The presidential candidate Nikki Haley drew criticism this week for what she didn’t say. As she campaigned in New Hampshire, a person asked her to name the cause of the Civil War.
Ms. Haley, a former South Carolina governor, joked it was not an “easy question.” She then mentioned “how government was going to run,” “freedoms,” the need for “capitalism” and individual liberties. When the questioner observed that she hadn’t mentioned slavery, she asked, “What do you want me to say about slavery?”
She told a radio interviewer the next morning that “of course” the war was about slavery, that she was not evading the issue but trying to reframe it in modern terms. While we shouldn’t read too much into one video clip, it’s fair to ask: How is the Civil War’s cause not an easy question?
The facts of our history are currently contested — especially that history. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has acted to restrict what he sees as woke views of slavery and race in schools. Other Republican-led states have taken similar measures, and Donald Trump has offered his own hazy views of the past. It’s no wonder Ms. Haley spoke cautiously. The history of race has become as fraught a topic on the political right as it has been on the left.
All this points to a reality we would do well to confront: Some Americans do not believe slavery was the cause of the Civil War. I encountered some of them while discussing a recent book on Abraham Lincoln.
A few days ago, a caller on C-SPAN identified as “William in Lansford, Pa.,” asserted this to me: “The Civil War wasn’t about slavery. It was about the states fighting with one another about money.”
It was far from the first time I’ve heard such claims. It’s not hard to see why a candidate might avoid engaging too deeply with voters on this topic.
But the rest of us can arm ourselves with a few base-line facts. Far more than most historical events, the Civil War is debated among ordinary people as much as among historians. (Lincoln called it “a people’s war,” and it’s now a people’s history. I recently attended the annual Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg, Pa., where scholars shared the room with hundreds of superfans.) If we are to hold on to our history, we can prepare ourselves to respond calmly and with facts when someone makes a doubtful claim. Evidence shows what the war was about. It also shows why some people think it wasn’t about slavery — and why it matters a century and a half later.
The evidence is straightforward. Southern states rejected Lincoln’s 1860 election as a president from the antislavery Republican Party. South Carolina was the first of 11 states that tried to leave the Union, and Confederates fired the first shot of the Civil War there at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
Leaders of the would-be new republic named slavery as their cause. Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, gave a speech in 1861 in which he said “the assumption of the equality of races” was “an error” and “a sandy foundation” for the country he intended to leave.
More than 30 years of agitation over slavery preceded the war. Northern antislavery leaders denounced the South’s institution more and more loudly and finally organized through the new Republican Party to gain political power. Southern leaders, who once cast slavery as a tragic inheritance from colonial times, increasingly defended it as moral and good.
After the South’s defeat in 1865, these plain facts were obscured. Former Confederates cast their war heroes, like Robert E. Lee, as defenders of their home states rather than champions of slavery.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy campaigned for generations to downplay slavery’s role in the war. In a 1924 speech to the group’s annual convention, Hollins N. Randolph asserted that “Southern men” had “fought to the death” for “the liberty of the individual, for the home and for the great principle of local self-government.” Never mind that it was “the liberty of the individual” to own other human beings. The speech advocated raising money for a great Confederate monument that still exists at Stone Mountain, Ga.
Beyond the bombast, historians contested many facets of the long road to war. To give just one example from the immense scholarly record: T. Harry Williams, a 20th-century writer, put some blame for the war on Northern capitalists. He said they foresaw “fat rewards” in knocking proslavery aristocrats out of power and reshaping the economy to benefit their own factories and railroads. But really, such arguments amount to different interpretations of how the United States came to fight a war over slavery.
Today some people quote Lincoln — accurately — saying his main war aim was preserving the Union, not ending slavery. But these quotes cannot sustain any argument longer than a social media meme. Lincoln also said that slavery was “the cause of the war.” Preserving the Union ultimately required slavery’s destruction.
It seems that people question the historical record less because of doubt about the past than because of conflicts in the present. Some conservatives feel that progressives use slavery as a cudgel against their side in modern debates over race and equality.
The first Republican president saw slavery neither as a cudgel nor as something that he needed to obscure. In an 1864 letter, he described slavery as a “great wrong” and added that people of the North and South alike shared “complicity in that wrong.”
Complicity. Lincoln affirmed his country’s responsibility for failing to live up to its promise of equality. He still believed in the country and its promise.
Lincoln never claimed to be morally superior to his countrymen. He focused on an immoral system, which he worked to restrict and then to destroy. The end of slavery is now part of this country’s legacy. It’s also part of the legacy of Lincoln’s party, though Ms. Haley’s example shows it can be hard for Republican candidates to talk about it.
Steve Inskeep, a co-host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “Up First,” is the author of “Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America.”
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