Contradicting the Union Myth of a Holy Cause
Ludwell H. Johnson used the descriptive comparison, The American Iliad, in the subtitle of his comprehensive book on the American Civil War: North against South. The Iliad analogy is very appropriate. The War was a traumatic, bloody, and nation changing event. The enormous casualties and destruction alone would sear its battles, personalities, and tales of heroism into American memory. But what most Americans know about the causes of the Civil War is a pious myth.
Unfortunately, far too many Americans seem to prefer whitewashed myth to truth. So much so that any truth that contradicts the ruling myths of academia and the dominant media and political class is apt to be shouted down or suppressed. One of the most important and persistent myths of American history is that the primary cause of the American “Civil War” was slavery, and that the War was morality play in which virtuous Northern armies crushed the wicked South in order to free the slaves. This myth is so enduring that it is taught as unassailable truth in most American public schools and even in many Christian schools. The myth thus has widespread emotional if not factual support.
In December 1860, following the election of Abraham Lincoln President of the United States, many Southern States had begun the process of secession. In a final legislative effort to reconcile the seceding states or at least prevent the secession of Border States, Congress approved by the required two-thirds majority for ratification a Constitutional Amendment that would have forever prohibited any Constitutional change that interfered with slavery in any state. This proposed Constitutional Amendment, passed by the Senate on March 2, 1861, had been sponsored by Thomas Corwin in the House and William H. Seward in the Senate. It was endorsed by President Buchanan and sent to the states for ratification. Ratification by three-quarters of the states would have been necessary to become a Constitutional Amendment. It was known as the Corwin Amendment and might have been the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution had not the breakout of armed conflict negated its usefulness. This is ironic because in December 1865 following the War, a new Thirteenth Amendment was passed, which abolished slavery.
Here is the wording of the Corwin Amendment, which has also been referred to as the First Thirteenth Amendment:
“No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of such State.”
The Corwin Amendment is one of several uncomfortable truths that demolish the much cherished propaganda that the Civil War was a Northern Crusade to end slavery.
Two days after Senate approval, the newly elected President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, promised to support the Corwin Amendment in his inaugural speech. He first endorsed the Amendment, which would have permanently engraved slavery into the U.S. Constitution, by self-quoting what he had written to New York Tribune Editor, Horace Greeley:
“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
Later in the speech he specifically promised to support the Amendment with these words:
“I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution…has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose, not to speak of particular amendments, so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied Constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”
In other words, Lincoln felt that the Constitution already prohibited the Federal Government from interfering with slavery in the states and had no problem with an amendment which would have specifically prohibited the Federal Government from interfering with slavery in the states!
The reason for this First 13th Amendment was, of course, to reassure Southern States that were threatening to leave the Union that there was not and never would be danger of any Congressional or Federal interference with slavery in the those states. The slavery question was a major concern to Southern States. The Northern States had gradually phased out slavery, but there had been few slaves in the North. Phasing out slavery in the North was a much less daunting social and economic endeavor. The calls of radical abolitionists, an influential minority in the North, for immediate abolition of slavery regardless of the economic costs to the South and heedless of the hardship it would suddenly inflict on the slaves themselves were a continuous serious apprehension to the South. Slavery was by no means universally popular in the South. Only 26 percent of Southern households owned slaves, and many Southern States and individual Southerners were already struggling with how they might phase out the institution of slavery without devastating the Southern economy. But Southern States preferred to handle the slavery question when, if, and however they saw fit, just as Northern states had done earlier. Like Lincoln and many other political leaders in the North, the South considered how to handle the slavery question to be the Constitutional right of each state respectively.
Slavery was an issue that caused tensions between North and South, but it was by no means the only issue or for most the most important issue. There were other important issues to the South. One enormous issue was the question of tariffs and in particular the Morrill Tariff that had been passed by the predominantly Northern Congress with the support of only one Southern Congressman. This tariff like others in the past was an economic hardship to the agricultural South, but a protective benefit for Northern manufacturers. To make matters worse, more than 80 percent of the revenue was collected at Southern ports but more than 75 percent was used to benefit Northern States. Southern States were furious over this tariff, which had just been raised from an average under 20% to an average which would reach 47%. The Morrill Tariff was part of Lincoln’s and the Republican Party’s campaign platform. In fact, Lincoln further endorsed the Morrill Tariff in his inaugural speech and strongly implied that even if the South seceded, the tax would be collected by the Union Navy at Southern ports.
Slavery tensions were primarily over the expansion of slavery to territories and whether Northern States should have any obligation to return runaway slaves. If slavery was the only crucial issue, the South had no reason to secede. The Corwin/First Thirteenth Amendment would have guaranteed the question forever in their favor. Radical abolitionists, however, managed to enrage most Southerners and keep them distrustful of Northern goodwill, which when added to outrage and distrust over tariff and free trade policies, pushed Southerners closer to secession.
There were other issues as well. North and South had developed different views of government. The South favored the limited and decentralized federal government of the Constitution, but the North was strongly trending toward a powerful centralized government, especially with the election of Lincoln. Early in the years of the American Republic the South and especially Virginia had dominated national politics. Massive waves of immigration to Northern manufacturing states now made them much more populous and politically dominant. The South simply did not want to stay in a Union dominated by Northern interests. Besides the economic injustice to the South, the Morrill Tariff proved to Southerners that Southern interests would be disregarded and completely subservient to Northern interests in the future.
There was also a growing religious rift over the authority of Scripture with Southerners holding strong to the more traditional orthodox view against what they considered increasing humanism and erosion of Biblical authority in their counterpart Northern Protestant churches. This caused North-South splits in the Presbyterian Church in 1837, the Methodist Church in 1844, and the Baptist Church in 1845, the latter creating the Southern Baptist Convention. The cause of these splits is now most often attributed to slavery, but that is a shallow analysis demeaning Southern orthodoxy and favoring less Biblically faithful and modern politically correct views. The deeper issue was the authority of Scripture versus various levels of its erosion, many of which have since proved destructive to a Christian worldview.
The Corwin Amendment dropped into the dust bin of history, but it still throws a critical light on the dubious popular belief that the Civil War was only about slavery.