Professor Daniel Crofts, the eminent professor of history at the College of New Jersey, added his critique of Professor Sean Wilentz’s article in the New York Times we previously discussed. Unfortunately, he’s also the latest to misinterpret what Professor Wilentz wrote. Professor Crofts writes, “The South insisted that ‘property in humans’ enjoyed national sanction, Wilentz argues, but the North denied the South’s claims and went to war to defend an antislavery interpretation of the Constitution. The evidence shows, instead, that other matters took priority. Divergent Northern and Southern understandings of the Constitution did not start the war.” Later in the article, Professor Crofts writes, “However divisive these constitutional disagreements, they did not send men into battle. A struggle for political power, together with popular fears roused by overheated political rhetoric, stood at the center of the North-South dispute and fueled the polarization that sparked the war.”
Professor Wilentz actually wrote, “Civil War began over a simple question: Did the Constitution of the United States recognize slavery — property in humans — in national law? Southern slaveholders, inspired by Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, charged that it did and that the Constitution was proslavery; Northern Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, and joined by abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, resolutely denied it. After Lincoln’s election to the presidency, 11 Southern states seceded to protect what the South Carolina secessionists called their constitutional ‘right of property in slaves.’ ” Do you see the fundamental difference between Professor Croft’s interpretation of what Professor Wilentz wrote and what Professor Wilentz actually wrote? Professor Wilentz says the ideological conflict is between Lincoln, the Republicans, and abolitionists and the eleven secessionist states while Professor Crofts interprets Professor Wilentz as saying the ideological conflict was between “the North” and “the South.” Nowhere does Professor Wilentz claim the Federal forces were in the war specifically to defend the constitutional interpretation that the Constitution did not recognize property in humans in national law. However, he does say the secessionists acted to secede to defend their interpretation that the Constitution did indeed recognize property in humans in national law. One need only read the Declarations of Causes and other writings and statements of the secessionists to see the truth of that claim.
What about the “struggle for political power?” Let’s ask ourselves why the slave states wanted that political power. They wanted it to protect the institution of slavery. What was the “overheated political rhetoric” about? It was about the protection of the institution of slavery and about the “constitutional rights” of the slave states. Again, one need only read the words of the secessionists to see that.
Professor Crofts tells us, “Antislavery Northerners believed the South wielded too much power in the Union. The Republican Party coalesced in the 1850s to roll back the ‘Slave Power’ and prevent it from seizing western territories. Republicans campaigned to evict the Southern-dominated Democratic Party from its stranglehold on national office. They vowed to enable the free white men of the North to gain the political muscle to which their numbers entitled them.” This is all true; however, it’s also axiomatic that political parties seek to gain power so they can implement their policies. Simply the fact that one party gains power doesn’t cause a war. It depends on what is at stake when that party gains power. The Republicans wanted to cut off expansion of slavery into the territories primarily because they were an antislavery party. You can see the speeches of Abraham Lincoln where he compares slavery to a snake in a cradle. He says you don’t hit the snake when it’s in the cradle with the baby because it might bite the baby, but if it’s in a cradle where the baby is going to be put, then you kill the snake before the baby is put in the cradle.
Professor Crofts is right when he says the Federals weren’t fighting because of an interpretation of the Constitution regarding property in people. They fought primarily for Union. But the main factor that led to confederate secession was their view that protection of slavery was their constitutional right and it was being infringed upon. The Republicans and many abolitionists disagreed with them, and thus when the Republicans came to power, the secessionists made the rational choice to secede to protect slavery.