Did the North Really Fight to End Slavery?

American schoolchildren are taught two lessons about the Civil War. First, that the southern states seceded in order to protect slavery and second, that the North fought to end it. The first of these statements is largely, though not entirely, true. The Lower South states that seceded during the first wave of secession did secede primarily over the issue of slavery, although the states who seceded later did not.

But what of the North’s war aims? We know that mainstream Northerners in 1861 were content to let slavery continue to exist in the South. Leading up to the war, most Northerners did not possess markedly different ideas about race and equality than their Southern opponents did. Absent some grand northern epiphany in the spring of 1861, the idea that the North took up arms over the issue of slavery seems very unlikely.

But if slavery wasn’t the driving factor for the North, what was? Lost in many appraisals of the war is the fact that the North and the South had been in a bitter political battle for at least a decade – and, truthfully, since the 1790s. As the country expanded westward, the sections battled over which one would be able to get their citizens to the new lands first and in the greatest numbers, and thereby control the politics of the new states – for controlling state politics was the key to controlling the federal government. Political power, not slavery, was the primary issue in the conflict leading up to the war.

Why Did the North Wait?

If we take a step back from what we’ve always been told and really think about it, the claim that the North pursued war with the South over slavery doesn’t make much sense. If Northerners opposed slavery to the point of going to war over it, they didn’t need to wait until southern states seceded. Had emancipation been their motivation they would have been willing to send troops to the South and free the slaves regardless of the political status of those states.

Some may object to this point that Northerners were working to end slavery at the federal level and that southern secession endangered their plans. But this isn’t true. On the eve of war Northerners, in an effort to convince the southern states to not secede, were working to pass a constitutional amendment that would have permanently protected slavery in the South. Time and again, both before and after the war began, Northern politicians proved that they were more concerned with maintaining the Union than they were with ending slavery.

Lincoln: Compromise on Slavery to Save the Union

As early as 1854 Abraham Lincoln stated that this was his own position. In a speech in Peoria, Illinois, Lincoln said, “Much as I hate slavery, I would consent to the extension of it rather than see the Union dissolved…”

Notice that not only was Lincoln willing to compromise on the existence of slavery , he was willing to compromise on the extension of it into new territories. Less than seven years later, at his inauguration on March 4, 1861, Lincoln told Southerners that his position on slavery had not changed and assured them that they had nothing to fear from his administration. He said,

“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you.”

By “property” Lincoln meant slaves, for those were the barbaric terms in which slavery was discussed at the time – not as people, but as property. Lest he be misunderstood, Lincoln went on to flatly state, “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 lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

Lincoln would go on to express his support for the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution, which was critical to the preservation of slavery. He also supported the aforementioned amendment, which had already passed through Congress and which promised “that the Federal Government shall never interfere with (slavery in) the States.” Of this amendment Lincoln said, “I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

While one part of his inaugural address was filled with concessions over slavery, the other was a clear delineation of where Lincoln would not concede: the indivisibility of the Union. In an attempt to prove his position, he launched into a historically dubious argument in which he claimed that the states had surrendered their autonomy as early as 1774.

Lincoln argued that, under the Constitution, the Union was perpetual. He stated that “Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments,” substituting the term “national” for a government that the writers and ratifiers of the Constitution understood to be “federal.”

At the end of the address he put the onus on the rebellious Southerners. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen,” he said, “and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.”

If the South would remain in the Union, Lincoln assured, the North would concede the issue of slavery. It was only southern independence and its inherent threat to the nationalistic vision of some Northerners that would bring war. In Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel observes that

“American nationalism proved to be the most compelling opponent of southern independence. Abolitionists had failed to win over the North because they had put their opposition to slavery ahead of the Union. Republicans had succeeded because they had put the Union ahead of their opposition to slavery.”

The South, of course, did not heed Lincoln’s words. Just over a month after he spoke them, Confederate forces fired on a Union fort in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. There has been debate ever since about whether or not Lincoln, against the wishes of his Cabinet, maneuvered the South into firing the first shot. Some counter that Southerners acted rashly. Both accounts contain elements of truth.

After the shelling of Fort Sumter, Lincoln saw his opportunity to fight secession and immediately called for troops to put down the rebellion. The Civil War was under way.

Northerners Continue to Compromise

Even after the commencement of hostilities, Union politicians continued to go out of their way to explain what they were – and, as importantly, what they weren’t – fighting for. In July, the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution was passed that stated that the North was not fighting with any “purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the…established institutions of those states.” In other words, they weren’t fighting to end slavery, but only “to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union.” What the North meant by “the supremacy of the Constitution” would have been an unfamiliar definition to the founding generation.

In order to prevent any additional states from joining the Confederacy, Northern politicians and military officers made a point of not offending slaveholders in the slave states still in the Union. When Union general John C. Fremont used his authority to free slaves in Missouri in August of 1861, Lincoln countermanded his order, sending those slaves back into bondage, and relieved him of his duties. In West Virginia, Union general George McClellan promised slaveholders that he would allow no “interference with your slaves,” and that “not only will we abstain from all such interference, but we will…with an iron hand, crush any attempt at (a slave) insurrection.”

Lincoln, meanwhile, continued to make his single-minded war aim clear. In an 1862 letter to newspaper editor Horace Greeley Lincoln wrote,

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

Abolitionist Lysander Spooner understood and succinctly summarized the North’s ultimate goal. Writing in 1867, Spooner observed,

“The principle, on which the war was waged by the North, was simply this: That men may rightfully be compelled to submit to, and support, a government that they do not want; and that resistance, on their part, makes them traitors and criminals.”

The Real Emancipation Proclamation

Even Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which came just months after his letter to Greeley, is not the abolitionist-inspired decree it is proclaimed to be. The Proclamation purported to free slaves, but it did so only where the Confederate army was in control, which meant that it was essentially unenforceable. It specifically  exempted border states and the parts of the South that were under Union control, leading Hummel to conclude that “The only slaves covered (in the Proclamation) were the ones beyond the reach of Union authority.”

Lincoln’s own Secretary of State, William Seward, was critical of the Proclamation, stating, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” Across the Atlantic Ocean, a skeptical London Spectator observed, “The principle (of the Proclamation) is not that a human cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.”

As the end of the war drew near, both sides began to look for a negotiated peace. In early February, 1865, representatives from the Union and the Confederacy met to talk about an end to the war. Even at this late date, Lincoln appeared willing to compromise on slavery. Hummel writes,

“(Lincoln) appeared to have elevated slavery’s abolition into one of the North’s war goals, but he and Seward simultaneously hinted that the southern states, if they rejoined the Union, could prevent or postpone ratification of an antislavery amendment. The Republican President was inflexible on one condition, however. Reuniting the country was still non-negotiable.”

Judging the North’s Motives

It is certainly not true that nobody in the North fought to end slavery, just as it is untrue that everyone in the South sought to protect it. But it is clear that the North’s official reason for war was to prevent Southern secession, not to end slavery. The words and actions of those in control of the war, especially at its outset, make this clear.

While we rejoice that slavery was finally ended with the Civil War, the question of the North’s war aims is still relevant. The North’s victory not only resulted in the end of slavery, it also upheld all of the goals that Northern leaders said they were fighting for, goals that were not as laudable as ending slavery. No longer would the voluntary union of the founders exist. No longer would the federal government’s powers be limited. No longer would the states be permitted to leave if it became oppressive.

Spooner, the abolitionist, far from rejoicing at the war’s outcome, acknowledged the dramatically altered political environment created by the North’s victory. He wrote,

“…the number of slaves, instead of having been diminished by the war, has been greatly increased; for a man, thus subjected to a government that he does not want, is a slave. And there is no difference, in principle – but only in degree – between political and chattel slavery. The former, no less than the latter, denies a man’s ownership of himself and the products of his labor; and asserts that other men may own him, and dispose of him and his property, for their uses, and at their pleasure.”

That the war ended slavery shouldn’t cause us to ignore the North’s primary war aims or ascribe motives to Northerners that they didn’t have. Nor should it make us too timid to explore the political ramifications of the war. If an abolitionist like Spooner can judge the North’s motives and find them wanting, certainly we today are permitted to ask a few heretofore forbidden questions.

Note: This article is part of a series on the Civil War. Click here to see all the articles in the series.