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What was the relationship between the institution of slavery and the outbreak and course of the Civil War?

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Without a doubt, the issue of slavery was the underlying cause of the Civil War. However, for many people it was not the moral issue of slavery that was at stake, but rather its political ramifications.

The South needed slaves as a source of labor for its agricultural economy, but the South's reasoning in seceding from the Union had more to do with the right of individual states to make their own decisions regarding the institution of slavery, and the South's desire to extend the use of slaves into newly acquired territories to the west. Once Abraham Lincoln, a Republican with anti-slavery sentiments, was elected, the South felt it had no choice but to secede.

Although in the North, abolition was a growing movement, the Civil War was not started to free the slaves. The main motivation on the Northern side was the preservation of the Union after the South seceded.

Before the Civil War, Lincoln did not make slavery a political issue, although he was personally against it. Once the war started, several pieces of legislation concerning slaves were passed in the North. First, slaves who escaped to the North were contraband of war and would not be returned to their Southern owners. Another law freed these slaves, and a third allowed freed slaves to join the Union army.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime measure, not a law to free all slaves. It stated that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in the Southern rebellious states would be permanently freed. Many of these freed slaves, close to 200,000 of them altogether, were then recruited into the Union army and navy. The war held larger stakes after this proclamation. It meant not only the preservation of the Union, but freedom for all slaves in the South. However, it took the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was fully ratified and adopted on December 18, 1865, to end slavery finally and forever in the United States.

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Historians find endlessly puzzling that the Confederate apologist claim that the Civil War was about "states' rights" is so common among the general public. Slavery was the cause of the Civil War.

"States' rights" is, at best, an evasive, half right answer. It is evasive in avoiding the critical point that the most pressing "states' rights" issue in the United States, from the Missouri Compromise in 1820 until the outbreak of the War, was how to decide if new states entering the Union would allow slavery or not. The Missouri Compromise famously provided for the admission of Maine as a non-slave, or free, state, and Missouri as a slave state, and set the southern boundary of Missouri as the boundary also marking as slave, to the south, and free, to the north, states that would join the Union from the territory the United States acquired with the Louisiana Purchase. Thus, oddly, Missouri itself violated the rule that originated from the Compromise that bears its name in being a slave state that, necessarily, lies north of its own southern border.

In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison began to publish The Liberator as a journal of emancipation. In this period, "anti-slavery" is not a useful term. Some people, very few, called for the immediate emancipation of all slaves. Others opposed the expansion of slavery into new states, not because of any concern for the slaves, but because they hoped to move to new states and start their own farms, and they did not want slaves nearby performing the same sorts of agricultural labor they would have to perform on their own farms. We call such persons "free soilers." They were anti-slavery, but not in the sense that seems obvious and necessary to us -- eliminate slavery entirely. But the free soil position illustrates how "states' rights" is not different from the debate about slavery in the decades before the Civil War.

1833 saw the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which was an abolitionist organization. That is, its members advocated immediate abolition of slavery. They began to collect signatures on petitions to Congress calling for federal legislation abolishing slavery. Prominent women's rights advocates Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were both active in the abolition movement as well as women's rights. Congress responded by periodically adopting gag rules that required it to refuse to consider any such petitions, which became a further point of conflict between the two sides.

By 1850, it was obvious to all concerned, as Senator from South Carolina and apologist for slavery John C. Calhoun pointed out, that the population in the non slave states at the North was growing more rapidly than the population of the slave owning South, giving the North more seats in the House of Representatives and more votes in the electoral college. At the time of his famous speech on the topic, several non slave states had applied for admission to the Union, making it highly likely that they would soon predominate in the Senate as well. Slave owners worried that the predominance of non slave states in the makeup of the federal government would lead to legislation abolishing slavery.

The Compromise of 1850 addressed territory the United States gained from the Mexican War, admitting California as a free state; establishing territorial governments for New Mexico and Utah that left the slavery question open; setting the western and northern boundaries of the new state of Texas; eliminating the slave trade, but not slavery, in Washington, D.C.; and modifying the Fugitive Slave Act to provide for federal enforcement to return escaped slaves to their owners. Again, we see that "states' rights" involved prominently the question of whether new states would permit slavery. The Compromise of 1850, which came with high hopes of settling the issue, now looks like just one more step towards war.

The last major events that illustrate vividly how "states' rights" was really a battle about the expansion of slavery in the decades before the Civil War occurred in what we now call "bleeding Kansas." The territory that makes up the states of Kansas and Nebraska attracted numerous settlers during the 1850s. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 established their boundaries and opened them to settlement. It left to the people of the territories to decide if they would allow slavery, even though, under the Missouri Compromise, being entirely north of the southern border of Missouri, both territories should have been free.

Settlement in the Kansas territory in particular became a battleground between advocates and opponents of slavery, both sides hoping to make the state fall their way on the issue of allowing slavery. Kansas territory produced four proposed state constitutions, some allowing slavery, some prohibiting it, before Kansas joined the Union as a free state in 1861. For the seven years between the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the admission of Kansas in 1861, Kansas would serve as a miniature civil war in advance as advocates of slavery, abolitionists, and free soilers fought each other in often deadly battles.

Finally, the Lincoln-Douglas debates that created the debate format beloved of high school debate teams to this day originated in 1858 when future president Abraham Lincoln challenged incumbent Stephen Douglas for a U.S. Senate seat. Lincoln, in his famous "House Divided" speech, had taken the position that, ultimately, the United States must either allow slavery everywhere, or eliminate it entirely. Even at this early date, he took the position he would take at the outset of his presidency and the Civil War that followed closely on its heels. Even as he believed the U.S. must be either all slave or all free, he pledged to take no official action to interfere with slavery where it existed, a pledge he kept in the opening months of the Civil War by instructing military commanders in the Union Army to return runaway slaves to their owners.

Douglas was a prominent advocate of the "popular sovereignty" approach, according to which voters in individual states should choose to allow slavery or not. He also reflected the growing problem of sectional division, or North (free) v. South (slave) in that he had won the admiration even of Republicans, then a new Party, by opposing the most prominent of the pro slavery constitutions from Kansas, and of northern Democrats, who already disagreed on the slavery question with their southern counterparts.

A persistent, gnawing issue at least from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, was the expansion of slavery into new states. "States' rights," or more properly, states' powers, remains an important issue in the United States today, with ongoing debates on the topic. No one threatens to secede over it now, however, because it does not come attached to the overriding moral issue of whether to allow slavery to expand, or even to exist, a question we decided with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment immediately after, um, the Civil War, which resulted from the national argument over slavery.

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