Hot Button Topics: “What Was the Root Cause of the Civil War?”

“Slavery” and “States’ Rights” are placed in quotations often to help differentiate between the arguments as opposed to reference to their actual meanings.


Facebook Poll

A Poll Taken by our Facebook followers asking for their opinion on the cause of the Civil War

We recently took a poll, asking our followers, “What Was the Cause of the Civil War?” “Slavery” or “States’ Rights?” Not so surprisingly, our non-scientific results, were not that different from national scientific polls asking the same or a similar question. Our results say that 55% of lovers of American history believe the Civil War was caused by “states’ rights,” while 45% of you believe the cause to be “slavery.”[1] The Pew Research Center is a recognized “nonprofit, nonpartisan and non-advocacy” organization that conducts national polls that “helps U.S. and international policymakers, civic leaders, educators and the public at large understand and address some of the world’s most challenging problems.” They are widely recognized for their empirical research standards. A Pew Poll in 2011 put the numbers at 48% “states right,” 38% “slavery,” the remaining 14% of voters believed it to be a combination of both equally.[2] Our Facebook poll would not allow us to breakdown the participants by age, however, of course the Pew Poll gives us surprising context to demographic differences in opinion.

“Young people are more likely than older Americans to say that the war’s main cause was states’ rights – 60% of those younger than 30 express this view, the highest percentage of any age group. Those 65 and older are the only age group in which more say that slavery, rather than states’ rights, was the main cause of the Civil War (by 50% to 34%). While 48% of whites view states’, rights was the war’s main cause, so too do 39% of African Americans.”

It also goes on to break things down by political affiliation, in which Republicans generally point to slavery while Democrats point to “states’ rights.” I have got to be honest, if I was going to guess, I would have flipped these results in almost every way. I would have said younger people are more likely to blame it on slavery, older people blame it on “states’ rights” and I would have said, Republicans say “states’ rights” is to blame, while Democrats accuse slavery for causing the war. Here is the thing, the answer to this question divides our nation deeply. The question is grounded in the foundation of America, since the inception of the Union, when the founding fathers—save for Benjamin Franklin—avoided resolving the issue of slavery when writing and amending the Constitution. It is a highly passionate debate. Despite having been fought over 150 years ago, people are still ardent and fervent in their opinion of the matter. This is such a hot stove, it is one of those things your grandma teaches you not to speak about, in addition to religion and politics.

This is simply one of those questions, where it is highly unlikely you will ever persuade someone to think of it differently once they have made up their mind. So that is not at all my objective here. What I want to do is present both arguments as objectively and as open-minded as possible and acknowledge each other’s opinions respectively. I want to take the power out of this debate to divide us. Though I know my opinion is not worth any more than rest of yours, I would still like to express it, respectively. But in the end, I want to allow you to make up your own mind, at least the very few of you out there that have not already. I want to give you a platform to express why you feel the way you do, whilst also encouraging everyone to agree to disagree, so that we may remove the emotion from this issue. While we may never be able to convince each other to come to the other side of this, we can refuse to allow it to divide us any further.

We can acknowledge each other’s opinion, respect each other’s intellectual thoughts, and learn from each other in the process. Certainly, I do not believe people are stupid, just because they do not agree with me. Certainly, I believe it is possible for someone to be intellectual, whilst also carrying different ideas than my own.  When I personally engaged in this research, I did not expect to find so many valid points coming from both sides. Mind you, both arguments in this debate claim to have “history on their side” and to some degree they are both correct. And though I found legitimate points in both arguments, they did not add up like a scorecard resulting in my changing my opinion. They enlightened me and made me realize there may not be a “right” or “wrong” answer to this question, but rather a collection of different ways to look at it.

Why was the root cause of the Civil War “States’ Rights”?

To understand the “slavery” argument in it is entirety, I think it is important to understand the states’ rights argument first. “States’ rights” is an issue that has reoccurred with many different faces since the writing of the Constitution. The Civil War Trust, also known as the American Battlefield Trust, defines states’ rights as a “debate over which powers rightly belonged to the states and which to the Federal Government.[3] Personally—to gain a deeper understanding of this argument—I decided to read “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” written Jefferson Davis, President, of the Confederate States of America. I wanted to understand, the reason behind succession, coming from the highest levels of the Confederate government. First, let me just say, this undertaking was incredibly enlightening.

Born in 1808, Jefferson Davis was the youngest son of an American Revolution Patriot named Samuel Davis. His father, Samuel, was a young man when the Declaration of Independence was announced on tree stubs and in front of courthouses across small towns and cities in the 13 colonies. This breath-taking, bold document inspired Samuel to name his youngest son after the writer, Thomas Jefferson[4]. Jefferson Davis was from a patriotic, distinguished military family. Not only did his father fight the British in the Revolution, but his brothers served against the red-coats in the War of 1812. Jefferson was thoroughly and remarkably educated with the short history of the United States of America. This allowed him to make very sophisticated arguments for succession that are truly difficult to argue against.

In the volumes that make up “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government,” and his subsequent book “A Short History of the Confederate States of America,” Davis gave his opinion and justification for succession in many ways. However, he repeatedly comeback to what is known as the “compact theory” as his primary argument. The compact theory first and foremost says, the “people” are the true and only sovereign in the American system. Thus, the Southern states had the right to secede, because it was the will of the people being exercised through their state governments. Davis argues the Union, was nothing more than a series of states who had entered into a compact with one another.[5] That compact formed a larger Federal government, but the Federal government was never given authority over the people that created it, it was the opposite, the people that made the Federal government, have final authority over the Federal government. Since the compact was based solely on the will of the people, who were represented by their states, if those states—at the request of their “people”—decide to break that compact, they had every right to do so without war.[6]

The compact theory is backed by legal and historical precedence including: The Northwest Ordinance (1787), the Kentucky (1798) and Virginia (1799) Resolutions, the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) and the Hartford Convention (1814). Which was a Federalist debate over whether New England should secede from the Union due to the growing monopoly of power then possessed by the Democratic-Republican Party. So, the first, and in my opinion most valid “states’ rights” argument does not include a debate over which powers are held by the states and which powers are held by the Federal government, but rather a debate over whether states have the right to exit the Union if that is the will of their people. This is the only argument I can find including “states’ rights” that is a debate exclusive to the constitution that cannot be directly attached to the issue of slavery.

Somewhat ironically though, this is not the most common way “states’ rights” have been taught to pupils throughout the years. “States’ rights” can be argued on a myriad of levels, but the gist of the argument can be attached to an old cliché, “money, is the root of all evil,” thus money is the root of the war, not slavery. Sometimes “states’ rights” arguments are given along with the Stephen Douglass doctrine popular sovereignty. Which said states should have the right to choose for themselves what they wanted to be legal, or illegal, including but not limited to slavery. This argument is supported by the contemporary debate preceding the Civil War over the doctrine. However, the most common way teachers have taught “states’ rights” is, again, money. The economic and financial arguments, though not thought of by Jefferson Davis, have very compelling points. Is it right to tax someone who has not approved of that tax? Is it right to impose tariffs on the farms and plantations in southern states, when their representatives have expressed and voted against those taxes? Sounds eerily reminiscent of the American Revolution, does it not? Instead of taxation without representation, however, this is sort of like taxation without authorization. What good is representation if they do not carry any influence or power over the government?

It is true Northern manufacturers largest competitors were European manufactures. Southern plantations sold their cotton to those same European companies. If one wanted to hurt their economic foes they could do so with a simple tariff making European companies pay more for raw materials, allowing American companies to undercut their competition with lower prices. The slave states were increasing in non-slave holding middle class families who owned agriculture farms and planned to enter the market with their raw materials.[7] This disruption to “free trade” was a financial blow across all classes in the South they were simply unwilling to take.[8] Having the North vote on legislation taking away half of their customers — with no say in the matter what-so-ever — while simultaneously benefiting Northern companies; well, it made them feel as if their states had no rights acknowledged by the federal government. Given the negative Northern attitudes towards blacks, those who advocate “states’ rights,” say “slavery” was simply a cover for the North, the real issue was, money. This is no different than those who teach “slavery” as the cause of the war saying “states’ rights” was a cover for the real cause, “slavery.”

“States’ rights” advocates say the root to of all of this, cannot be found by looking to the debate forced upon society by radicals over whether slavery was immoral. They say the record is very clear on this issue and it reflects a negative attitude towards slaves by all white men and women, everywhere. According to them nobody genuinely cared about those in bondage, or whether it should be outlawed, but rather, Northerners cared about who was benefiting most financially from the peculiar institution. The true motivation of the North was not to outlaw slavery, but to ensure no one outside of America benefited from the institution as much as Americans, specifically those in Northern states. To help support this argument, the struggle for the Thirteenth Amendment is omitted and the “Emancipation Proclamation” is pointed out for its major limitations to the number of people actually freed by it being issued by Lincoln. [9]

To those who argue for “states’ rights” there was an old school “America First” policy being implemented by the North and it backfired when the South left the Union. Personally, as I said before, I find the compact theory to be the most persuasive argument for “states’ rights.” I think as the Civil War broke out, a clear argument could be made for a states right to leave union. After all, the North debated doing it themselves at one point. I have also got to admit, when looking at the Civil War from a purely financial viewpoint, it is extremely hard not to walk away convinced money is the root of evil, and thus the root cause of the Civil War, was greed of money, or “states’ rights,” not the morality of owning slaves.

Why was the root cause of the Civil War “Slavery”?

When thinking about causes, one must exercise finding the root of a cause. For those who believe “states’ rights” to be the cause of the Civil War, the root cause of it is synonymous with who had a say over the money generated from the institution of slavery. To them this is another euphemism for an encroachment of the Federal Government on states’ rights. For the people who point to “slavery” as the cause of the war, the process of finding the root of it all is really similar, however, the result different. Those arguing “slavery” point to the practice that generated the money, slavery. When one points to the role of the Federal government, preserving the union, and the economy, they say, all those issues have one common denominator, slavery. It is important to note, that despite popular opinion polls indicating most citizens believe “states’ rights”—in their opinion—is the cause of the Civil War, and despite a history of educators teaching “states’ rights” as the cause, we now have an overwhelming majority of professors, scholars, academics, historians, film-makers, and authors that point to “slavery” as the cause. Because of this, I am going to give you their arguments and reactions when confronted with this question.

Annette Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, a Harvard History and Law professor, echoes Columbia Universities famous African American historian Barbara Fields [10] when she argues that not only was “slavery” the cause of the war, but that we are in fact still fighting residual social battles of the war to this day. Both professors say, we are still fighting the Civil War. Gordon-Reed says slavery in America — unlike ancient forms of slavery — was inexorably connected to race and white supremacy.[11] Again, both sides of this debate claim to have “history on their side.” Gordon-Reed looks to quotes coming from high Confederate officials to make her point, specifically, Vice-President Alexander Stephens:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists amongst us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast had anticipated this as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. . .. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. . .. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.[12]

Famous documentary filmmaker and historian Ken Burns was faced with the “cause” question after releasing a digitally remastered version of, The Civil War for the 25th Anniversary of his award-winning series in 2015. During an interview on, Face the Nation (CBS News), Burns points to the first states to secede. After-all, when looking at the “root” or the “cause” of the Civil War, it is logical to go to the States that started the succession movement, subsequently leading to the forming of a new Southern nation. Burns says,

“If you read South Carolina’s articles of secession,[13] the first state to secede, the birthplace of secession, the home of the original Fire-Eaters, as they were called, in reaction to Abraham Lincoln, a moderate’s election, they do not mention state’s rights, they mention slavery. Slavery. Slavery. And that we have to remember, it is much more complicated than that; but essentially, the reason why we murdered each other, more than 2 percent of our population, 750,000 Americans died – that’s more than all the wars from the Revolution through Afghanistan combined — was over essentially the issue of slavery.” [14]


Time magazines, Jeffrey Kluger uses the series re-release as an opportunity to articulate Burns point, [15]

Georgia’s secession statement [16] beats South Carolina’s, citing slavery 35 times. Mississippi’s is brief [17], but it makes the ugly most of every word. Citing the indispensability of southern crops to the global economy, the document says, “These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.”

I am sure being lovers of history, most of you are familiar with the timeline of events typically credited for leading the nation into the Civil War: the Missouri Compromise (1821), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831), The Wilmot Proviso (1846 – 1850), The Compromise of 1850, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Bleeding Kansas (1854 – 1861), Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), John Brown’s Raid (1859), and Lincolns Election in 1860. Is it not hard to look at these controversies and see one underlying issue causing them?

One thing about this debate, as I have noted before, is how a consensus has grown among historians, that the “states’ rights” argument is all but dead in academia. Like politics, history is often molded by contemporary people who are trying to make it fit their contemporary narrative. However, this issue, like the timeline of events, is not one academics are arguing with each other about. No matter the contemporary political philosophy, both sides agree, “slavery” was the cause of the war. This is quite possibly the only issue in which Howard Zinn, famous liberal-socialist historian and author of, “A Peoples History of the United States” agrees with Larry Schweikart conservative-traditional historian and author of a famous rebuttal to Zinn’s work called, “A Patriots History of the United States.” Zinn dedicates his entire chapter on the Civil War, Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom, to the slaves and abolitionists’ viewpoint. Schweikart and co-author Michael Allen, completely slaughter the “states’ rights” perspective in their section, “Marxist Revisionists, Lost Cause Neo-Confederates.”  They examine who, what, when, where and why “states’ rights” has invaded popular opinion of the war and remains, in their opinion — inaccurately —entrenched in the psyche of so many Americans.

Here are a few summarizing excerpts from “A Patriots History of the United States” which outlines in detail the history of the “states’ rights” argument. I encourage everyone interested in this topic, to find this book and read this section in its entirety:

Lost Cause

One can certainly see with movies like “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” how a misrepresentation of the era entered the minds of Americans in the twentieth century.


When first taking on this project, I was convinced “slavery” was the root of cause of the Civil War, and honestly, I still lean heavily that way. It just seemed to me nearly every “states’ rights” argument could be traced directly back to and connected with the issue of slavery. Even the compact theory can be indirectly rebutted by asking the question, “Why did Southern states want to leave the Union?” On top of this, every single event credited as leading us into the war, was over slavery. However, since embarking on this journey, I have had an epiphany because of one Southern perspective that made me think of this in a different light. Author Shelby Foote was – rightfully in my opinion – given an incredible amount of face time in Ken Burns authoritative documentary. Shelby is the writer of a massive three edition narrative/novel of the Civil War. He spent two decades writing this work. Foote, one could argue, is the most well-versed, researched, Civil War historian ever to have graced the topic. I do not believe you can find a human being who has wrote a more extensive, comprehensive, yet intimate piece of work on the Civil War. A Southern man, he admitted his “heart beat a little faster” when writing about a Southern victory. Still though his work is widely respected as a fair, unbiased journey of the war. Foote clearly admired both the Union men and the Confederate men and could see valor where ever it existed regardless of which side it came from.

When speaking on this topic, Foote famously deflects to a story he wrote about in one of his books about Union soldiers heckling a Confederate captive. Knowing the man could not have possibly owned slaves, they asked him “Why are you fighting in this war?” The Confederate Soldier responds very simply, “Because you’re down here.” [18] I say Foote deflects the question, because he refuses to speak generally about the cause of the war. Shelby chooses to give that authority to the contemporary man in the midst of the war. Very Socratically, he answers the question, by asking another question; when someone asks, “What was the cause of the war?” Foote cleverly diverts to, Why did the soldiers think they were fighting the war?”

For many soldiers who fought in the war, on both sides, the cause of their fighting certainly varied from freeing the slaves and protecting their homeland from invaders; to saving the Union or carrying on the tradition of the American Revolution. Likely, if you asked hundreds of Civil War vets what the cause was, you might get hundreds of different answers. Some Union soldiers dropped their guns in mutiny when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, while others celebrated the fact that their friends dying would no longer be in vain. Some found relief in the idea that they were fighting for more than a sectional-political struggle for power between politicians. [19] The line Foote gave in the movie has been cited and repeated by other authors since then. [20] Though dodging the question with another question allows him to avoid answering it directly; I think his point speaks to something with more depth. The take away for me is this, maybe there is not a right or wrong answer to this question, but rather a bunch of different perspectives in which to look at it from.

Many people refuse to choose one or the other. Citing the fact that Southern men dominated the presidency before the Civil War and times were changing, some people say Southern hubris caused the war. That they simply refused to give up their dominance over the federal government. Others cite a slew of reasons that combine together as the cause. The truth of it is this, the men and the women that made up the era of the Civil War were more divided then any other era of this nations history. They likely would have argued with one another until they were blue in the face about the cause of the war. Historical evidence also shows a shifting of motivation for fighting the war. In the beginning, a lot of Union men believed they were fighting to save the Union, the Southern men believed they were protecting their homeland. Abolitionists’ worked really hard to change that perception of the war and they succeeded when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced.[21] This in and of itself indicates, that the war, at least in the minds of people fighting it, in the beginning, was not about ending slavery.

However, the major controversies that are commonly cited as leading up to the war, were ALL over slavery in one form or another and historical evidence shows that leaders in the South, seen it as their duty to protect the institution through forming a new government. My point is that valid points can be made on both sides of this argument using historical data to back it up. As I said before, I lean heavily on the slavery side. However, I am not so close-minded, that I cannot see how someone else, looking at it from a completely different perspective, might come to a different conclusion. I think we would all do ourselves an immense favor by acknowledging that fact. Acknowledging that when we do not agree with each other’s perspective, we can at least respect each other, regardless.

Please feel free to tell us your thoughts by commenting here or on our Facebook page!


[1] Shively, J. C. (2018, April). I Love American History. Retrieved from Facebook/ILoveAmericanHistory:

[2] Center, T. P. (2011, April 8). The Pew Charitable Trusts. Retrieved from

[3] The Civil War Trust. n.d. “States’ Rights: The Rallying Cry of Succession.” American Battlefield Trust.

[4] Strode, H. (1955). Jefferson Davis: American patriot, 1808-1861. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. pg.3

[5] Davis, Jefferson. 1889. A Short History of the Confederate States of America. New York: Belford Co.

[6] Davis, Jefferson. 1881. The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. ‎New York City: D. Appleton & Co.

[7] Goldfield, Abbot, Anderson, Argersinger, Argersinger, Barney, and Weir. 2009. The American Journey: A History of the United States. Vol. 1, in The Road to Disunion: The Effects of Slavery, pg. 409. New York: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

[8] Dunan, Marcel, and John Roberts. 1964. “Larousee Encyclopedia of Modern History: From 1500 to the Present Day.” In the American Civil War, pg. 320. New York: Harper & Row.

[9] Zinn, Howard. 2003. “A Peoples History of the United States: 1492 – Present.” In Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom, pgs. 171-172. New York: HarperCollins.

[10] 2004. The Civil War. Directed by Ken Burns, Geoffrey C. Ward, Ric Burns, David G. McCullough, Colleen Dewhurst, Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman, et al. Produced by Ken Burns.

[11] Gordon-Reed, Annette. 2018. “America’s Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy.” Foreign Affairs.

[12] Stephens, Alexander H. March . Cornerstone Speech. Performed by Alexander H. Stephens. Athenaeum, Savannah, Georgia. 21 1861.

[13] General Assembly of South Carolina. 1860. “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” The Civil War Home Page. December 24.

[14] Burns, Ken, interview by John Dickerson. 2015. CBS Face the Nation (August 23).

[15] Kluger, Jeffrey. 9. “Why Two Minutes of Lost Footage From The Civil War Are So Important.” Time Magazine. October 2015 .

[16] Georgia Secession Convention. 1861. “Georgia Declaration of Secession.” The Civil War Homepage. January 29.

[17] The Seceding Mississippi Delegation in Congress. 1861. “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.” The Civil War Homepage. January 9.

[18] Foote, Shelby. n.d. “A Narrative: the Civil War.” In Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Random House.

[19] American Documentaries, Inc., Florentine Films and Time-Life Video presents a film by Ken Burns; producers, Ken Burns, Ric Burns; writers, Ken Burns, Ric Burns, Geoffrey C. Ward; director, Ken Burns. The Civil War. Burbank, CA: PBS Home Video: Distributed by Paramount Home Entertainment, 2004.

[20] Schweikart, Larry, and Michael Allen. 2004. “A Patriots History of the United States: from Columbus’s great discovery to the war on terror.” In The Crisis of the Union, pg. 313. New York: Sentinel.

[21] Douglass, Frederick. 1892. “The life and times of Frederick Douglass : from 1817-1882.” In Chapter IIX, pgs. 306-326. Boston: Park Publishing Co.



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.