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The War of Northern Aggression

Thursday 11 October 2012, by siawi3

A leading Civil War historian challenges
the new orthodoxy about how slavery ended in America.

by James Oakes

Jacobin: A Magazine of Culture and Polemic, Issue 7-8: Emancipation
Source :

On 6 November 1860, the six-year-old Republican Party
elected its first president. During the tense crisis
months that followed??the secession winter of
1860-61??practically all observers believed that
Lincoln and the Republicans would begin attacking
slavery as soon as they took power.

Democrats in the North blamed the Republican Party for
the entire sectional crisis. They accused Republicans
of plotting to circumvent the Constitutional
prohibition against direct federal attacks on slavery.
Republicans would instead allegedly try to squeeze
slavery to death indirectly, by abolishing it in the
territories and in Washington DC, suppressing it in the
high seas, and refusing federal enforcement of the
Slave Laws. The first to succumb to the Republican
program of ‘ultimate extinction’, Democrats charged,
would be the border states where slavery was most
vulnerable. For Northern Democrats, this is what caused
the crisis; the Republicans were to blame for trying to
get around the Constitution.

Southern secessionists said almost exactly the same
thing. The Republicans supposedly intended to bypass
the Constitution’s protections for slavery by
surrounding the South with free states, free
territories, and free waters. What Republicans called a
cordon of freedom’, secessionists denounced as an
inflammatory circle of fire.

The Southern cooperationists??those who opposed
immediate secession??agreed with the secessionists’
and Northern Democrats’ analysis of Republican
intentions. But they argued that the only way the
Republicans would actually have the power to act on
those intentions was if the Southern states seceded. If
the slave states remained within the Union, the
Republicans would not have the majorities in Congress
to adopt their antislavery policies. And if the South
did secede, all bets would be off. The rebellious
states would forfeit all the constitutional protections
of slavery. The South would get something much worse
than a cordon of freedom. It would get direct military
intervention, leading to the immediate and
uncompensated emancipation of the slaves.

The slaves themselves seem to have understood this.
They took an unusual interest in the 1860 election and
had high hopes for what Lincoln’s victory would mean.
They assumed that Lincoln’s inauguration would lead to
war, that war would bring on a Union invasion of the
South, and that the invading Union army would free the

But to read what historians have been saying for
decades is to conclude that all of these people??the
Democrats, the secessionists, the cooperationists, and
the slaves??were all wrong. The Northern Democrats
were just demagogues. The secessionists were
hysterical. And the slaves were, alas, sadly misguided.

Unwilling to take seriously what contemporaries were
saying, historians have constructed a narrative of
Emancipation and the Civil War that begins with the
premise that Republicans came into the war with no
intention of attacking slavery??indeed, that they
disavowed any antislavery intentions. The narrative is
designed to demonstrate the original premise, according
to which everyone at the time was mistaken about what
the Republicans intended to do.

It’s a familiar chronology: Under the terms of the
First Confiscation Act of August 1861, disloyal masters
would ‘forfeit’ the use of their slaves, but the slaves
were not actually freed. Lincoln ordered General John
C. Fremont to rescind his decree of that September
freeing the slaves of rebels in Missouri, and several
months later the President rescinded General Hunter’s
order abolishing slavery in three states. As late as
the summer of 1862, we are reminded, Lincoln was
writing letters to Horace Greeley saying that if he
could end the war without freeing a single slave, he
would do so. Even after the President finally promised
an emancipation proclamation, in September 1862,
several months elapsed until the proclamation actually
came on 1 January 1863.

Only then, according to the standard narrative, was the
North committed to emancipation. Only then did the
purpose of the Civil War expand from the mere
restoration of the Union to include the overthrow of

In one form or another, this narrative is familiar to
all scholars of the period. Historians who agree on
little else will agree on this version of the story,
even when they have entirely divergent interpretations
of what it means.

But what if the original premise is wrong? What if,
during the secession winter of 1860-1861, everybody was
right about what the Republicans intended to do about
slavery? What if the Republicans came into the war
ready and willing to destroy slavery? What does that do
for a narrative of emancipation?

For one thing, it flies in the face of the prevailing
neo-revisionism in contemporary Civil War scholarship.
The old revisionist interpretation, which reached its
zenith of influence in the 1930s and 1940s, came in
many varieties. But it always rested on an essentially
negative proposition: whatever else the war was about,
it was not about slavery. This viewpoint required one
set of claims about the South, and another about the

Revisionists claimed that slavery was already dying in
the South, that it was unprofitable, that it wasn’t
important to Southern economy and society, that it had
reached the natural limits of its expansion, and that
Southern leaders were more concerned about defending
state rights than protecting slavery. Most contemporary
historians, though not all of them, now reject these
old revisionist claims. Slavery was thriving and the
Southern states seceded to protect it.

But revisionists also claimed that the North did not go
to war over slavery. If there were ‘interests’
involved, they were the interests of Northern
capitalists against Southern agrarians. The Civil War
was an accident brought on by bungling politicians. The
abolitionists were a tiny, beleaguered minority; most
Northerners shared the general conviction of black
racial inferiority. ?The South had slavery, the
argument went, but the North was racist too. This
argument, in turn, was really just a revival of the
antebellum Democratic Party’s relentless efforts to
shift the terms of debate from slavery to race.

Today, this revisionist interpretation of the North is
alive and well. Indeed, it is pervasive among
historians. We are repeatedly told that the North did
not go to war over slavery. The Civil War is once again
denounced as morally unjustified on the grounds that
the North was not motivated by any substantial
antislavery convictions. Emancipation itself is
described as an accidental byproduct of a war the North
fought for no purpose beyond the restoration of the
Union. A recent study of the secession crisis states
that during the war, slavery was abolished

Contemporary scholarship is saturated by this neo-
revisionist premise. Like the antebellum Democrats and
the Civil War revisionists, neo-revisionists have
insistently shifted the terms of the debate from
slavery to race. Virtually any Republican in 1860 would
have recognized this argument as Democratic Party

If I sound skeptical, that’s because I am. On the basis
of my research, I can no longer accept the thesis that
the Union did not begin emancipating slaves until ?1
January 1863.

It was never my intention to overturn the conventional
narrative. I began by accepting the standard assumption
that that the first Confiscation Act achieved nothing.
But I still wanted to know what Republicans thought
they were doing when they passed the law. Why did the
Act turn out to be so toothless? Why did it fail to
free any slaves? Secondary accounts usually pass over
this question; they couldn’t provide me with the
answers I needed: who wrote the law, where did it come
from, how did people talk about it?

To my astonishment, I discovered that Section Four of
the Act, the clause specifically authorizing the
forfeiture of slaves, was written by Senator Lyman
Trumbull, chair of the Judiciary Committee, as an
emancipation clause. Indeed, it was understood by
everyone in Congress to be an emancipation clause.
Trumbull’s proposal was denounced by Democrats and
border-state congressmen as an emancipation clause,
defended almost unanimously by congressional
Republicans as an emancipation clause. These men
thought they were writing an emancipation bill. That’s
what they said at the time.

A full-scale congressional debate erupted in July of
1861, focusing on the legitimacy of the emancipation
that Republicans were undertaking. When I read those
debates I wondered where the arguments for emancipation
had come from.

I went back to the secession debates. And sure enough,
everything critics had accused the Republicans of
planning to do was exactly what Republicans themselves
were saying they were going to do.

The great mistake that historians have made, I
realized, was a misreading of the constitutional
premises of the Republican antislavery agenda. I doubt
anything Lincoln said is more commonly repeated by
historians than the promise he made in his inaugural
address not to interfere with slavery in the states
where it already existed. That little quotation is all
the proof historians seem to require to demonstrate
that when the war began, neither Lincoln nor the
Republicans had any idea of emancipating slaves.

In fact, nearly every abolitionist (and just about
every historian I can think of) would agree with
Lincoln: the Founders had made a series of compromises
resulting in a Constitution that did not allow the
federal government to abolish slavery in any state
where it existed.

William Lloyd Garrison wrote that consensus into the
founding document of the American Anti-Slavery Society,
the 1833 Declaration of Sentiments, which flatly
declared that the power to abolish slavery rested
exclusively with the states. Theodore Dwight Weld said
the same thing. So did Joshua Giddings, Salmon Chase,
and Charles Sumner. The federal government had no power
to interfere with slavery in the states where it
already existed.

Which raises the obvious question: how did the
abolitionists expect to get slavery abolished? A small
group of nonpolitical abolitionists argued for moral
suasion. An even smaller faction of antislavery
radicals argued that the Constitution was an
antislavery document. But most abolitionists believed,
on the one hand, that the Constitution did not allow
the federal government to abolish slavery in the
states, but that on the other hand, political action
was necessary for slavery to be abolished. Given the
Constitution’s restrictions, what did opponents of
slavery think could be done?

Coming out of the 1860 election, Republicans declared
that there were two possible policies. The first was to
make freedom national and restrict slavery to the
states where it already existed. Republican
policymakers would seal off the South: they would no
longer enforce the Fugitive Slave Clause; slavery would
be suppressed on the high seas; it would be abolished
in Washington DC, banned from all the Western
territories, and no new slave states would be admitted
to the Union. A ‘cordon of freedom’ would surround the
slave states. Then Republicans would offer a series of
incentives to the border states where slavery was
weakest: compensation, subsidies for voluntary
emigration of freed slaves, a gradual timetable for
complete abolition.

Slavery was intrinsically weak, Republicans said. By
denationalizing it, they could put it on a course of
ultimate extinction. Surrounded on all sides, deprived
of life-giving federal support, the slave states would
one by one abolish slavery on their own, beginning with
the border states. Each new defection would further
diminish the strength of the remaining slave states,
further accelerating the process of abolition. Yet
because the decision to abolish slavery remained with
the states, Republican policies would not violate the
constitutional ban on direct federal interference in

The South would simply have to accept this. And if it
Couldn’t tolerate such a federal policy, it could leave
the Union. But once it seceded, all bets would be
off??it would lose the Constitutional protections that
it had previously enjoyed. The Republicans would then
implement the second policy: direct military
emancipation, immediate and uncompensated.

Republicans said this openly during the secession
crisis. And that’s what they were saying in Congress as
they debated the Confiscation Act. It’s time to start
rethinking our fundamental assumptions about the causes
as well as the trajectory of the Civil War. And we can
start by taking the perceptions of its contemporaries a
great deal more seriously.

James Oakes teaches American History at the CUNY
Graduate Center. His forthcoming book, Freedom
National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United
States, will be published in December.