When Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, at the end of four years of civil war, few people in either the North or the South would have dissented from his statement that slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war.”1 At the war’s outset in 1861 Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, had justified secession as an act of self-defense against the incoming Lincoln administration, whose policy of excluding slavery from the territories would make “property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless,…thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars.”2

The Confederate vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, had said in a speech at Savannah on March 21, 1861, that slavery was “the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution” of Southern independence. The United States, said Stephens, had been founded in 1776 on the false idea that all men are created equal. The Confederacy, by contrast,

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 moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.3

Unlike Lincoln, Davis and Stephens survived the war to write their memoirs. By then, slavery was gone with the wind. To salvage as much honor and respectability as they could from their lost cause, they set to work to purge it of any association with the now dead and discredited institution of human bondage. In their postwar views, both Davis and Stephens hewed to the same line: Southern states had seceded not to protect slavery, but to vindicate state sovereignty. This theme became the virgin birth theory of secession: the Confederacy was conceived not by any worldly cause, but by divine principle.

The South, Davis insisted, fought solely for “the inalienable right of a people to change their government…to withdraw from a Union into which they had, as sovereign communities, voluntarily entered.” The “existence of African servitude,” he maintained, “was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.”4 Stephens likewise declared in his convoluted style that “the War had its origin in opposing principles” not concerning slavery but rather concerning “the organic Structure of the Government…. It was a strife between the principles of Federation, on the one side, and Centralism, or Consolidation, on the other…. Slavery, so called, was but the question on which these antagonistic principles…were finally brought into…collision with each other on the field of battle.”5

Davis and Stephens set the tone for the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War during the next century and more: slavery was merely an incident; the real origin of the war that killed more than 620,000 people was a difference of opinion about the Constitution. Thus the Civil War was not a war to preserve the nation and, ultimately, to abolish slavery, but instead a war of Northern aggression against Southern constitutional rights. The superb anthology of essays, The Myth of the Lost Cause, edited by Gary Gallagher and Alan Nolan, explores all aspects of this myth. The editors intend the word “myth” to be understood not as “falsehood” but in its anthropological meaning: the collective memory of a people about their past, which sustains a belief system shaping their view of the world in which they live.

The Lost Cause myth helped Southern whites deal with the shattering reality of catastrophic defeat and impoverishment in a war they had been sure they would win. Southerners emerged from the war subdued but unrepentant; they had lost all save honor, and their unsullied honor became the foundation of the myth. Having outfought the enemy, they were eventually ground down by “overwhelming numbers and resources,” as Robert E. Lee told his grieving soldiers at Appomattox. This theme was echoed down the years in Southern memoirs, at reunions of Confederate veterans, and by heritage groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “Genius and valor went down before brute force,” declared a Georgia veteran in 1890. The Confederacy “had surrendered but was never whipped.” Robert E. Lee was the war’s foremost general, indeed the greatest commander in American history, while Ulysses S. Grant was a mere bludgeoner whose army overcame his more skilled and courageous enemy only because of those overwhelming numbers and resources.

Not only did Confederate soldiers fight better; they also fought for a noble cause, the cause of state rights, constitutional liberty, and consent of the governed. Slavery had nothing to do with it. “Think of it, soldiers of Lee!” declared a speaker at a reunion of the United Confederate Veterans in 1904:


You were fighting, they say, for the privilege of holding your fellow man in bondage! Will you for one moment acknowledge the truth of that indictment? Oh, no! That banner of the Southern Cross was studded with the stars of God’s heaven…. You could not have followed a banner that was not a banner of liberty!

The theme of liberty, not slavery, as the cause for which the South fought became a mantra in the writings of old Confederates and has been taken up by neo-Confederates in our own time. The Confederacy contended for “Freedom’s cause,” a veteran told his comrades at an 1887 reunion, “a struggle for constitutional rights against aggression, oppression and wrong.” Other speakers at the same convention said they had “fought for the right of local self government,” for “the idea that liberty in a government like ours is best preserved by restraining central power and giving to the states…all the rights which are not distinctly and absolutely conferred upon the central power.”

These arguments remain alive. On a visit to a Confederate cemetery before she became President Bush’s secretary of the interior, Gale Norton expressed regret that with the Confederate defeat “we lost too much. We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the federal government gaining too much power over our lives.” Senator John Ashcroft, now attorney general, told the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan that “traditionalists must do more” to defend the Southern heritage. “I’ve got to do more,” he said.6

The Lost Cause view of the origins of the Civil War entered the mainstream of historical writing in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1930 Frank Owsley, one of the foremost Southern historians of his generation, wrote that the Confederacy fought not only for the principles of states’ rights and self-government but also for the preservation of a stable, pastoral, agrarian civilization against the overbearing, acquisitive, aggressive ambitions of the urban-industrial Leviathan growing up in the North. The real issue that provoked secession was not slavery—this institution, wrote Owsley, “was part of the agrarian system, but only one element and not an essential one”—but rather such matters as the tariff, banks, subsidies to railroads, and similar matters in which the grasping industrialists of the North sought to advance their interests at the expense of Southern farmers and planters.7

From the 1930s to the 1950s the most influential interpretation of the causes of the Civil War was that put forth by the “revisionist” school of historians, whose leading figure was Avery Craven. The revisionists denied that sectional conflicts between North and South were genuinely divisive. The differences between these regions, wrote Craven, were no greater than those existing at different times between East and West. Such minor disparities did not have to lead to war; they could have, and should have, been accommodated peacefully within the political system.8 The Civil War was thus not an irrepressible conflict, as earlier generations had called it, but a “repressible conflict,” as Craven titled one of his books. The war was brought on not by genuine issues but by extremists on both sides, especially abolitionists and radical Republicans, who whipped up emotions and hatreds for their own self-serving partisan purposes. The passions they stirred up got out of hand in 1861 and erupted into a tragic, unnecessary war which accomplished nothing that could not have been achieved by negotiations and compromise.

Any such compromise in 1861, of course, would have left slavery in place and would have reinforced the right of slave owners to take their property into the territories. But revisionists considered slavery unimportant; as Craven once stated, the institution of bondage “played a rather minor part in the life of the South and the Negro.”9 Slavery would have died peacefully of natural causes in another generation or two had not fanatics forced the issue to armed conflict. Republicans who harped on the evils of slavery and expressed a determination to rein in what they called “the Slave Power” goaded the South into a defensive response that finally caused Southern states to secede to get free of the incessant pressure of these self-righteous Yankee zealots. Revisionism thus tended to portray Southern whites as victims reacting to Northern attacks; it was truly a war of Northern aggression.

Since the 1950s most professional historians have come to agree with Lincoln’s assertion that slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war.” Outside the universities, however, Lost Cause denial is still popular, especially among Southern heritage groups that insist the Confederate flag stands not for slavery but for a legacy of courage and honor in defense of principle. When Ken Burns’s PBS documentary on the Civil War portrayed slavery as the root cause of the conflict, the reaction among many Southern whites was hostile. “The cause of the war was secession,” declared a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “and the cause of secession could have been any number of things. This overemphasis on the slavery issue really rankles us.”10 Another Southerner, whose ancestor served in the 27th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, insists that slavery was “only one issue among many that lead [sic] to secession,” and a minor one at that. Of equal or greater importance was the commitment of Confederate Southerners to “states rights, agrarianism,…aristocracy, and habits of mind including individualism, personalism toward God and man, provincialism, and romanticism.”11


The states’-rights thesis has found its way into some odd corners of American culture. One of the questions in an exam administered to prospective citizens by the US Immigration and Naturalization service is: “The Civil War was fought over what important issue?” The right answer is either slavery or states’ rights. For Charles Dew growing up in the South of the 1940s and 1950s, there was no either/or. His ancestors on both sides fought for the Confederacy. His much-loved grandmother was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In his dorm room at prep school in Virginia he proudly hung a Confederate flag. And he knew “that the South had seceded for one reason and one reason only: states’ rights…. Anyone who thought differently was either deranged or a Yankee.”

Later, however, as a distinguished historian of the antebellum South and the Confederacy, Dew was “stunned” to discover that protection of slavery from the perceived threat to its long-term survival posed by Lincoln’s election in 1860 was, in fact, the dominant theme in secessionist rhetoric. In Apostles of Disunion, which quotes and analyzes this rhetoric, Dew has produced an eye-opening study of the men appointed by seceding states as commissioners to visit other slave states—for example, Virginia and Kentucky—in order to persuade them also to leave the Union and join together to form the Confederacy. “I found this in many ways a difficult and painful book to write,” Dew acknowledges, but he nevertheless unflinchingly concludes that “to put it quite simply, slavery and race were absolutely critical elements in the coming of the war…. Defenders of the Lost Cause need only read the speeches and letters of the secession commissioners to learn what was really driving the Deep South to the brink of war in 1860–61.”

Those who do read the excerpts from speeches and letters quoted by Dew will find plenty of confirmation for this conclusion. “The conflict between slavery and non-slavery is a conflict for life and death,” a South Carolina commissioner told Virginians in February 1861. “The South cannot exist without African slavery.” The Mississippi convention’s “Declaration of Immediate Causes” of that state’s secession formed the basis for their commissioners’ message to other Southern states: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” With Lincoln’s election,

there was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the union…. We must either submit to degradation and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede….

Mississippi’s commissioner to Maryland insisted that “slavery was ordained by God and sanctioned by humanity.” If slave states remained in a Union ruled by Lincoln and his Republican cohorts, “the safety of the rights of the South will be entirely gone.”

And so on ad nauseam. The secession conventions and the commissioners grossly exaggerated the Republican threat to slavery in 1861. Lincoln had been elected on a platform of merely containing slavery’s future expansion. Republicans would not have a majority in Congress if the South stayed in the Union. But perhaps the commissioners deemed such exaggeration necessary to scare timid Southerners into support for disunion. That was surely true of their even more egregious distortion of the Republicans’ position on race. A Mississippi commissioner told Georgians that Republicans intended not only to abolish slavery but also to “substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races.” Unless white Southerners wanted “submission to negro equality…secession is inevitable.”

Georgia’s commissioner to Virginia dutifully assured his listeners that if Southern states stayed in the Union, “we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything.” An Alabamian born in Kentucky tried to persuade his native state to secede by portraying Lincoln’s election as “nothing less than an open declaration of war” by Yankee fanatics who intended to force the “sons and daughters” of the South to associate “with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality,” thus “consigning her [the South’s] citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.”

So much for states’ rights as the engine of secession. In American history, states’ rights have been mostly a means, not an end, a tool rather than a principle—a truth demonstrated once again in the recent disputes about Florida’s ballots in the presidential election. Republicans supposedly in favor of states’ rights pressed their case in federal courts while Democrats looked to state courts. In antebellum America, Southerners controlled the national government most of the time until 1860 and they used that control to defend slavery from all kinds of threats and perceived threats. They overrode the rights of Northern states that passed personal liberty laws to protect black people from kidnapping by agents who claimed them as fugitive slaves. During forty-nine of the seventy-two years from 1789 to 1861 the presidents of the United States were Southerners—all of them slaveholders. The only presidents to be re-elected were slaveholders. Two thirds of the speakers of the House, chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee, and presidents pro tem of the Senate were Southerners. At all times before 1861 a majority of Supreme Court justices were Southerners. This domination constituted what antislavery Republicans called the “Slave Power” and sometimes, more darkly, the “Slave Power Conspiracy.”

Historians have often dismissed such labels as another example of the “paranoid style” of American politics. But in The Slave Power, Leonard Richards demonstrates conclusively that there was a Slave Power. It had no need to function by conspiracy, however, for it could use the constitutional structure of government and the open operation of party politics to exert its domination.

One constitutional source of the South’s disproportionate political power was unintentional: the stipulation that each state would be represented by two senators. This provision had been adopted in order to win the support of small states—not slave states—for the Constitution. At the time of the Constitutional Convention the respective populations of the states lying south of the Mason-Dixon line and of those lying north of it were virtually equal in size, and many Southerners expected their section to grow faster than the North. As time passed, however, the opposite occurred. By 1850, when the number of free and slave states was equal at fifteen, the free states contained 60 percent of the total population and 70 percent of the voters, but sent only 50 percent of the senators to Congress. And Southern senators had more than a veto power; because they could count on several Northern allies, they could in effect deny a veto power to Northern senators on measures concerning slavery.

The South also had disproportionate strength in the House of Representatives. The “three-fifths compromise” adopted by the Constitutional Convention stipulated that three fifths of the slaves were to be counted as part of a state’s population for purposes of determining the number of seats each state would have in the House. This provision gave slave states an average of twenty more congressmen after each census than they would have had on the basis of the free population alone. The combined effect of these two constitutional provisions also gave slave states about thirty more electoral votes than their share of the voting population would have entitled them to have.

Even more than these constitutional provisions, the functioning of party politics created a Slave Power. The dominant political party most of the time from 1800 to 1860 was the Democratic Republican Party under the Virginia dynasty of Jefferson and Madison, which metamorphosed into the Democratic Party under the Tennessean Andrew Jackson and his successors. Southerners controlled this party and used their leverage to control Congress and the presidency. In 1828 and 1832 Jackson won 70 percent of the popular vote for president in the slave states and only 50 percent in the free states. In 1856 the Democrat James Buchanan carried only five of sixteen free states, but his victory in fourteen of the fifteen slave states assured his election—and Southern domination of his administration. As an example of how such leverage could translate into a Slave Power, six of the eight Supreme Court justices named by Jackson and his hand-picked successor were Southerners, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the notorious Dred Scott decision and of other decisions that strengthened slavery.

As Richards makes clear, Southern politicians did not use this national power to buttress states’ rights; quite the contrary. In the 1830s Congress imposed a gag rule to stifle antislavery petitions from Northern states. The Post Office banned antislavery literature from the mail if it was sent to Southern states. In 1850 Southerners in Congress, plus a handful of Northern allies, enacted a Fugitive Slave Law that was the strongest manifestation of national power thus far in American history. In the name of protecting the rights of slave owners, it extended the long arm of federal law, enforced by marshals and the army, into Northern states to recover escaped slaves and return them to their owners.

Senator Jefferson Davis, who later insisted that the Confederacy fought for the principle of state sovereignty, voted with enthusiasm for the Fugitive Slave Law. When Northern state legislatures invoked states’ rights and individual liberties against this federal law, the Supreme Court with its majority of Southern justices reaffirmed the supremacy of national law to protect slavery (Ableman v. Booth, 1859). Many observers in the 1850s would have predicted that if a rebellion in the name of states’ rights were to occur, it would be the North that would rebel.

The presidential election of 1860 changed the equation. Without a single electoral vote from the South, Lincoln won the presidency on a platform of containing the future expansion of slavery. Southerners saw the consequences that would likely follow. The Union now consisted of eighteen free states and fifteen slave states. Northern Republicans would soon control Congress, if not after this election then surely after the next. Loss of the Supreme Court would follow. Gone or going was the South’s national power to protect slavery; now was the time to invoke state sovereignty to leave the Union. With Lincoln’s election, wrote Charles Francis Adams Jr., the son and grandson of the only truly “Northern” presidents the country had known, “the great revolution has actually taken place…. The country has once and for all thrown off the domination of the Slaveholders.”12 Precisely. Slaveholders came to the same conclusion. So did other Southern whites. “If you are tame enough to submit,” the Baptist clergyman James Furman told South Carolinians, “Abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands.”13

They did not submit; they seceded. As another South Carolinian explained, “We are contending for all that we hold dear—our Property—our Institutions—our Honor…. A stand must be made for African slavery or it is forever lost.”14 One slave state after another followed. If it came to war, predicted a secessionist in December 1860, the Southern states “will have among themselves slavery, a bond stronger than any which holds the North together.”15 That bond did help to hold the Confederacy together through four grueling years of suf-fering, destruction, and death. In 1863 a cavalry lieutenant from Mississippi reaffirmed his belief that “this country without slave labor would be wholly worthless…. We can only live & exist by that species of labor: and hence I am willing to continue the fight to the last.”16

As Gary Gallagher notes in his introduction to The Myth of the Lost Cause, “White Southerners emerged from the Civil War thoroughly beaten but largely unrepentant.” Some proponents of the Lost Cause remained candid about the racial ideology that sustained the Confederacy. The unrepentant Edward Pollard, wartime editor of the Richmond Examiner, wrote the first history of the Confederacy, with the appropriate title The Lost Cause. The war had ended slavery, Pollard acknowledged, but it “did not decide negro equality…. This new cause—or rather the true question of the war revived—is the supremacy of the white race.”17 In a speech to Confederate veterans in 1890, a former captain in the 7th Georgia Volunteer Infantry echoed Pollard: “We fought for the supremacy of the white race in America.”

Such candor was exceptional in commemorations of the Lost Cause. More popular was Jefferson Davis’s postwar assertion that slavery was “in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” In considering this “incident,” it would be well to keep in mind Henry David Thoreau’s observation that circumstantial evidence is sometimes conclusive—for example, when you find a “trout in the milk.” All of the Confederate states were slave states and all of the free states remained in the Union. That is a rather large trout.

This Issue

April 12, 2001