Was the Civil War fought over slavery or state’s rights?

There was a fascinating article on the demise of Firefly on fireflyfans.net, where the author says with some justification that the show’s heroes were patterned after an idealized Confederacy from the American Civil War, minus the slavery issue, and that this may have had a role in the show’s termination.  The claim that I’m uncertain about, however, is that the author says the Civil War was not fought over slavery, it was fought over state’s rights.  How much truth is there to this statement?  I know Abe Lincoln said that he didn’t care about freeing the slaves, just preserving the Union, but I remember from my high school history class that slavery was a pretty big issue at the time.  Then again, the winners write the textbooks, and I went to school in the North… how biased was my US History education?

5 thoughts on “Was the Civil War fought over slavery or state’s rights?

  1. Interesting. This post made me go back and read over an 11-page paper I wrote in high school on the subject of Lincoln’s motivations during the Civil War. It’s a tricky issue, and there’s a lot of evidence for various things. Lincoln certainly was a Republican, who believed that the spread of slavery should be stopped, but he didn’t feel that Congress had the power to abolish slavery. For the most part, though, he wanted to do whatever he could to hold the Union together.

  2. Interesting, as we went to the same school and all. I remember in history learning both sides of the issue, and that state’s rights were the Damn Big Part of the Civil War. Slavery itself was the irritiant, but the issue itself was not slavery as slavery, but slavery as an example of states’ rights.

  3. Yeah, the way I’ve always understood it (also a northerner, though) was that distally there were issues such as state’s rights and sectionalism at work, but proximally, it boiled down to slavery in the South and ‘state’s rights’ to keep slaves. I’ve always understood that even beyond slaveowners (who were a minority of the population) the symbolic existance of slavery played a huge social role in the antebellum South. So as an impetus to the civil war, I’ve always held it as the most direct cause.

  4. As far as I could tell, slavery was a catalyst for a lot of states’ rights issues, but the Southern states were not the only ones whose rights were getting trampled on in the years leading up to the Civil War. For one thing, the South kept getting laws through Congress that required people in Northern states to return runaway slaves to their “owners” down South- this seriously offended a lot of Northerners, who in turn agitated for federal laws abolishing slavery. The point is, free states full of people who had a moral problem with slavery, and slave states that were economically dependent on slavery, just couldn’t live in one country together.

    By fighting to keep the Union together, Lincoln was effectively resolving to abolish slavery, because, at least in my estimation of things, he knew that this moral conundrum could only be resolved by homogenizing the country. The quote- I’m probably misquoting it, but. “A nation divided against itself cannot prosper,” had a lot to do with the issue of slavery, which was a bone of contention in a larger war of cultures and moral systems. At least, that’s always how I interpreted the quote, I might be wrong though, and if someone can find me extra context for it, I might change my mind.

  5. slavery or state’s rights

    In my 20+ years of schooling, any reference I ever saw always said that while slavery was a serious issue, state’s rights precipitated the civil war and Lincoln’s position on the slavery issue did not crystallize till a later date.

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