There's no question: the Civil War was about slavery. Denying the central role that slavery played in the Civil War goes against all the facts. And yet some still cling to the revisionist history argument that the South wanted independence or lower taxes, or fought for states' rights. But history shows that states' rights meant the right to own slaves.
How did slavery cause the Civil War? For decades before the war, Americans became increasingly polarized over the question of slavery, as the number of slaves increased in the South and decreased in the North. Westward expansion created a new battleground over slavery, with slave states promoting the expansion of the "peculiar institution" into new territories like Missouri, Kansas, and California. Abraham Lincoln predicted that slavery would split the country, and a shocking map convinced him that slavery had to end. Finally, the abolition of slavery was a condition of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.
History before, during, and after the Civil War proves that the war was about slavery. Anyone who still doubts what the Civil War was really about should listen to the words of Confederates and former slaves - both groups agreed on this point.
Jefferson Davis and Alexander H. Stephens governed the Confederacy as president and vice president, respectively. In March 1861, Stephens declared that the cornerstone of the Confederacy was white supremacy. In what became known as the "Cornerstone Speech," Stephens introduced the new Confederate Constitution piece by piece, then turned to slavery. As for the "peculiar institution of African slavery," Stephens stated it was "the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution."
The vice president went on to disagree with the notion that "all men are created equal." Stephens flatly declared, "Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error." Instead, the Confederacy promised that some people were less equal: "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man." Stephens justified slavery and declared it the cornerstone of the Confederacy by arguing that, for Black Americans, "slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, slavery expanded in many Southern states. This included South Carolina and Mississippi, where slaves made up more than half of the population. By contrast, many Northern states saw slavery decline before it disappeared completely in the 1830s.
As the country expanded westward, Americans clashed over whether to expand slavery. After the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the government tacitly agreed to admit slave states and free states at the same time to maintain the balance between the two. In the Compromise of 1850, California joined the union as a free state, but the deal also strengthened the Fugitive Slave Law. Runaway slaves could no longer safely escape to the North; instead, the law penalized anyone who aided in a slave's escape and helped embolden the existing bounty hunter industry. Rather than solving the problem of slavery, these compromises only delayed the inevitable: an American reckoning on slavery.
In 1856, Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner condemned attempts to expand slavery into Kansas. Pronouncing it "the crime against Kansas," Sumner railed against Southern supporters of slavery on the Senate floor. Two days later, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked Sumner with a cane, declaring Sumner had committed a "libel on South Carolina." Brooks beat Sumner until the cane broke, and Sumner barely escaped with his life.
The violent outburst showed the deep divide over the issue of slavery. In the aftermath, Northerners called Sumner an abolitionist hero, while the South celebrated Brooks - with supporters reportedly mailing him canes as a thank you.
The war over slavery didn't start with the Civil War. Bloody conflicts in the years before the war proved the slavery debate would not resolve peacefully. Since the 1830s, the Abolitionist Movement had fought for the emancipation of slaves, causing proponents of slavery to fight back. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act introduced another source of conflict: territories could vote on whether to allow slavery.
Kansas became a bloody battleground in a fight known as 'Bleeding Kansas.' Settlers from both sides flooded the state to alter the balance of an upcoming representative election, which pro-slavery forces won in 1855. In reality, 95% of the pro-slavery votes were fraudulent, causing more chaos. Missourians raided towns across the border, while abolitionist John Brown went to war against slavery.