsewhere.

  4. Bloke in Aberdeen

    There’s an econtalk on this:


    I didn’t find everything in it convincing, but one point he makes seems reasonable.

    After Britain stopped the trans Atlantic slave trade the value of slaves multiplied. The nature of the economies of the southern States meant that the money required to compensate slave owners was unfeasible.

  5. Philip Scott Thomas

    The proper question to asked is what the Confederacy thought they were fighting for. And we can get some idea of that by looking at popular culture of the time. For instance, the second most popular song in the Confederate States after Dixie was The Bonny Blue Flag:

    We are a band of brothers and native to the soil
    Fighting for the property we gained by honest toil
    And when our rights were threatened, the cry rose near and far
    Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star!

    Slavery was only the proximate cause. The ultimate cause was states’ rights.

  6. At the risk of attracting derision, is it not a different inequality issue at stake here? Between an industrialising North and an agricultural South? If one looks at the geology, there is an underlying reason why the international nomenclature for the division of the Carboniferous has replaced the Britocentric ‘Coal Measures’ with ‘Pennsylvanian’, and ‘Carboniferous Limestone’ with ‘Mississippian’. With coal as the driver of industrialisation in the steam age, states with easily accessible coal were able to weather (pun intended) the climatic changes that caused famine and poverty in agricultural areas in the decades preceding the Civil War (note ‘Les Miserable’, the ‘Year of Revolutions’, the ‘Irish Potato Famine’ etc). In respect of the latter, the Irish have much Carb Limestone, but not much Coal Measures. Whether the resentment of the impoverished was directed against the wealthy or ruling classes in their own State, or against the seemingly unaffected in the more industrialised neighbours, hardly seems to matter.

    Anyway, the North had no need for slavery in the mid 19th C, in the same way as Britain had no need for it after the Industrial Revolution.

    Hence, I suggest that the black issue was coal, rater than people.

    (OK, someone is going to come up with West Virginia, but that falls to the north very quickly in the Civil War. Oil could have been the South’s equivalent, but that was decades later, and relied on the internal combustion engine to replace the external combustion one – the latter being the steam engine).

  7. “The war was fought because the CSA seceded.” Which was not unconstitutional.

    They seceded because of slavery – or so their politicians said at the time, and I see no reason to doubt them.

    “The ultimate cause was states’ rights.” Nope; the southern states were dead against states’ rights when they were used by northern states; they only became pro states’ rights when they used them themselves. Their was no principled attachment to states’ rights by either side. Which may itself be the Big Lesson.

  8. ken: As I pointed out in a comment about lest week’s Dr Who. Bill says “so, 1814, slavery’s still a thing then?” No. Not in 1814 in England. Legally, since the Norman Conquest, confirmed and enforced in court in 1706.

  9. “the North had no need for slavery in the mid 19th C, in the same way as Britain had no need for it after the Industrial Revolution”. Bonkers! As jgh points out, slavery vanished in England in the middle ages. In Lowland Scotland too, as far as anyone can tell. It probably hung on a bit later in Wales and the Scottish Highlands (and hung on much later in Ireland of course).

    The need for court decisions in England and Scotland in the 18th century arose from the new phenomenon of people returning from the West Indies and bringing black slaves/servants with them. Servants, the courts decided, not slaves.

  10. It wasn’t even a civil war.

    Would it be a civil war if Europe sent an invasion force to England now to prevent Brexit? No. Southern forces were fighting for independence, not control of the country. The UK is not seeking control of Europe, rather independence from it.

    The cause of the war was Lincoln’s refusal to let the South go. The South made a strategic error in shooting at Fort Sumter. It gave Lincoln enough political capital to send his army south. (Note that the Japanese completely missed this lesson when they attacked Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941. Yamamoto surely knew the history.) I believe the war was simply to protect Lincoln’s legacy. As Churchill didn’t want to preside over the dissolution of the Empire, neither did Lincoln.

    Compensated emancipation would not work in the U.S. The Federal government had a very small budget; revenue came mainly from tariffs; tariffs were mainly paid by slave owners. The Feds didn’t have the money; the only way they could get it under contemporary tax law was from the slave owners. How’s that for ironing?

    The South didn’t need a reason to secede. Any more than UK needs one now. Claims about slavery are contentious, and irrelevant. The war does not become legitimate even if it were about slavery.

    The notion that the right to secession was settled by the Civil War (sic) is false. The war stopped secession. It was not a legal determination, it was a military one, settling nothing.

  11. “Hence, I suggest that the black issue was coal, rater than people.”

    I have made the case on these pages before that the Civil War (sic) was fought over lighthouses. I think it is valid argument.

  12. Richard Gadsden

    Slavery wasn’t threatened by Lincoln’s election. It wasn’t that the North wouldn’t allow the South to hold slaves.

    So what did the South object to? What was the threat?

    Ending the Fugitive Slave Act, so requiring slaveowners to use the state law of free states to get back escaped slaves (there is a clause in the Constitution, but before the Fugitive Slave Act, free states had found ways to make it difficult and expensive to enforce).

    Enforcing the First Amendment and appointing postmasters across the South who would allow “abolitionist propaganda” in the mails*

    Preventing any expansion of slavery into the territories (ie Kansas and New Mexico), and also into any future territories – it was expected that Cuba might be annexed, as indeed it was in 1898, and much of the South saw it as an opportunity to expand slavery.

    The right of the Southern states to enforce slavery within their own territory wasn’t under dispute in 1860-1; indeed the slaves in those states that stayed in the Union (most notably, Kentucky) continued to be slaves throughout the Civil War, and the US government did nothing to interfere with them until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery after the war. The problem was that if they’d accepted Lincoln, then slavery would be confined to the 15 slave states of 1860, that they would have little or no influence in the federal government (there were Republican majorities in both House and Senate, but not a single Southern Republican) and the only rights they would have are the ones granted by the Constitution, rather than the considerably greater ones obtained in the Compromises of 1820 and 1850.

    *Newspapers were mostly delivered by the US Mail in the nineteenth century, which had a cheap rate for newspapers that were delivered uncovered; this meant that the postmaster knew which newspapers were being delivered and could stop the ones he didn’t like. This was probably unconstitutional under the First Amendment, but federal courts just didn’t get used like that in the 1850s. You could send abolitionist material through the mail in the South, but you had to put it in an envelope and pay the full price – and that would ensure a tiny circulation.

  13. “So what did the South object to? What was the threat?”

    Morrill Tariff.

    The South was paying for the damn party that was the United States. The North got to choose what to spend it on (through greater representation in Congress). The Morrill Tariff, strongly supported by Lincoln, was going to triple tariffs. Northern states wouldn’t even enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, so South Carolina said, “Screw you, we’re leaving and taking our money with us.”

    Lighthouses were an excellent example of how the North spent the money on themselves, and not the South.

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