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Slavery did too cause the Civil War.

December 24, 2007, 1:39 pm

I know everyone’s having a grand time debating the causes of the Civil War all over again, so I thought I would light my own piece of touch-paper: just because Lincoln did not mean to fight a war to end slavery, doesn’t mean slavery didn’t cause the Civil War.

On a basic theory of causation, we’re talking about that x without which no y, where y is the Civil War. It is profoundly difficult to believe any Civil War would have occurred without slavery, or if you want to be precise, without slavery concentrated in one part of the country. Even if you think some version of the states’-rights debate would have occurred without a geographically concentrated slave interest (which I don’t) it’s hard to believe it would have come to war.

And yes, I’ll concede that that imaginary American republic — the one without slavery, which preserved a compact theory of the Union — might have been a nice place to live. But we don’t live there.

We live here, where the war was about ending slavery. Don’t take my word for it, consider an astute student of the war:

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.

Does this mean that the war was necessary to end slavery? No; Paul could be right that slavery would, eventually have gone away. Does this mean the war was the best way to end slavery — where “best” means cheapest, most painless, most just? Probably not — in theory, it would have been much better to have an immediate and peaceful emancipation.

But of course we don’t live in theory, we live in America. And it pretty much appears that in this country, forcible emancipation had become by the middle nineteenth century, the only plausible kind of immediate emancipation. And, you know, justice delayed is justice denied. The need of ending slavery was not only the first but the final cause of the Civil War.

So you’re in favor either of force or of indefinitely continued slavery. Note that yes, prior to the outbreak of war, Lincoln and most white people favored indefinitely continued slavery. Would we be morally better than they, were we transported back then? Perhaps not. Should we be better, having as we do the luxury of hindsight, and knowing what penalty our forebears paid for their comfortable positions? Yes. Is Ron Paul acting as if he had this luxury? No, and I don’t know why not.

By the the time you get to the Civil Rights Act, Paul is onto entirely untenable positions. With the conclusion of the Civil War you had the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. That was what you bought with your 600,000 dead — a new Union devoted to — in the frank words of the Civil Rights Act of 1866,

All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens.

All persons shall have the same rights as white persons — Congress of the United States, 1866. That was what you bought with your war, with (to repeat) your 600,000 dead, with the wrenching crisis of the Union: a new Constitution and racial justice.

Only, you didn’t: because Andrew Johnson and a bunch of weak-kneed Republicans fumbled it away in the face of racist resistance, because the Supreme Court helped gut those amendments, leaving them all but meaningless, thus necessitating a century-long march toward reclaiming the civil rights recognized in 1866. Was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 wrong, Mr. Paul? No, because the side that thought so lost the Civil War.

Only our collective betrayal of that war, our shared desecration of the memory of the dead, in which we participate every time we deny the purpose of the war and the meaning of the victory the United States Army and Navy won in it, has made the absurd position of Ron Paul possible.

And a Merry Christmas to you!

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