A Fact of History: America’s Civil War Was about More Than Slavery

not a defense of anything

Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

The Civil War fought in the U.S. was about slavery. There can be no doubt about that. Slavery is bad — though with the Civil War bondage slavery really was replaced with wage slavery.

[In bondage slavery the slaves are counted as capital — like a machine (or a draft animal), they exist for the monetary aggrandizement of the owner. In wage slavery people are paid to be used (‘employed’) as a machine for the monetary aggrandizement of the employer. Every employee of any person or business is a wage slave, being used as a machine — or a draft animal — though some are more well taken-care-of than others (as was the case in bondage slavery, too: historically, some died rich and even politically powerful). For the record, employees of government are, indeed (or in theory, at least), ‘public servants’.]

That war did also involve other issues, however. There were two other issues that were as big, in terms of their implications for society as a social system, as slavery was. Both go back to the very beginning of the nation.

One of those issues was ‘states’ rights’. Those words have become code for racism, but aside from that they convey a real issue of governance for this nation.

As a legitimate issue in governance that term refers to the status of states vis a vis the central government. What is the legitimate boundary between powers of the states and those of the central government?

Recall that our present Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation. That established essentially a group of nation-states with a shared common defense and little else. It was a supremely unwieldy political structure, but it got the nascent geopolitical entity through the Revolutionary War (if just barely). The impetus for a new Constitution grew out of the practical difficulties of governance under those Articles that were irresolvable in the context of those Articles.

It should be noted, however, that “states’ rights” is an oxymoron within the concept of rights-based justice. Within that account of justice only human beings have rights. No state, no government, no holder of any governmental office (as such) has one single, solitary right. Governments have powers, not rights. Holders of offices have authority, but they don’t have, in carrying our their duties, rights. [That is a hugely important point that is often transgressed in our political discourse these days; references to government or some officeholder having the ‘right’ to do this or that are far too common.]

It should also be noted that the first three words of the Constitution are “We, the People.” The United Sates of America is a Nation of People, not an amalgam of States.

In short, ‘states’ rights’ is almost always in fact a bogus political front for some ulterior agenda. Even so, from the adoption the of the Constitution to the time of the Civil War the exact nature of the new republic, including the relative status of the sates vis a vis the central government, was a source of serious debate — as it can be to this day, for that matter.

The other serious issue that existed from the beginning of the nation that was part of what led to the Civil War is the source of ultimate power in the nation. From the beginning, it was would-be aristocrats vs. would-be plutocrats. The former wanted land to be the ultimate source of power. The latter wanted money to be the ultimate source of power. The aristocratic faction was led at the beginning of the republic by Thomas Jefferson; the plutocratic faction by Alexander Hamilton.

‘Aristocrats vs. plutocrats’ is not unrelated to the former issues. Both slavery and the proper status of the states vis a vis the central government were involved in that contest of power.

Regarding slavery, up to that point in time (with relatively minor exceptions where plutocrats had ruled) civilization had been ruled by landowners. In order for land to be productive enough to produce the wealth that power has always entailed/demanded, there had to be slavery (or its close sibling, serfdom). It was the way of the world.

[Slavery had also always involved claims on the part of the Masters of inherent superiority/inferiority, but usually in a post hoc way: though there has always been a trade in slaves for as long as civilization has existed (or beginning shortly after its advent), historically slaves were mostly part of the ‘spoils of war’, so ‘the victors must be superior to the vanquished’, so ‘it was right and proper’ that the vanquished should be the slaves of the victors. Europeans/Americans made white supremacy into an a priori proposition.]

As for ‘states’ rights’, in a more decentralized geopolitical entity power would be a more localized thing. In some states plutocrats would have the most power, in other states aristocrats would have the most power.

From that perspective, that issue does take on a new light. The aristocrats were at least content to be the biggest fish in smaller ponds. The plutocrats were driven to dominate as much of the globe as possible. With the Civil War, the plutocrats won.

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Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice